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!

Sunshine Overseas

Where I live right now is overseas.  When I hear anyone here talk about going overseas, I wonder why they would do that because they’re already here. In my vocabulary, the UK and Europe are overseas. Everywhere else in the world has a name.

(Please note that this is purely my perception and my take on this word.)

In my experience, the word overseas has always held a certain fascination and hint of glamour. I remember, as a child, hearing friends talk about going overseas on their school holidays. I would kind of melt into an envious heap, thinking,

“Ah, you’re so cool. You’re going overseas. AND you’re allowed to wear nylon socks with lace at the top.”

I have known and worked with people who have never travelled out of their home towns, let alone travelled abroad. Or overseas. One of my colleagues in Harare said he had no idea what overseas looked like. He then asked,

“Are there many tall buildings there?”

My younger son went overseas on a school history tour three years ago. The tour took them to the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, and they travelled in March. The day he left, I took the day off work to spend with him before we took him to the airport that evening.

It was 36 degrees Celsius that day – a typically hot March day in Cape Town. He was flying to Prague, where temperatures were expected to be about 0 degrees Celsius. It was strange for him to think about feeling cold.

A delightful, older lady was working at our house that day and we enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with each other and share sighs at the hot weather. I told her my son was going overseas that evening. She looked at me, bemused.

“Is it very far?”

I said to her, “Yes, it’s very far. And it’s very very cold.”

She looked at me even more bemused. Her frown disappeared as the penny dropped.

“Ah. He’s going to Springbok.”
(Springbok is a small town in the Northern Cape in South Africa, renowned for diamonds, copper and beautiful springflowers, but also notoriously much colder – for South Africa – than most of the rest of the country.)

I smiled inside as I thought, “Yes, he might just as well be going to Springbok.”

At that time, I worked for a non-profit organisation that provided counselling services, and trained lay counsellors. The receptionist who worked there (I’ll call her N) was a cheerful and chirpy character and she and I used to laugh together plenty.

Our favourite was to try and beat each other to say TGIF to each other every Friday. It was our thing. If I got in first and said, “TGIF!” she’d look up and me and say, “Thanks, God.”

One day someone arrived at the office, and said she had an appointment at 10h00. N checked the counselling appointment book and saw no booking for 10h00. The consummate professional, she smiled at the new arrival, asked her to take a seat and proceeded to run through the offices and whip up a volunteer counsellor to see the awaiting client.

She found a counsellor who was available, made sure the counselling room was tidy, and told the client her counsellor was on her way. The counsellor came through, introduced herself and off the two of them went into the counselling room and shut the door behind them. Five minutes later, the two of them emerged with much hilarity; the appointment the client had come to the office for was a job interview with the Executive Director!

N and I laughed like drains as we imagined what went on in the counselling room, with the so-called client not able to talk about her job experience because she kept being asked how she was feeling. How funny.

One of my direct reports was the administration manager, G: divine, well-spoken, nattily-dressed, eloquent and the most gentlemanly gentleman you can imagine. He led a team of four staff members, and they had regular team meetings. Occasionally he would invite me to join them, and it was fun to be included.

One of the team was D, the handyman. He was a constantly recovering alcoholic who worked like a Trojan when he was present. But he often went missing. We all loved him, and he was a central character in our offices. However, he had no time for meetings.

The first time I was invited to join the team meeting, someone asked if D would be there. At that moment, D walked past the meeting room and G asked if he was going to join them.

D didn’t break stride. He flung his left arm in the air and said,

“Ag, daai’s ‘n klomp k*k!” (That’s just a crock of s**t!)

I guess he wasn’t going to join us.

The meeting began. G, ever formal and eloquent, welcomed everyone, made a special mention of the visitor (me) and asked if anyone would like to open the meeting by sharing something.

“Feel free to speak, if you have something to share,” he said.

N, along with many of us, often battled to understand what G was saying because he usually used really formal language and long words (thanks to his prior career in the diplomatic corps). She was leaning heavily on the desk, her elbow only just stopping her face from hitting the desk. She looked at G with incredulity, she frowned, she wrinkled her nose, and then said,

“About what?”

Moving on swiftly then.

G read an excerpt from a book of inspirational sayings, quoting Mother Theresa. It flew right over the head of everyone present, and N continued to look at G with that expression of WTF (Why The Funny-Sayings)?

G worked us through the agenda and, after about half an hour, was ready to draw the meeting to a close. He invited any closing comments. N stood up and cleared her throat, then clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth.

“I would like to say something please.”

G welcomed her to go ahead.

“I think we should always have Nomalanga with us at these meetings. [Nomalanga is my Xhosa name, and it means Sunshine. She meant me.] Because why? Because it’s so nice having her here; it feels like we have someone here from overseas.”

She sat down, G thanked her for her input and said he would give it some thought, and the meeting closed. I’m so glad I write a blog, because this was always so going to be in it.

Sunshine signing off for today, from overseas!

Minding My Language

Yesterday I travelled by train to an area south west of London. A young woman boarded the train a few stops after mine, and immediately made a call on her cell phone. I don’t think she needed the phone, she could have just shouted. Then she made a second call, and said this: “Hiya! You all right, love? Guess who died?”

I can’t imagine what response she got on the other end of the line. (I couldn’t hear because the callee didn’t shout.) The caller then said, “Only Doris, off Gavin and Stacey.”

