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.”
There are lots of unique English terms that you’ll only hear in South Africa. Whether you’re planning to travel there or are just curious about all the local slang and dialects of English, you’ll want to know some of these terms.
But first, it’s time for a history and culture lesson.
South Africa: The Language-rich Country with Way More Than Just English
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 various official languages other than English, including the following (sometimes spelled different ways):
- Zulu (This is the most-spoken language in South Africa.)
- Southern and Northern Sotho
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 (which was developed from the Dutch language) in South Africa is unfortunately not a happy one.
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, not dissimilar from Segregation in the U.S., was a policy and attempt for white South Africans in the 1940s through the late ’90s to rule over native South Africans. Under apartheid, black South Africans were required to carry and present IDs constantly, 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 ever-present relationship between colonialist language and power in the country. This is worth knowing and understanding before diving into South African English.
We’re not saying not to learn South African English. After all, we wrote a whole post on it!
What we’re saying is that it’s important to understand how diverse and rich South Africa is when it comes to language, as well as the history of English here. Also, as you’ll see below, some South African English words developed from other neighboring languages—knowing this can help you remember them.
In addition to learning South African English, try learning more about Zulu or Xhosa or the Sotho languages as well. The more you know about all the languages spoken in South Africa, the better you’ll do when you travel there!
South African English vs. American English: 17 Phrases Compared
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American Version: “Jeez!”
This word may originate from the Xhosa people in South Africa. This word is used across pretty much all language speakers in South Africa as well as a few neighboring countries. It’s a unique word because it doesn’t just express surprise—it can also express 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.”
In America we say “what a shame” when something unfortunate happens. However, South Africans use “ach, shame” for pretty much any situation, such as giving thanks, shouting praise, mourning, etc. It’s definitely the most-used filler word in South Africa and a very versatile one as well.
George: “I got engaged last night.”
Amber: “Ach, shame!”
4. “Let’s chow.”
American Version: “Let’s eat.”
“Chow” is used in certain parts of America to describe the act of eating and it’s no different in South Africa.
“I’m starving, let’s chow.”
American Version: “To punch”
This word is derived from the Dutch word for lightning strikes.
Note that it’s a rude word and you wouldn’t want to use it in polite company.
“You jerk! I’ll bliksem you!”
American Version: “Crap!”
South Africans sure 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 the word “crap” 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!”
American Version: “Barbecue”
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.”
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/something with the palm of your hand.
“I ought to klap you for saying that nonsense!”
American Version: “Bro” or “brother”
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.”
American Version: “Idiot”
This word is similar to “dummkopf” in German, which roughly means “idiot.”
The German linguistic influence in certain parts of South Africa has less than savory origins. There isn’t a large German-speaking population in South Africa now, but some words seem to have remained as slang.
“He’s a real domkop, that one.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
American Version: “Sandwich”
Anna: “I could really go for a sarmie right about now.”
Kaya: “Yeah, how about a Gatsby?”
American Version: “Father” or “Dad”
Tons of 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.”
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.”
South African English is quite unique, isn’t it? Mastering South African English is a great challenge for any advanced learner of English. There are so many slang and general linguistic differences between American English and South African English. If you plan on travelling to South Africa, be sure to study up on these words and phrases!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist who writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
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