First of all, there are 11 official languages in South Africa. Yes, 11. I am only going to focus on English in this blog, mainly because it’s the only SA language I speak. I may have picked up some phrases in Zulu, Shangaan, and Afrikaans, but conversant I am not. I am exceptional, however, at getting my point across via charade-type gesturing nowadays.
South Africans follow the same spelling and writing conventions as the Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis. As a writer raised in the US, this is a challenge. But I’ve willingly followed their lead, replacing letters, altering spellings and grammar rules, and changing inflections all over the lexicon. This hasn’t been without mishaps, though. I’ve certainly written text that had half American spellings and half South African ones. If I wasn’t detailed in my copywriting before, I’ve certainly learned to be so living here. Let myself even think about daydreaming and I’ll be confusing spellings and terminology all over the pages and screens I publish on.
South Africans spell things the same way as the Brits (using ‘s’ where Americans use ‘z’, such as in ‘organisation’; using a ‘c’ for an ‘s’, such as in ‘licence’). They use the same grammatical rules as the Brits as well (which was a challenge for me, who’d not only grown up under the American system of writing but was also schooled intensely in AP and Chicago Manual of Style writing and editing…). I still find myself asking South Africans about the proper way to say and write certain words. Though I have to admit that, like many Americans, a lot of South Africans don’t know how to spell/write/speak grammatically correctly, a trend I’ve noticed gaining speed worldwide. I chalk it up to a plethora of exposure to bad writing (thank you, internet), poor blogging, devaluing of the craft of language, and too many people who call themselves writers and editors but have never bothered to learn the actual craft of either. Why do so many people think you don’t have to know how to write to call yourself a writer? Could a doctor could go out and practice without first going through pre-med, medical school, residencies, etc.? Or a lawyer practice law without actually studying law and passing the bar exam? Why any so-called writer believes they should have their own special ‘we don’t need to actually KNOW how to write to be considered writers’ category is nonsensical (and arrogant) to me. Okay, off the soapbox, tangent truncated.
South Africans not only spell differently from Americans, they speak differently too. This might seem like it should’ve been obvious (it is, after all, another country), and I knew they did, but it still hit me hard when I arrived here. I couldn’t always understand what the people around me were saying. And, in fairness, they couldn’t always understand me. South African pronunciation is in many ways similar to British pronunciation, but the accent is different. Some phrasing and pronunciations have a harder, more gutteral feel. It is not an easy accent to replicate. I am a musician. I usually have an ear for the musicality of a language and a dialect, and I pick up accents quickly. Not so here. I am firmly American in my speech. Except when it comes to the slang. And South Africa has some beautiful slang. Imagine all the unique slang that a country of 11 national languages can produce! Lekker. Aweh. Eish. Given the right amount of inflection and gesture, these and so many other words can convey in one or two syllables every emotion and nuance you need to know about a moment in time.
I hadn’t realised how many South Africanisms I’d picked up until I went back to the US a few months ago, nor how many pronunciations I’d adopted. I found myself saying ZEH-brah for zebra and GAH-raj (like the Taj in Taj Mahal) for garage. Garbage was now bin. Yebo replaced yes. A barbecue was a braai (the braai is itself a blog post – braai-ing is a revered activity here, spoken of in ecstatic tones and elevated to a spiritual endeavour, especially if you hold the position of braai master). Sausage is boerwoers (and despite my best eforts, phonetically spelling out boerwoers in a way that does justice to the word is beyond my descriptive abilities). A street light was a robot. And a truck? Nope, a bakkie.
I had even inadvertently fallen into saying toe-MAH-toe, even though that is one situation I find annoyingly inconsistent. Why are tomato and potato, which are spelled exactly the same, pronounced differently in South Africa? No South African could give me an answer on that one. But then again, that seems to be the norm with the English language, no matter what accent is used to speak it. American English has its fair share of stupid inconsistencies as well. I pity anyone who has to learn English. I was an English major and I still struggle.
Anyhoo, I find myself often having to correct myself no matter where I am these days. Which brings me to my point. Why don’t we just standardise/ize English? I studied Spanish. From what I recall, there is really only one Spanish. There is slang, but the language itself isn’t unique to each country that speaks it. Sure, there are nuances, and trying to understand a Cuban, a Puerto Rican, an Argentine and a Spaniard all in one room takes a level of multi-tasking I cannot produce, but they spell things the same way, and the grammar is the same. WTF happened with English?
And the accent? I’m all for regionalisms and each part of the world having their own culture, but really, why the need to make it a POINT to change up the manner of speech? And yes, it was intentionally changed way back when. Apparently, the bluebloods amongst the Brits felt a need to differentiate themselves from those damn Yanks and Brits of the ‘lesser’ classes, and they poshed it up. Read more about it here. I swear it must be a human nature thing to feel this irrepressible need to be superior to something or someone. It’s like we have a collective culture of bullies with low self-esteem. Have so few of us matured beyond third grade?
Don’t get me wrong. I do love the accent, and I admit it – I feel a special sense of pride that I can now pull out 42 ways to rewrite a sentence, depending on which style guide you’re adhering to. But I do get tired of constantly having to rewrite and readjust according to which English country I happen to be in at the moment. It’s the 21st century. There are apparently two billion (yes, billion) native English speakers in the world. Can’t we all just get on the same page and read from the same book without having to convert it to placate cultural egos?
But what does this have to do with living in the bush? Well, not much, really. This is more about life in South Africa (and random general challenges you face while living abroad). It’s easy to understand how you can feel alone and out of sorts in a place where you don’t speak the language. It’s harder to imagine feeling that way in a place where many people actually speak the same language as you. But trust me, you do. You cannot help but feel like an outsider every time you open your mouth. It’s an unfortunate part of being an expat. But it does eventually get better, and it gets better faster the more quickly you learn the local lingo and start using it.
Oh, if you feel like facepalming for an hour, ask a South African about their definition of the multiple variations of now (now now, just now, right now). You’ll end up with a migraine if you try to figure it out. Don’t bother trying. Just resign yourself to the fact that time is a relative term here. And that’s not always a bad thing.
If you want to learn a few other pure South Africanisms, check out 43 Favourite South Africanisms
Also check out this Guide to South African Slang
If you need help with some pronunciations, let me know and I’ll do my best to spell the words and phrases out phonetically. Except, as I mentioned, for boerwoers. You’ll need to find a true South African to help you with that one.