Divided by a common language

“I have nits,” came the loud and confident voice from a lady in the next aisle. It stopped me in my tracks, and I wondered why this particular piece of oversharing had taken place in a fabric shop on a Saturday morning.

Then I realised that it was the shop assistant, who was recommending to a customer that there was another option available in another department. She was talking about stretchy material, Miranda, not head lice.

And it made me think about the nature of miscommunication, apropos George Bernard Shaw’s famous distinction between the UK and the US: “Two nations divided by a common language”, with South Africa being a single nation united by 11 official languages, but divided by English.

English, with its bewildering array of spellings, contexts, pronunciations, double meanings and etymologies that set traps for the unwary. And that has been uniquely adopted in this country in an even more complicated way.

Which means that our beloved country has a twelfth official language, and it is called Seffrish.

In Seffrish, symmetry is where they bury dead people. You use a coma to separate two parts of a sentence. A dessert is a place where it does not rain. And the earth makes a resolution every 24 hours.

And don’t even get me started on the jislaaik, the boet, the ja-well-no-fine, the izzit? and the hau!

Whether it is the accent, the pronunciation, the impossible complexity of English for non-English speakers, or the perils of direct translation, we have a rich vein to mine when it comes to possible misunderstandings.

A while ago, I was buying a large kitchen appliance (OK, let’s call it a fridge) and decided to put it on my credit card. But the card machine asked for a PIN – something that had never happened before.

“It’s because it’s a cheap card,” said the sales assistant.

“Cheap?” I said, inflating myself in indignation to my full 5 feet 4 inches. “There is nothing cheap about this card. It is a gold card. It has no credit limit. I can pay for the fridge with this card. It is not cheap!”

“No,” said the assistant. “I meant that it operates with a cheap….”

So it is not only the words that divide us, it is the accents. And on that note, here is one of the best analyses of our accent – the elusiveness of which is something we can regard as a matter of national pride.

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