I Say Tomato ~ You say Tomah-to

By Nakeisha Brownlee

I have always been pretty good with using context clues and deciphering abbreviations during a conversation.  Until this trip, I would have never believed the phrase “I’m sorry I don’t understand” is something I would use so often. Because South Africa has 11 official languages (Zulu, Afrikaans, English, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Xhosa, Tswana, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga, and Swazi) you never know what somebody’s first language may be. Fortunately for me, I have come in contact with people who speak English; however, if I were to ask a group how to say “hello” or “goodbye” in their native language, I would receive at least five different answers. Communicating can be pretty overwhelming as it is very common for a South African to speak at least five languages.

Because there are 11 different languages throughout the country, the universal language spoken in different tribes and races, to communicate with each other is English; but one person’s English may be slightly different from another’s. The bulk of business transactions are conducted in English and I have noticed that basic phone conversations have the potential to be interpreted as condescending or rude. They often use the phrase “deal with it”, followed by a smile. I am still trying to figure out if the use of this phrase is intentional or if there is a lack of knowledge of what it really means.  When English is your second, and in some cases third language, it is very easy to take a phrase or word and use it out of context, causing a misunderstanding and/or offending your counterpart.

This past couple of weeks I have noticed when speaking to me, people are careful not be offensive, but when talking to each other, things are slightly different.  As a communicator, I have learned avoiding jargon, colloquialism and culture specific acronyms reduces the amount of misunderstandings in the workplace.  This is especially the case when you have a diverse staff and volunteer groups that speak several different languages. I have been asked by several staff members to help compose emails to ensure the language used is clear, leaves nothing to question and more importantly, reduces any potential offenses.

Observing how everyone interacts with each other, I have concluded that this organization is not for the faint at heart or the sensitive; and taking things personally is not an option.  I have taken the liberty to put together a very short list of words commonly used in casual conversation.  Of course there are more words and phrases used, but these were the ones I could properly spell.

  • Boot – Trunk
  • Chao – Bye
  • Chips – Fries
  • Flats – Apartments
  • Holiday – Vacation
  • Loo – Bathroom
  • Mif – Sad/Upset
  • Nappies-Diapers
  • Petrol – Gas
  • Phone – Call
  • Porridge – Soup or Cereal
  • Queries – Questions
  • Queue – Line
  • Robots – Traffic Lights
  • Rubbish – Trash
  • SMS – Text Message
  • Teekes (pronounced tech-ez) – Sneakers
  • Tomato Sauce – Ketchup
  • Varsity – University/College

Until next time…



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