I gathered she was a big fan of this romantic comedy that has now finished its run on BBC, and was sad that this dear actress had passed away. I did, however, find her method of sharing the news quite fascinating.

So that made me think that it was time for another post of talking forrin. If you’re new to my blog, this is something I write about from time to time: sharing new words and expressions that I hear here in the UK and words that I know from a lifetime in Zimbabwe and South Africa, that I know mean nothing over here.

Here are a few links to previous such posts: English as she is spokeSo this is where I learnt to speak funnyThis blog’s seriously going southDoes this make sense? I doubt; I’ll be there now now; Blogging is not pants;  Is that your new wife? Shame

I’ll start with English expressions I’ve heard:

  1. To get the hump: this means to go into a sulk, to get upset or fed up about something. I watched a quiz show the other day on the telly (as television is fondly known over here). When asked how she’d like to spend her prospective winnings, a contestant said she’d like to travel to Egypt to see the Pyramids and to ride a camel. (The programme was clearly filmed before the current events in Egypt.) Her adversary, who’d not been doing as well as he’d hoped, then said to her, “Well, love, sorry but you won’t be able to ride a camel.” “Why?” she asked. “Because I’ve got the hump,” he said.
  2. Flower. This is a term of endearment, used particularly in the north east of England, around Newcastle. A Geordie term, if you like. I travelled up to Newcastle for a conference last year, and I absolutely loved the city – it was such a beautiful surprise, and I’d love to travel there again when I can spend more than two days there. I am also mad about the Geordie accent. I went into a little newsagent in central Newcastle, and the shop owner said to me, “Can I help you, flower?” I immediately adored the expression and wanted to put her words and her accent into bottles and buy a dozen.
  3. Thick: this means dim or unintelligent. It is often accompanied by putting your tongue between your bottom teeth and your bottom lip and making monkey-type noises.
  4. Go on! This expression crosses the cultures, for me. Its use as I’ve heard it in England is quite different from its use by my Dad. In England, if someone is trying to persuade you to do something, and you’re hesitating and not quite sure whether or not you want to do it, and then decide you will, you’ll say, “Ok, go on!” By contrast, I grew up with my Dad saying this to me every time I’ve told him something that I find amazing.  “Hey Dad, the Springboks have just won the World Cup! Again!” He would say, “Go on!” which, in a slightly patronising way, means, “You don’t say?” or “Well, I never” or “Knock me over with a feather”.
  5. Gutted. This expression means cut up or distressed or extremely disappointed by something. So, for example, if your house burnt down and you lost all your possessions in the fire, you could well be completely gutted.
  6. Knickers in a knot. If you get yourself into an unnecessary panic about something, you could be getting your knickers in a knot.
  7. Faff: this verb means to waste time doing unimportant things while you’re supposed to be doing something important. It could take the form of procrastination, or it could be fiddling about doing things when you’re supposed to be going out. You can either faff or faff about. Either is annoying.
  8. All over the shop: this means everywhere or disorganised. For example, “He was trying to explain to me what happened, but his mind was all over the shop and I couldn’t follow what he was saying.” The equivalent expression I would use is all over the show.
  9. Argy bargy: argument, disagreement, fighting. For example, a sports commentator might say, if there is a potential fight on the field, “Ah, now there’s a bit of argy bargy going on there.”

And on to some of my words and sayings from Saffa:

  1. Naartjie (pronounced narchy): this is the term I would use for tangerine, Clementine, mandarin. It refers to any orange citrus fruit (apart from an orange) that has an easily-removable skin and is easily divided into segments (which I call skyfies, pronounced skayfies).
  2. Chaff (pronounced charf): this word also has a dual meaning, and is no longer really in common use. It can mean to chat up someone, or it can mean to stretch the truth. So, for example, a guy might meet a girl and, if he fancies her, he might chaff her. When I was at junior school, I remember reading our school magazine during one of my holidays. It was quite an honour to have your story or poem featured in the magazine, and I always read others’ writing with interest. I remember reading a story written by a girl who was a year younger than me, which would have made her about nine. It was a fantastic tale, that I was struggling to believe, but I persevered with it because, hey, it had been featured in the magazine. When I got to the end of her story, she had written “Chaff chaff.” (Which meant she had made up the entire story.) I was horrified.
  3. Ja (pronounced ya): this means yes.
  4. Is it? This is an expression of interest or surprise. Is that so? For example, someone might say to you, “There are terrible riots happening on the streets of Cairo right now.” You might respond by saying, “Is it?”
  5. Hanguva: this means very or a lot. For example, in London lately, it’s been hanguva cold.
  6. Stroppy: this means difficult, aggressive, uncooperative. For example, actor Russell Crowe sometimes gets stroppy with the paparazzi.
  7. Koppie: this means a small hill. There is a koppie in the middle of a park near where we live, and if you walk to the top of it, you get a great view over south east London.
  8. Dof: this means dim, or not very intelligent. (See thick above.) For example, if you can’t find something or don’t understand something, you might say, “Sorry for being dof, but I don’t know what you mean.” So it usually refers to a temporary state of mind, rather like having a brunette moment.

I hope this has expanded your vocabulary horizons somewhat, and I’d love to know some of the interesting words and expressions that you use at your ends of the stick. I won’t get the hump if you don’t, but I’d be hanguva interested to learn more words. Thanks for reading, flowers.

Sunshine signing off for today!