Languages and Slang

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With 11 official languages, and residents from around the world speaking their own dialects, it's quite safe to say that South Africa is a truly multilingual society. In 1994 protection of local languages was rolled out to include all dialects traditionally spoken within the borders, and today the following are recognised by law in this country:


• Afrikaans

• English

• IsiXhosa

• IsiZulu

• IsiNdebele

• Sesotho

• Sepedi

• Tshivenda

• Xitsonga

• Siswati


Despite this impressive list, the English language still dominates urban centres, and in general it is understood throughout the country. Companies within the tourism industry are all well versed in English, and many offer tours in German, Chinese, French, Dutch, and an array of other international languages.


South Africa has a rich culture of slang, and over the years, popular words and phrases across all language groups have become commonly used by locals, and widely misunderstood by wide-eyed tourists.


Some of the more common slang words include:


  • babbelas - hangover
  • bakkie - a utility or pick-up truck
  • bergie - from berg, meaning mountain, this term originally referred to vagrants who sheltered in the forests of Table Mountain; it has since become a mainstream word for a particular subculture of vagrants, especially in Cape Town
  • biltong - dried meat, usually beef or other wild game, similar to jerky
  • boerewors - direct translation is farmer-sausage, it is a spicy sausage usually cooked on a braai (see below)
  • bottle store - where you go to buy bottles, and cans, of an alcoholic nature 
  • braai - a method of cooking over hot coals or wood, similar to a barbeque (but infinitely nicer)
  • bru - a shortening of the word brother, usually used as a purely heterosexually  affectionate term between males
  • costume - particularly useful to know if you're heading to the beach or a pool party, costume is not of the dress-up variety, but rather for swimming in. i.e. Boardshorts or bikinis
  • china - friend or mate, from Cockney rhyming slang china (plate) - mate
  • gatsby - impracticably large roll filled with french fries and a variety of secret sauces
  • hoezit / hoesit / howzit - possibly the most common of South African greetings, howzit directly translated means 'how it is?', however locals typically use it as a replacement to 'hi'. An adequate response could be either 'Hi', 'Good thanks, you?', or, simply, by saying another 'howzit' right back
  • ja - (pronounced yar, is afrikaans for yes
  • jol - to have a party, fun
  • lekker - nice
  • lift - elevator
  • robot - traffic light
  • shebeen - illegal drinking establishment, typically located in informal settlements or squatter camps (see below)
  • shot - not only of bullet origins, the term shot is also used to say thanks. shot my bru.
  • squatter camps - informal housing communities, typically set up on the outskirts of major city centres, are the result of Apartheid era restrictions governing where black people were allowed to reside
  • yebo - also meaning yes