The possibility of a loan: adverbs and related parts of speech from Afrikaans and ‘vernac’ in South African English


South African English (SAE) has been assimilating adverbs, adapting, calquing or loaning them from local languages for more than two centuries. The earliest recognisably English adverb in SAE is dead still (completely motionless), first seen in 1835, while the first from a black African language is yebo (yes) from isiZulu, first recorded in 1836. The earliest SAE adverb overall, however, is sommer (just, simply, only), from Afrikaans in 1786 (though it only achieved its current form in the 1960s). The second earliest is ja (yes), also from Afrikaans in 1832.

Indeed, of the adverbs in, more than half are from Afrikaans.

These Afrikaans-derived items have a number of discernible features:

1. (a) They are either taken directly from Afrikaans, with no or little apparent change in orthography or meaning (e.g. baie, bliksem, darem); or, (b) where they have been transformed into English words, they are either (i) influenced by Afrikaans (e.g. already, only, with), or (ii) adapted or calqued from that language (e.g. down, no what, so long).

2. They appear in SAE in three waves: (a) those entering the variety up to 1900 (e.g. ja, lekker, mos, nee, yes-no); (b) those doing so from the 1910s to the 1940s (e.g. asseblief, bietjie, ja-nee, voetstoets); and (c) those from the 1960s to the 1990s (e.g. doer, helse, verdomde, plus-minus). Using this timescale, it is also noticeable that relative to the number of actual loanwords from Afrikaans, which remains steady at 10-11 items per wave, the number of adaptations and calques decreases from 64% in the first wave to 10% in the second, and 27% in the third. That is, compared to earlier periods, SAE appears to have become more accepting of straight loans of adverbs from Afrikaans in the course of the twentieth century.

3. Some of them are (a) out of use, rare, or only used in specific communities (e.g. huistoe, soetjes, tog, voorwaarts, wragtig); while others are either (b) still only used colloquially or in slang (e.g. bakgat, nooit, skeef); or (c) fully assimilated and in current use, though mostly informally (e.g. ja, just now, nogal, now-now).

4. Interestingly, many of these adverbs are sometimes used:
(a) redundantly (e.g. already, (just) sommer)
(b) as intensifiers (e.g. maar, tog, verdomde)
(c) as interpollations (e.g. mos, nogal, tog)
(d) as interjections (e.g. bakgat, bliksem, huistoe, nooit), or
(e) in related modes, such as for affirmation and emphasis, or as expletives or stand-alone items (e.g. asseblief, ja, ja-nee, natuurlik, nee, wragtig, yes-no).

That is, some of them can be used as conjunctive adverbs, or do not otherwise need to be bound into the syntax of a sentence in order to be used appropriately – they may sometimes function as adverbs, and sometimes as conjunctions, or interjections. They may represent a syntactic excess, as much as they proclaim a semantic excess.

5. As interestingly, many of them have contemporary cognates or near cognates in black African languages, such as isiXhosa, isiZulu, and Setswana.


Until the mid-1990s – as represented in A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles (1996) – Afrikaans was the source of 39.8% of all SAE lexical items (with words from Dutch providing another 18%), while actual English words made up just over 16%. IsiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho, and Setswana contributed 6.3%, 5%, 2%, and 1.7%, respectively. (For more statistics on SAE source languages, see here.)

Over the last two decades or more though, SAE has arguably been assimilating words and phrases from local African languages – together sometimes colloquially referred to as “vernac” – in greater numbers than ever before, so that these proportions have changed over this period – and are likely to continue to do so in future. I have already looked at some of these items on this blog: new words (dololo, eish, gqom, Mzansi, (just) nje); new meanings for some already “classical” SAE items (imbizo, indaba, lekgotla); and older words and phrases that have only come to prominence and been assimilated more recently (manga manga, umrabulo)1.

Below, I give further detail – part of speech, source, meaning – for akere, aweh, kaloku, kanti, mara, nje, phela, and vele, with examples of the use of each (I have mostly limited these to three quotations each, from the earliest instances I have found so far). Some of the lexical items described – aweh, kanti, and mara – may have more than one grammatical function. All but akere (an interjection) and mara (a conjunction), are primarily adverbs – though there might be an argument that akere tends to an adverbial function in some contexts. Mara is primarily a conjunction, but, as can be seen in the last example, where it occurs in a sentence final position, in informal contexts it can also be an adverb.

It is noticeable that some of these items are similar to existing SAE adverbs that have been assimilated from Afrikaans (as laid out in the first part of this post). The most obvious of these is the link between maar and mara – the latter is derived from the former. At a simple level, there are also semantic links between, on the one hand, mos, and on the other, akere, kanti, phela, and vele; between natuurlik, and phela and vele; and between sommer and nje – though the situation may be more complex than this.

In other words, these adverbs from “vernac” are of a kind that SAE readily pulls into its orbit and assimilates – and readily so in an unchanged form; the way they are being employed in English in South Africa is testament to this. It is likely that within a decade or less the lexical items described below will make their way into dictionaries of SAE; and it is possible that within a generation they will have become as frequent in SAE as Afrikaans-derived items such as ja, lekker, mos, nogal, sommer, and others are today.

However, as SAE overall is effectively an accumulation of its sub-varieties as they are used in various social and geographical contexts around South Africa, it is unlikely that the items discussed here, were they to be popularised to a greater degree, would necessarily displace existing SAE adverbs, as much as chisa nyama is unlikely to replace braai. Rather, they provide alternative formulations, and a greater degree of nuance in a richer lexicon.

