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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Great Afrikaans Words

Oscar Foulkes November 8, 2013 Uncategorized 3 comments
I have been nagging my kids to learn a programming language. Whether it’s HTML, Javascript, Ruby or PHP, I really don’t care. I’ve even gone so far as to offer monetary rewards for completing Codecademy modules.

I’m not suggesting they become programmers – although they’d possibly earn more money spewing code than waiting tables – I just believe having a better understanding of the guts of the digital tools they’ll be using for the rest of their lives will empower them.

It’s a little like the languages we humans use to communicate with each other. Being able to communicate in additional languages is always an asset. Yes, English may be the world’s business language, but there are many places where it is not spoken, or used with great insecurity.

They are obliged to learn Afrikaans at school, which is not a language that is in universal use even in South Africa. I grew up speaking it (as second language). I’m not sure that the superficial experience of a school language will enable them to feel the descriptive power of Afrikaans.

My wife has never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Afrikaners never let the absence of words get in the way of a good story; in fact, where necessary they’ll make them up.

It’s a language that may have been based upon Dutch, but it has a tradition of borrowing words, and just generally improvising for the sake of conveying meaning.

This morning I watched a little rugby video from the 70s, in which Springbok Joggie Jansen floors All Black Wayne Cottrill so comprehensively that the Kiwi did not move for several minutes. The Afrikaans commentator used the word “plettervat” to describe the tackle. For someone who understands the language, it is one word that does the job of a whole paragraph.

“Verpletter” means that something has been completely crushed or destroyed. The word “vat” means grab or hold, and is often conjugated:
laagvat – tackle low
vasvat – grab tight
So, “plettervat” denotes a tackle from which there is no coming back. Indeed, Cottrill may still be hurting from Jansen’s hit.

I need to start keeping a list of similarly descriptive words. Here are a few to get you going (please feel free to add more, via the comments section below):
Drinkstompie – the piece of wood (stompie) that gets added to a fire to extend the evening, or to delay the start of the braai
Spookasem – candy floss, directly translated as ghost breath
Abbawa – the trailer that is used to transport cars (i.e. a pantechnicon), literally carry (abba) wagon (wa). My sense is that ‘abba’ is a word that entered Afrikaans via Malay slaves, but googling ‘abba’ is not likely to be a rewarding exercise!
Loskop – absent-minded, but in a particularly descriptive manner. Directly translated as ‘loose head’.
Kitsbank – ATM (kits is the Afrikaans word for instant, as in instant coffee)

Over the past 24 hours I’ve had bit of a frustrating time with an Afrikaans client, who kept rejecting the English wine back label copy I wrote for her, on the basis that it was “missing beautiful descriptive words and a poetic flow of the words”. I’m not sure English has many words that pack as much meaning as Afrikaans does. So, with that background it’s no surprise that she wasn’t getting turned on by the words I’d crafted. Anyway, I went to my cliché cupboard and we seem to be making progress.

One of the features of modern programming languages is the way they build on previous languages, so that a simple reference calls a bunch of complex functionality. C led to C++, which in turn gave rise to Java, from which we get Groovy and Grails.

I can’t help thinking that Afrikaans is a little like one of the modern programming languages, in which one word does the work of many. Perhaps I should just trash the idea of Codecademy and get my kids to listen to a few Jan Spies or Gerhard Viviers recordings instead.

3 comments

Johan badenhorst - November 11, 2015

Huisbak, handskoen, voorkop, etc. the list is long.
Whenever any of the English folk over here in the UK find out a speak Afrikaans, I always get the “oh cool, say something in Afrikaans.” Responding “iets” got boring so I now force them to give me a sentence to translate. It has made some very descriptive words come to light I have just accepted without thinking about it in the past. Very interesting procedure now :)

Alice - November 25, 2016

This post is so dated, but what a delight to read! Especially as an Afrikaner this means so much – we tend to forget how special our language is.

Pat - September 16, 2017

I was searching for another word for Cotton Candy and found out about Spookasem and thought it was the most awesome word ever! I wish there will be more list of words like that :). I never knew that Afrikaans is such a beautiful language.

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