Travel Notices

South African Explorer Series: Learn the language

Any seasoned traveler will tell you how important it is to prepare for a trip abroad by learning the basics about your destination. You should be able to speak a few words in the local language, enough to respect its traditions and culture, and become familiar with its food. This is even more important in multicultural destinations like South Africa, home to 11 national languages and several ethnicities. There’s an abundance to see and do in South Africa, and knowing a few key phrases will help you fit in and make new friends as you enjoy the sights and sounds.

To help get you started speaking like a local, we’ve put together the first of a three-part blog post we’re calling our South African Explorer Series. These will offer insight into several major components of your trip: language, food, and culture. If you haven’t heard, you can also win a free trip to South Africa by entering on our Facebook page (now closed)!

Our series begins today with a list of the most common phrases and words you’ll hear when visiting South Africa. Pay close attention. Some of the words look and sound like English, but the meanings are completely different.

  1. “Sawubona!” This means hello or welcome, and is usually directed at one person. Feel free to greet anyone you meet in South Africa with this phrase. Learn how to pronounce it here.
  2. “Howzit my china?” A phrase that often catches Americans off guard because it’s such a different way of greeting than we are used to. But it’s a friendly greeting! If you hear this, it means someone you’ve met regards you as a friend. Howzit translates into “Hello”, or “How are you?”. “China” means friend. (Consider that in some parts of the country, a greeting is “hayadun dude” and you’ll understand “howzit my china”.)
  3. “Tot siens” or “hamba khale.” Meaning ‘see you later’, the first is in Afrikaans and the second is in Zulu. Learn how to pronounce it here.
  4. “Lekker. An adjective for anything that is good or ‘cool’, and literally means ‘sweet’. For example, “I had a lekker time at the party”, or “the food at the restaurant was lekker”.  In the plural form, “lekkers” also means “sweets”, which is how we refer to candy in the U.S. 
  5. “Robot. This refers to a traffic light. You can imagine the confusion travelers face when given directions and told to turn right at the next robot.
  6. “Cooldrink or Colddrink.” Don’t ask for “soda” if you want a Coca-Cola, because in South Africa, soda is the beverage you mix with Scotch. Instead, ask for a “cooldrink” or a “colddrink”.
  7. “Takkies.” When you pronounce this, it rhymes with taffy, and it refers to tennis shoes or sneakers. So, if your guide tells you to wear takkies, he doesn’t mean a ‘tacky’ pair of shoes, he means sneakers.
  8. “Just now.” If a South African tells you that they will do something “just now”, it doesn’t mean immediately. It means any time in the near future, from five minutes to five months from now.
  9. “Bokkie/bakkie.” These similar words have separate meanings, and it’s important to know the difference. A bokkie is a diminutive word for a small buck (coming from the word “bok”), while a bakkie is a pick-up truck. A big difference, and could be an interesting confusion if you use the wrong word.
  10. “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!”.
  11. “Eina.” This means ouch, and is used to express pain. It is pronounced “ay-nah”.
  12. “Jislaaik!” An expression of surprise, pronounced “yis-like”, whether it’s a pleasant surprise or expressing outrage. So, you might hear: “Jislaaik! I won!”, or “Jislaaik! My car has a flat tire!”. The most common place you’ll hear this phrase is during an exciting football or rugby match.
  13. “Boet/boetie.” The literal translation of “boet” is brother, while “boetie” holds more endearment and means a little brother. However, it is also used to describe a male friend. This is like using the term “bro” here in the U.S. Pronounce this word to rhyme with “put”.
  14. Dorpie.” A small town or a village.
  15. Ek sê!” Translates directly into “I say” in English and is used the same way as the English (as in England) use this phrase — to express shock or surprise.
  16. “Jol.” Loosely, jol means to have fun or to party. For example, you can “jol with your chinas”. In this case, pronounce the “J” like jelly — “jawl”.
  17. “Toppie/toppies.” Elderly people or your own parents.
  18. Ou.” Pronounced like the letter “o”, this is commonly used to refer to a man of any age. An alternative word is “oke” (pronounced oak like the tree) and can be used interchangeably with “ou”. In South Africa, “ous” is used like “guys” in the U.S.
  19. “Bioscope.” Movies or cinema. In South Africa, you go to the bioscope — not the movies.
  20. “Goggo” verses “gogo.” Goggo (pronounced ho ho, with the “h” sound like you’re clearing your throat) means an insect in the Khoisan language (think of our word “bug”). On the other hand, gogo, pronounced just as it sounds, means grandmother in Zulu.
  21. “Eish!” This expression means disbelief, excitement, or shock. For example: “Eish, I didn’t know we were out of paper!” or “Eish, we’re going to the bioscope.” or “Eish, I broke your new lamp.”
  22. “Muti.” Pronounced ‘mootie’, this is good to know if you’re not feeling well while in South Africa. It refers to medicine — typically traditional but can refer to any medication.

Of course, these are just a few basics. You can supplement this list with your own research before and during your trip. For a free online guide, check out this dictionary from Or, try this more in-depth CD-ROM guide from Pharos.

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