South Africa, land of the free … languages.

löwen 020
When you want to go running with the lions … you gotta learn their languages.

Here is a small collection of idioms and unique expressions to enlighten you a bit about the Afrikaans language.

If you have never been to South Africa, you might not know that we’ve got 11 official languages here. Basically every ethnic group speaks their own tongue, although plenty of Africans wouldn’t know how to write in their native language, as English is, in most Provinces, the common denominator.

My sons are growing up with the best of a lot of worlds. I hope they will have a bigger heart for it.

gnu2Afrikaaner is what the descendants of the Dutch settlers are calling themselves, meaning “Africans”. Since Afrikaaner is pronounced exactly the same as the German Afrikaner (meaning a black Afrikan), I always end up having to clear some confusions with my German friends about my Afrikaaner husband and extended family. Yes, a well meaning friend set down with me on the steps of my home church in Germany after the last youth service I attended before getting married. “I admire you, Christiane,” he said. “How are you going to cope, cooking in these big round pots over and open fire, living in a hut made of clay” … I indulged in allowing him to ramble on for a short while before I couldn’t hold my laughter in any more. “I am not going to be the next White Massai, my friend” I giggled. They do have roads and computers there, you know … and my husband is a brave descendant of Dutch adventurers looking for a life of freedom and opportunity…

The funny thing with languages is that you can not merely “speak” them. You feel them, because before you can speak them you have got to think them, right. Using different sounding expressions for the same thing gives that very same thing a totally different connotation. You simply can not speak Italian without using your hands, you can not speak Chinese without trying to be polite, when you speak German you have to think very hard because there is a precise word for nearly every single thing, and, well, when you speak Afrikaans you have got to be naughty.

P1070806Afrikaans is, in essence, a language for rebels, people who do not want to be pressed into a mold, people who where beaten and went off the hook and refused to stay down and keep pressing on no matter what. Afrikaaners, and this is totally subjective and can be disputed, although I doubt any Afrikaaner would fight this, are extremely stubborn in their views. And when it comes to their moms, or saying thank you in public, they get teary eyed. But put them out into the open veld (type of prairie),the berg (mountain), bos (the bush), you will see their true, loveable, romantic soul.

A fishing rod, utility knife, a tent, a 4×4 and a hat – in short, give them some freedom and they blossom like the Namaqua desert when it received a little rain.

I know it sounds all terribly stereotype …  but I hope in a good way.

Having to think it before I speak it, Afrikaans has changed me, added a lot of new outlooks on the worlds and given me some bold colours to understand the picture of life better.

Here’s some cool Afrikaans vocab that just goes with the mentality and is very endearing and unique. You know, like that rough log of a fallen tree you want to remove off a newly bought property by the sea. You don’t get around to clearing it up. Later you find it quite pretty, it’s rugged bark a dark contrast to the glowing sunset. And after a while, that log becomes kind of a landmark to your property and your kids will make it into a feature sculpture. This is what Afrikaans has become for me. In the beginning I thought:How simple. How flat. How unrefined. Well, now I wouldn’t know how to express a certain way of thinking any other way anymore. I started to “get” the soul of the whole thing. I am telling you, speaking Afrikaans has added a lot of smiles to my daily life.

Explaining life to my kids in 3 languages …

How do you explain the word “sommer” to anyone. It’s not just a word, it is a concept. “Somehow”, “winging it”, “just because” could be used to translate it. A German would probably never do something “just sommer”. This lovely expression enables me to do something without having to explain myself at all. It might explain though, why some Afrikaans ladies I met, loved to paint every single wall in their house a different colour. “Just sommer”.

A bakkie …

A “Bakkie” can be anything from a little pick-up truck to all sizes and shapes of containers and dishes around the house. In my native German every single kitchen item has a different name attached to it. “Steven, could u bring Mama a Schüssel, or wait, I thinkI need just Schälchen,  just bring me a bakkie will you please?”

And I don’t even know what to call a bakkie-car in German. Seriously. Maybe an SUV. But with an open back, hence: bowl, or dish, right?
Then there is “voetstoots” of course. It’s been officially adopted into
South African English. There’s no concise, one-word equivalent in English. Buy the car “As is” just doesn’t hack it. “Buy it in the current condition even if you need to push it home by foot” can be expressed so short and to the point in Afrikaans.  And it’s such a humorous word, conjuring up images of pushing that brand new car home…

avacation 115

I think “gogga” is the most delightful word for insect I’ve ever heard. Click the word to hear its correct pronunciation. Children all over the world should use it. “Insect” just doesn’t stand a chance. Gogga was one of the first words my baby used to say, jumping with excitement!

