Posted by: Jack Henry | January 19, 2021

Editor’s Corner: South African English

Good morning, folks. I was just reading an article on English, and I was inspired to look up some South African English phrases. From FluentU, here is a little information on English in South Africa. I made a table of the phrases, their American equivalents, and I included the notes and examples, too.

South Africa is rich in various official languages other than English, including the following (sometimes spelled different ways):

§ Afrikaans

§ Zulu (This is the most-spoken language in South Africa.)

§ Xhosa

§ Southern and Northern Sotho

§ Tswana

§ Venda

§ Tsonga

§ Swati

§ Ndebele

English is currently only the fourth most spoken language in South Africa, with less than 10% of the population actively speaking it. However, English is understood by most South Africans in urban areas and you’ll hear English on South African TV and other media.

South African English American Equivalent Notes and Example in a Sentence
Eish! Jeez! This word may originate from the Xhosa people in South Africa. This word is used across pretty much all language speakers in South Africa as well as a few neighboring countries. It’s a unique word because it doesn’t just express surprise—it can also express excitement, disbelief, or anger.

Eish! You startled me there.

Ach man! Oh man! This filler word is often used to express frustration, but it can also be used in almost any situation at the beginning of a sentence.

Ach man, I have such a hangover from last night.

Ach, shame. What a shame. In America we say “what a shame” when something unfortunate happens. However, South Africans use “ach, shame” for nearly any situation, such as giving thanks, shouting praise, mourning, etc. It’s definitely the most-used filler word in South Africa and a very versatile one as well.

George: I got engaged last night.

Amber: Ach, shame!

Let’s chow. Let’s eat. Chow is used in certain parts of America to describe the act of eating and it’s no different in South Africa.

I’m starving, let’s chow.

Bliksem To punch This word is derived from the Dutch word for lightning strikes.

Note that it’s a rude word and you wouldn’t want to use it in polite company.

You jerk! I’ll bliksem you!

Kak! Crap! South Africans sure love their filler words. This one can be used in any situation where you would exclaim “Crap!’ in American English. However, it’s a bit ruder than the word crap and can even be considered a curse word. Don’t use this if you want to make a professional impression!

Kak! I’m late for class!

Braai Barbecue A traditional South African braai consists of roasting lamb chops, boerewors (savory sausage), and steak. Salads, rolls and melktert (milk tarts) are typically served as well.

Come down to the braai, we’ve got boerewors cooking.

Klap Slap This one is confusing, since it sounds like the English word clap. But it’s actually referring to a slap or hitting someone/something with the palm of your hand.

I ought to klap you for saying that nonsense!

Boet Bro or brother This word can be used to refer to an actual brother or a dear male best friend. It’s an affectionate term of endearment.

He’s my boet, I can’t imagine life without him.

Domkop Idiot This word is similar to dummkopf in German, which roughly means idiot.

The German linguistic influence in certain parts of South Africa has less than savory origins. There isn’t a large German-speaking population in South Africa now, but some words seem to have remained as slang.

He’s a real domkop, that one.

Robot Traffic light The automatic light-changing function of a traffic light resembles that of a robotic machine, hence the slang term. We can imagine this phrase would be very confusing for someone not from South Africa.

I’ll meet you at school in 20 minutes. Take backstreets so that you don’t get stuck at that robot on 7th Avenue.

Eina! Ow! This can be used when experiencing any kind of pain, but it’s mostly used when experiencing a sharp, sudden pain like a bee sting or a paper cut.

Eina! I always cut myself on this paper.

Howzit? How’s it going? This shortened version of how’s it going? just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Howzit? I haven’t seen you in a while.

Sarmie Sandwich Anna: I could really go for a sarmie right about now.

Kaya: Yeah, how about a Gatsby?

Baba Father or Dad Tons of languages use baba as a way to say dad, but the South African term is believed to have originated from Afrikaans or Indian.

Tell your baba that it’s time to chow, the sarmies are ready.

Scale To steal To scale something is to steal it and a person who’s scaly is a thief or otherwise sleazy person.

She scaled my cheese poppers from Bossa last night.

Ach, man! That’s all I have for now! Enjoy your day!

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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  1. It was great to come across this here – I love seeing some South African oddities cropping up around the world! I live in Cape Town, South Africa, and work as a writer. I must offer up a correction about ‘baba’, though – this comes to us from Zulu, in which ‘baba’ means father. You hear it all the time in SA as a respectful form of address, not unlike ‘sir’. By the way, the ‘Oxford Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles’ is fascinating to flip through – gives you a sense of the rich linguistic heritage in the country, along with its complicated, sometimes comic, often tragic, history. Quite a feat for a dictionary!

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