The funny thing with languages
The other day in a face book discussion group somebody posted some nice facts about Afrikaans, one of the languages spoken in South Africa. I asked if the person who posted this was the author of this witty summary of all kinds of funny expression the Afrikaans language has come up with, but she let me know she copied it somewhere and did not know who put this together.
So I will, using her collection of idioms and unique expressions as inspiration, enlighten you today about Afrikaans.
If you have never been to South Africa, you might not know that we’ve got 11 official languages here. Basically every ethnic group speaks their own tongue, although plenty of Africans wouldn’t know how to write in their native language, as English is, in most Provinces, the common denominator.
Afrikaaner is what the descendants of the Dutch settlers are calling themselves, meaning “Africans”. Since Afrikaaner is pronounced exactly the same as the German Afrikaner (meaning a black Afrikan), I always end up having to clear some confusions with my German friends about my Afrikaaner husband and extended family. Yes, a well meaning friend set down with me on the steps of my home church in Germany after the last youth service I attended before getting married. “I admire you, Christiane,” he said. “How are you going to cope, cooking in these big round pots over and open fire, living in a hut made of clay” … I endulged in allowing him to ramble on for a short while before I couldn’t hold my laughter in any more. “I am not going to be the next White Massai, my friend” I giggled. They do have roads and computers there, you know … and my husband in a brave descendant of Dutch adventurers looking for a life of freedom and opportunity…
The funny thing with languages is that you can not merely “speak” them. You feel them, because before you can speak them you have got to think them, right. Using different sounding expressions for the same thing gives that very same thing a totally different connotation. You simply can not speak Italian without using your hands, you can not speak Chinese without trying to be polite, when you speak German you have to think very hard because there is a precise word for nearly every single thing, and, well, when you speak Afrikaans you have got to be naughty.
Afrikaans is, in essence, a language for rebels, people who do not want to be pressed into a mold, people who where beaten and went off the hook and refused to stay down and keep pressing on no matter what. Afrikaaners, and this is totally subjective and can be disputed, although I doubt any Afrikaaner would fight this, are extremely stubborn in their views. And when it comes to their moms, or saying thank you in public, they get teary eyed. But put them out into the open veld (type of prairie),the berg (mountain), bos (the bush), you will see their true, loveable, romantic soul.
A fishing rod, utility knife, a tent, a 4×4 and a hat – in short, give them some freedom and they blossom like the Namaqua desert when it received a little rain.
I know it sounds all terribly stereotype … but I hope in a good way.
Here’s some cool Afrikaans vocab that just goes with the mentality and is very endearing and unique. You know, like that rough log of a fallen tree you want to remove off a newly bought property by the sea. You don’t get around to clearing it up. Later you find it quite pretty, it’s rugged bark a dark contrast to the glowing sunset. And after a while, that log becomes kind of a landmark to your property and your kids will make it into a feature sculpture. This is what Afrikaans has become for me. In the beginning I thought:How simple. How flat. How unrefined. Well, now I wouldn’t know how to express a certain way of thinking any other way anymore. I started to “get” the soul of the whole thing.
How do you explain the word “sommer” to anyone. It’s not just a word, it is a concept. “Somehow”, “winging it”, “just because” could be used to translate it. A German would probably never do something “just sommer”. This lovely expression enables me to do something without having to explain myself at all. It might explain though, why some Afrikaans ladies I met, loved to paint every single wall in their house a different colour. “Just sommer”.
A “Bakkie” can be anything from a little pick-up truck to all sizes and shapes of containers and dishes around the house. In my native German every single kitchen item has a different name attached to it. “Steven, could u bring Mama a Schuessel, no I mean a Schaelchen, just bring me a bakkie will you? And I don’t even know what to call a bakkie-car in German. Seriously. Maybe an SUV. But with an open back, hence: bowl, or dish, right?
