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Note: This article was written in the early 1980's. Today much has changed, but this classic article is still a very relevant.


by Gerald Zwirn

"What are slegs?" a puzzled visitor from overseas asked me the other day. He had been driving along Rissik Street in a hired car and suddenly found himself entering a lane marked SLEGS ONLY. Unaware of the meaning and horrified lest he be contravening the country's traffic laws, he quickly managed to extricate himself by neatly manoeuvering into an adjacent lane and so to safety. "But how is a visitor to SA. expected to know that?" he demanded after I had explained the meaning. "With the population divided into Whites, Coloured and Blacks, how am I to know that "Slegs" isn't another race group?"

How indeed! In a country where the two official languages are forever poaching on each other's linguistic preserves, it is hardly surprising that misunderstandings sometimes occur. South African English is indeed a unique genre of its own, and while in my friend's case no harm was done, it did bring home the numerous linguistic oddities in a cross-culture where a dress becomes a drag and a drag becomes a sleep.

For those readers interested in pursuing the manifold aspects of South African English, I give below a random selection of everyday words, together with a brief explanation of their respective meanings.

•   to stay -- "Where do you stay?" was, I think, I think, the first question put to me on arrival in SA. Since I was staying neither at a hotel, boarding-house or hostel, I was at first nonplussed for an answer. Then the penny--or should I say tickie--dropped: what the speaker was asking was merely "Where do you live?".

•   robot -- South African English for "traffic lights". Curiously enough, robot is not an English word at all. It entered the English language in about 1920 when the Czech writer Karel Capek used it in his new play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) to describe an automation.

•   fundi -- This strange-sounding word means an expert or knowledgeable person, usually in some specialized field. Its origin remains uncertain and the word itself is omitted from all standard dictionaries.

•   itsa sórtova -- Not the name of a Russian ballerina, but merely South African English for that meaningless expression "It's a sort of a..." Other meaningless phrases frequently occuring in SA. English are UNO (meaning "You know") ARBIGYORS (meaning "I beg your pardon") and SUPER (meaning nothing at all).

•   koppie -- Although given in the Oxford dictionary as meaning a small hill, its use appears to be confined to a South African context.

•   no ways -- This seems to be simply an emphatic way of saying "never" or "no", as in "May I borrow your car?"--"No ways!"

•   stoep -- Defined as a terraced veranda, stoep in SA. usage has come to mean any enclosed area in front of a house, such as a patio or porch.

•   tekkies --SA slang for rubber-soled shoes used for jogging or playing a sport (sneakers).

•   trek -- This Afrikaans word in the vogue in colloquial English to describe any form of difficult travel or hazardous journey. In view of its historical associations this current meaning of trek is particularly apt.

•   GENTS HERE -- Often found in hotels and restaurants, the HERE is not so superfluous as you may at first think: it's the Afrikaans for GENTS.