Have You Seen the Taal Kraal?

Yesterday, one of my colleagues, a young woman from Zimbabwe named Joy, asked me about ten gallon hats, cowboys and John Wayne. While her inquiries were clearly in jest – the mock-galloping gave her away – I really wasn’t surprised by the questions. As strangers in a strange land, we’ve become popular targets for interrogation.

This is despite the fact that (the very best of) American culture is regularly imported here by way of B-grade Hollywood films, sitcom reruns and Royales with Cheese. The opportunity to grill a real, live American about anything from the supposed superiority of Starbucks to driving on the other side of the road to “Why do your Republicans talk so much about ‘freedom’ when they insist on taking it away from women/minorities/immigrants/gays?” is often too difficult to resist. Shame that we still don’t have good answers.

Without conducting the scientific research necessary to confirm, I’d say that the two questions we get most often are these, and I quote:

  • “When are you people leaving?”
  • “Have you seen the rugby?”

The first question, you must understand, is not meant to be rude. We like to think of the phrase “you people” less as an arbitrary, disdainful lumping and more as a term of endearment. As if the word wonderful was accidentally omitted. Still, we’ve been getting the question for the better part of six months now …

As for the rugby question, until recently, we could not supply a satisfactory answer. While we became avid supporters of the Springboks during the Rugby World Cup last year, we couldn’t see one of those matches in person because, well, they were all in New Zealand. Now, however, all attention is on the Super Rugby league, and we have our own team here in Pretoria: the unfortunately named Blue Bulls.

It was time to see the rugby.

Thanks to the gracious organizing efforts of Quintus and Christa Smit, their daughter, Marni, and Marni’s boyfriend, Giancarlo, we scored tickets to a Bulls v. Crusaders match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

Crouch. Touch. Pause. Engage. Blue Bulls & Crusaders preparing for a scrum.

Loftus during Blue Bulls matches is informally, yet fittingly, known as the “Taal Kraal.” Taal is the word for “language” in Afrikaans, and kraal is the word for “corral.” In essence, by going to a rugby match at Loftus, one is effectively surrounded on all sides – corralled in, as it were – by Afrikaans. And I mean Afrikaans Afrikaans. The Boers love themselves some rugby! And they love to talk about it. In Afrikaans.

Don’t get me wrong, we understand why people like the sport. I enjoy the strategy, something I learned to appreciate while watching and discussing World Cup matches. (As it happens, the match we saw featured several players from the Springboks side, as well as the All Blacks, as the Crusaders are from New Zealand.) Jenny, bless her, loves the muscular men with the thick thighs. When she spotted Victor Matfield, I thought she might rush the pitch and hurl herself into his arms, nuzzle his werewolf beard. Never mind that he is actually retired and his appearance was as a business-suited sideline reporter.

Blue Bulls & Crusaders players compete for the ball during a lineout. (not pictured: Victor Matfield)

But, the point is, rugby – especially Blou Bulle rugby at the Taal Kraal – is a white thing. I think fellow American Ryan Brown said it best:

… don’t let Invictus convince you otherwise: rugby is whiter than a Wilco concert and always will be.

So it is. And, so what? So is ice hockey, eh?

At least we got to experience an authentic slice of modern Afrikaner culture. At least we got to openly and enthusiastically support men with Blue Bulls … jerseys.

At least we people got to see the rugby before we left.

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I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way…

WARNING: This post gets slightly NSFW towards the end…

As Americans who speak only one of the 11 official South African languages (English), you could argue that we are missing out on 90.9% of the national conversation. Of course, that’s not precisely accurate. Or, it is, depending on how you figure it (I’ve never been good at math, or “maths,” as they say here).

On the one hand, it is true that despite our best (feeble) efforts to learn Afrikaans (Jenny), seSotho/Nguni (Ryan), or any other local language (Indie does respond favorably to the word Zulu), we are basically only able to operate in English.

And this, one would think, on the other hand, should be fine. English is, after all, the de facto language of commerce, navigation, and (for the most part) politics. However, as we have detailed here, here and here, South African English is different enough from American English that it can – at minimum – cause confusion, or – in some cases – demand a double-take, or – in the extreme – trigger a face-twisting sort of cringe-wince-smirk that encapsulates the usually disparate feelings of embarrassment and hilarity.

OK, to be fair, there are really no truly squirm-worthy moments in normal conversation. Unless, that is, we have a momentary lapse and ask a waitron for a napkin (which here means diaper or feminine napkin) instead of a serviette.  What we see more often are unfortunately named brands, shops and restaurants that, while in English, must have much different – and more innocent, perhaps – connotations in South Africa.

Let’s start with some of the more innocuous examples:

  • DEFY – This is an appliance manufacturer, like GE, Maytag, Bosch, etc. I guess my question is, why DEFY? Our tiny refrigerator (the one with the freezer setting for dinosaur meat) is made by DEFY, as is our cooktop (or hob). What is it saying? “I DEFY you to cook on me!”
  • HOMELEE – Again, why? Our coffee maker is HOMELEE. No, really, it is.
  • Chicken Licken – This one really doesn’t deserve to be listed here…it’s not that bad. While we’ve not sampled the food, we expect it to be in the league of KFC, which here is more commonly referred to as “the Kentucky.” Funny, yes. Outrageous, no.
  • The Old Boys Club – We always wondered where the Old Boys Club met, and now we know. It’s near the corner of George Storrar Drive and Queen Wilhelmina Avenue.

