Table Mountain above Capetown, South Africa

40 South African English Words, Phrases and Slang

When you visit South Africa, don’t be confused about the robots in the road.

You won’t see a human-like machine walking past the cars. “Robot” is simply the South African English term for “traffic light.”

In fact, there are lots of unique English terms that you’ll only hear in South Africa. Whether you’re planning to travel or move there, or are just curious about all the local slang and dialects of English, you’ll want to know some of these terms.

In this article, we’re covering South Africa’s linguistic history along with 40 unique South African English phrases. We’ll compare them to similar American English terms you might recognize so their meaning will be crystal clear.

But first, it’s time for a brief lesson on the linguistic history of South Africa.


South Africa’s Rich Linguistic Heritage and Diversity

It’s worth noting first and foremost that South African English is only one of the languages spoken in South Africa, and it’s far from being the most common language spoken in the country. South Africa is rich in official languages other than English, including the following:

  • Zulu (This is the most-spoken language in South Africa.)
  • Afrikaans
  • Xhosa
  • Southern and Northern Sotho
  • Tswana
  • Venda
  • Tsonga
  • Swati
  • Ndebele

English is currently only the fourth most spoken language in South Africa, with less than 10% of the population actively speaking it. However, English is understood by most South Africans in urban areas and you’ll hear English on South African TV and other media.

The history of the presence of Germanic languages like English and Afrikaans in South Africa is unfortunately not a happy one.

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South Africa was colonized by the Dutch in the 1600s and the British in the 1700s, which is why English and Afrikaans are spoken there. Apartheid (Afrikaans for “separateness”), similar to segregation in the U.S., was a racist policy that upheld white South African rule over the indigenous population from the 1940s to the late 1990s. Under apartheid, black South Africans were required to carry IDs, had very few rights, couldn’t use public facilities and were forced to speak Afrikaans in school.

The fact that English is the main language used in South African media and government announcements today when not everyone in South Africa even speaks the language shows the ongoing relationship between colonialist language and power in the country. 

This doesn’t mean English doesn’t have a valid place in the country. It does.

But it’s also important to understand how diverse and rich South Africa is when it comes to language, as well as the complex history of English here as a colonial force. Many South African English words and slang are from the country’s other languages.

In addition to learning South African English, try learning more about Zulu, Xhosa or the Sotho languages. The more you know about all the languages spoken in South Africa, the better you’ll do when you travel there!

Uniquely South African English Words, Phrases and Slang

1. “Eish!”

American Version: “Jeez!”

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This word originates from the Xhosa people in South Africa. The word is used across pretty much all of South Africa as well as in a few neighboring countries. It’s a unique word because it doesn’t just express surprise—it can also show excitement, disbelief or anger.

“Eish! You startled me there.”

2. “Ach man!”

American Version: “Oh man!”

This filler word is often used to express frustration, but it can also be used in pretty much any situation at the beginning of a sentence.

“Ach man, I have such a hangover from last night.”

3. “Ach, shame.”

American Version: “What a shame.”

South Africans use this phrase for pretty much any situation, such as giving thanks, shouting praise or mourning. It’s definitely the most used filler word in South Africa, and a versatile one as well.

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George: “I got engaged last night.”

Amber: “Ach, shame!”

4. “Let’s chow.”

American Version: “Let’s eat.”

Since it’s also used in some other countries, this one’s pretty self-explanatory. “Chow” means “eat.”

“I’m starving, let’s chow.”

5. “Bliksem”

American Version: “To punch”

This word is derived from the Dutch word for lightning strikes.

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Note that it’s a rude word and you wouldn’t want to use it in polite company.

“You jerk! I’ll bliksem you!”

6. “Kak!”

American Version: “Crap!”

South Africans love their filler words. This one can be used in any situation where you would exclaim “Crap!” in American English. However, it’s a bit ruder than that and can even be considered a curse word. Don’t use this if you want to make a professional impression!

“Kak! I’m late for class!”

7. “Braai”

American Version: “Barbecue”

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A traditional South African “braai” consists of roasting lamb chops, boerewors (savory sausage) and steak. Salads, rolls and melktert (milk tarts) are typically served as well.

