Thursday, November 8, 2012

There's No Place Like Home

When people ask me where I'm from (a question that often follows shortly after I say a few words in my rather odd accent) I usually pause before giving a reply. It's a simple question that most people can answer without much thought. For me, however, depending on the circumstances and how long I want the conversation to last, I can give one of four answers:
- England (I was born there)
- South Africa (I was raised there)
- USA (I was conceived there)
- Holland (I've lived there for twelve years)

I used to have a strong Blackpool accent. I only lived there till age five, but that was long enough for me to sound thoroughly Lancastrian. I remember once swimming in the sea in Cape Town and bumping into someone. I turned and, in perfect Blackpudlian, said: "Sozz 'ey!". The gentleman looked at me with a blank expression. I suddenly realized what I had said and offered a quick translation: "Sorry!"

Actually, I was probably incomprehensible to most South Africans during my first year in the country, but then I struggled just as hard to get a grip on their language. The standard South African greeting of: "Howzit?" initially elicited a response from me of: "Fine thanks. How are you?" This generally resulted in a puzzled look. Only later did I realize that "howzit" was South African slang for "hello". So I was effectively having the following conversation:
South African: "Hello!"
Me: "Fine thanks. How are you?"

No wonder they gave me funny looks. Thanks to the vagaries of South African slang, I spent most of the first few years wondering what language the other kids were speaking. It was allegedly English, but many words were incomprehensible. Here are the ones I remember hearing the most:
ag (with a guttural "g" similar to the "ch" in Scottish "loch) - oh
just now - in a minute (but can also mean: "at some unknown time in the future")
bra - pal, male friend
braai - barbecue
tune - talk
klap - hit
lighty - younger, smaller person
heavy - arrogant person, bully
kiff - cool (nice)
ja-nee - literally "yes-no", meaning a hesitant agreement¨
lekker - nice
china - friend
pozzie - house
jammie - car
ek sê - I say
park off - sit down, relax
tea room - corner shop

A typical conversation between Durban teenagers might include something like this: "Howzit going my china? You wanna bring your jammie round to my pozzie so we can park off and have a braai, ek sê?"  This translates roughly as: "Hi buddy. Do you want to drive round to my place and we can relax and have a barbecue?"

I eventually lost my Blackpool accent and picked up a South African version, although it seemed to settle somewhere between the two. South Africans thought I was from New Zealand while the English often assumed I was from the US (although some accused me of "talking posh"). While my accent was (and still is) uncertain, my loyalties have always been firmly rooted in South Africa. I don't remember my first three years of life, so I only have memories of four years in England. By contrast, I spent my formative years in South Africa. We moved around a lot, but I did spend my entire high school career in one place, so I consider myself a South African. English by birth, yes, but South African at heart. To this day, if England play rugby against the Springboks, I support the men in green and gold.

As for Holland, well I'm undecided. There are strong ties between South Africa and the Dutch. Sometimes when I listen to a Dutch person speaking, I can almost imagine them sitting around a braai with a Lion lager in one hand and a plate loaded with boerewors in the other. Perhaps that's why we've been living there so long. I tried Belgium for a year but never felt at home, even though one of their official languages is a dialect of Dutch which sounds quite similar to Afrikaans. They were usually friendly until they realized we weren't local, so I never felt at home there.

Last week we bought the DVD of the 2012 London Olympics, and something strange happened. For the first time in my twenty five years away from South Africa, I found myself feeling proud of the British athletes. Perhaps all this time away from the country where I grew up is starting to take its toll. Perhaps my allegiances are starting to shift. Perhaps my country of birth is finally winning my loyalty. After all, Britain is a pretty amazing place and I do have fond memories from my few early years. The litmus test, however, will be three years from now. The rugby world cup is being held in Britain in 2015. I'm curious to see who I'll be supporting when England and South Africa take to the field. Twenty eight years is a long time, so it could go either way, but I suspect I know which team I'll be rooting for.

Now if you'll excuse me my china, I have to take my jammie to the tea room before heading to my pozzie. If the weather is lekker this weekend, we'll be needing meat for the braai, ek sê.


  1. I loved reading this, Paul, and had a good laugh! Having spent the first 43 years of my life in Zimbabwe, most of those phrases are so familiar! My dad's family came from South Africa and my mum's came from England, so I can relate very well to your linguistic experiences, and of course, migrating to Australia has brought with it a whole new dimension!

    1. Thanks Mandy! It's great fun to remember my initial confusion, but it was a bit bewildering at the time. For ages, I thought "roomys" was a brand of ice-cream ;-). Australia sounds terrific. I know a few South Africans who have moved there and they love it, although the slang does sound a bit daunting :-).

  2. Now, how to incorporate sufficient slang into one's fiction to give the flavor without having to define every other phrase...

    What a conundrum.

    Love your divided loyalties, Paul. Gives us a glimpse of who you really are. Thank you for being transparent.

    1. Hi Judith. It's interesting you should mention slang in fiction as I'm busy editing my next story and it all takes place on a thousand-year-old Earth colony. I toyed with the idea of developing a whole new dialect, but didn't want to make the reader work too hard. In the end, I chose a few slang words and left it at that.

  3. Oh yes Paul! Been there, done that, got the doek and the T-shirt man!

    I was born in Scotland, lived in Southern Rhodesia (NOT Zimbabwe)from 4 yrs to 18. Moved to South Africa where I've lived in 6 different cities. In the middle of the "bushwar" we moved back north for 'n bietjie, where we lived through Rhodesia, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. Three countries in four years and we never moved home. Howzat for confusion?

    Oh and I have a S.African-born husband and three kids. But #1 lived in Venezuela for 5 years and is now in Kazakhstan and travels with a British passport. Guess confusion runs in the family. Wat sê jy?

    1. Wow Shirley, and I thought I'd done some travelling! I counted my schools recently and it came out at 6 junior schools and 1 high school (phew), although I did attend one of the junior schools twice so that probably doesn't count. My shortest stint was 3 months in Westville, which isn't enough time to make friends but just enough time to get the attention of the school bully. On the plus side, I did end up skipping a year thanks to 6 months in England (I left in std 3 and came back the same year in std 5). Time travel!!

    2. No idea why the "I" came out as #1! Not my intention I assure you!

    3. I thought you meant your first child.... :-)