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. 

The Gogos Want a Picture of their Chickens

Some time ago, after we had only been in South Africa for about a month, I posted a description of our “new normal.” Now, nearly five months in, it is safe to say that our new normal is infinitely stranger. It’s just that we don’t always notice.

Until it slaps us in the face.

Take this:

The other day, I came home from work (from a volunteer consultancy position, that is), wrestled with an energetic Indie, and heard the following from Jenny:

“Oh, by the way, the gogos want a picture of their chickens.”

The scary thing is that I knew exactly what she meant.

When my mom and my Mike were here, they observed that our patterns of speech and word choices had already changed, both in subtle and occasionally dramatic ways. We’ve previously blogged about things like “howzit?” and must vs. should, but now we are truly speaking like locals. Well, almost.

I’ve started using “Heita!”, a sort of township greeting, with the security guards and gardeners on campus, and we’ve both started using the phrase, “Is that fine?” (with a necessary lilt on the word fine) when confirming a date/time for a meeting, when requesting an outside table at a restaurant or just generally when asking whether we are allowed to do something.

But the “gogos and chickens” comment takes us to a whole new level.

Fortunately, there is a simple explanation.

You may recall that we celebrated Jenny’s birthday twice, once at Moyo and once in Mamelodi. In Mamelodi, Ephney introduced us to some of her neighbors — two older women, grannies, or “gogos” — who have in their mattress-coil-fenced yard a few (free-range, shall we say) roosters and chickens that became the subjects of some photos I took that day. Because the gogos were so kind to us and had asked me to take several photos of them and their house, I decided to have a dozen or so photos printed for Ephney to share with them, including one of the chickens.

However, as she was riding the train home one day, Ephney let one of her friends peruse the photos. That friend, for one reason or another, wanted to keep the photo of the chickens.

Your guess is as good as mine.

So, Ephney gave the remaining photos to the gogos and told them that there is also one of the chickens. What she didn’t tell them is that her friend took it. Instead, she told the gogos that we have the photo of the chickens hanging on our wall. Yeah…not yet.

“How are your white people?” the gogos asked Ephney the other day. I suppose she said we were fine, but what they really wanted to know was whether they could get that picture of their chickens.

Yes, of course. I will print another one just now.

The gogos' chickens

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.