And then there are those that are a bit more scandalous:

  • The Blue what?

    The Vodacom Blue Bulls – Yes, that’s right. The Blue Bulls. If you allow your mind to move past the color of the bulls and more towards the replacement of the letter u with the letter a, you will hear what we hear: that the local, Pretoria rugby team consists of a bunch of hunky, yet extremely “frustrated” dudes. Shame. [Aside: The Afrikaans name does not help. In Afrikaans, they are the Blou Bulle. Still seems unfortunate.]

  • UTI Distribution – In a country suffering from high rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, it is slightly regrettable to see the acronym for urinary tract infection on delivery vans.
  • Something Feminine – Maybe you had to be there, but when Jenny and I first saw this store in Menlyn Mall, we wondered out loud whether the “something” was an itch, an odor, a product…an infection? Mercifully, it was a jewelry store.

Finally, there is the shop that started it all. The inspiration for this post. The one that made our friend Hannah nearly drive off the road when she first saw the sign. The one that would make Altria change its name back to Philip Morris. The one that made Caligula blush. The one known as:

  • You just can't make this stuff up...

    CUM Bookstore – Eish! Go ahead. Do a double-take. Do a triple-take. You read it correctly the first time. But, wait, it’s not what you think. Ohhhh, no. In fact, if you visit the website, you will learn that it is, in fact, a “Christian Family Bookstore.” Ouch! Insult to injury. They have to know, don’t they? “Hey, where can I find a copy of The Bible for Dummies and the Cliff’s Notes for the Left Behind series?” Why, the CUM Bookstore, of course! COME ON, PEOPLE! PLEASE, PEOPLE!

I’m sure there are more examples, but I doubt any can beat the final entry here. We will be on the lookout, nonetheless. We do it all for you…it’s only for you. 

Where is Jay-Z?

So, yesterday morning I was at the Ethiopian Embassy in Pretoria to apply for visitors’ visas. After I signed in at the security gate, I could tell that the security guard needed to wand me to check for weapons, priceless krugerrands, etc. Like most embassy guards, he was a black South African. Seeing me as a white person in Pretoria, he started speaking to me in Afrikaans.

“Oh, I don’t speak Afrikaans,” I said.

“Ah, English!” he replied.

“Yep. I’m an American,” I blurted, for some odd reason, as if that fact would somehow help me at the Ethiopian Embassy.

“You’re an American?!”

“Yep.”

“You’re an American? Then where is Jay-Z?”

“Sorry?” I stammered, thinking he couldn’t have just asked me, a weird-looking white dude standing at the gates of the Ethiopian Embassy in South Africa, the whereabouts of Jay-Z.

“Where is Jay-Z?” he quizzed me again, smiling broadly.

“Uhhh…I guess he’s in Brooklyn?” I tried. And as soon as it came out of my mouth, it dawned on both of us that we were standing in Pretoria’s Brooklyn neighborhood, meaning that Jay-Z was, indeed, in Brooklyn and not in Brooklyn at the same time.

We had a laugh. I went inside.

If only my conversation inside had gone as well…

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!

Examples:

  • 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.

Buy a Donkey? Thank You.

Kylie Minogue at Sun City (Photo: Paballo Thekiso)

It’s a good thing English is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, because I’m not sure we have enough time to learn to speak or understand any of the others. Afrikaans would probably be the “easiest” since it is a Germanic language based in Dutch and has many cognates that we recognize in English. So, by reading an Afrikaans newspaper, for example, we could tell that Kylie Minogue was in town last Friday (Vrydag) and that we should probably care about it. (Of course, like typical Americans, we do not care nearly enough about Kylie Minogue.)

Listening to the radio – at least, to certain stations – is akin to listening to a young Puerto Rican girl in Chicago talking on her cell phone to a friend while riding the El: it’s an utter jumble of languages and interjections and slang that is almost always fun to hear. The difference here is that instead of Spanglish, which we can understand, we are dealing with Afrikaanglish, which is much more difficult (and guttural) and leaves us scratching our heads. The deejay, for example, may be describing a song or an event in English, then switch to Afrikaans to deliver the important details. Oops. You lost us.

When it comes to Pedi, Tswana, Ndebele, Sotho or any of the other languages primarily spoken by black South Africans, there’s just no hope. Unless the conversation includes words that have no equivalent other than English, but, still, I don’t know if my ears will be able to adjust. I hope so, of course, because I’d love to know a few phrases in some of these languages. (Jenny and I have always wanted a secret language so we could talk about things in front of others without their knowledge, so maybe Zulu…)

Now, no discussion of official languages would be complete without including Sign Language. We will sometimes see references to the “12 Official Languages of South Africa”, with the 12th being sign. Television newscasts often include a sign interpreter, and I assume the interpretation is in the same language as the audio, which is most often English, from what we’ve seen in our short time here.

According to a promo for a popular TV drama here, there’s actually a 13th and “Unofficial” language here: Gunfire. Fortunately, we haven’t heard any of that language “spoken” just yet.

Donkey on the trail with us in Morocco

So, by now you must be wondering about the title of this post: Buy a Donkey? Thank You. “Buy a donkey” is the only Afrikaans phrase we’ve learned so far. Actually, it’s baie danke and it means “many thanks.” Baie dankie = buy a donkey. Get it? Now you know as much Afrikaans as we.

Don’t worry, though, we haven’t screwed up and purchased any donkeys (Indie would be really confused). We are, however, very close to buying a car! Details to come…