South Africanisms

We seldom think about our unique English dialect. Or at least, we didn’t think much about how we spoke in the past. Then we moved to Germany.

It was first brought to my attention that we have a quirky way of speaking, due to the word shame. Of course I’d known that South Africans say things with their own flair, but that was the first time this uniqueness was brought to my attention. Because what was a shame?

I’ve been threatening to do a post like this for a long time, so let’s get right into it.

1. Shame

Yes, shame has the traditional meaning in South Africa. You can still feel ashamed, or something can be a shame too (as in, too bad). BUT the word also can be used as a term of endearment, in a variety of circumstances.

A baby is cute? Aw, shame.
Someone lost their job? Aw, shame.
Your puppy just peed on your brand new carpet? Aw, shame.
Shame, the rugby team lost. Shame, your kid is sick. Shame, that granny is crossing the road.

2. Lekker

This word exists in German too, spelt lecker. It’s pronounced something like lacquer and means delicious. In German, this word can only be used to describe food. As in ‘apple strudel is delicious’ (apfelstrudel ist lecker).

In South Africa, lekker can be applied to anything, as it kind of takes on the meaning ‘great’.
The movie was lekker, the popcorn was lekker and making out in the back of the cinema was lekker too. Driving to the coast in holiday traffic was not lekker, but at least the music on the radio was lekker, and the lekker waves on the beach made up for the drive.

The word can also become sarcastic. Like you bent your rim in a pothole and your friend says ‘Ag, lekker man’, meaning that’s not lekker at all.

Also, when you’re sick, you’re not feeling lekker. You see that this is one of the most versatile words in a South-African vocabulary.

3. Now-now, just-now and now

This basically comes from Afrikaans nou-nou (you’d pronounce it as two no’s in English). Judging by the title, you’d think this is simple. Now means NOW after all. Doesn’t it? DOESN’T IT?


Now-now, just-now or now can mean any amount of time, in varying lengths. If someone says ‘I’ll meet you now-now’, they can show up tomorrow, for all you know. OK, that was a gross overstatement, but still not impossible. Experience is my sensei.

‘I’ll be there now-now’, is like an equivalent of anything between in 5 minutes and 5 hours plus, though most people will stick to the shorter end of the time spectrum, or at least pick up their phones if the now-now officially changes to later.

‘I’m getting in my car now’, most likely means ‘I’m still in the house, gathering my things’, or ‘I’m locking the door as we speak’. If your kid says ‘Ma, I’ll do it just-now’, it probably means that the thing will only be done when the threatening starts.

I’ve read in some articles that the degrees of the South African ‘now’ are kind of predictable, that ‘now’ has no time constraint, ‘just-now’ means in the near future and ‘now-now’ means as soon as I can. As a native South African, I agree somewhat, but that point isn’t completely accurate either. The speaker will have a massive impact on the time ‘now-now’ takes – to the point where they’ll never do whatever you asked at all, depending on their perception of time. Or their mood. Or if lunch time / the end of the workday is near.

This annoys me, don’t get me wrong, but even then I’m guilty of the now-now. It’s inbred, OK?

4. Isit

Pronounced is it, this one is equivalent to really? in the rest of the world.

‘The dog chewed my shoes.’ ‘Isit?’
‘I won the lottery.’ ‘Isit?’
‘You look hot today.’ ‘Isiiiiiiiit?’

5. Howzit

This one is a greeting and a ‘How are you?’ all in one.

So, if someone says, ‘Howzit, my China?’ (my China is something along the lines of ‘my friend’), the answer may well be, ‘Lekker, and you?’

6. Robot and circle

Because of these two things, I bet a lot of people get lost in South Africa. Robot may even be pronounced ‘roboRt’. Believe me when I say that the extra ‘R’ drives me up the damn walls. WHO EVER HEARD OF THAT?!?!?!?!

A robot is a traffic light, while a circle is a roundabout.

Ah, now those directions make sense! You’re welcome. 😛

7. Ja-no

This is another South Africanism that’s been pointed out to me by a confused-looking European.

‘Ja’ means ‘yes’ in both Afrikaans and German, though the pronunciation is slightly different (it’s more like yaah in Afrikaans and yah in German). So, you guessed it, ja-no, literally translates to yes-no. What the heck does that even mean?

It’s a term of agreement, as in, when you say something and I feel the same way, I’ll say ‘ja-no’ (ja-nee in Afrikaans). My personal favourite is ‘Ja-nee, kyk’ – ja-no, look – which still means I agree.

‘The Bokke lost the rugby again, but at least the Proteas are winning the cricket.’
‘Ja-no, China, ja-no.’

8. Jawellnofine

This literally translates to yes well no fine, thrown together to make a brand new word. It means something along the lines of ‘how about that?’, ‘isn’t that nice?’, or, depending on the context, ‘well, that sucks’. Jawellnofine is often said as a term of grudging acceptance.

9. Sharp

Usually used with the thumbs up and pronounced more like ‘shap’ than ‘sharp’. This is another thing that has caused the Germans to look at us in a weird way.

Sharp comes down to ‘great’, ‘agreed’ or ‘OK’. So, if someone asks you to meet them at the mall at four o’clock, and that arrangement works for you, you say ‘sharp’.

Sharp can also mean something is nice. If someone says ‘You look sharp’, it means you’re looking good.

10. Make a plan

Making a plan comes down to finding a solution or making something work – so, when your car is broken and you have to get to work, you’ll make a plan.

It can also be used in social situations, like when you want to hang out with someone, you’ll make a plan to see them.

Bonus Words

Braai – A South African barbeque.
Bakkie – A pickup truck.
Takkies – Running shoes / trainers. Also, tyres for your car.
Yebo – Yes.
Jozi – Johannesburg.
Durbs – Durban.
Tomato sauce – Ketchup.
Indaba – Conference.
Fundi – An expert.
Cherry / chick – Girlfriend.
Oke / ou / bru – A guy.
Tannie – An older woman, the Afrikaans for ‘aunt’.
Toppie / Oom – Older man. Oom is Afrikaans for ‘uncle’.
Slops – Slip on sandals.
Kokkerotskoppers – Literally cockroach kickers, this refers to pointy-toed shoes.
Pants – Trousers, not underpants.
Undies – Underpants.
Cozzie – Bathing suit.
Tune – You tune someone something, as in, you give them an earful.
Eish / Yoh – A polite expression of annoyance, kind of like ‘dammit’.
Packet – The bag you get at the supermarket.
Ayoba – That’s awesome.
Sis – Gross. Usually paired with ‘man’ – Sis, man!
Chow / graze / munch – To eat.

I could add more to this list, but there are some cool articles with more South Africanisms here and here. Have a look!

Have a good one, folks.




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