“Come down to the braai, we’ve got boerewors cooking.”

8. “Klap”

American Version: “Slap”

This one is confusing, since it sounds like the English word “clap.” But it’s actually referring to a “slap,” or hitting someone or something with the palm of your hand.

“I ought to klap you for saying that nonsense!”

9. “Boet”

American Version: “Bro” or “brother”

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This word can be used to refer to an actual brother or a dear male best friend. It’s an affectionate term of endearment.

“He’s my boet, I can’t imagine life without him.”

10. “Domkop”

American Version: “Idiot”

This Afrikaans word came into the language through Dutch, a Germanic language, where it literally means “dumb head.”

The Germanic linguistic influence in certain parts of South Africa and neighboring Namibia has less than savory origins. 

“He’s a real domkop, that one.”

11. “Robot”

American Version: “Traffic light”

The automatic light-changing function of a traffic light resembles that of a robotic machine, hence the slang term. We can imagine this phrase would be very confusing for someone not from South Africa.

“I’ll meet you at school in 20 minutes. Take backstreets so that you don’t get stuck at that robot on 7th Avenue.”

12. “Eina!”

American Version: “Ow!”

This can be used when experiencing any kind of pain, but it’s mostly used when experiencing a sharp, sudden pain like a bee sting or a paper cut.

“Eina! I always cut myself on this paper.”

13. “Howzit?”

American Version: “How’s it going?”

This shortened version of “How’s it going?” just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

“Howzit? I haven’t seen you in a while.”

14. “Is it?”

American Version: “Is that so?”

Like “howzit?” this shortened term is just pleasant to say in conversation.

Bradley: “I found out today that daddy long legs aren’t even spiders.”

Kana: “Is it?”

15. “Sarmie”

American Version: “Sandwich”

Anna: “I could really go for a sarmie right about now.”

Kaya: “Yeah, how about a Gatsby?”

16. “Baba”

American Version: “Father” or “Dad”

Many languages use “baba” as a way to say “dad,” but the South African term is believed to have originated from Afrikaans or Indian.

“Tell your baba that it’s time to chow, the sarmies are ready.”

17. “Scale”

American Version: “To steal”

To scale something is to steal it and a person who’s “scaly” is a thief or otherwise sleazy person.

“She scaled my cheese poppers from Bossa last night.”

18. “Lekker”

American version: “Tasty,” “Good” or “Great”

From Afrikaans (and originally Dutch), this word for “delicious” can also mean “great,” “cool” or “awesome.”

 “That seafood restaurant is downright lekker.”

19. “Just now”

American English: “Soon”

This term captures the often laid-back attitude of South Africans, and it means that you’ll get around to something in the near future—but exactly when is unknown.

“Yeah yeah, I’ll fix the window just now.”

20. “Dop”

American version: “Drink” or “Failed”

A “dop” is a small alcoholic drink, such as a gin and tonic. It can also be used as a verb meaning “failed.”

“You want to come around for a dop?”

“I totally dopped my exam.”

21. “Bakkie”

American version: “Pickup truck”

The pickup truck used for work, moving or just carrying around your friends has a catchy name in South Africa. It comes from the Afrikaans word bak, which means “container.”

“Can I borrow your bakkie? I have to move this weekend.”

22. “Yebo”

American version: “Yeah”

This frequently used word just slides off the tongue.

Dan: “You want to go fishing this weekend?”

Greg: “Yebo.”

23. “Aikona”

American version: “No way”

This word—which is actually derived from South African mining pidgin, and the Zulu and Xhosa words with the same meaning—is used to express shock, disbelief, refusal or disagreement.

“Aikona! That was a close call. Drive more carefully.”

24. “Shap shap/Sharp sharp”

American version: “All good”

This cute repeating multi-use phrase with two pronunciation options means “all’s good” or that everything’s in order. It can also be used as a greeting, to express agreement, and to express enthusiasm. If those uses weren’t enough, it can also be used to mean “thanks,” “okay,” “yes” and even “goodbye.”

