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20+ Words You Should Learn Before Visiting South Africa

South Africa Languages
by Kirsten Bohle Mar 21, 2014

“Ja no, lekker hey boet. Come round for a braai later. We can have a few dops and throw some boerie on the fire.”

Look, when you have a country with 11 official languages and a handful of unofficial ones, it’s pretty inevitable that at some point the people are going to develop their own dialect. A mashup of languages, in this case.

Just Google the term “South Africanisms” and you will get alphabetized lists the length of a boerie coil. These are a couple1 of phrases you are going to need to know if you’re visiting South Africa:

1 When we say “a couple,” there’s no telling how many things are going to appear, but it probably won’t be two.

  • A braai, the quintessential South African experience. You might call it a barbeque. You might even think it is a barbeque. It is not. It is a braai.
  • Boerie or boerewors is what you eat at a braai, along with a tjop (or, chop). It translates as “farmer’s sausage” and is essentially a fat beef sausage, spiced to perfection and best served on a soft roll with cheap tomato sauce and fried onions.
  • A dop or two is the perfect complement to a braai. It’s your alcohol of choice, often a beer or a brannewyn en Coke (a brandy and Coke). We are a nation who drinks. Usually to our detriment.
  • Lekker. Literally, “nice.” But conveys so much more than just “nice.” It can be used to describe your meal (e.g., lekker boerie, boet); to happily confirm something (e.g., Ja no, lekker); or as a response to someone’s story (e.g., sounds lekker!).
  • Ja no quite obviously means “yes no” and also doesn’t really mean either of these things. It’s complicated. It’s an answer to a question; the actual implication is usually confirmed by the words following. “Ja no, lekker,” is a yes. “Ja no, I’m not sure,” is a no.
  • Like women might call each other babe as a sign of affection, men call each other boet or bru. It means brother.
  • In South African cultures, elders are greatly respected. Tannie and Oom are the Afrikaans terms for aunt and uncle and are considered to be a respectable term of address for anyone older than you. Because of the Afrikaans sentence structure, they may use it like this: “Can I help Oom with something?” “I like Tannie’s dress.” Sissie (sister, pronounced ‘see-see’), mama (mother), and tata (father) are more likely to be used by black South Africans. Ladies, try not to be offended when an older woman calls you mama. It’s not an ageist thing. Sissie is a more familiar term.
  • Traffic is controlled by robots, which roam our streets and zap taxis with their laser beams. Jokes. They’re the traffic lights.
  • The great minibus taxi, one of the principal unifying forces of our people (after rugby). Taxis, sometimes pronounced ‘teksi,’ are not like the elite cabs of the Western world. Everyone loves to hate them. They’re dangerous, un-roadworthy, cheap, and the preferred transport for the vast majority of township residents.
  • Mzantsi is an isiXhosa word meaning “south” and is a term of endearment for South Africa, our country. Advertisers like to use this word a lot.
  • I believe a bakkie (pronounced ‘buck-ey’) is called a pickup truck in other parts of the world, but I could be wrong. The vehicle of choice for the wide South African market.
  • Biltong or billies is a dried, spiced meat. The living best. Children teeth on the stuff, adults receive it as a birthday present.
  • Howzit is kind of a shortening of “how is it” and is used to start conversations. They’re not actually asking how you are, they’re just saying hi. Same as izit (or, “is it”). They’re not really asking if it is, they’re just acknowledging what you said.
  • Now now never means “now.” When someone tells you they’ll do something “now now,” expect to wait at least three days before it happens.
  • In casual situations, men are often referred to as an oke or an ou. Like where you might say “guy.” Sometimes used positively, e.g., “He’s a good oke.” Sometimes used negatively, e.g., “That ou needs to watch his fucking mouth.”

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