South African English? No jive, my friend

Jacob Dlamini

As a South African based in the US, I’m often asked by foreigners thinking of visiting my country how much English is spoken there. What they mean to ask, of course, is if they would be understood by the locals without having to resort to the exaggerated lip movements and hand gestures that turn even the most well-meaning tourist into a complete idiot. Depending on my mood, I either tell them about our 11 official languages (“My goodness, eleven!” they usually respond) or reply glibly: “You’ll be fine.”

What I don’t tell them is that the English spoken on the streets of South Africa is not the English spoken elsewhere. For example, we use words like “just” and “now” the way Americans use ketchup: pretty much everywhere, every time and on everything. See if you can follow these examples: (a) “I am coming now-now but my friend Themba will be there just now”; (b) “Now-now, my friend, just now the shopkeeper next door might hear me giving you a discount on those tomatoes and decide that I’m now a real moegoe”. The average South African would have no trouble with these.

Now-now means “right this minute”, while just now means “soon” (with “soon” assuming the most expansive definition possible). On the other hand, you know the person you’re talking to is getting irritated when they start saying “Now-now, my friend” to you, especially if that person is a total stranger. “Friend” is just (that word again) one of those words South Africans seem to reserve for strangers – especially where no niceties are being exchanged. “Now, listen here, my friend!” How many South Africans can claim to never have heard or used that one during a heated moment?

This is not to say that South Africans are unfriendly. Oh, we’re so friendly we would happily buy strangers drinks in bars and invite them over to our homes for a meal. We’re so friendly we have no qualms about making fun of people’s sizes, even though we’ve only just met them. A South African would happily ask with a straight face: “So, my friend, is everyone in Ethiopia as obese as you?” Or, “My friend, is every fat person in America named Tiny, or is it just you?”

South Africans are also big on emphasis. So instead of saying “now”, we say “now-now”. We don’t just say “sharp” to express our good health and wellbeing, we say “sharp-sharp”. We don’t just say “sure” to mean “of course”, “absolutely”, or “yes”, we say “sure-sure”. That way, we make doubly sure you fully understand what we’re trying to communicate to you. This double usage extends even to the many Afrikaans words that pepper South African English. Take “eintlik”, the Afrikaans word for “actually”. We don’t just say: “Eintlik, what is your problem?” No, we say: “Eintlik-eintlik, what jive?”

I know “jive” means dance. But in South Africa it usually means “problem”. What jive? What’s the problem? We also use the word more elastically: “Ngise-jivini” is township Zulu for “I’m in a jive”, meaning “I’m in a mess” or “I have a problem”.

It’s not just emphasis we excel in, we can also do empathy like no other. Tell me, my friend, which other people would use the word “shame” to mean pity and many things in between. As a colleague at Business Day once pointed out to me, only in South Africa would people use the word shame when a baby is born (“Shame, what a beautiful baby!”); when that baby falls and hurts itself (“Shame, poor thing!”) and when that baby dies (“Ag shame, what a shame!”). For us, there is no shame in using the word “shame”, even when it seems the word might be inappropriate. There is nothing shameful about a beautiful baby. But we say shame nonetheless. To us, shame is just one of those words that have become something of an omnibus. We use it to mean whatever we want it to mean.

I could, but do not dare, tell my overseas friends that while English is spoken everywhere in South Africa, the truth is that there are as many Englishes as there are people who claim to speak the language (either as a first or 11th language). I mean, do our foreign friends really need to know that only surfer-types from Durban use the expression “cool bananas” to mean “cool” and that anyone else who uses that sounds downright silly? Or that the way English is spoken in South Africa follows regional, class and racial lines? Maybe I should refer them to that lovely cellphone company advertisement featuring the comedian Marc Lottering. You remember the ad? The one where he says he speaks plain English … Mitchell’s Plain English.

Jacob Dlamini is a PhD student in History at Yale University, a columnist for The Weekender, and former political editor of Business Day.