Sunday, June 5, 2011


We were over at our neighbor's house not long after we got here for their 4-yr.-old daughter's birthday. The family is from South Africa and their two middle-school aged girls were on a break from boarding school there.

We were all sitting around the living room, and Neil asked the girls what sports they play at school. They listed them off and Neil was repeating them, until they got to one oddly named "sport" (??)


I instantly thought to myself, "wow, I'm glad I'm not the one asking the questions and having to say what she just said and/or figure out what the heck she is talking about."

Neil, hesitating: "Nih .... puhl?"

Little neighbor girl in her South African accent: "Yee, nipple."

Her father, sensing a miscommunication, said more clearly: "NEH-bohl."

Neil: "OHhhhh, NET ball! So how do you play that?"



I've been compiling a list of "Botswanisms," which as you can see may be influenced by South Africanisms, Zimbaweisms, etc. And a lot of it is probably from British English.

More about the way people talk (very proper, very British-ish, very softly) later. I now give you:
  • Matata - yes, like on the Lion King: "Worry." The cleaning ladies at work actually tell me "no matata" when they mean "don't worry." Or when they're telling me about something worrisome, they say, "Matata" or "lots of matata."
  • Is it? - this is used the way we use the interjectory phrase "Is that right?" For example, if I said "We Americans love Girl Scout cookies" a Batswana might respond "Is it?"
  • Oh, shame! - this is used the way we say "Oh, that's a shame!" or more like "Oh, poor thing." I hear this a lot when Nile meets new people and buries her head sideways in my shoulder, looking at the newcomer with a cocked head. They will say, "Oh, shame!" ("Oh, poor thing!") Or when Nile had a cold, if I said, "Nile wasn't feeling well so she is at home" they might respond "Oh, shame!"
  • Hectic - Crazy/busy. Like "I was studying for my exams, and it was so hectic."
  • Howzit? - "How's it going" This may be a South African thing but I also heard it a lot in Hawaii
  • Mma/Rra - ma'm/sir. Sounds like "mah" or "rah" with a rolled r.
  • Colour, Favour, flavour, etc. - British spellings
  • sort out/get sorted - get something squared away/figure out. "Have you sorted out the situation with the airline tickets?"
  • Serviette - napkin, like when eating. NEVER say "napkin," it means sanitary pad.
  • Rubbish/dust bin - trash/trash can. Also something I noticed people say in Hawaii.
  • Robot - traffic light. Very confusing when I first got here. People do not know street names, so they give you lengthy directions using landmarks. And with their British-ish accent, when they said "Rowh-baaht" I thought they were saying ROBERT, so they'd say, "Go past the Roberts and continue on." And I thought Roberts was like a store or restaurant.
  • Flyover - overpass. There are too few of these in the city. The city is divided by a railroad track and there are basically only 3 flyovers to get from one side to the other. I am one of those trying to get to the other side for work daily, and the bottlenecks, as I've documented, are terrible. More fylovers, please!
  • Rocket - arugula. They called it "rucula" in Buenos Aires. It is that peppery, delicious salad leaf that seems to be really popular in cuisine right now.
  • Coriander - cilantro.
  • Biscuits - cookies 
  • Tyres - tires
  • Tomato - pronounced "toe-MAH-toe." Yes, like "you say toeMAYtoe, I say toeMAHtoe."
  • SMS - text message. This country lives and runs on SMS. Partly because SMS doesn't use minutes, and many people run out of min. so it is considered rude I think to call people (and use their minutes or not be able to get through if they're out of min.) when you can SMS.
  • Now/just now/now now - probably never/maybe in 5 min. to an hour/IMMEDIATELY. Always clarify your requests or questions, e.g. "I need you to come NOW NOW." Or "I'm coming just now ..."
I am sure I will think of and encounter more Botswanisms.  It's just funny when you think you're speaking "English" but you really have to learn vocabulary that's almost a bit of a different language. And sometimes it's the accent where misunderstandings occur. I used to think that people who put on accents were being fake and weird. Now I see (like when I have to repeat things with an accent to be understood) that it's not that much different from speaking another language -- it's just a way for people to understand you.

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