And the exclamation of disgust “sis” – doesn’t that just obliterate the English “phew”. “Sis man, dis gagga, los dit” equals:”leave this disgusting thing alone”. You see when you speak the Queen’s English, you can not help sounding somewhat high browed and above it all. That is no way to talk to a child. Afrikaans always makes my kids smile. Really. That is how a different mentality creeps into your heart when you start speaking it.

“Donder” is a strange word, meaning thunder but used as an all-purpose swear word,
which again has no good English translation.
Used as a verb, it can express any degree of roughing up.
As a noun, it is a pejorative, as they politely say in dictionaries, to
mean whatever you want it to mean.

I am not, ever, ever, allowed to use that word while I still haven’t understood the concept of lightning and thunder being offensive. So when it comes to the weather, I am talking to my kids strictly in German. Afrikaaners are very very sensitive about using curse words although I always wonder when we are out barbecuing in the bush, some other people really can talk bad. But it apparently depends on the occasion. Still need to figure that one out.

Granted, tigers aren’t native to Africa. But when you speak Afrikaans, you bother less about the small print and just get to the point. My son is “glad nie bang nie”!

It says something about the English that they have no word for “jol”.
Probably the dictionary compilers regard it as slang, but it’s widely
used for “Going out on the town, kicking up your heels, enjoying
yourself…” (See, there’s no English translation)

I’ve yet to meet a South African over the age of two who doesn’t use the
word “muti”. Translation is impossible – “witches potion” is about the nearest I
can get. It needs a long cultural historical explanation. Between “muti” and
the pedantic “medication” , there’s simply no contest.

Biltong – dried meat like beef jerkey but better, is a welcome gift anytime. Looks and sounds strange, tastes lekker!

How do you explain the passion of “LEKKER!”? Wow last night was a
“lekker jol” – The German “lecker” would translate as “delicious” whereas the Afrikaans word can mean that everything from grannies cooking to a new dress, a car, a movie, a visit, was thoroughly enjoyable or nice. But nice is boring. Lekker is – lekker.

Dudu or doeks. Telling your infant to go to bed is just not the same as:
“Go dudu now my baby!”

How about ‘bliksem” – I’m going to bliksem you or ek gaan jou donder!

Both wonderful Afrikaans expressions with nothing to compare in the
English language, at least nothing that gives the same satisfaction.


Mielie pap – there is no word like pap to describe this food. In English, they have porridge, and when they say porridge, they mean oats. In German, a poridge would be a Brei, sounding exactly like Braai, the Afrikaans way of saying BBQ. And with your steak you have to have pap and sous, maize meal porridge and home made tomato relish.

But pap is also used for any breakfast cereal – even ordinary cornflakes are called pap.

Speaking of food. Gewoene, meaning ordinary, literally “what I am used to”, tea, is used to describe what we would call black tea, or Darjeeling or Ceylon etc. Do not order black tea. You might get locked up for racism. In English, you order “five roses” although that brand also produces herbal Rooibos tea, and in Afrikaans you MUST say “gewoene” tea.

HVD (11)
My very own little skelm.

Which brings us to skelm – here you just get ‘baddies’, but that doesn’t
have the same sneaky connotation of a proper skelm, does it?!
A Schelm in German is a prankster. You would say to a cute 2year old who just got you to surrender a sweet to him:You little Schelm. Do not say that in South Africa. Although to my German ear the world skelm sounds happy and cute, it actually describes a criminal here.

Loskop is another favourite. The English just don’t understand when I
say ‘Sorry, I forgot – I’m such a loskop!’ It kinda means my head is loose.

And “now now”. No one else in the world uses this English version of the Afrikaans concept “nou nou”. It means anything from in 2hours or 2 years. Do not expect anybody to help you right now, when they use the word nou. And when they say nou twice, it does not mean they will help you even faster. Nou nou means: Get over yourself, I have more important stuff to do right now.

I hope you had fun bridging some linguistic worlds with me tonight.

Don’t forget that a traffic light is a robot in South Africa.

There are countless more unique words in Afrikaans, but this blog is, by wordpress standards, un-postable long already.

Thanks for staying tuned,




19 thoughts on “South Africa, land of the free … languages.”

  1. Reblogged this on AMLISA: American Muslim Living in South Africa and commented:
    Oh so gogga is Afrikaans? I always thought it was Gujraati, pronounced like खाखा (khaakhaa, with the kh sounding like the Arabic خ or the ch in loch).

    Everyone in my husband’s family uses this word to talk about insects, so I just assumed it was a Gujju thing. Guess I was wrong!

