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South African English: Interesting, puzzling, and unique

South African English: Interesting, puzzling, and unique
on July, 26 2013

What makes South African English different is the garnishing from other languages that has been incorporated into its vocabulary, pronunciation and construction. South Africa is perhaps one of the most multi-lingual countries in the world since its 1994 Constitution named a total of 11 official languages, one of which is English. At present, there are reportedly five types of South African English identified so far.

How did English reach the southernmost tip of the African continent in the first place? And how come South African English has a very long list of words that do not exist in British or American English?

A lesson in history

In 1820, South Africa was first populated by migrants who established pioneer towns such as Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth. At around this time of the British Occupation of the Eastern Cape, the roots of South African English began to take form. Some claim that South African English can be traced as early as 1795 from the very first arrival of British explorers. But most of them agree that foundations of English as a South African language was established in 1820 with the settlements.

The British brought Anglican values and traditions with them. They of course imposed their language and English became the language of power. They also had their share of wars, partly because of this imposition, the most prominent of which was the one fought against the Boer Republics in 1899. Understandably, those of Dutch descent preferred to speak Dutch. The British won after three years of fighting. The Boer relented and both signed the Treaty of Vereeniging.

However, in the 20th century, the National Party wanted Afrikaans to be the language of power and so English was displaced. What English meant to South African citizens differed depending on where they stood in the apartheid movement. Nevertheless, English remained dominant in business and higher education and South Africans who wanted advancement for themselves and their children thought that English would be instrumental in achieving this.

But that’s enough of politics and complex issues. After all, we are here to describe how different South African English is to the English spoken elsewhere.

A lesson in vocabulary

South African English has too many loan words from other dominant languages. For many visitors of South Africa, the diversity and distinctiveness of the South African English vocabulary is its most striking feature yet, more so than the unfamiliar accent.

In the 18th century, South African English borrowed heavily from the Dutch and Khoi and some of these words remain entrenched in the language today. Regional African languages such as Nguni and Sotho also contributed to the vocabulary. Because of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, Malay words which originated from slaves and exiles from Malaysia and Indonesia filtered into the vocabulary as well. Portuguese merchants provided a sprinkling of their own influence. Still, Afrikaans maintain the distinction of having the most influence on South African English. However, there are words such as “bundu,” “rondavel,” “tackie,” and “tickey” the origins of which remain shrouded in mystery until today.

Loan words used in daily life

South African English has borrowed freely and its multicultural characteristic gives it such richness in texture and content.

Lekker means pleasant, nice, and sweet and was loaned from Afrikaans.

Bergwind is another Afrikaans word, which pertains to a warm dry wind that blows to the coast from the plateau. Loan words often take an interesting turn as words develop meanings bases on local history. For instance, the word bergie, which was derived from the Afrikaans word berg (mountain) is used by South Africans to describe a person who is down and out. The original use of the word to refer to vagrants who sought shelter in the Table Mountain forests of Cape Town. Meanwhile, Veld denotes an open country filled with bushes, grass and shrubbery originated from Dutch/Afrikaans.

Babalas, which pertains to a hangover, was borrowed from Zulu.

Muti is another Zulu term that has come to popular use. It is which is what traditional African remedies are called. It has now been assimilated in the general population’s vocabulary.

Jislaaik! is an expression of surprise.

If you hear someone say jawelnofine, don’t assume for a second that you heard gibberish. The word sounds both strange and familiar because the literal translation is “yes, well, no, fine.” In South Africa, people use it instead of saying “How about that?” South African English has such a unique flavor, and we are just skimming the surface.

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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