“Yes, you can check the boot” and other things I never used to say

It started early. Our first visitors, my mom and my Mike, commented that our vernacular and inflection was changing. We were adapting to life in South Africa. It was survival.

It was October.

Now, after nearly 11 months living, working and playing in Pretoria, it’s like we speak a whole new language. Just ask Jenny what human-like noise hyenas make.

Every once in a while, we’ll catch ourselves speaking full-on South African, sometimes for good reason (like when naïvely hoping for a smooth customer service transaction), and sometimes not (like when it’s just the two of us in the kitchen). These moments inspired me to make a little list of things I never used to say:

  • Howzit? – One of the first pick-ups upon arrival in SA. It will undoubtedly take me another year to stop saying it. Apologies in advance, Chicago.
  • Izzit? – I do love this one. I’ll most likely keep this one under wraps in the US, except as a private joke. (I’m looking at you, Anna Alcaro.) In case it’s not clear, this phrase is a version of “is it?” but South Africans use it as an interrogative even when the words is and it do not apply to the context. (Example: “We drove to Swaziland this weekend.” “Izzit?”)
  • I’ll come fetch you just now. – OK, there are so many things wrong about this phrase. First, only southerners use fetch, and my four years in Kentucky don’t qualify me. More importantly, though, is the just now part. I know what “just now” means in Africa Time (anywhere between five minutes and five hours) and I still use it. I must stop.
  • Let’s keep an eye on it, hey? – I honestly can’t remember which of us used this one first, but I know Jenny has said it, too. The whole idea of tacking on a “hey?” is unusual … a bit Canadian.
  • It’s hot today, neh? – This is the ebony to hey’s ivory. White people say, “hey?” and black people say, “ne?” Adjust accordingly.
  • Do you stay this side? – I’ve said this a few times, and what I’m asking is where a person lives. This wording is interesting to me because it’s another one that can show differences in language use by different races. I’ve often had black friends or colleagues in the U.S. ask me where I stay. I feel like the use of stay is primarily along racial lines here, as well, but I know it’s a term used by South Africans in general. Same goes for “this side.” Nonverbal gestures are necessary to indicate “sides.”
  • … and what, what, what … – A multi-purpose tool. It can mean “and whatever.” It can mean “and so on.” It can mean “and whatchamacallit.” It can mean “blah, blah, blah.” It can mean “I forgot what I was going to say.” I’m just starting to use this one more, consciously or not, so it might be with me for a while.

The above are the more common, stylistic speech modifications that have crept into our lives. But, simply by virtue of where we live and where I work (most of the time), there are a host of other sentences I’ve uttered this year that I never could have imagined. For example:

  • We had a delegation from South Sudan in the office today. – Working at the Centre for Human Rights provides opportunities to meet people from countries all over the world, including the world’s newest country. Very cool.
  • So, let’s geo-target specific users in Kenya, Tanzania, Mali and Senegal. – Creating Facebook ads may never be the same.
  • The crazy thing was, we had to think about what would happen if the former president died on South African soil. – I can’t even begin to explain…
  • Sorry, can’t play basketball today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is in town. – I know I’ll never say that again … basketball should always come first.
  • It’s in Tembisa. – I’ve said this many times. It comes up when people learn that I’ve been involved in some projects in the Ivory Park township. People have heard of Ivory Park, but often don’t know where it is, even those from Pretoria or Joburg. It’s in Tembisa.
  • Did you see that guy at the robot with a holographic eagle poster in one hand and a bunch of USB drives in the other? – Variations of this sentence are produced weekly, at minimum. There’s always somethin’ crazy at the traffic lights.
  • Full tank 93, windscreen, and 2 bars in the tyres, please. Oil and water are sharp. – So many things, but it’s just a routine stop at the gas station (aka “garage”). Here it is, translated to American: “Fill ‘er up! 93-octane unleaded. Can you please wash the windshield and fill the tires to 29 psi? The engine oil and windshield wiper fluid are fine.”
  • Yes, you can check the boot. – A daily mantra. Every morning we go to work, and every afternoon the guards at the main campus ask to look inside the trunk of our car (the “boot”) to make sure we’ve not stolen a computer or what, what, what. Like robots (actual robots, not stoplight robots), we say, “Yes, you can check the boot.”

