Afrikaans in English

There’s little that should surprise me in this heaving world city that is London. But hearing a Middle Eastern man testing out his Afrikaans on me in central London certainly made me smile.

I bought myself a new handbag last week. Carrying around a postage-stamp-sized bag just so I don’t have to take my Oyster card (London Transport travel card) out of my bag to ‘tap in’ every time I travel on the bus or the tube (the card reader can read my card through my bag), had long since lost its novelty. I needed to carry a bag that could hold more than my Oyster card, glasses, cell phone and one pound.

So I went to our local shopping centre and found a bag I wished to buy. The vendor told me the price and duly closed the sale. As he handed me my change (which I could now fit into the new handbag), he looked at me sideways and said, “South African?”

I assume he recognised my nationality from my accent. Not from the cheapness of my purchase. I smiled and nodded.

“Buy a donkey!” he said.

He then stepped back and beamed with pride like he’d just performed a magic trick.

I nodded and smiled my super impressed-ness to him, decided against saying something back to him in Afrikaans because that would have just been awkward, and walked away, smiling.

For my non-South African friends, baie dankie, which can, to an English ear, sound like buy a donkey means thank you very much. It was a very sweet interaction.

Travelling home on the bus the other day, I eavesdropped in Afrikaans. The guy sitting next to me had a long and detailed catch-up, in Afrikaans, with his friend on the other side of the aisle. I think I might have leaned over to listen more closely to what they were saying and I might have asked them to repeat a few words that I hadn’t heard properly. Apart from that I think they were oblivious to my nosiness.

One asked the other how his wife was and when his baby was due. (I’ve heard many a South African say the other one asked the other one, but that’s a story for another day.) He replied that the baby was due on Sunday, and his friend said,

“Ag, foeitog.”

It’s not the kind of expression you can translate easily. It could mean oh dear, how unfortunate or alas. In this context, I would say it means “Ah, shame” or “Ah, cute”. But you would never hear any men speak like that to each other in English. Some words just cannot be translated.

Shame is a word that is used in an interesting way in southern Africa. I could look at your new baby and say, “Ah, shame.”

Before you rush off to the paediatrician for a full assessment, you would need to know that what I’m really saying is, “Your baby is really cute/gorgeous/pretty/bonny/handsome/so small/so chubby/looks just like you/clearly the child of the milkman”. You can choose. But know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your little one.

The appropriate response would be for you to smile and say, “Buy a donkey”.

Sunshine signing off for today!


30 thoughts on “Afrikaans in English

  1. So much fun! When I was visiting Italy, I wanted to buy an apricot cookie. Un biscotto ____. I couldn’t think of the word for apricot. So I asked for un biscotto apricoto. The waiter smiled, not to embarrass me, and nodded. My friend was very impressed with my knowledge. “I didn’t know you knew the word for apricot.” Later when I could look it up, I was nowhere close. The word for apricot is albicoco. 🙂

  2. I just love learning new things, Sunshine! How cute that your purse vendor was considerate enough to want to try communicating with you in your native language — I’ll have to remember to “buy a donkey” more often!

  3. You’ve cleared that up for me, Sunshine! I have an SA friend-an absolute gem – who is always saying ‘shame’ and sometimes I have felt a little affronted….now I know it can also be a good thing…

  4. It would have been funny if you hadn’t actually been able to understand Afrikaans…he took quite a risk, I think! Got a kick out of hearing you eavesdropping on the guys on the bus…


    1. If you live in South Africa you’re likely to know what that means, regardless of your first language, but I guess he did take a risk. It would have been funny if I’d not understood!
      I’m becoming quite skilled at eavesdropping, aren’t I?

  5. Great post! It’s interesting how a few of these typical Afrikaans phrases can have different meanings according to the context. They also let the speaker off the hook in explaining exactly which way the speaker is leaning in their opinion!

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