How do you say…

So I realized that we’ve been sharing all sorts of new words and names of places here on the blog, but we’ve not described how you actually say them. I remember how surprised I was to learn that Havmandsvej Street in Herlev (suburban Copenhagen), where I was to live during my college semester abroad, was not have-MAN-dis-veg in HER-lev, it was HOW-mands-vie in HARE-lou. (Tusind tak til Familien Jørgensen for undervisning mig lidt dansk.)

HOW do you say Gauteng?

To this point, most of the new words we are using on an everyday basis are rooted in Afrikaans, which derives primarily from Dutch. For example, the province that includes Pretoria and Johannesburg is called Gauteng. Not GOW-teng with a hard g, more like HOW-teng. But since we are talking about a relative of Dutch, the g sounds are more like ch sounds in English words like school, or the proper German pronunciation of Bach, or borrowed Scottish words like loch. As the sound comes at the beginning of the word, it isn’t quite as hard a sound as school or loch, but softer and more “throaty” — like if someone from Chicago said (in a derogatory way??) that they spotted Hanukkah Harry in Highland Park.

There are quite a lot of these g sounds in our life these days:

  • The new, high-speed train between Pretoria and Johannesburg is called the Gautrain (HOW-train).
  • The main road behind Menlyn Mall is Garsfontein (HARS-fon-tayn).
  • The suburb, the nature reserve and the name of the campus where we live is Groenkloof (HROON-kloof)

As “ugly” as the sound may seem to an American English speaker, The Starry Night remains just as beautiful as painted by Vincent van HOCH as by Vincent van GO. But I digress…

Another consonant sound that differs slightly from English is the Afrikaans v. Take the word Voortrekker, which is a big word here, for many reasons. Voortrekker literally means “those who trek ahead” and has great historical significance in South Africa. The Voortrekkers were the Afrikaners who left the Cape Colony (on the west coast, where Cape Town was settled) under British rule in order to find independence in the interior. Many ended up in the area where we live now, formerly part of the Transvaal, as well as the (Orange) Free State. [Of course, there were already people living here at that time, but that’s another story…] Anyway, the word is not pronounced VORE-trekker, as we might want to say it in English; it is FOUR-trekker.

If you visit us in Pretoria, we might see you staring off quizzically into the distance before asking, “What, on Earth, is that giant toaster-looking thing on the side of that mountain?” We would smile, nod, chuckle knowingly and say, “Eish. That’s the Fourtrekker Monument. Shame…”

Vowels can be equally tricky, actually. In English, by and large, when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking (I eat pie on the boat!). In German, when two vowels go walking, the second does the talking (Ich liebe Fleisch!). In Afrikaans, it’s every vowel for itself! Run for your lives!


  • Jenny likes to drink a Windhoek on the front stoep after a nice meal of snoek. (VIND-hook, stoop, snook)
  • Ryan likes to buy koeksisters from the oumas at the tuisnywerheid. (COOK-sisters, AH-mas, TIES-nee-vehr-hide)

See the inconsistency?

Now, for an added degree of difficulty, there are the African names and words, which can be derived from any of a dozen or more languages and dialects. My attempts to learn a few words in Sotho from our friend and former housekeeper, Maria, have not helped me greatly in attempts to pronounce names of cities, surnames, etc. Some can be tackled in a fairly straightforward, phonetic manner (Polokwane =  po-lo-KWA-nay), but others follow rules we don’t have experience with just yet (Tshwane = TSWA-nay).

These last two examples are indicative of something that’s very interesting here: Since 1994, when the ANC became the governing party and the majority black population gained more influence, many cities and areas were given new names to replace — or in some cases coincide — with their Afrikaans or English names. Polokwane was formerly called Pietersburg; Bela Bela was called Warmbaths; and Tshwane was just kinda made up

Perhaps our favorite pronunciations, though, are our own names. Tannie Elsje, who manages our guest flat at Groenkloof, is a lovely auntie with a strong Afrikaans accent. “Jaynie!” she yells. “Are you and Keelpatreek OK here?”

Yes. Yes, we are. Buy a donkey.

