Do you speak South African?

South African English is not like any other English. Of course it is English, but it’s got its own characteristics and a lot of words are borrowed from other languages spoken in South Africa. The country has no less than 11 official languages, English being one of them.

The most common language is isiZulu (the mother tongue of about 23 per cent of the population) followed by isiXhosa, Afrikaans and English. Many people often ask if we speak “the language”…I always wonder which one they mean.

Travelling to South Africa it can be good to know a few words that are often used in the daily lingo. Tune in and get the rhythm, it is not that difficult. But, whatever you do, don’t tell a South African that you think he or she sounds like an Australian. That will make an abrupt end to your conversation.

Braai – barbecue. The national dish of the country. A proper braai takes a lot of time to prepare (the coal must be turned over and over for at least a couple of hours before the meat is put on the cooking grid) and there should be at least one red meat, some chicken and a boerewors to call it a proper braai. For our Swedish speaking friends, you pronounce it braj, just like the Swedish word for hashish.

Boerewors – sausage. But not just any old sausage. It is a raw sausage that often comes in the form or a coil. The word comes from Dutch: boer means farmer and wors means sausage. It is a rich sausage and 90 per cent must be meat (out of which no more than 30 per cent can be fat). It is often seasoned with toasted coriander seeds and black pepper.

Dagga – marijuana. Mainly for our Swedish friends who will wonder what “braj” is called if not “braj”.

Robot – traffic lights. Bear this in mind when getting directions in the traffic. No one will say, turn by the traffic lights, so don’t walk/drive until you find a robot. When you see “Robot” written on the road, it is in other words just a friendly reminder that there will be a set of traffic lights ahead.

Bakkie –pick-up truck. Very popular vehicle and mode of transport. It is totally legal to load your family, your dogs or your workers on the bakkie. That is if the vehicle is fitted with adequate seating and the railing of a certain height. However, few adhere to those rules but riding a bakkie can be the only way for some South Africans to get to and from work.

Bru/boet/boetie – an affectionate term you use for your male buddy or colleague. Used male to male.

Biltong – dried, cured meat. Often served as snacks. You can have it “wet” meaning rare or you can have it dried. Biltong is hung in the air to dry and often spiced with coriander or peri-peri.

Jol – party. Or you can use it for expressing that you are having a good time “a jol”.

Lekker – good or nice. A very useful word for saying that something is to your liking, or that it is looking good, tasting good or is just plainly “lekker”.

Eish – exclamation or surprise…use it at the start of a sentence as a filler word for when you don’t approve of something or when you are totally surprised by something.

Trying to get a South African to give you a time for when something is going to happen can be quite tricky. “Now” doesn’t means “this very minute”. Here are some tips for when to expect things to take place.

Now – eventually, but in no haste. Quite frankly, the wait can be fairly long.

Now now – soon, and a bit faster than “now”.

Just now – any time basically from now and in the near future. It won’t happen very quickly, but most likely the same day. If you are lucky.

Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.