DiCaprio, Kidman, Robbins and others have all made attempts at the South African accent
Kidman tried in ‘The Interpreter’, Robbins makes a stab in ‘Catch a Fire’, but DiCaprio comes closest at nailing down the slippery South African accent in ‘Blood Diamond’. Many others have tried, and what usually happens is the pretender either errs on the side of an overly Aussie accent, or on an overly prissy English accent. The South African accent is a chameleon at the best of times, but to understand how it works you have to understand South Africans. Despite the hype, we’re actually laid back and relaxed, and our speech patterns reflect that un-hassled position.
When we South Africans speak, we take the path of least resistance to say what we mean to say. And because we have a few other cultures around us, we sometimes enlist words or phrases from these other languages to drive the point home. So here’s a quick language lesson:
Howzit – colloquial greeting – (means ‘how are you’ but you’re supposed to answer ‘howzit’ in response)
Bru – friend, brother
Example: Howzit bru?
Ag – push your tongue against the back of your throat, now blow bubbles. Gggg. That’s the sound you want after the ‘A’. You use ‘Ag’ in combination, for example: Ag no (irritation, directed at nothing in particular). Ag man (irritation usually directed at someone in particular). Ag shame (sympathy about something). These epithets are used to convey that extra emphasis you want.
Wanker – idiot (literally: someone who masturbates a lot)
Example: Ag man. You’re a wanker.
Lank – very
Hectic – busy
Example: Man, I’ve been lank busy these last few weeks.
Ja (pronounced Yah). Yes.
Pal – a word we use instead of buddy, and often to indicate irritation with someone
Lekker (pronounced lekka – an oft quoted Afrikaans word that means ‘good’, especially to describe girls, food or an experience)
Kak (pronounced khak – the opposite of lekker, although someone might say sarcastically: lekker kak.
Example: Ja pal, I had a lekker kak holiday thanks to you.
So why is it that the American accent (including variations, like the southern accent) was a snip for Charlize Theron, but America’s best actors continue to struggle? Well, the shortlist of words above should provide a clue. Some of them are quintessentially South African in terms of our phraseology, but still English. South Africa gets most of its lexicon from the British, including the pronunciation for most of what we say.
For example: dance – we say dhonce (Americans say dhance). The South African vowel is much flatter.
We don’t enunciate our r’s. It’s there, but it’s very soft. Americans struggle with this the most, because once you’re enunciating your r’s, they’re hard to drop.
In general, the South African English accent tends to be unostentatious, and we find other accents pretentious by comparison, with the American and Aussie accents seeming to us the most puffed up.
Why the accent is so tricky is because the English South African accent is often applied to Afrikaans South Africans speaking English. South Africa had two official languages for several decades, and half of all language speakers were Afrikaners (a language that comes from Dutch and has elements of other languages as well, but is essentially a new language, and an essentially new colonial language.) So an Afrikaner who speaks with a stunted accent, is really speaking English with an Afrikaans accent. It’s a South African accent, in a way, but it’s not the average accent, and certainly not commonly the way first language speakers speak it. My girlfriend is Afrikaans and she almost never speaks English, although she understands it perfectly, because her English sounds very flat.
I took your sister into town yesterday. – is how I would say the sentence.
An Afrikaner will change the enunciation quite a lot. It might sound like this – I tuk your sistah into toen yestahday.
I am thirty three.
Afrikaner English: I am firty fwee.
One more comparison: She is going to the rugby match later today. She are going to da rugby match later today.
For language coaches saddled with the task of trying to turn American accents into South African accents, they first have to coach their students in a pure British accent, then flatten and loosen and relax the language a little. As for the Afrikaans English accent, don’t even try!