The first English lesson I ever gave was in a little language school in a sprawling Taiwanese city. The theme was Fruit, a subject about as straightforward as it gets for a native English speaker. Unless you're from South Africa.
To prepare, I flipped through the previous teacher's handmade flashcards and consulted my English guidebook for the names of the "exotic" fruits found in Asia – apple-shaped Chinese pears and otherworldly dragon fruit. But when I flipped over the card showing an innocuous-looking orange citrus fruit, my stomach dropped. Everyone I knew would call it a naartjie ("naah-chi"), and I suddenly realised that this wasn't actually an English word.
I'd heard of clementines and satsumas, but were either of these naartjie in English? I had to enlist the help of my bemused Chinese co-teacher, who told me "tangerine", and, later, "cantaloupe". (Spanspek, the Afrikaans word for "cantaloupe" that all South Africans use, is literally translated as "Spanish bacon", allegedly because a 19th-century Cape governor had a Spanish wife who always chose fresh fruit over a big English breakfast. Their mystified Afrikaans servants coined the word.)
After that first lesson, I had endless opportunities to marvel at how stealthily my mother tongue had colonised the Afrikaans lexicon. I would tell my students that I was holding thumbs for them (from the Afrikaans idiom duim vashou) before they wrote a level-check test. I asked my co-teacher if he could help me move my new couch in his bakkie (bak means "container": add another "k" and an "ie" to turn it into a diminutive, and you've got the affectionate Afrikaans name for a small truck). I texted my British friend asking her if I could borrow a pair of takkies (from tekkies, Afrikaans for trainers). When one of my kindergarten students went through a stage of eating beetles she'd found in the car park, my kneejerk reaction of disgust wasn't "yuck", but sis! (from sies).
Occasionally, the direct translations of Afrikaans prepositions slip out in the wrong context, such as when you used to go sleep by your friend's house when your parents went out to the bioscope (this now defunct English word survived here because of the Afrikaans bioskoop).
Of course, it makes sense for English to have been given a good lick here and there by other native tongues – our country does have 11 official languages. According to the results of the 2011 census as quoted in this Daily Maverick article by Rebecca Davis, English is the fourth most widely spoken mother tongue behind isiZulu, isiXhosa and Afrikaans.
It stands to reason that Afrikaans, which became the language of power when the National party took over in 1948, has influenced South African English more than any other. Afrikaans was used as a tool to suppress the masses throughout apartheid, itself an Afrikaans word that has been appropriated not only by South African English speakers, but in English the world over. As Davis writes, knowledge of Afrikaans was a barrier to entry into the civil service from the late 1940s, which meant that black people were frozen out of high-prestige positions as they were being schooled only in "indigenous" languages.
Fast-forward one generation, and you see the Soweto uprising breaking out on 16 June 1976 to protest against the Bantu Education Department's decree that the compulsory medium of instruction in local high schools is to be Afrikaans, specifically for subjects like maths and arithmetic. Hundreds of people, mostly high school students, were killed in violent confrontations with police that day.
Now, 19 years after our transition to democracy and after nearly two decades of English being the dominant medium of politics, the media, commerce and education, the shards of Afrikaans that were left behind in English still occasionally poke through.
So it's remarkably easy, even for an armchair etymologist, to write a litany of South African regionalisms that English has pilfered from Afrikaans. But there are two words that are foremost in my mind when I think about how Afrikaans has shaped the way I speak.
One is ja (with a soft "y"), meaning "yes", whose ubiquity might be attributed to its pronunciation. It's takes so little effort to say that it's basically an exhale.
The other is lekker, which is like "great", but better. To me, our cheerfully patriotic mantra "local is lekker" is true for everything from our biltong (if you've never sampled our best export, get on the South West Trains line from London Waterloo to Surbiton, get off anywhere between Clapham Junction and Raynes Park, and head for the nearest shop flying a South African flag: you can thank me later) to the way we speak. No matter how ambivalent we may be about our homeland, our hodgepodge potjie of English, subtly spiced with Afrikaans, is just that: ours.
Edwards, Michelle. 2013. “Eating naartjies in the bioscope: a little guide to South African English”. The Guardian. Posted: May 24, 2013. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/mind-your-language/2013/may/24/mind-your-language-south-africa