Easy And Comprehensive Guide To South African English

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Although South Africa has 11 official languages, English is widely spoken throughout the country. As a foreigner, you will therefore have no problem communicating with others if you speak English. However, South African English can be a little confusing to others.

I have found that it’s easy for South Africans to understand foreigners. However, the reverse is not true.

I attribute this to tv and movies. For example, we know from watching tv that the closet means cupboard and trash means rubbish. However, an American may not know what we mean when we say “lorrie” – referring to a truck. This is why this list of American vs South African English can be very helpful.

Below is an easy and comprehensive guide to help you figure out what South Africans are actually trying to say.

The list has been broken into several helpful categories for easier search. They include food, clothes, travel and driving, buildings, school, and other.

American vs South African English

Food & groceries
Tomato sauceKetchup 
PrawnsShrimp 
BiltongJerky 
BiscuitCookie 
Wors or BoereworsSausage 
BraaiBBQ / Cookout 
Chips or slap chips (pronounced slup-chips)French Fries 
Cooldrinks or ColddrinksSoda / pop / soft drinks  
Pap (pronounced pup) or porridgeGrits 
Pie (Savory pastry with meat or vegetables, e.g. pepper steak pie, spinach & feta pie)Pie (Sweet pastry pie with fruit, e.g. apple pie, cherry pie) 
Dessert or puddingDessert 
RuskLarge, dried cookie similar to Italian biscotti 
JellyJello 
Mielies (pronounced me-lease)Corn on the cob 
JamPreserves 
SpanspekCantaloupe 
NaartjieTangerine 
Brown breadWholewheat bread 
Wholewheat breadHealth breadThis can be confusing for Americans. If you buy a wholewheat bread in South Africa, you will get a dense, hearty health bread. 
SconeBiscuit 
SweetsCandy 
Take-AwayTake-Out 
TartPie 
TinCan 
Trolley (shopping)Cart (shopping) 
AubergineEggplant 
BillCheckFor checking out in a restaurant.
EntréeAppetizer 
ServietteNapkin 
SweetsCandy 
Spring onionsGreen onions 
ChocolateCandy bar 
BeetrootBeet 
CutlerySilverware 
FlanFruit pie 
MaizeCorn 
MinceGround beef 
CandyflossCotton candy 
TinCan 
GammonHam 
Clothing

south african words for clothes

South African English American English
Costume or cozzieSwimsuit
ZipZipper
DungareesOveralls
WaistcoatVest
(Dressing) gownBathrobe
Tracksuit topHoodie
Jersey or pulloverSweater
NappieDiaper
TakkiesSneakers
Travel & driving

driving in south africa

South African EnglishAmerican English 
Bakkie (pronounce buck-key)Truck (small) 
BonnetHood 
BootTrunk 
GarageAuto repair shop 
Gravel roadUnpaved road 
Hoot(ing)Honk(ing) 
LorrieTruck (large) 
MudguardFender 
PavementSidewalk 
PetrolGas 
Petrol StationGas Station 
QuadbikeFour Wheeler ATV 
RobotTraffic light 
Tar roadPaved road 
TaxiCab 
TowbarHitch 
Car parkParking lotFor cars
MotorbikeMotorcycle 
Number plateLicense plate 
PavementSidewalk 
Petrol Gas 
Buildings / Homes/ Accomodation

South African English American English
Bungalow or rondavelRound cabin-type accommodation
ChaletCabin
LiftElevator
Toilet / LooRestroom
StoepPorch
Hose pipeGarden hose
LiftElevator or giving someone a ride
Ground floorFirst floor
First floorUsually the second floor
Second floorUsually the third floor
CupboardCloset
Dustbin or binTrashcan
FlatApartment
GeyserWater heater
LodgeAn exclusive vacation type of accommodation.
RubbishGarbage, Trash
TapFaucet, spicket
ToiletsRestroom
Toilet paperBathroom tissue
GlobeLight bulb

 

School & Academic

South African English

South African English American English
UniversityCollege or university
TechnikonTechnical college, polytechnic or technical university
SubjectCourse
Student (at university only)Student (at university or high school)
ScholarStudent at high school
ProgrammeItinerary
MatricHigh school certificate or a senior at high school
Marks or PointsGrades
MarkingGrading
Lecturing (at university)Teaching (at university or school)
Lecturer (Academic staff)Faculty or Professor
HostelDorm / Dormitory
Hand in a paperTurn in a paper
Diploma (national)3 year associate degree
CourseProgram
CollegeCommunity college
BursaryScholarship
Average %GPA (Grade Percentage Average)
AssignmentPaper
Rucksack Backpack
Break / Break timeRecess
Full stopPeriod
RubberEraser
Primary SchoolElementary School
ExamTest
Kokies (pronounced co-keys)Markers
Commonly used phrases
south african greetings
South African English American English 
Come and fetch meCan you pick me up? 
How is it? or What is going on?What’s up? 
It is a pleasure, or my pleasureYou’re welcome 
Just jokingJust kidding 
Just nowIn a minute / very soon. 
Are you finished?Are you done? 
I am finishedI am done. I am set. 
Let’s make a planLets figure out how we can do this. 
Now-nowA moment ago, or in a moment.Eg. They’ll be here now-now. Meaning, they’ll be here very soon. 
Make a turnCome aroundEg. I’ll make a turn at your house later. Meaning, I will come over later.
JaYes 
Jungle gymPlayground 
HolidayVacation 
TorchFlashlight 
Howzit?How are you? 
Is it?Is that so?/ Really? 
Other
South African English American English 
AutumnFall 
BushThe forest or the woods” 
Lip iceChap stick or Lip balm 
Post a letterMail a letter 
Postal codeZip code 
Queue (stand in a queue)Line (stand in line) 
DistrictCounty 
MunicipalityCity Council 
ProvinceState 
CBD (Central Business District)The cityThe CBD does not include the suburbs.
TissuesKleenex 
Anti clockwiseCounter clockwise 
FilmMovie 
The cinemaThe movies 
HandbagPurse / pocket protector 
MadCrazy / Insane 
advertisementcommercial 
SurnameLast name 
Game ranch (farm)Ranch used for farming and hunting wild animals, typically antelope 
LucerneAlfalfa 
Plot or smallholdingSmall farm of a few acres 
To letTo rent 
Medical schemeMedical program“Scheme” is widely used to describe programs.

A note from the author

I often share this personal story about what can happen when people don’t understand what is being said. You may find it funny, or actually… horrific.

One thing that is common in South Africa are street vendors. They will often walk around cars at the robots (traffic lights) as they sell their wares.

I was traveling with a German friend and we happened to stop at a robot where someone was selling naartjies (tangerines). As is expected, the street vendor walked through the cars yelling “Naartjies, Naartjies!”

I was minding my own business, waiting for the robot to turn green, when my German friend suddenly looked over to me in horror. He could hardly speak – the fear in his face was palpable.

I didn’t know what was going on. In my view, nothing had happened.

When he was able to speak, he said that he assumed the street vendor was calling him out as a “nazi.” I had to quickly explain that this was not what he meant – he is only selling “naartjies.” From this story, I think you can deduce that, depending on your pronunciation, “naartjie” could sound like “nazi.”

Having met so many foreigners and being married to an American, I have so many stories to share about this topic – most of them funny!

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About The Author

Hi! We’re the Cheltens’. We visit South Africa 1-2 times per year. We want to share our experiences with you so that you may make educated decisions when you plan your next trip to the rainbow nation.

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