South Africans are infamous for giving bad directions, according people who are new to our beautiful country. They claim things like, “I was looking but I didn’t see any robots. I couldn’t find the turn off.” We take it for granted that ‘robot’ is exclusively used in South Africa as interchangeable with traffic light.
This rings true for different English-speaking countries, just look at the differences between American and British English. Cookies or biscuits? Candy or sweets? Jello or jelly? Ok, I’m going to stop listing these since I’m getting hungry. The point is, within the same language, there are many different words used for the same thing, and some of these depend on where you’re from. Linguists call theses regional dialects.
Now I know this has yet to become exciting, but what if I told you that you can tell where someone is from within South Africa, thanks to regional dialectology. Yes, Cape Tonian English-speakers don’t always use the same terms as English-speakers from Durban or Johannesburg. Take this information with a pinch of salt, since speakers mimic their peers, and may have moved around South Africa, so it may not work every time. But here are a few tells that you can use on campus to impress people, if they’re impressed by this kind of thing?
What do you call the things people put on windows to keep thieves out?
Your chosen speaker will either say ‘burglar bars’ or ‘burglar guards’. If the latter, they’re from Kwa-Zulu Natal. I’m not sure why, but they just don’t call them ‘bars’ there.
Similarly, there’s debate around what you call the exams before your matric finals. Mocks? Pre-lims? Where I come from these are used interchangeably, but members of my first linguistics class were adamant that it’s one or the other.
I guess those from Durban and surrounding areas are just a special kind of South African. Many speakers pronounce ‘lekker’ as ‘lucker’ in KZN. And in some varieties it’s considered prestigious to monophthongise your diphthongs. Alright, sorry I went a bit too heavily into terminology, to pronounce ‘ice’ so that it rhymes with ‘grass’.
Older speakers from Durbs could also tell you what a ‘tea room’ is, whereas I would simply guess that it’s a room one drinks tea in. It’s what I would call a café, a small corner shop selling sweets, newspapers and cigarettes. But then I also call a coffee shop a café?
If you’re currently wondering what use this will be to you as a student at UCT, I’ll give you all the information you need shortly. The following is from my own observation, expect a formal journal article on it soon since this is ground breaking stuff.
At UCT, you only need to divide your peers into two groups, from Cape Town and not from Cape Town. This is simple enough, if the first personal question they ask you is: “What high school did you go to?” – You’re speaking to a Cape Tonian.
Disclaimer: I love all dialects and idiolects of South African English varieties; I find the differences intriguing. They add richness to a language that is already so culturally diverse and colourful due to our multilingual citizens.