The Vocabulary Of South African English

South African English has become a particular regional version of English, firmly rooted in South Africa by the influence of the languages surrounding it. South Africans are often unaware of just how different South African English is from other Englishes in both vocabulary and pronunciation.

Initial borrowings tended, as elsewhere, to be introduced as local colour in the journals of visiting explorers and travellers describing the local peoples and their cultures, the animals, plants, and geographical features of the country. Some of the earliest South African English words (mainly from Dutch and the Khoi languages), such as kloof, krantz, dagga, buchu, Boer, kraal, springbok, and quagga (all 18th-century borrowings) are still entrenched in South African English. Others, such as Hottentot (a name given to the Khoi peoples in an attempt to imitate their click languages), and particularly Kaffir (from 1589 onwards, a name given to the black peoples of South Africa) are now considered deeply offensive and are no longer in acceptable use.

Dutch, and subsequently Afrikaans, has had the most powerful influence on South African English. Veld, vlei, koppie, nek, rand are words used to describe the country’s natural features. Deurmekaar or in a dwaal is how a state of confusion is described. Nogal has supplanted ‘what is more’. During apartheid, administrative terms such as group areas, job reservation, reference book, and endorse out were translated from the Afrikaans equivalents.

Many South African English words have also been borrowed from the African languages of the region: for example bonsella, indaba, donga, impala, mamba from the Nguni languages, and tsetse, tsotsi, lapa from the Sotho languages.

Malay words such as bobotie, sosatie, kaparring (a wooden sandal), and kramat (a Muslim holy place or place of pilgrimage) came into South African English during the 19th century (via Afrikaans), originating in the community of slaves and political exiles at the Cape, who were sent from what are now Indonesia and Malaysia during the 17th and 18th centuries.

But borrowings are not the full story. Some very well-known words, such as tackie, tickey, rondavel, and bundu have mysterious origins. Some specifically South African English words are examples of words once current in British English, but now out of use there: geyser (a water-heater or boiler), robot (a traffic light), and, until the 1960s, bioscope (a cinema), are examples. Some English words mean something different in South African English: a bond is a mortgage, a dam refers to the stretch of water rather than to the wall, just now means ‘in a little while’, a packet is a plastic shopping bag, a café is a convenience store or corner shop, and (in the context of traffic) a circle is a roundabout. Non-lexical features of other South African languages have also made their way into South African English, as in two ways of indicating emphasis — by reduplication (from Afrikaans), as in now-now, soon-soon, and (from the African languages) by the use of falling pitch, from high to low, as in ‘fa-a–a-ar away’.

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