10 August 2012

South African English: Now, Now, NOW

As Nelson Mandela once allegedly said, "if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." I am going for the jugular with this week’s South African English post.

Americans often have a knack for being overly precise about time and timeliness, especially in business situations. As every career-advancement-for-dummies book tells you, "if you are early, you are on time; if you are on time, you are late." South Africans have a much different sense of time and timeliness that comes to bear in a bewildering way: "now" does not actually mean "now."

I brought my car into the mechanic the other month. They promised to send a driver to take me to the garage to pick up my car, which proved to be easier said than done:
Mechanic: Our driver is leaving now.
Me: Great. I will go out on the street and wait.

[thirty minutes pass]
 Me: Where is the driver? I have been waiting for some time.
Mechanic: He will be there just now.
Me: You said he was leaving thirty minutes ago?!
Mechanic: He left just now.

[twenty minutes pass]
 Mechanic: The driver got lost and came back to the garage. He is leaving again now now.
The driver has yet to arrive. I have been on foot and bicycle ever since. But I learned valuable lessons about time and urgency.

"Now now" conveys urgency. It means “right now at this very moment.” In practice, however, it tells you to lay off the urgency, bru, and that you will get my attention when I please.
Waitron: I will bring the menu now now.
[ Translation: I might come back in 5 minutes. I might not! Only time will tell. I hope you are not particularly hungry. ]
"Just now" conveys mild hurry. (For you foodies out there, mild hurry is a type of traditional Cape Malay hurry. It is rich in flavor but not too hot. Takes forever to make though.) It means "in a moment" or "a moment ago." In practice, it tells you to chill out, boss, relax, you can have a seat, I have other things to do.
Friend: I parked the car just now. I will be at the club just now.
[ Translation: I am still at home in my pajamas.]
"Now" conveys deliberateness. It means "sometime soon." In practice, it tells you to go take a hike, no, really, do it, you will enjoy the fresh air, I will not be acting any time soon, plus the weather is fickle here in winter so you must enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.
Business colleague: I will call you back now.
[ Translation: You are low on my list of things to do. If I do not get to you in the next hour, I will go on leave for a week, but I will not mention this. You will have to find that out on your own. ]
These grapes will become wine now.

"Later" is not used in practice. If it were, I imagine it would mean "when Hades freezes over." In practice, it would tell you where you can stick it.
Capetonian Acquaintance: I hate to cancel our dinner plans tonight but my goldfish is sick. We must reschedule later. I swear on my mother’s grave.
[ Translation: I do not like you. I never should have agreed to have dinner with you, but I was too polite to turn the invitation down. I would rather sit at home alone. Also, I do not have a goldfish and my mother is alive and well. ]
"Eventually" is also not used in practice, but South African politicians must begin incorporating it in their rhetoric to improve transparency:
Politician: We will stamp out corruption in South Africa eventually. 
[ Translation: Keep up those service delivery protests. ]

I have practiced my South African language on time and timeliness over the past few weeks. I am getting to be quite the professional. Here, look: I made fun of Capetonian standoffishness just now. I will finish writing this blog post now now and will publish it just now. I will read your comments now, think about them later, and respond to them eventually.


Karen said...

Really enjoyed this Jeff! My boyfriend (whose family is from SA) and I are having fun browsing your old posts.

-KS (TJ '02)

Jeff said...

Karen, thanks for your comment. I am glad you and the boyfriend are digging what I'm laying down. Stay tuned -- there is much more to come.

I will also check out your blog!

Lisa Huang said...

awesome post Jeff!! what a great description, I think I am still having difficulty using the 3 "accurately" so I gotta practice more later, or maybe just now... hrrrrm

Jeff said...

Thanks, Lisa. Keep practicing; you will get the hang of it...eventually.

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