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The Vagaries of Language

04 December 2013, 07:56

Speaking of British pubs (we weren’t?) (I could have sworn we were: it must be the e-tolls confusing me) (there I go, talking to myself again. Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic, and so am I) What was I talking about again? Oh yes! British pubs! (I knew I would eventually get back to the subject at hand)

Linford Christie walks into a pub in the East End and orders a beer. The barman says, ‘We don’t serve your type here. There’s a pub for your type ten minutes up the road.’

‘Do you know who I am?!’


‘I’m Linford Christie, mate!’

‘Sorry, mate, I didn’t know. Linford Christie!’ Shakes his head. ‘There’s a pub for your kind about five minutes up the road.’

This is an example of the kind of joke we should not tell in this rainbow nation of ours.

Our jokes should be ‘in fact’ jokes. ‘In fact, I’m quite shooar the honourable membah did not mean those weds. The honourable membah will apolo… apoli…say sorry!’

We have our own vernacular, and it is, like most things South African, unique to us.

South African English must surely rank amongst the most bizarre in the English-speaking world, and that’s a hefty chunk of this world. We use the language as a language should be used, of course, the language being vital and alive, but still we excel more than most.

In the US, when they say ‘just now’, they mean immediately. In South Africa we have ‘now’, which means sometime in the near future, ‘just now’, which means today and ‘right now’, which means within the next hour. ‘Now now’ means as soon as I can get around to it.

In the UK it’s a term of sympathy: ‘Now now, Mrs Brown, I’m sure your ‘usband didn’t mean to explode into a thousand tiny pieces. Sit down; I’ll make you a cuppa.’

We have robots. Not traffic lights, robots. Did the early town planners really think that the robots depicted in science fiction stood and blinked all day long? Of course in Joburg most of them do blink, unless they’re completely out of order. But you get my point, I’m sure.

And a Joburg special: ‘You ignore me like a stop street!’ Where else in the world could an expression like that come into common parlance? Because stopping behind the line is verboten!

In the 1972, Robin Malan wrote a book Ah Big Yaws, A Guide to Sow Theffrican English , which was genuinely hilarious, but what it did more than anything was highlight our national idiosyncrasies. South Africans don’t say, ‘Excuse me,’ they say ‘Sorry!’ meaning exactly the same thing.

‘Sorry! Can I come through?’ Sound familiar?

On the other side, there’s, ‘This people don’t undahstend Democracy. Democracy is whut is good for the peoples, and we, the ANC, know whut is good for the peoples! Long drops are whut owah peoples used under Apartheid; why do they think they are better then us?! We will show the DA and our peoples with this chemical toilets. Bombs are made from chemicals; they are dangerous!’

So, back to British pubs, which are better than the ANC. This cannot be proven, but it is, just as Elmer Kogan is.

A Russian seaman (not the sperm floating in fluid, because I know you’re going to make that filthy joke in your minds, but a sailor. Happy now?) walks into a London pub. This guy is h-u-g-e! Six six and bulky to boot. Not his boots, that’s just an expression!

The barman looks up, ‘Yeah, guv?’

‘Give me good, strong Russian vodka!’ So he gives him a Smirnoff. The Russian spits it out. ‘This is not vodka, this is p!ss! Give – me – good – strong – Russian – VODKA!’

Fortunately the barman is wearing brown trousers, but he IS in a bit of a panic, so he looks around frantically (or should that be frantically around? English is so confusing sometimes) and spots a bottle of sulphuric acid under the counter. Oh well, he thinks, in for a penny…and pours a glass of acid for the Russian gentleman glowering at him. Vapour rises off the liquid as he passes it to him.

The Russian throws back his head and swallows it in one gulp, his eyes starting out of his head. He slams the glass down on the counter and squeaks, ‘Is –good-strong-Russian-vodka.’ And leaves. The publican (that’s what they call those people, that’s why we call them pubs. You learn something new everyday, doncha?) stares after him in amazement, certain he’s just committed murder.

But no. Every day for a whole week, the Russian is in for his good, strong Russian vodka.

After a week, the barman (or publican, choose whichever word you prefer) says to him, ‘You like your vodka, dunya, mate?’

The Russian thumps his chest. ‘Good strong Russian vodka!’

‘Bu’ it must sor'a burn your mouf a bit, dunnit?’

The Russian shakes his head. ‘Good strong Russian mouth!’

‘Well, it must sor'a burn your froat a bit?’

‘Ah ah, good strong Russian throat!’

‘Don’ it burn your tummy, then?’

‘Ah ah, good strong Russian stomach!’ He leans forward confidentially and holds up an index finger. ‘Only one thing: when you wee-wee, don’t splash. Your shoes go POOF!’

See, that’s not racist, that’s nationalist, and that’s allowed, because he’s white. See how simple it is?

Finally, I’m going to move across the Irish Sea to Dublin. This way, no-one, except perhaps the Irish, can accuse me of racism. Or blow me up.

Sean walks into his local and says, ‘Hey Paddy, hoiws bizzness?’

Paddy shakes his head, indicating the empty pub. ‘Bloody turrble, Oim thinkin’ a closin’ doiwn?’

‘What’re youse goin’ t’ do then?’

‘Oi t’ink Oi’ll open a brothel.’

‘Don’t be daft, man! If ye can’t sell beer, what makes you t’ink you can sell soup?’

Somewhere in there is a moral, but I’m buggered if I can find it. If you do find the moral, write it on a postcard, tie it to a tin of bully beef, and sent it to Iru.

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