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.

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…