A friend who recently moved to South Africa once spent half an hour driving in circles, looking for the landmark his colleagues had pointed out to him: a robot. Naturally, he thought that this referred to a gigantic figure erected by some toy manufacturer.
Do not make the same mistake. When visiting South Africa, take the word “robot” to mean what it means in South Africa – a traffic light. (Robot can also mean robot in South Africa, but it is not likely that you will be directed to “turn right” at the robot-robot).
During your stay in South Africa, a native may invite you to a braai. Jump on the invitation without giving it a second thought. A braai is South African for barbecue, and each and every South African braai is an excellent affair. You’ll never eat such good meat anywhere else. You may also accept biltong (cured meat, usually beef), boerewors (spicy sausages), or mielie (corn on the cob or long maize) without fear of getting into trouble. However, say “no” to dagga (marihuana).
While not something that deserves outright refusal, you should be a bit wary if a local offers to give you a lift in his (or her) bakkie (a small truck). You may end up crouching in the open-top rear cargo area, holding on for dear life and saying goodbye to your previously carefully styled hairdo. In case the driver, on beholding your pale face as you stagger off the vehicle, kindly advises you to see a chemist, note that you need not search for a scientist specialising in chemistry (though “chemist” can mean that too); the chances are that he (or she) is recommending a visit to a pharmacist.
South Africans love emphasising, and their way of doing it is by repeating what they have said. They will often say “now-now” to let others know that an action or event will occur very soon. They will say “sharp-sharp” to express that everything is good and “sure-sure” when they mean “sure”, “yes”, or “of course”. Hence Bafana Bafana, instead of only Bafana (“the boys”) as the nickname of the national soccer team.
South Africans are also very tolerant of different pronunciations of English and will not blink an eye when they hear a radio announcer mention “a sheep stranded outside the Durban harbour”. They know there is no need to call animal rescue, for the stranded object is really a ship.
Do not be offended if the locals whose home language is one of the African languages happen to refer to you as a “he” even though you wear a skirt and high heels, or a “she”, even though you sport a bushy moustache. They do not mean to infer that you are an extremely masculine female or a visibly effeminate male (as the case may be). Many African languages have one common pronoun for third person singular. For those native speakers, it is very difficult to get used to the fastidiousness of distinguishing between a “he” and a “she” in grammatical sense.
All the languages of South Africa
South Africa is a multilingual country. The constitution recognises eleven languages to which the state guarantees equal status. English is generally understood across the country.
According to the 2001 census, the most common languages spoken at home by South Africans are:
- Zulu: 10.67 million, or 23.8 percent of the population;
- Xhosa: 7.90 million, or 17.6 percent;
- Afrikaans: 5.98 million, or 13.3 percent;
- Northern Sotho: 4.20 million, or 9.4 percent;
- Tswana: 3.67 million, or 8.2 percent;
- English: 3.67 million, or 8.2 percent;
- Sotho: 3.55 million, or 7.9 percent;
- Tsonga: 1.99 million, or 4.4 percent;
- Swati: 1.19 million, or 2.7 percent;
- Venda: 1.02 million, or 2.3 percent;
- Ndebele 712,000, or 1.6 percent.
A further 217,000 people, or 0.48 percent of the population, speak some other language as a home language.
Then check your knowledge of SA-speak by taking this test.
Images source: Media Club South Africa