Then there is “voetstoots” of course. It’s been officially adopted into
South African English. There’s no concise, one-word equivalent in English. By the car “As is” just doesn’t hack it. “By it in the current condition even if you need to push it home by foot” can be expressed so short and to the point in Afrikaans. And it’s such a humorous word, conjuring up images of pushing that brand new car home…
I think “gogga” is the most delightful word for insect I’ve ever heard. Click the word to hear it’s correct pronounciation. Children all over the world should use it. “Insect” just doesn’t stand a chance. Gogga was one of the first words my baby used to say, jumping with excitement!
And the exclamation of disgust “sis” – doesn’t that just obliterate the English “phew”.
“Donder” is a strange word, meaning thunder but used as an all-purpose swearword,
which again has no good English translation.
Used as a verb, it can express any degree of roughing up.
As a noun, it is a pejorative, as they politely say in dictionaries, to
mean whatever you want it to mean.
I am not, ever, ever, allowed to use that word while I still haven’t understood the concept of lightning and thunder being offensive. So when it comes to the wether, I am talking to my kids strictly in German. Afrikaaners are very very sensitive about using curse words although I always wonder when we are out barbequing in the bush, some other people really can talk bad. But it apparently depends on the occasion. Still need to figure that one out.
It says something about the English that they have no word for “jol”.
Probably the dictionary compilers regard it as slang, but it’s widely
used for “Going out on the town, kicking up your heels, enjoying
yourself…” (See, there’s no English translation)
I’ve yet to meet a South African over the age of two who doesn’t use the
word “muti”. Translation is impossible – “witches potion” is about the nearest I
can get. It needs a long cultural historical explanation. Between “muti” and
the pedantic “medication” , there’s simply no contest.
How do you explain the passion of “LEKKER!”? Wow last night was a
“lekker jol” – The German “lecker” would translate as “delicious” whereas the Afrikaans word can mean that everything from grannies cooking to a new dress, a car, a movie, a visit, was thoroughly enjoyable or nice. But nice is boring. Lekker is – lekker.
Dudu or doeks. Telling your infant to go to bed is just not the same as:
“Go dudu now my baby!”
How about ‘bliksem” – I’m going to bliksem you or ek gaan jou donder!
Both wonderful Afrikaans expressions with nothing to compare in the
English language, at least nothing that gives the same satisfaction.
Mielie pap – there is no word like pap to describe this food. In English, they have porridge, and when they say porridge, they mean oats. In German, a poridge would be a Brei, sounding exactly like Braai, the Afrikaans way of saying BBQ. And with your steak you have to have pap and sous, maize meal porridge and home made tomato relish.
But pap is also used for any breakfast cereal – even ordinary cornflakes are called pap.
Speaking of food. Gewoene, meaning ordinary, literally “what I am used to”, tea, is used to describe what we would call black tea, or Darjeeling or Ceylon etc. Do not order black tea. You might get locked up for racism. In English, you order “five roses” although that brand also produces herbal Rooibos tea, and in Afrikaans you MUST say “gewoene” tea.
Which brings us to skelm – here you just get ‘baddies’, but that doesn’t
have the same sneaky connotation of a proper skelm, does it?!
A Schelm in German is a prankster. You would say to a cute 2year old who just got you to surrender a sweet to him:You little Schelm. Do not say that in South Africa. Although to my German ear the world skelm sounds happy and cute, it actually describes a criminal here.
Loskop is another favourite. The English just don’t understand when I
say ‘Sorry, I forgot – I’m such a loskop!’ It kinda means my head is loose.
And “now now”. No one else in the world uses this English version of the Afrikaans concept “nou nou”. It means anything from in 2hours or 2 years. Do not expect anybody to help you right now, when they use the word nou. And when they say nou twice, it does not mean they will help you even faster. Nou nou means: Get over yourself, I have more important stuff to do right now.
I hope you had fun bridging some linguistic worlds with me tonight.
Don’t forget that a traffic light is a robot in South Africa.
There are countless more unique words in Afrikaans, but this blog is, by wordpress standards, un-postable long already.
Thanks for staying tuned,