South African English: a Whole Language of its Own

South African English

It may be English, but there are times when our South Africanisms seem to be a completely different language, and now there is a book to prove it.  Say Again – The other side of South African English captures all those idiosyncratic South African English words into a book for anyone who may be wondering what on earth we, South Africans, are talking about.

Co-Author Malcolm Venter explains.

Say what?
Years ago, during a stay in England, I was met with bewildered stares, when I said: ‘Every time I go down that street, the same robot catches me’.  That’s because we userobot to refer to traffic lights as well as to a mechanical man.  South African English (SAE) is pepperd with English words that are used by South Africans in very specific ways and it is these words that really tell someone that you are South African – even if you don’t have an accent.And we don’t even realise it.“Jean- the co-author – has always felt that there has been an over-emphasis on loan words and too little awareness of the SAE items which are in fact English” says Malcolm.

‘Robot’, ‘Just now’, ‘now now’ are well-known examples. Others are less well known and many South Africans don’t even know that they are speaking a South African version of English. For example…

South Africans often say ‘No’ when they mean ‘Yes’
As Gus Silber points out in his book It Takes Two to Toyi-Toyi (1991 Penguin): ‘If you ask a South African whether he enjoyed a particular movie, he will not say, “Yes, it was very good.” He will say, “No, it was very good.”

Busy or not?
One of the markers of South African English usage is the strange way we use busy to refer to situations where we are not busy. For example, we will say, ‘He was busy relaxing’ instead of ‘she was busy covering books when the earthquake occurred’, where the person really was busy doing something.  Bizarrely, we even say, ‘She couldn’t come to the meeting because her mother was busy dying’!

You are late!
An interesting example is the African use of the word ‘late’: In the early 1990s, a Port Elizabeth school principal was doing enrolment interviews for the next year. One of the families did not turn up, so she phoned their home. She was informed by the child that her mother was ‘late’. ‘Your mother is very late!’ retorted the irritated principal. Later she cringed at her unintended callousness, for, as the conversation went on, it was revealed that the child’s mother had died. The principal had not realised that, in a number of African languages, the adjective late (a euphemism for ‘deceased’) is used not just before a noun (as in ‘my late mother’) but also after the verb ‘be’. This usage is quite logical, as most other descriptive adjectives can be used in this way.

We have even done a Shakespeare and invented a bunch of words to suit our meaning.

  • Monkey gland sauce. Hence the hurried reassurance from the author of an online recipe: ‘This very popular dish must sound completely unappetising to the uninitiated. Rest assured, though, no monkeys (and definitely no glands) are used in the preparation.’
  • Bunny chow:  a local travel guide tells the story of a Chinese member of the  group who thought he had ordered ‘rabbit’ at a local restaurant.  It was coined by some Natal Indians, and is probably derived from a combination of the Hindu wordbhannia (various spellings – refers to the Hindu caste of vegetarian merchants and traders) and ‘chow’, a colloquial General English word for food.   In the same way, acurry bunny also has nothing to do with baby rabbits: The result of a Dutch South African culinary fusion, a curry bunny consists of a ‘vetkoek’ – an unsweetened fried dough cake – stuffed with curry.
  • Come to the party: is not an invitation to a social gathering. In SAE, the phrase means to join in with or give assistance or support to.
  • Pavement specials: Mongrel dogs deemed to have been born on the pavement.
  • Sometimes we create new terms by blending existing words.  For example, we havetenderpreneurs [tender + interpreneurs] – notorious people politically well-connected who have got rich through the government tendering system’, such as a government official or politician.

“The book is written in an accessible style, each chapter features words and phrases from different aspects of life – some serious and some not so serious – with actual examples of usage from written and spoken sources. All this is interspersed with pictures and illustrations that liven up the text”, says publisher Pharos.

A new book that says South African English is a bona fide language of its own
A new book that says South African English is a bona fide language of its own
Want to get a copy of the book?
Buy online online through,,; or in South Africa at most South African bookstores.

Written by southhow

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