13 thoughts on “How do you say…

  1. Hi Ryan
    This language lesson calls for a short comment from Denmark.
    I know for a fact that you have a good “ear” for foreign languages (your Danish is still brilliant. ( yes it is, no spelling errors)) so I am sure that you will be quite good in understanding the local language.
    For a Dane who have some knowledge of the English and German language the Dutch language is not that difficult. But just as you have found out, you have to remember 2 major “rules” which are the pronunciation of the G-and the V-which are quite different.
    Your explanation of the G-sound, I like the “loch”-sound best, but I use to say that you make the sound when you “want to get a gob of spit from the windpipe”.
    The V-problem is similar to the German language. The V is pronounced as an F and a W is pronounced as a V.
    Your example of “Vincent van HOCH” should therefore be “Fincent fan hoch” :-)).
    Believe me, I have once tried to explain to a Dutch family that I have seen a lot of paintings by Vincent van Gogh without using the correct V and G sounds. They didn’t know what I was talking about.


    • Hej Mogens,

      Thank you for this brilliant comment. I agree about the “spit from windpipe” analogy…it’s amazing that people don’t spit on each other more during regular conversation.

      Good point, too, about the W and V sounds. And, yes, I should have referred to the Dutch master as “Fincent fan Hoch.” Funny!

      Tak skal du have. Nu jeg skal slappe af og se fjernsyn. Jeg håber det er Rap Fyr i LA.

  2. Hi Ryan,
    I’m lovin’ your blog Ryan – letting us follow you on your adventure! Love Jenny’s thoughts too! Wish I would have done something like this while in Seoul!! The only two words I remember from there are “yogi” (here) and “chogi”(there). Came in useful when telling the taxi driver where to stop!
    Keep it up!
    Your cuz,
    P.S. I’ve been thinking of John’s belly laugh while he’s enjoying your adventure too! Tell Bev hello when you talk next! 🙂

    • Thanks, Linda! I appreciate the kind words, and I know Jenny does, too.

      I can’t imagine trying to learn Korean in one year. It would be a full-time job. (Which I guess I don’t have right now, anyway…)

      I hope my dad would be laughing at this stuff. He sure knew a bad joke when he saw one.

    • I thought you might be into this one, Frau Galicia. You’d have all 11 official languages mastered in a week. I’d be left swearing at you in Zulu.

  3. Een taal is nooit genoeg nie.

    (That took some “googleizing” – that’s a term used in Terri’s native language)

    I also liked this phrase:

    My skeertuig is vol palings

  4. Can’t remember how I found your blog, but been enjoying it a lot. Being the Grammar Nazi that I am, I had to point out a few things regarding Afrikaans. Firstly, Afrikaans is actually a very consistent language once you know the rules. Being such a young lanuage (about 100 years old) helps in this regard.

    So first thing, beside the normal alphabet vowels, a combination of two vowels can form another pure voel, e.g. oe. Other combinations of vowels, e.g. ou, form a diphthong, which is a rapid success of two distinct vowels. To know which combinations are pure vowels and which a are diphthongs is just a matter of learning a list.

    You got the pronunciation of oe (oo) correct, but not quite the ou in ouma. The ou is more like the “ough” in dough or “ow” in bow (bow and arrow), definitely not “ah”. Tuis rhymes “race” and the “ui” is a diphthong. Ok, the ui is actually a bit more rounded… think stiff-upper-lip British pronunciation of race. Both, the y and ei in nywerheid is really the UNrounded version of ui, so now I can literally say it’s like the a in “race”. They are also diphthongs. Yes, in Afrikaans the y is considered a diphthong, not a vowel or consonant. And I can’t even thing of any exceptions, so it’s very consistent.

    Regarding the African words, e.g. Tshwane, the -e is not pronounced -ay (although many local English speakers also get it wrong), but just a simple e as in “bed”. So you really just pronounce the word as you see it. Keep in mind African languages only recently become documented and were given an alphabet, so again, very few inconsistencies, because the words were phonetically documented.

    Don’t know if you’ve realised this so far, but Afrikaans actually uses a double-negative, where that would be a grammar error in English, e.g. “I am not fast” = “Ek is NIE vinnig NIE”.

    • Baie dankie, Francois, for your thoughtful comment. I am grateful that folks like you take the time to correct my observations and pronunciations.

      This will be incredibly helpful as I try to impress my Afrikaner friends with a few words here and there. I’m sure I will earn a few chuckles, nonetheless.

      Please keep an eye on me to make sure I don’t butcher much more. I’d hate to end up in the slaghuis.



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