Final Word

Aikôna, suka wêna no fees this year


Despite the fact that South Africa consists of a society deeply divided on many fronts, nothing illustrates it better that there is also a shared identity than the languages we speak.

And it goes beyond the fact that an Oxford Dictionary of South African English was published in 1978, with the following publisher’s note upfront: “South African English – the English of South Africans of whatever race, colour of national group – is in every sense, culturally, lexically, grammatically and phono-logically a mixed bag.”

Besides the academically recorded existence of South African English and the many loan words and expression exchanged between the country’s eleven official languages, there are also footprints of other languages that are no longer around, and of some from afar.

And some sublanguages, like Fanakalo (mainly from interaction in the country’s mines and factories) and the township slang of Tsotsitaal or Camtho, developed over the centuries.

The latter developed in South Africa mainly along similar lines as Cockney Rhyme, the type of ‘insider code’ that we wrote about before. In the townships one would also often hear a variant of English known as Township English, a delightful slang mixture of the formal languages that exist in country.  

As we reported last week, with student protests across the country, a new generation is in the process of defining an own, new South African identity. In a mixture of Fanakalo and Tsositaal, the essence of their message is: “Aikôna, suka wêna no fee increases this year and, don’t be a moegoe who thinks it is just about no fee increases.”

Aikôna is a word from the Nguni family of languages, of which Zulu and Xhosa are the two biggest exponents. It is used to mean emphatically ‘no, no way’ and ‘it absolutely isn’t going to happen’ or as an expression of dismissal or rejection. It made its appearance in South African English in the late 19th century via Fanakalo then developing as a means of communication on the mines of the country.

Suka, meaning ‘get lost’ and wêna, meaning ‘you’ (like in ‘hi you’), both come from Zulu.

Moegoe (also spelled mugu), meaning an idiot, fool or unsophisticated country bumpkin, comes from Afrikaans. Its original etymology however, is unknown. It turned up in Camtho or urban Tsositaal in the early 1950s. Its first known recording, in the magazine Drum, aimed at the black population of the country, was in 1950.

A synonym for moegoe comes from the Sotho language family, the often-used mampara.   

Today, probably the internationally best known word from South African English is ubuntu, which, directly translated, means ‘humanity’, but which has become to represent a whole philosophy of human fellowship.

That is, of course, besides the vuvuzela, the horn or trumpet blown at soccer matches, taking its name from the Zulu word for ‘making noise’, and nowadays heard in stadiums around the world.

Further back and wider

One, however, also finds in South African English traces going further back to older languages spoken in our part of the world, but, sadly, since largely disappeared. These words include gogga or goggo for a bug or insect and knobkierie, for a fighting stick, from Khoikhoi or Khoisan.

In larger cultural context there is also still a strong heritage from the Malaysian slaves brought to the country by the original European (Dutch) settlers of the 17th century. They left us with words especially in the context of our ‘indigenous’ cuisine, words like bobotie, that delightful dish of spicy minced meat with an egg-based topping, and sosaties, curried kebabs.

Then we also have the word kraal for a Khoikhoi or African village, which, interestingly enough, could have come from the Portuguese curral or Spanish corral for a cattle enclosure.

But then, besides the proliferation of words of Dutch, French and German origin, we also have a word like skollie for a gangster or criminal, from the Greek word skolios, meaning ‘crooked’.

South Africa may not yet be able to lay claim to being a successful ‘melting pot’ as far as its social and economic life is concerned. If, however, the same question is posed in the context of languages, the reply can, in one of the more recent additions to South African English, be an emphatic yebo-yes – yebo being in Zulu the word for both ‘yes’ and ‘hello’, in reply to sawubona, meaning ‘greetings’.

by Piet Coetzer

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