    1. Well, these days it is a recognized Afrikaans word even in the dictionary. but you know, Afrikaans is a weird conglomerate of many different languages with a very simplified form of Dutch at it’s core. There are Malay, French, English, and even Khoisan expressions that have made their way into this language. It has no grammar or any refinements and I often wonder if that renders it’s native speakers a little too sentimental for lack of deeper reflection? So it could very well be that it originated in Gujraati and got wrangled into the Afrikaans vocabulary, after all, Afrikaans exists for mere 200 years.

      1. The Dutch structure of Afrikaans seriously bothers me, probably because ich habe Deutsch auf dem Hoch Schule gelernt, so Afrikaans kind of sounds like German to me except it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like hearing someone speak Portuguese – it kind of sounds like Spanish to me but I can’t make heads nor tails of it. :-/

      2. In the beginning it bothered me greatly too. A lot of Germans living in South Africa want nothing to do with the Afrikaans – they tell me it sounds plain dumb. I must say, in the beginning it went completely against my etiquette to speak that way, but I mastered it quickly. Think of it as making all the mistakes your teachers told you not to do: child is Kind, children is Kinder – in afrikaans the plural is kinders – the way a toddler would put it 😉

      3. I honestly have no desire to learn Afrikaans except to help my stepdaughter study it, simply because most of the people I’m around do not speak it (aside from the odd joke here and there). It doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as common in Joburg as it is in Cape Town. So I don’t really need it to function, aside from learning how to pronounce street and city names.

        isiZulu on the other hand is a different story. I would like to learn that language simply because I do find myself in situations with domestic workers, gardeners, etc where it would help a lot. It would also help later on if I ever get into charity work (but first I have to get proficient at driving on the other side of the road).

        I remember doing an assignment once and taking stuhl and making it stuhls instead of stuehle (sorry can’t figure out how to do umlauts on my Mac). 🙂 It was a lesson I’ll never forget, and it helped me a LOT when I was learning plurals in Hindi as they actually work quite similarly (kajoor becomes kajooriyaa).

        Do you ever find yourself pronouncing Afrikaans words in German and people laughing at you? That happens to me all the time when I do try to say a word here or there.

      4. Yeah, I AM German and I don’t get the umlauts on my English laptop right hahaha. I experienced the general Afrikaans community as very rude. Although I have two Masters degrees and worked as a college lecturer before moving here, I am constantly being treated as a second class citizen by them. Often I get the feeling they despise my husband for having married “outside the holy race” or something … A ladyfriend of mine who is Afrikaans married a medical doctor who happens to be a Georgian. She confirms that they feel very rejected by the Afrikaans community. People will approach my husband and blatantly chat about me as if I was a dog he bought. “Oh, she can talk Afrikaans then, good, you trained her well” … I am tempted every time to answer: Oh yes, she fetches, gives paw and rolls over too!
        And they will certainly laugh when you make a mistake instead of appreciating the effort you made to learn their language … My in laws once told me to never speak German, and that English offends them, and so I always spoke Afrikaans to them. Strange, right???
        My husband speaks German fluently though, he is not one of those small minded last-century boere …

      5. Ooh, Georgian. At least you’re Western European… sad that the prejudices against Eastern Europe still exist!

        The Indians here still have some of that attitude as well, although it has definitely broken apart more with the generation my age and continues to deteriorate into the younger generation as well. I guess it’s part of the legacy of apartheid that still lingers on. I hope it settles down into a feeling of security in one’s own culture and language group without superiority mixed in.

  2. Really beautiful… I’ve always been fascinated by the cultural stigma attached to language, and I definitely know what you mean by the Queen’s English sounding high brow and pedantic. I don’t know why, but just this past year I’ve found it really hard to speak to people on a raw, visceral level without getting caught up in etiquette and social pretenses, you know what I mean? Anyway, thanks for this awesome post!

    1. Cheers to that! As a native German, living in South Africa makes me feel like a high functioning Aperger savant sometimes. In German, there is no expression for being offended, the political correct kind oyou know. Yes, there is upset and angry, but not that kind of “offendedness” that makes one do a delicate tip toe dance in english speaking nations. Say something controversial in German, and everyone will be very happy to engage in a meaningful dialogue with you, after which you are still the deepest of friends. It is seen as polite to speak to the point and as rude to talk between the lines. Not so in English. You have to appear to be totally dispassionate about an issue in order to look sophisticated! Forget about food and comfort, give me someone to be honest and real with. Those are the things one misses most abroad…

  3. I simply loved this! Well written and with so much humour, I made me smile at myself and the way I was brought up. You touched a nerve her, reminding me why I love this country so much. Thank you…

    1. Thanks a lot! It’s the longing for freedom that resounds within the Afrkaans soul, and gives the Afrikaans language a rugged edge and the cooking a lot of butter and sugar…

I would really love some feedback from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s