writing

craft of writing, coming up with something to say, words

 
 

South African Adventure #11 – (Re)learning how to write, spell, and speak

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. For 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.

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Categories: Africa, American, Education, Expat, Life Lessons, South Africa, United States, writing | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

All things big and small – grace among the wild things

Lenny climbs out of his crib

Leonard, the little castaway

Lenny climbs to get a better view

Lenny climbs to get a better view

I read an article today that actually caused me to stop what I was doing. I focused. This doesn’t happen often. It was called “When Nature Speaks, Who Are You Hearing?” The reason I mention it is that something about what I read compelled me to start writing. For this, I apologise. There’s a good chance that no matter how hard I try to keep this post from rambling off into the stratosphere, it probably will, despite my best intentions. I blame my befuddled brain.

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, to be honest, I’ve been struggling to write lately. Too much work, too little energy, too much pressure on myself to produce something of Pulitzer calibre. Which, let’s be honest, is not likely. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever let my fear of not saying something profound keep me from saying something anyway. But lately I’ve been feeling…I don’t know. Pensive? Apprehensive? Doubtful? Not sure what it is. Maybe it’s all of the above. But I haven’t wanted to write. Or, better yet, I haven’t felt I had anything to say that anyone might care to hear. I’ve actually been feeling lost in my thoughts. Like I’m in a full-on lexicographic labyrinth and I have no idea where I’m trying to go. I cannot find the magic words.

Since childhood, I have had a tenuous and tumultuous relationship with writing. Throughout life, I found myself using writing as an outlet for every ounce of darkness and light I had tucked inside me. And it seemed to scare people a little. Or a lot, if you were my parents. So it was something I was comfortable with, yet afraid of, if that makes any sense. It was yet another thing about me that made me different, and I was kind of tired of being different. I just wanted to be.

For as long as I can remember, I have found myself unable to grab the right word out of my brain to say exactly what it is I want to say. I don’t like public speaking for this same reason. And I always get told I speak too quickly, which is equivalent to being told you need to chill out, you need to calm down, you need to be someone you are not. I cannot help that my brain moves faster than my tongue is capable of keeping pace. But whether it’s something I can control or not, hearing those words has kept me from opening my mouth in the first place. And by extension, it’s kept me from opening my thoughts up to scrutiny. I’ve held in much I would’ve loved to have bled out over the page. Lovely image, I know. But a verbal hemorrhage is sort of what I feel needs to happen.

What does this all have to do with me being in South Africa, loving my wildlife, and writing a headline such as the one this post has? Well, perhaps all the energy I’ve kept tightly bound inside has finally broken through some poorly defended section of my brain. Lately, I’ve felt like my entire body is on fire, reverberating with these wild vibrations that are pushing against my insides and squeezing my heart and lungs ever tighter and tighter. I often can’t breathe. It’s the closest approximation I have of what it must feel like to jump out of your skin.

Sitting here, listening to clicking stream frogs sending their unanswered love calls into the cool night air, I wonder some times whether I feel so tightly wound because I simply do not belong where I am. I mean that in a physical and a metaphysical way. I love the pulse of a city, but I melt in the masses of people, industry, technology and closed spaces. I don’t belong in cities. In nature, I feel like my whole being suddenly feels a release. And yet in the bush I’m still bound. I can’t just wander off, unless I have a death wish. I must stay within the confines of a small space, still watching the world from what feels like a large, wide-open window. I’m stuck in between.

baby monitor lizard

Morning with a monitor

It’s in times like these that I relish the small things. And I really mean the small things: the lizards, the frogs, the birds, the rodents, and yes, even the spiders and snakes. I feel more connected to the animals and invertebrates that cluster around the warmth of my home than I do the behemoths of the land that everyone comes to Africa to see. By no means am I implying I don’t like the big guys. Elephants, lions, rhinos, buffalo…I love them all. But I am disconnected from them. I cannot reach out and touch them. In many ways, they are as close to me as are the stars in the sky. I can watch, I can admire. But I cannot connect.

The smaller creatures come into my world, sharing my space with me. They sit with me, they chatter away to me, they eat my soap and my mosquitos. They keep me company in what can be a very lonely, cold world. And this unlikely friendship, if you can call it that, blesses my life with a sweet, gentle grace. I feel alive. I feel part of something. I feel real.

These little things never get the attention of their much larger wildlife cousins. For some reason, so many other people I’ve met seem to feel they don’t matter. Or they aren’t good enough to care about.

Before Waldo became an indoor frog

Waldo’s wilder cousin

I think about my little baby gecko, Leonard. Most people I know would not enjoy having geckos hatch in their clothes. I love it. I think it’s amazing that, regardless of all the things humans do to keep our species separate from everything else in the animal kingdom, the animal kingdom still sticks up its middle finger to us and finds a way in. I don’t like getting bitten or stung, but I also don’t begrudge other life from sharing this spinning blue and green ball with me. I say “Good morning” to my resident jumping spider. I usher ants, crickets and scorpions out of the way. People look at me as though there’s something wrong with me for doing these things. Why?

Perhaps it is exactly this question that has kept me from writing. Why? Why do we not love all things, big and small? Why do we discriminate against the creatures we don’t find appealing (for whatever reason, whether it’s their scales, their multiple legs, their ability to eat holes through our bags of flour, etc)? Who are we to choose what’s worth saving and what isn’t? What’s important and what isn’t? Are humans simply that shallow? “Why” is a very uncomfortable question for a lot of people in this world.

Usually when I ask why, I receive anger. I receive vitriol. How dare I ask something that begs someone to think! To answer for their behaviour! To answer, period! Well, why not? People seem to have no problem demanding that of me. Why can’t I ask the questions?

So, with this in mind, I will have to find a way to keep writing. Because someone has to ask. Someone has to wonder. I hope you will wonder with me.

My morning alarm

my incessantly pecking friend

Friendly sea creature

in an octopus’ garden

Mantid vantage

World upside down

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Animal, Expat, Frog, gecko, nature, South Africa, Wildlife, writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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