The future of language: South African English in Zoo City
Earlier this year South African author Lauren Beukes won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction for her second novel Zoo City. It was a big moment for the author as it puts her in the company of illustrious recent winners such as, among others, China Miéville (who has won it three times in the previous decade), M. John Harrison, and Bruce Sterling. Beukes is only the seventh woman to win, the first since 2002 (Margaret Atwood won the very first one back in 1987) – and the first South African to do so. However, this article is not about the award or the author, nor even a review of the book – rather, it takes a look at some of the South African English (SAE) Beukes uses in her narrative.
Linguistic influences: from Arabic to Zulu
Over its 422 year history (since Francis Drake spoke about ‘the Fairest Cape’ in 1589) SAE has gained input from the local languages of Southern Africa – initially Khoi and San languages and later Afrikaans; colonial languages such as English, Dutch, Portuguese, and Arabic; and increasingly from the Nguni- (mainly Xhosa and Zulu) and Sotho-group (mainly Sesotho and Setswana) languages since at least the twentieth century. In the current set-up English and SAE vie for a place along with the nine other official languages of the country, as well as with tsotsitaal and isicamtho. These influences are well-reflected in Zoo City with around a dozen source languages perceptible in the SAE used in the book, including Nguni-group languages (e.g. thwasa, training to become a traditional doctor), Sotho-group languages (e.g. tsotsi), Afrikaans (e.g. kak me out – literally ‘shit me out’), tsotsitaal (e.g. hola, from Spanish), English (e.g. kays, short for kilometres), and Arabic (e.g. assegai).
A slice of South African life
It’s not just that Zoo City uses such SAE words as decoration: in the novel they form as intricate a part of the narrative as they do of everyday conversation in South Africa. While ‘classical’ SAE items (such as those that have already entered global English) have a place in the story, the majority of the terms used are more local and contemporary, reflecting the current milieu of South African society – well, that of Jozi, aka Jo’burg, aka Johannesburg, and its (often unemployed) youth, migrant, and criminal underclasses. This means that some western and/or northern readers might find the language somewhat perplexing unless they have a copy of the Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles nearby; but on the other hand – apart from this language use being inseparable from what is being said in the book – for those readers these strange words function as a kind of defamiliarising device, setting the narrative out of the mainstream as much as its genre and storyline do. It’s a weird, uncanny, and dark book (no spoilers here).
While there are some SAE items that are used only once in Zoo City (e.g. Red Ants, boomslang, vuvuzela, buchu, townships, wildebeest, koeksister, and 46 others), many of the SAE words have a relatively high frequency – a function both of their use in South African society and, in some cases, their necessary relation to the plot of the story. A look at the top 15 most frequent SAE words (frequency in parentheses) will give us some indication of what is happening here:
The high frequency of words like muti, sangoma, and dlozi (ancestral spirit) all relate to the storyline. The remainder serve to create a particularly South African sense of space, nature, and society. A moegoe is a country bumpkin or gullible fool new to the city; sisi is a term of address for an African woman whose name one might not know; doos is a vulgar term for a fool; kwerekwere or mkwerekwere is a pejorative word used to describe an African immigrant to South Africa, often an illegal immigrant perceived to be ‘taking’ jobs meant for South Africans.
Fong kong and the real makhoya
Also interesting are some of the oppositions that become visible, which may relate to in-group/out-group politics, e.g. fong kong can be considered the opposite of (the real) makhoya; and (m)kwerekwere that of ma’gents. Fong kong means something fake, such as a brand-name rip-off T-shirt, while makhoya is derived from ‘the real McCoy’, with the same meaning. Ma’gents is a term young tsotsis might use to address each other.
Notwithstanding its fantastical elements, for the South African reader Zoo City captures in its language a slice of contemporary local life; for other readers the language used may well continue the work of defamiliarisation that is inherent in the genre. One can only hope that this short article has helped to make some of this unfamiliar lexicon clearer and encourages readers to delve into the emerging genre of South African science fiction represented by Zoo City.
Lauren Beukes (2010) Zoo City. Auckland Park: Jacana
The opinions and other information contained in the Oxford Dictionaries Online blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of OUP.
- Competitions and quizzes (26)
- Dictionaries and lexicography (114)
- English in use (301)
- Grammar and writing help (58)
- Interactive features (46)
- OED Appeals (4)
- Other languages (49)
- Varieties of English (28)
- Word origins (156)
- Word trends and new words (91)