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Speaking Sefrican: What sets South African English apart from British, American, Australian or any other English

by | May 19, 2014 | Schools

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South African English (SAE), colloquially known as Sefrican, has become a particular regional version of English, firmly rooted in South Africa by the influence of the languages surrounding it. South Africans are often unaware of just how different SAE is from other Englishes in both vocabulary and pronunciation, writes Penny Silva from Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Initial borrowings tended to be introduced as local colour in the journals of visiting explorers and travellers describing the local peoples and their cultures, the animals, plants, and geographical features of the country. Some of the earliest SAE words (mainly from Dutch and the Khoi languages), such as Boer, dagga, kraal, springbuck, and quagga (all 18th-century borrowings) are still entrenched in SAE. Others are now considered deeply offensive and are no longer in use.

Dutch, and subsequently Afrikaans, has had the most powerful influence on SAE. Koppie, veld and vlei are words used to describe the country’s natural features. Deurmekaar or in a dwaal is how a state of confusion is described. Nogal has supplanted ‘what is more’. During apartheid, administrative terms such as group areas, job reservation and reference book were translated from the Afrikaans equivalents.

Many SAE words have also been borrowed from the African languages of the region, for example donga, indaba and mamba from the Nguni languages, and kgotla, marula and tsotsi from the Sotho languages.

Malay words such as atchar, bobotie and sosatie came into SAE during the 19th century (via Afrikaans), originating in the community of slaves and political exiles at the Cape, who were sent from what are now Indonesia and Malaysia during the 17th and 18th centuries.

But borrowings are not the full story. Some very well known words, such as bundu, rondavel and tackie, have mysterious origins. Some specifically SAE words are examples of words once current in British English, but are now out of use there: geyser (a water-heater or boiler) and robot (a traffic light) are examples. Some English words mean something different in SAE: a bond is a mortgage (rather than a deed of payment), a dam refers to the stretch of water (rather than to the wall), just now means ‘in a little while’ (rather than ‘at this moment’ or ‘a little while ago’), a packet is a plastic shopping bag (rather than a paper or cardboard container or its contents), and a café is a convenience store or corner shop (rather than a small restaurant selling light meals and drinks).

As a result of apartheid, there is no single, reasonably uniform SAE accent. With some exceptions, communities lived and were educated separately according to ethnic background, until the 1990s. There were thus many varieties – white English-speaking SAE, white Afrikaans-speaking SAE, black African SAE, Indian SAE, Coloured SAE. But things are changing: with urban children of all backgrounds now being educated together, ethnically determined differences in SAE are tending to break down.

For more reading, click on this link: https://public.oed.com/aspects-of-english/english-in-use/south-african-english/.

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