And there you have it. I’m sure there are more as we likely don’t recognize all the changes in our speech patterns. Either they’ll be with us for a while once we move back, or they’ll be washed down with the first swig of Starbucks.

Let’s keep an eye on it, hey?

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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. 

It’s half past. We must revert or be retrenched.

This is a photo of Mandela Square in Sandton, which has very little to do with this blog post except that I drafted the post at a cafe in the square before snapping the picture...and what's a blog post without an image?

Yes, yes, there’s been an uncharacteristic lapse on the blog. No posts for several days? They must have been eaten by lions! The ones that roam the streets at night!

No, fortunately there have been enough warthogs roaming the streets at night to keep the lions sated. We’ve been quite safe, actually.

We have been busy, though; Jenny with her research and now a Fulbright conference in Sandton (more on that later), and me with some new consulting work.

Most recently, and most significantly, I started as a consultant with the Centre for Human Rights, which is both a respected international NGO and a department of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria. My role will be to enhance communications, assist with funding proposals/grant applications, support individual projects and analyze operations. I will also attend several of their world-class Advanced Human Rights Courses, the first of which is on Human Rights in Africa in mid-October.

Already, our exposure to South African institutions and businesses is forcing us to develop a new vocabulary:

  • half past — Simple, straightforward and easy enough, right? Then you may underestimate how often you say things like “Let’s meet at nine-thirty” in America. It just rolls off the tongue. To be understood on the first go here, it’s “Let’s meet at half past nine.” Sure, “nine-thirty” is acceptable, but it seems that most folks find it easier to hear “half past nine.” I’m getting used to it, though I still feel that saying “half past nine” requires a British accent, a pot of Earl Grey and crustless cucumber sandwiches on a silver platter.
  • must vs. should — In America, we might say “Should we meet about this again, perhaps at nine-thirty?” Here, we say “Must we meet about this again, perhaps at half past nine?” In South Africa, in this context, must does not have the sarcastic or otherwise negative connotation that can be implied at home. It is used much in the same way we use should. This one really goes beyond business to nearly all service transactions and inquiries. “Must I edit this copy for the Web?” “Must I watch the fly-half to see the true artistry of rugby?” “Must I dip the spoon in the Nutella before eating the almond?”
  • revert — Keeping with the heightened formality of South African business language, revert is a more civilized (or civilised) way to say “I’ll get back to you.” If one doesn’t have the answer now, or needs more time to respond to an email, one might type, “Thank you for your question. I will look into that just now and revert on Monday.” (In this example, “just now” means “whenever” and “Monday” means “Tuesday.”)
  • redundant — This one is tricky as it can have two meanings. In an organization (or organisation) that often deals with Americans, it can be assumed to mean “duplicative” or “excessive” as applied to a process or program, etc. More often, though, the term applies to a position or person. So, if an employee has been deemed redundant, s/he is likely to be…
  • retrenched — The South African way to say fired or laid off. Whenever I hear this word, I think of little Dilberts being escorted by Security from their cubicles out to an actual trench, like something dug with collapsible spades by the German army of the early 20th century, where they would wait to be called up to their next jobs. But, I suppose it is unfair to think so literally. After all, what happens to a person who is fired or laid off? (One might say that both terms involve a burning sensation…)
  • trainsmash — Being retrenched would definitely be a trainsmash. Being two minutes late to the meeting that began at half past nine would not be a trainsmash. Note the difference between “trainsmash” and “train wreck.” Totally different meanings, though it’s likely that either or both could be encountered at any office at any time.
  • thanks a stack — LOVE this one. While it’s obviously just a variation of “thanks a lot,” it’s so much fun to think about what the “stack” might be. A stack of money? Tempting. A stack of pancakes? Now you’re talking…

All in all, we’re really learning how to talk here. Which is important. Because we still haven’t learned that most offices close for the day at 3:30pm 15:30 half past three…

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…