“Shap shap. See you on the beach then.”

“Sharp sharp. Everything’s looking good. Thanks for your hard work.”

25. “Skinner”

American version: “Gossip”

Skinner is Afrikaans slang for gossip, and the person who does the gossiping is called the skinnerbek, which literally means “gossip mouth.”

“Don’t skinner about me, boet.”

26. “Kif”

American version: “Cool”

Kif  is derived from Arabic kayf, meaning “enjoyment” or “well being” and it means cool, great or awesome.

“Looking good, boet. That’s a kif get up you have on!”

27. “Shebeen”

American version: “Tavern” or “bar”

Shebeen was originally an illegal tavern derived from the sibín, which means “illicit whiskey.” In South Africa, the word referred to unlicensed bars that were set up in townships during apartheid. It has since become a mainstream word used to describe many bars.

“You want to head out to the shebeen?”

28. “Chommie”

American version: “Pal” or “buddy”

This is something you call a close friend to express your affection for them. It’s rooted in the British English “chum,” which means the same thing.

“Chommie, get over here and let me buy you a drink.”

29. “Jol”

American version: “Celebration” or “Party”

This multi-purpose word can be used for anything celebratory, from a good time or a party to going out and dancing and having a fun night on the town.

“Last night was a real jol.”

30. “Gogo”

American version: “Grandmother” or “Older woman.”

This term, which is from Zulu, is used as a sign of respect for older women.

“I love you, gogo.”

31. “Lapa”

American version: “Patio”

From the Sesotho for “homestead” or “courtyard,” this is a word frequently used in South Africa to describe an outdoor patio and open-sided thatch-roofed party shed often constructed in back yards.

“Come around the lapa. We’re having some people over.”

32. “Voetsek!”

American version: “Go away!”

This Afrikaans word is originally from the Dutch phrase voort seg ik (be off I say). Today, people use it the same way as “buzz off.” It can be considered rude, so be careful with this one.

“Voetsek! I’ve heard enough from you.”

33. “Babbelas”

American version: “Hangover”

This is a Xhosa word that South Africans use to describe that negative day-after-drinking feeling.

“I’ve got babellas from last night.”

34. “Takkie/Tekkie”

American version: “Running shoes” or “Sneakers”

Brits say “trainers,” Americans say “sneakers” and South Africans say “takkies,” which is thought to have originated from the English adjective “tacky,” meaning cheap or poor quality.

“I gotta get a new pair of takkies. Mine are worn out.”

35. “Check you.”

American version: “See you later.”

This handy exclamation is used to say farewell, usually to a friend.

“That was fun. Check you.”

36. “Windgat”

American version: “Show-off”

This uncomplimentary term is from the Afrikaans words wind (wind) plus gat (hole), so it literally means “windhole.” It’s used to refer to blabbermouths or show-offs.

“He’s such as windgat. Nothing can shut him up about his new car.”

37. “Stoep”

American version: “Porch”

From the Dutch stoep, meaning “steps,” this word is commonly used in South Africa for a covered porch or verandah.

“Mom’s out on the stoep.”

38. “Dorp”

American version: “Small town”

This term means “village” and can refer to any small rural town. It comes from the Dutch (through Afrikaans) dorp (village).

“He’s from a dorp. Don’t expect him to know the way around Jo’burg.”

39. “Tune me.”

American version: “I dare you.”

This is used when you want to challenge someone as a provocation.

“Tune me, bro. I promise you’ll lose.”

40. “Cousin/Cuzzy”

American version: “Friend”

Many cultures stretch the meaning of the term “cousin” and South Africa is no exception. Here, it can mean “friend” or “mate” as well as your actual cousin.

“Get over here cuzzy. I need a hug.”


South African English is quite unique, isn’t it? Mastering it can be a challenge even for advanced learners of English because there are so many slang and general linguistic differences between American English and South African English. You can give yourself a leg up by using an authentic video-based learning program like FluentU to see English in use naturally.

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If you plan on traveling or moving to South Africa, be sure to study up on these words and phrases!

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