Fish and chips Next post: Chipping away at British and American English

Gulliver's Travels Previous Post: Author? Author?

South African English: braais, babalaas, and a monkey’s wedding

Kombi

On 27 April South Africans celebrate Freedom Day, the anniversary of the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. As a South African ex-pat living in the UK and working for Oxford Dictionaries, I often think about the similarities and differences between the English spoken ‘back home’ and standard British English.

Robots have taken over the city …

There were some South African words I quickly stopped using after moving here, to avoid confusion (and fatal accidents). I learnt not to turn left at the robot, keep my wallet in the cubbyhole, go to the bottle store, or mistake a British boiler for a South African geyser. I also quickly found that saying varsity rather than uni would generate funny looks, as if I’d stepped out of a twenties novel – one of those cases where South African usage and British usage have diverged over time, leading to the existence of expressions in current South African English that are dated or obsolete in British English.

Skokiaan will give you a lekker babalaas

South African English, like other varieties of English, has a distinctly multicultural flavour, and readily absorbs words from other languages. Local languages have enriched the South African English vocabulary, from the Afrikaans loan words lekker, nogal, and sommer, to the Zulu-influenced skokiaan and babalaas (hangover). These and other colourful coinages have a wider reach than just the tip of the African continent: during the 2010 World Cup the vuvuzela could be heard all over the world, and with the number of South African ex-pats in the UK, I’ve found that the word braai (usually to be found in the sentence: it’s raining again, so we can’t have a braai) has become more commonly understood.

Er… you guys don’t say that?

It took me longer to find out that the kombi, the panel van, and the stopstreet are all uniquely South African, and it was only when I was exploring the premium version of Oxford Dictionaries Online that I realized that plus-minus doesn’t mean ‘more or less’ in British English, and that making a plan isn’t a way of overcoming difficulties all over the world. (I think we should make a plan to export this great expression!) The British also don’t have an expression for ‘rain while the sun shines’. I guess it doesn’t happen that often here. In South African English, this is a monkey’s wedding

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.