26 July 2012

South African English: You Must

As George Bernard Shaw (or Oscar Wilde, or Winston Churchill, or perhaps even Martin Luther King, Jr.) never said, the United States and South Africa are two nations divided by an uncommon language. And that language is Xhosa. No, wait, English.

I have had the pleasure to encounter a bevy of delightful South African linguistic quirks in Cape Town, and it would be my pleasure to introduce them to you every week. With only minimal further ado:


“You Must”
Locals in Cape Town often implore you to see a good film (usually an American one) or to visit a new restaurant (oddly enough, also usually an American one).
South African Friend, Eagerly: You must visit the Eastern Food Bazaar.
Me: Is it closing down this week?
SAFE: You must try the pizza.
Me: Why the urgency? Why are you ordering me around?!
SAFE: When you go you must get the pizza with lamb mince.
Me: All right, fine! I’ll go and try the flippin' pizza. Just let me be.
After several weeks of being intimidated into particular food, drink, and cultural choices, I discovered that my friends were merely making cordial recommendations. They were deploying “must” where I, Captain America, would venture a meek “should” or “may wish to think about considering the benefits.” “You must try the pizza” simply connoted that the pizza is good.

Parade, Opening of Parliament, February 2012
You may wish to consider getting out of the way of the President's convoy of large, fancy cars.

The excessive “must”-iness appears to come from two places: lack of urgency and frankness.

Lack of Urgency: South Africans in general, and Capetonians in particular, seem to constitute a relatively laid-back lot. There may simply not be anything sufficiently urgent to warrant the use of “must” as an imperative. One shudders to think what happens to things one “should” do here:
  • I should respond to your calls and emails? Perhaps tomorrow – or weeks later!
  • I should have your car ready this afternoon? I meant next week. We should order a part.
  • Government officials should stop funneling public funds to renovate their huge mansions? But those are the benefits of being in government!

Frankness: South Africans have a penchant for frankness. They will cut to the chase and ask you the hard questions (especially when trying to sell you a used car – oy vey!). They criticize Americans for beating around the bush too much and for being too polite. (Americans too polite? Could have fooled me.) So in the unlikely event that there were something sufficiently urgent to warrant the imperative, it would not be sugarcoated with “must” and would be at very high volume, e.g., “Try the pizza tonight or face certain doom!”


renee said...

Jeff dear, were you really so thrown by this mild injunction?

Jeff Okay said...

Renee, I was thrown for 30 seconds, but I recovered. After that the tongue has been firmly lodged in the cheek.

Rachael said...

U must take your tango very seriously or you will get a spanking (also popular in South Africa!)

Jeff Okun said...

Duly noted!

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