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South African English VS. American English

Updated on April 9, 2014
South African and the United States flag
South African and the United States flag

A journey into understanding some common South African terms

Are there many different ways of speaking English? Does English have many forms?

Would you ever imagine yourself flossing with chocolate? Probably not! Yet in South Africa, (also in the UK, Ireland and New Zealand) the fluffy, sugary treat Americans call “Cotton Candy” is known as Candy Floss in these countries.

How about the soft cotton wrap that babies wear? Well, Americans would term this a “diaper” but in South Africa they are referred to as nappies.

You spill some cranberry sauce on your mom’s new Thanksgiving tablecloth. You reach across the table, and grab a “napkin” to wipe the spot that you spilled on. But what if you were to ask for a napkin at a sushi restaurant overlooking Table Mountain, in Cape Town, South Africa? Your waitress would certainly tell you that she’ll be right back with your serviette.

It’s late; you just finished watching your high school’s football game. You’re craving an apple pie! Your friends take you to Denny’s. Your eyes fall upon the pie you want with its crispy crust and juicy, golden pie filling. You ask for the apple “pie” but did you know in South Africa, you would actually ask for an apple tart? And no, your waiter would not return with a promiscuous-looking woman showing way too much skin – tart is used in South Africa when referring to pie.

You’re on vacation in South Africa. You’re on a busy, crowded street in Johannesburg when taxi drivers behind you begin honking angrily (or as South Africans would call hooting) when your car breaks down. Oops! You’re out of gas. A friendly black woman carrying a basket of peaches on her head asks if she can help you. With relief, you ask her where the nearest “gas station” is. She would more than likely know what you mean, but she would tell you the nearest petrol station is one block away. In South Africa that liquid you put into your car is referred to as petrol.

Also, while traveling, remember to always stop at a red "robot". What robot?! Well, in South Africa, a robot refers to a "traffic light", and does not mean you will be met by Wall-E or a Decepticon.

And finally, you know the ongoing debate that goes on between Americans. Each state in the United States seems to have their mind made up about what Coke, Sprite or Pepsi (etc.) is referred to as. Do you call it “soda” or would you call it “pop”? If you were in South Africa in a store such as Pick n’ Pay (a well-known supermarket), you would not need to decide whether you should ask where the “soda” or a “pop” aisle is, because in South Africa it is simply called cooldrink!

So relax on Boulders Beach where the penguins roam freely, open up a tin (South Africans would say tin not can) of cooldrink, purchase some candy floss, enjoy an apple tart and don’t forget to put in petrol on your way home after a long journey!

© Romi Andrews & Mike Lundy 2011

Soda or Pop?

What do you call Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Sprite etc.?

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    • profile image

      SteffiWilhelms 2 years ago

      Great article. There are more words which are particular to South Africa. In the "Speak like a Local" section on are mentioned many more like:

      - "Howzit?" meaning "How are you?" or "How is it going?";

      - "Lekker", a popular term meaning "cool" or "nice";

      - "Ja" meaning "yes";

      - "Soccer" or "rugby" instead of "football";


      And I totally agree that "pharmacy" really sounds more serious than "drug store" ;-)

    • profile image

      Lizzy 4 years ago

      We also don't have "drug stores"; those always sound so illegal to me in the movies. They are "pharmacies" here.

      Also, no such thing as a barbeque - its a BRAAI :)

    • greekpalmtree profile image

      Romi Natasha Andrews 6 years ago from Los Angeles, California that's awesome. Where about in SA are you going to? Cape Town is REALLY gorgeous! Let me know if I can help you out with any travel info

    • greekpalmtree profile image

      Romi Natasha Andrews 6 years ago from Los Angeles, California

      @Ray Andrews - thanks dad I forgot about that! I will include it in Part 2 :-)

    • profile image 6 years ago

      I'm going to South Africa next year. The new found knowledge might come in handy.

    • profile image

      Ray Andrews 6 years ago

      What about the "Z" in America it is a zee in South Africa it is a zed and an ass is a donkey not your backside

    • profile image

      O'Rion Jefferson 6 years ago

      The "Dixie" flag was the flag of the racist, Ku Klux Klan Southern States during the American Civil War. It's still run up the flagpole every once in a while just to see if anyone salutes.

    • profile image

      greekpalmtree 6 years ago

      Hi O'Rion Jefferson,

      Yes, the "N" word has the same meaning as is equally as offensive in South Africa.

      Lol, I'm not sure what you mean by "Dixie" flag?

    • profile image

      O'Rion Jefferson 6 years ago

      The South African flag has a scary resemlance to America's "Dixie" flag, or am I just being stupid?

      Does the American "N" word mean the same thing in South Africa?