An Intro to South African Slang

School girls with painted faces
Any seasoned traveler will tell you how important it is to prepare for a trip abroad by learning the basics about your destination. One very helpful tip: learn to speak a few words of the country’s language. For Americans visiting South Africa, you can check this ‘to-do’ off your list! Though South Africa actually has 11 different national languages, you’ll find that English is widely spoken. But like English speakers in other parts of the world, South Africans have their own slang words that might leave Americans scratching their heads.

Our own Product Development Manager, who was born in South Africa, has compiled a list of South African slang words and their ‘American’ translations. Take this list along so you can preempt any confusion and even impress your new South African friends with your knowledge of what’s in.

  1. Lekker: An adjective for anything that is good or ‘cool,’ and literally means ‘sweet.’ For example, “that safari was lekker.”
  2. Robot: A traffic light. You can imagine the confusion travelers face when told to turn right at the next robot!
  3. Takkies: Tennis shoes or sneakers. So if your guide tells you to wear takkies, he doesn’t mean to dress in a cheap or vulgar way.
  4. Just now: If a South African tells you that they will do something “just now,” that doesn’t mean immediately. It means sometime in the near future, from five minutes to five months from now. Keep this in mind if you happen to ask for something and expect it sooner rather than later!
  5. Howzit or Howzit my china? This phrase often catches Americans off guard. It’s a friendly greeting, and it means someone you’ve met regards you as a friend. ‘Howzit’ translates into ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you?’ ‘China’ means friend.
  6. Ag man or Ag shame man: Another very common South African phrase that you will hear frequently. It’s an expression of empathy or understanding, or to express something cute that has nothing to do with a tough time. For example, “ag shame man, what an adorable baby” or “ag shame man, you worked late today.” ‘Ag’ has a ‘ch’ sound, as in ‘loch.’
  7. Bokkie/bakkie: These similar words have separate meanings, and it’s important to know the difference. A ‘bokkie’ is a small buck, which you may see on safari. A ‘bakkie’ is a pick-up truck. Could be an interesting mix-up if you used the wrong word!
  8. Ja-nee: This one means literally ‘yes-no.’ But its use is a bit more complex, as it can basically precede any statement of agreement, especially lukewarm ones. For example, “ja-nee, I suppose we can go out to eat.”
  9. Voetsek: If you hear someone shouting what sounds like “foot-sack” at you, you might want to stop whatever it is you’re doing. This is an impolite way to tell someone to leave you alone. You also might find people yelling it at a pesky dog or other animal in the street, similar to how we use “shoo!”
  10. Dorpie: This is a small town or a village.
  11. Bioscope: Movies or cinema.
  12. Goggo vs. Gogo: ‘Goggo’ is pronounced with a ‘ch’ sound, such as in ‘loch,’and means an insect, in the Khoisan language. On the other hand, ‘gogo,’ pronounced just as it looks, means grandmother in Zulu.
  13. Veld: Pronounced ‘felt,’ this refers to open grassland or low bush, which you may encounter on safari.
  14. Yebo: The Zulu word for ‘yes.’ This is a more modern word in post-apartheid South Africa.
  15. Café or Kaffee: The corner convenience store—not necessarily a coffee shop.
  16. Rock-up: To arrive unexpectedly. Usually for people, but on safari the ranger might say “we’ll rock-up and maybe see the elephant.”

Of course, these are just a few basics. Additionally, you may also want to learn some key phrases in one or two of the other languages in South Africa, the most widely spoken being Zulu and Xhosa. For a free online guide to South Africa slang, check out this dictionary from SouthAfrica.info.

Want to try out your new lekker language skills? Give it a go on one of our three escorted tours to South Africa.


A longer version of this article was published in 2013.

1 Comment

  1. May

    ‘lekker’ is Dutch for ‘tasty’, like tasty food.
    ‘Ja nee’ and ‘bioscope’ are equally Dutch.
    I grew up in Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony for 250 years.
    Till date you will find many older Indonesians speaking Dutch fluently.
    The first Europeans that settled down in South Africa and colonized the country were Dutch.
    It shouldn’t surprise us that many Dutch words got into the South African language.

    Link

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