Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Mother Tongue

June 2, 2004

It takes time to learn a new place of residence. In my life in America I lived in several places---both northern and southern California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Arizona---and visited quite a few more. And while America is bound together by the oneness of the Union, each of these places were as distinct from each other as if they were different countries.

When I moved to Massachusetts, to the Boston area, I was astonished that they didn’t speak the same brand of English that I did! In the western US the word “aunt” is pronounced like the insect, “ant.” In Boston it was a more British-sounding pronunciation: “awwnt.” Same with “vase,” which in the West is pronounced to rhyme with “face”; in Boston it was “vahz.” Even some common words had new meanings: when your friend asks if you would like a “tonic,” he’s not offering you tonic water or gin and tonic, but a soda, a soft drink. It took a while, but eventually I assimilated the language and even picked up a credible Boston accent (“park the car in Harvard Yard” became “pawhk the caawh in Haawhvid Yawhd”), which took a few months to shed once I returned to the West Coast.

So the necessity of re-learning English upon moving to South Africa was not a huge surprise to me. The accents on English are quite varied and I am still trying to tune my ear to some of them, but I’ve got the Xhosa accent and what my husband, who is Indian, calls “Indian mumble-speech” pretty well covered, and the professional British-sounding accent was a snap, and although I am still struggling to understand some of the other accents, I know I’ll eventually get them…I’m pretty good at understanding accented English, having lived and worked in the melting pot of Silicon Valley for so long.

The new words for everything, however, is a great source of interest and amusement for me. I expected “torch” for “flashlight” and “lift” for “elevator” and even “boot” and “bonnet” for “trunk” and “hood.” But some of them are just a startle: “robot” for “traffic light.” My maid was a bit nonplussed when I referred to myself as the “red light queen” one day as we were attempting to get some shopping done but every robot en route to the mall turned red as soon as we approached. Here are some of the differences I have encountered:

Beetroot = beets (but not “carrotroot” or “turniproot” or “onionbulb”---go figure!)
Biscuits = cookies
Scones = biscuits (big fat ones)
Chips = French fries
Cool drink = soda
Cottage cheese = cream cheese (I think…looks and tastes like it, anyway)
Marrows = zucchini squash
Mielie meal = cornmeal
Mielies = corn
Cornflour = corn starch
Pies = meat and/or veggie things with some pastry either around them (like a turnover) or on top of the pan the filling was cooked in
Tarts = pies
Porterhouse steak = T-bone steak
T-bone steak = sirloin steak
Gammon = some kind of pork…not sure when it stops being pork and becomes gammon!
Potjie = (pronounced “poy-key”) a stew; also, a cast iron stew pot, usually has 3 legs
Pudding = a soft spongy, gooey cake-like thing, usually served with a sweet sauce
Custard = pudding
Shiraz = Sirah
Streaky bacon = normal American bacon
Shoulder bacon = no American equivalent
Back bacon = untrimmed slices of Canadian bacon

Bakkie = small pickup truck (pronounced “bucky”)
Board = sign (especially roadside sign)
Garage = gas station (hey!! They actually have BAKERIES inside the gas stations here!)
Glide-off = freeway off ramp
Hire = rent, as in renting a car or a tux
Petrol = gasoline
Robot = traffic light
Verge = parking strip; parking easement. At the entrance to the Sunningdale suburb of Cape Town there is a board stuck in the verge saying “Do not post boards in the verge.” Obviously, the poster of this board has no concept of irony…

BIC = Built-in-cupboards. Apparently a big deal, having closets built into the bedroom. I don’t get it.
Bin = trash can
Cabinet = cupboard (in the kitchen and scullery)
Clothes dryer = metal structure with clothes lines attached (usually in the back garden)
Cupboard = closet (for your clothes)
Curtain rails = curtain rods
Domestic worker = euphemism; PC term replacing “maid” and “garden boy”
Duvet = a type of comforter (like a giant, flat pillow) with removable covers
En suite = master bedroom suite; bedroom with attached private bath
Flat = apartment
Front garden = front yard
Hob = kitchen stove
Hoover = generic term for vacuum cleaner: “Madam, I am going to hoover the mats.”
Let = rent, as in renting a flat or office
Lounge = living room
Motor gate = gate you have to open to allow your car into the driveway
Scullery = a room, separate from the kitchen, where the kitchen sink is…and sometimes the refrigerator and even some cabinets. Don’t ask---I don’t get this either.
Stoep (or stoop) = porch or area just outside an exit door from a house/flat
Telephone shower = handheld shower
Tumble dryer = clothes dryer
Wendy house = garden shed

Braces = suspenders
Broidery Anglaise = eyelet
Jersey (or jumper) = sweater
Off-cuts = remnants (for sewing)
Slip slops = thong sandals
Suspenders = garter belt
Takkies = sneakers; athletic shoes

Black = a person whose ancestry is purely black (a black person, in American parlance)
Coloured = a person of mixed ancestry that includes black (a black person, in American parlance)
Informal settlement = squatter’s camp or shanty town (no distinction is made, apparently, between those that spring up on privately-owned land and those that appear on public lands)
“just now” = sometime in the next few minutes or hours (kinda like “island time”)
Pharmacy = drug store (miniscule compared to Long’s or Walgreen’s!)
Pleasure = Equivalent to “you’re welcome”
Railway sleepers = railroad ties
Shop = store (“Meet me at the book shop and we’ll go to the furniture shop from there.”)
Takalane Sesame = Sesame Street (where the Cookie Monster has an Afrikaans accent!!)

There are a lot more new words in my South African vocabulary, but they escape me at the moment…I’ll post them just now.