South Africa is made up of over 52 million people living across nine provinces, all little countries in their own right. Like cans of paint, South Africans come in a variety of colours, making up a rainbow unlike any other you’ve ever seen. This – along with the different races, 11 official languages (that come with countless dialects), ethnicities, creeds and sexualities – makes us diverse. Yet at the same time, our diversity unifies us in that we’re able to integrate one another’s cultures to forge a common, colourful South African identity.
But when it comes to slang, we’re a lekker kwaai bunch, nè?
That, my tjommies, is a little taste of Cape Coloured slang, one of the many flavours that make up the local lingo – that being South African English (SAE) – in this African melting pot. We have a multitude of slang words that derive from different languages and dialects, but we’ll get to them just now (with “just now” being one of them).
Slang is an informal language made up of words and phrases, usually contained to groups of people or to a specific context. Within these nine united states of South Africa, one will find that SAE is unique from its counterparts in the United Kingdom, Australia and even the United States: it borrows heavily from languages such as Afrikaans, isiZulu and Khoisan. It incorporates words of Malay and Portuguese origin, as well as from ethnic minorities like the Cape Coloured, Indian and Jewish communities.
From this borrowing practice, we have created a slang vocabulary all of our own, although I speak for most of us when I say that we’re all not fundis when it comes to our own ‘slanguage’.
As someone who comes from the Western Cape, I would be more familiar with the Cape Coloured slang, which has its origins in Afrikaans, English and Malay. However, pluck a girl out of the Johannesburg suburbs or a boy from rural KwaZulu-Natal, and it would be easy to imagine their blank faces if they were to hear: “Eksê, man, that laaitie is a skelm ’cause hy het my gatsby gevriet.” Consisting of Afrikaans-originated words, it would translate to, “I say, man, that young boy is a trouble-maker because he ate my chip-roll” (with gatsby being a “chip-roll”, not the character from the eponymous novel).
However, I would feel like a total cake (an idiot) if I were to walk into Durban and hear their slanguage, most of which originates from the large Indian community living there. If a Durbanite tells you to “dala a thing in a quiet style,” they want you to do something quickly, albeit in a way without being noticed. If they tell you that you’re a 28, then they’re describing you as gay rather than rating you out of 30; if they were rating you on a scale, 100’s – or “excellent” – is what you’d be aiming for. ‘Roti-o’ and ‘Hot cross’ are terms to describe a Hindi person and a Christian respectively, and, unlike its Australian counterpart, being called a ‘Sheila’, or ugly woman, isn’t a compliment.
Nguni languages, including isiZulu and isiXhosa, use slang that pops up across the country a fair bit to the point where most of use it in our everyday lives. Eish! and gogga come to mind, the former used to express disapproval to disbelief, such as “Eish, crime is seriously getting out of hand!”, and the latter – from the Khoisan xo-xo – being used to describe bugs, i.e. “I wouldn’t want to live in the mountains because there’s so many goggas there.” When we get together to watch soccer matches, don’t be surprised when you hear a rumble of “Laduma!” in the distance after a goal is scored, with rumble being the operative word as laduma, or ‘He scores!’, comes from isiZulu, meaning ‘It thunders.’
SAE has come up with original coinages that may be confusing to the overseas traveller. As far as I know, we’re the only nation in the world that refers to traffic lights as ‘robots’ (not that they live up to the name, of course, but it’s still fun to tease visitors about their being equipped with lasers or something of that ilk). Ja, or ‘yes’, and ‘hey’ are so frequent in our sentences that it would be difficult to not say them at all – you could lose a bet easily that way if you tried not to say them, hey.
Notorious among these neologisms are the phrases ‘just now’ and ‘now now’, and the word ‘shame’. As already indicated, ‘just now’ means something will be done, but not immediately: if you want me to walk the dog, “I’ll do it just now” would be my response, meaning I’ll do it, but only in the near to distant future. If I respond with “I’ll do it now now”, the action would be more immediate, but again not at that precise moment – you would probably have to give me five minutes, if not a whole hour. Future or past tense applies to both the phrases
If a South African says “Shame” or “shem” to you, they don’t want you to feel ashamed. Rather, the term is a typical way of expressing sympathy, akin to saying, ‘Oh dear’ or ‘I’m sorry for you.’ Tell a South African that you’re feeling ill, and you’ll most likely get “Shame, man, I hope you feel better.” ‘Shame’ can also be used in other ways as well, such as to emphasise cuteness – “Shame, that puppy’s so adorable!” – or to be congratulatory, ie. “Shame, well done for passing your exams.”
Some of these words regularly used in daily interactions have origins so skewed that it’s a wonder we continue to use them. For example, calling your friend china doesn’t mean you’re saying they’re Asian; instead, it has its origins in Cockney rhyming slang’s ‘China plate’, meaning ‘mate’ or ‘friend’. Kiff is the go-to word to describe an object as cool or wonderful, although it originally comes from the Afrikaans word kief, or ‘poisonous’. Likewise, kwaai is synonymous with ‘awesome’ … but then, it also means ‘vicious’ and ‘bad-tempered’ in Afrikaans, so do be careful if you describe your significant other as kwaai, otherwise they’ll break more than your plates, china.
Local is lekker, as the saying goes, and South African slang is no different. It incorporates – and is expressive of – the many cultural and ethnic practices of the hundreds of communities living in and around the country. We are incredibly diverse, and we may not speak each other’s language, but our slanguage does its best to bring us together and make us understand one another a little better.
Have a listen to the different reactions we found on campus: