Ja well no fine

As I’m relatively new to the BDRA, I will use this post to tell you a little bit about myself. I’m from South Africa, which means that I say ‘Ja’ (pronounced ‘Ya’) rather a lot. (South Africans almost never say ‘Yes’, although we’re known to say ‘Yeeees’ when adding special emphasis to the affirmative.) I also come from that generation of South Africans whose vocabulary irritatingly includes the phrase ‘Ja well no fine!’, which means roughly the same as the Indian head nod (I learnt this by spending most of last year in India and frequently getting into trouble for misinterpreting this vital but cryptic bit of body language) – which, depending on context and accompanying clues such as a smile or a twinkle in the eye, can mean yes, no or maybe. (And in India, a twinkle in the eye can just as easily mean ‘No’ as it can ‘Yes’, as if things weren’t confusing enough already.) ‘Ja well no fine’ has the added advantage though, that it can stand in for ‘Well then!’ or ‘Oh!’ or any other English conversation filler that you might use when you don’t know what else to say. I’m pretty sure it was the writer Robin Malan, better known in South Africa by the phonetically spelt version of his name, Rawbone Malong, who popularized the phrase in the early seventies with the publication of his book Ah Big Yaws? A Guard to Sow Theffricun Innglissh, which, roughly translated into standard English, means ‘I beg your pardon? A Guide to South African English’, and which instantly became the definitive, if merciless, guide to white South African English pronunciation – even being used as a reference by the BBC’s drama department at the time.

Of course things have changed since then, and so-called Black English has taken its rightful place in the annals of our nation’s linguistic history. There was that great story some years back, of how Nelson Mandela once asked a member of the South African Airways crew for the black pepper, and she returned with that day’s edition of The Sowetan newspaper. (Those were the days when our national carrier crew’s fame revolved around more innocent things than facilitating South Africa’s international trade in dagga. Um, ja well no fine…)

That whole, rambling preamble was just to say that my interest in joining the BDRA’s DUCKLING team, specifically to work with the School of Education on the MA in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, has a few of its roots in my lifelong interest in regional dialects and world languages, living and dead. Apart from laughing deliriously at Malan’s exquisitely accurate transcription of our local idioms in my teens, I also studied Latin at school (while my friends were doing more sensible subjects like Science or Accountancy), after which I learnt a bizarre mixture of German, Swiss German and French on an exchange student year in Switzerland, which only my host family, in particular my ‘Mami’, who expended many hours teaching me her native French through the medium of our shared but totally butchered version of Swiss German, could ever fully understand.

Back in South Africa, I immersed myself in the anti-apartheid struggle in the eighties, majoring in Zulu while engaging in the deliberately subversive project of teaching literacy to black adults who had been denied an education by the evil Verwoerdian policies established in the fifties, all the while losing friends and colleagues for various periods of time to detention without trial, solitary confinement and other forms of institutional abuse in the political cauldron that was South Africa at the time. My postgraduate studies in Applied Linguistics provided welcome light relief.

A year in Spain in the early nineties, just before South Africa was due to undergo its peaceful transition to democracy (although we all feared that the Bothas and De Klerks were going to lead us into the bloodiest of civil wars) helped to calm my frantic spirit, while simultaneously adding to the linguistic muddle in my head – the murkiest depths of the latter being reached when I was commissioned to translate a novel from the Galician dialect into English, with the help of a hastily scribbled German translation that the (German-born) author had written for her mother. Learning Spanish was not without its mishaps. I think I will forever be remembered by my Spanish flatmates for casually remarking over lunch one day, ‘No me gusta nada la comida que tiene preservativos’, which translates as ‘ I can’t stand food with condoms in it.’ (I was only trying to say I don’t like preservatives…)

Subsequent attempts to learn Arabic while on a working stint in the Middle East yielded frustratingly little fruit: I got blindsided by the Arabs’ utterly inconsiderate convention of writing from right to left, in squiggles that represent only consonants, leaving the vowels almost entirely up to the reader’s imagination. And as the old Zen saying goes, in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities… (But seriously, on the subject of different alphabets, there is a fascinating account of the development of writing systems in Maryanne Wolf’s book, ‘Proust and the Squid’. Frustratingly though, her wonderful historical descriptions are somewhat marred by her rather apocryphal views on the emerging culture of what she calls the ‘Google universe’, in which ‘continuous partial attention and multitasking’ are the norm. She fears (but does not substantiate) that this will lead to huge compromises in the human race’s ability to conduct the ‘deep examination of thoughts, words and reality’ which is characteristic of literate societies. Ja well… she hasn’t convinced me. More about that in a later blog, perhaps – in which I promise I will focus on matters related to learning and technology…

My recent stay in India immersed me in the quaint and colourful world of ‘Indlish’ (Indian English) – part charming old English from the Raj era, and part off-the-wall linguistic idiosyncrasy. The owner of the travel agency I used in Bangalore had the distinction of being called the ‘Proprietrix’ on her business card, store rooms were called ‘godowns’ (even if you had to go upstairs to get to them), and shopfronts frequently displayed beautifully calligraphed notices advising customers to ‘Enter from the backside only’ – a surprisingly common linguistic quirk, which was immortalised by author Binoo John, in the title for his book on Indlish. Perhaps the most memorable example from his book is the supposedly popular opening line in official letters: ‘Dear Sir, with reference to your above see my below.’ Ja well…!

And now, here I am in England, where all manner of Innglisshes are spoken by the local tribes – some of them completely incomprehensible to the untrained ear. No fine… it seems my journey into linguistics has only just begun!

By Gabi

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  1. Helene

     /  March 27, 2009

    Hi Gabi! Lost as you were in the total quirkiness of your “borrowed” family, I never realized how original you were yourself!!! No wonder you adapted so well to us all. Thank you for providing me with a moment of good reading in the sea of change I am facing. It made me think that maybe individuals that survive the best life’s upheavals are those able to resort to humour. One nugget of information I took out of all this is the fact you learned some French from Mami. I’ll remember that… (No fine?). All the best on the rest of your journey

  2. David

     /  March 27, 2009

    Thanks for a lovely piece of writing, Gabi, full of entertaining asides as well as essential facts for those of us who’ll be working with you. I shall have to watch my language…

    My own experience in Cape Town as a very young student included teaching English in a night school in Langa, where, strangely, my (100% male, black) class wanted to know the meaning of various Latinate words used in English for body parts. Embarrassed, I educated them.


  3. Xophie

     /  March 27, 2009

    I had to think twice, before I randomly write in the same flippant manner that I speak! I thoroughly enjoyed your rather humourous piece, with generous simplicity and not a hint of sarcasm. Wonderfully written to provoke thoughts about my own culture.

    I share your ambivalence to the Arabic language, when I said to my teacher and the students of the Arabic class “Ana Qabalt Katheer Lebanani Fee Ghana”, I meant to say that I met a lot of Lebanese in Ghana but had actually said ‘I Kissed a lot of Lebanese in Ghana’ !!! (the Arabic word for meeting & kissing is only a slight extension of the first vowel) Thank God my husband wasn’t around!

    Would love to read more about your experiences.


  4. Hi,Your text was a great tour of places and languages.
    You might help me out. Have a look at my speculations on The First Printed Koran (Jan 21 post on http://roys-discourse-typologies.blogspot.com/search?q=Koran ). I would love to know if this ‘thought experiment’ on the semiotics of power in the Mediterranean hold water (scuse the bad pun).
    Welcome to Spring.

  5. Johanna

     /  March 27, 2009

    Dearest Gabi, Liebe Gabi, Queridísima Gabi
    ¡Me ha sido un enorme placer leer tu blog! “Ja, well”. Du hast ein so wunderbares Auge und Ohr für die Sprache und die Dinge! Your blog is a fresh and wonderful trip to the Innglisses and shows your spirit full of wit. Just wonderful. Thank you so much! Kisses from an other linguistical pot…. not out of Africa but allmost…. so far so long from…. Switzerland 🙂

  6. Ruth

     /  March 30, 2009

    Sawubona Gabi,

    What a wonderful patchwork from a true Rainbow Nationer (to coin a phrase). I have to add that there is a visual equivalent of “Ja well, no fine” – it consists of holding the head to one side, lifting the hands to shoulder level – palms up – and giving an exaggerated shrug. (If you are Afrikaans-speaking, you would probably mutter “Vra my” – translated “Search me” – and every English-speaker would know that actually you meant “Ja well, no fine”!

    Mooi dag, skattie!

  7. Hi Gabi,

    Thanks for the translation, I had it almost figured out, but your explanation suits me.

    Thanks a lot,

    Jack williams
    Chiefland, Florida

    PS: when I was going to sea as a young man, I had to translate my buddies’ language who lived in Alabama!

  1. Gabi’s blog: South African and Indian « BOOKSH.

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