Adverbs and related parts of speech from “vernac” – wordlist, descriptions and examples
(Note: that source links are currently live cannot be guaranteed in all cases.)

akere ^

intj. | Setswana, Sepedi (and Sesotho?): indeed, isn’t it?, right?

2010 (comment) I will still scroll down to check who commented (looking for Sundowns fools) to outdo them. Or kanjani Ernest? Thanks is a no no akere my outie? 3 Jul. (Source)

2012 (comment) I am right to say the negative about OPFC [sc. Orlando Pirates Football Club] is a medicine to your sickness? Akere you don’t lose hope, keep on with having that hope for next season. 13 May (Source)

2016 I grew arrogant. Remember I was not ugly anymore, akere? Else why would all these women sleep with an ugly man? (Source)

2017 (comment) Yes Sundownz have the best squad at the moment in the PSL, but how many playrz are more influential than Mahlambi? Few, akere? 23 Feb. (Source)

aweh ^

adv., intj. | isiXhosa? (“ewe”?): yes, ja, hello (an acknowledgment of presence or of statement)

2009 The Nikon D200 around my neck started to feel conspicuous and valuable. … Take it dude. Don’t stab me. As he gets close he changes his approach slightly and walks passed, lifting his left hand, clenched fist. “Aweh!” He says. 23 Dec. (Source)

2012 Do you guys have a bong around here hey? Please could we use it man… Aweh. 2 Oct. (Source)

2014 We’ve got South African musicians using the fact that the country is making better and better movies, to make better and better beats. Aweh, like it says. 3 Mar. (Source)

2017 TASTY: Hot cross buns come in choc chip nowadays – aweh! 5 Apr. (Source)

kaloku ^

adv. | isiXhosa: now then, at present, as you know, because, bear in mind, whatever

2000 Hayi kaloku don’t forget that Perez, myself and Design have taken our cut. (Dike: 252)

2009 (informant) Kaloku, these patients were brought by relatives and when you try and find out from them why did they come so late, they will state that they started with traditional healers. (Tembani: 301)

2017 You … will probably also meet your high school teacher’s kid who went to boarding school because kaloku their parents wouldn’t let them attend eza village schools they teach in. 15 Feb. (Source)

kanti ^

adv., intj., conj. | isiXhosa and isiZulu: after all, however, nevertheless, notwithstanding, whereas, in fact, and yet, so what, who cares

2010 (comment) Hawu King, kanti what makes the team best? 28 Nov. (Source)

2012 (comment) Kanti who are those criminals vele? The female criminal must learn to relax her feet when walking in peep toes. 1 Oct. (Source)

2016 (comment) How could Daily Sun interview witnesses and yet police are appealing for information about the killers? How does this police thing work kanti? 6 Sep. (Source)

mara ^

conj., adv. | from Afrikaans (“maar”): but, though, however

2007 (comment) Mara why Britney? Why is your life such a mess? 2 Nov. (Source)

2011 (comment) Mara how do you take a person’s GHOST for klipa? 1 Jun. (Source)

2017 South Africa has no chill mara. 8 Apr. (

nje ^

adv. | isiXhosa and isiZulu: so, just, thus, in this manner

2002 (2004) (interview) If I remember, nje, the first start — it was the day when my husband heard something about these people who were struggling to go back (M. Shabalala in Walker: 211)

2010 (blog) It was nice from the start; we used to go out; sleep in the hotel; play and even go to his place nje for more fun almost every day. 4 Aug (Source)

2013 The phone tucked under your belt is not ayoba, there are better places to keep your phone. Try using your pockets nje. 11 Apr. (Source)

2016 (comment) Those people who were cut off nje from their bodies I wonder if they were still alive in the process or what? 20 Jul. (Source)

phela ^

adv. | isiZulu: absolutely, actually, certainly, indeed, really, truly (also exists in isiXhosa as: only, alone, but)

2010 (comment) Sbu shud neva get breakfast @ metro yo yo, ppl will stop listening, phela he 4gets that yfm was like primary school & metrofm is post graduate from wits. 30 Nov. (Source)

2013 (comment) Shem Wicki, I still want to meet you, want your autograph phela14 Oct. (

2016 (comment) Kata you don’t name phela you discuss the name nje. After birth you give it. 28 Oct. (

vele ^

adv. | (recent or informal?) isiZulu: of course, naturally

2011 (comment) You can follow Habus my outie, vele I’m expecting 1 in 10 at least to see the ‘light’ 5 Feb. (Source)

2013 (comment) Out of all SA players that have left the country over the past 5 years how many have made names for themselves overseas vele? 13 Jun. (Source)

2017 (comment) Ag vele he is JZ’s right man but doesn’t mean he will always agree with him. 31 Mar. (Source)


^ 1. Of course, lexical items that make their way into SAE via initial use primarily by black South Africans are not all necessarily from isiZulu, isiXhosa, Setswana or other African languages – they may also be English- or other-language items that have been either coined or adapted to articulate South African realities, e.g. Ben 10, blesser, double up, fong kong, stop-nonsense, and what-what. (A “stop-nonsense” is a boundary wall (usually of precast slabs), or sometimes just a fence, that keeps trouble out of township yards.)


Dike, F. (2000) “Streetwalking and Company” in South African Theatre Journal, 14(1)

Tembani, N. M. (2009) “Strategies to Facilitate Collaboration between Allopathic and Traditional Health Practitioners” Unpublished D.Cur. thesis: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Walker, C. (2004) ‘“We Are Consoled”: Reconstructing Cremin’ Interview with M. Shabalala, 28 Dec. 2002, in South African Historical Journal, 51:1

© 2017 GQOM