Learning the Lingo

There is a black African comedian who says: “My white friends all ask if I speak Zulu at home. You know why they ask if I speak Zulu? Because they can’t  f****** say Xhosa.”

The joke works because the language really is a tongue twister for the non-native speaker.

The word Xhosa itself isn’t pronounced Corsa, as in the car, or Khosa with a hard sounding K. The X represent one of several barely audible, but essential clicking sounds that are part of the spoken language.

Xhosa is also a tonal language and the same sequence of consonants and vowels can have different meanings when said with a rising or falling or high or low intonation. That and the click consonants make it difficult.

My daughter has been trying to learn at least some of the language through her friend Lebo, though with limited success it has to be said.

But although Xhosa is one of South Africa’s official languages spoken by 18% of the population, it was not one I needed to practice during my stay. I have heard it spoken between people for who it is their first language, and yet Cape Town mostly gets by speaking English.

I guess this is to be expected, given the history of the Cape, although Dutch and Afrikaans words and pronunciation pepper every day conversation, of course. For example, for some time I referred to Groot Shuur that I referred to yesterday as if it sounded like ‘Groot Sure‘ when in fact it is more like ‘Rooter Skewer‘.

The use of English can also cause some confusion. Traffic lights are known as ‘robots‘ while a water boiler is a ‘geyser‘. The latter could twist your meaning if you were to refer to your mother-in-law, or any other pompous middle-aged woman as an ‘old geyser’ rather than an ‘old boiler’, geezer being a UK slang term for a man.

But the one linguistic convention you must come to terms with in South Africa is the concept of now. It doesn’t exist, at least not as a simple three-letter word.

In fact there are three options: right now, now now and just now. Right now means now, as in immediately, now now means soon, within half an hour or so, while just now is an indeterminable point in the not too distant, but probably not today.

We found this an important distinction to make and learned other lessons learned about South Africa which I shall expand upon. Just now.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

3 comments… Add yours
  • Yorkshire Pudding 3rd March 2011

    So… you’re back in the motherland now? Clearly you and your missus have garnered many lasting memories and thankfully did not become a crime statistic. I am sure that future communications with Little Miss Polly will have been enriched because of your visit. Your understanding will be clearer.

  • Mr Parrot 3rd March 2011

    Yes, back home and shivering. I have still to write about my impressions on crime in SA, as well as other things. It is true that it is so much better when speaking to Miss P now we have seen the places and people she is talking about.

  • AKONA 15th April 2011

    I would love to learn more abt shona lingo of zim country


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