White, English speaking South Africans are not master storytellers. I know that one should avoid generalisations, and that there are, of course, exceptions, but generally speaking, if you recorded one of us telling you about the time we caught fire while judging a wet t-shirt contest and had to be airlifted to a nearby hospital in Barack Obamas helicopter while he smoked marijuana in the front seat, and played it back to someone who spoke no English, they would think we were telling a story about how we chose tiles for our bathroom.
White, Afrikaans-speaking South Africans are better. They have a guttural, expressive language that lends itself to wordplay. It’s particularly useful if you need to swear at someone properly.
But if you really want to see a story told well, you need to find yourself a black South African. I say see on purpose. Proper storytelling is done with the whole body, not a pair of flapping lips and the occasional tilt of the head. But that’s not the only thing that sets them apart. You see, black storytellers, even when using English, cheat. They use words that are not words. Sounds that we all recognise and understand, but cannot easily define.
These words are like sighs. We all know what it means when someone sighs. Sighing is a form of communication. But it is in indefinable one. A sigh can mean you’re tired. Or bored. Or sad. It can even mean you’re happy. It all depends on the context.
Happily, we have done away with that whole apartheid thing, and are slowly but surely adopting these words for ourselves. After all, meaningless words that are rich in meaning are a curiosity to be treasured.
I’ll start with one that doesn’t come from a black language at all. If you’ve never spoken to a South African, you’re probably reading it wrong. Which is a problem, because the sound is quite important but hard to explain.
The “a” is easy. You pronounce it like the “u” in “us”. It’s the “g” that’s a little tricky. Try hocking up a ball of phlegm, or clearing a tickling eyelash from your throat, and you’ll be getting there.
So what does it mean? Ag, I’m not really sure how to explain it, man. It’s like a non-committal “Oh, well”. If someone asks you how you are, and you reply “Ag, I’m OK”, it means that there’s nothing really wrong with you, but that you’re not exactly skipping through the daisies.
Then there’s “Ag no, man”. “Ag no, man” is a special case. It shows mildly disgusted disapproval. If a child brings through half a bowl of soggy cereal and explains that the other half is lying artfully scattered around your bed, the only appropriate response is “Ag no, man”. Even if the child is a girl. The man in question is some sort of mysterious third force that you appeal to but who never responds.
If the cereal is particularly soggy, and has stuck to your pillow like a lump of grey-green slime, you might even add “sis”.
“Sis” is the anglicised version of the Afrikaans word “sies”. It’s not really a word either. It’s there to show a more intense level of disgust. “Ag no, sis, man!” you might say to the same child half an hour later, “How can you pick your nose and wipe it on the TV cabinet?”
The Afrikaners have another wordless word; “Nè”. It basically means something like “Do you know what I mean?” It turns any sentence into a question, or at least invites further discussion. As in “Your children have a questionable approach to domestic hygiene, nè?”
The English have seen this, and liked it. Some of us just use it as it is, but most of us replace it with “hey?”, as in “Yes, they’re dirty little buggers, hey?”
Those words are Afrikaans, so we’ve all been using them for ever. Another word we’ve been using for ever is “eina!”
“Eina!” just means “Ow!” But it’s a much better word. “Ow!” sounds kind of whiny. “Eina!” is explosive and angry and satisfying to say when you’ve hit yourself with a hammer. It can also be used in sympathy when some other mullet hits themselves with a hammer.
It’s one of a handful of words left over from KhoiSan, one of the languages of South Africa’s original inhabitants. It’s closely related to the click language of the Bushmen you can hear in “The Gods must be Crazy”.
“Eina!” is even more satisfying to say if you mix it in with a bit of Afrikaans, as in “Eina! Jou bliksem!”
There’s a whole crop of words that is becoming more common. They’ve always been around, but thanks to apartheid, they haven’t really been in general use among white people. That’s changing. Fast. Because they’re good words.
Eish! Yoh! Hau! Hayibo!
I’ve put these all together, because they all have a very similar meaning. They are all expressions of amazed disbelief. They’re the verbal equivalent of an exclamation mark. But they all carry shades of meaning with them.
“Eish!” carries a degree of sympathy with it. If a stranger walked into your room to find a small child sitting happily in a pool of sodden corn flakes and wiping balls of dried snot on the curtain, they might shake their heads sadly and mutter “Eish!”
“Yoh!” Is more an expression of amazed surprise. If you saw a man performing a series of elegant flick-flacks across three lanes of busy rush-hour traffic, as one does, you might exclaim “Yoh!” And when you are relating the story to a friend later on, you might say it three times; “A taxi came so close to him he could read the paper of the guy in the back. Yoh! Yoh! Yoh!”
“Hau!” denotes disapproving amazement, as in;
“I saw a man doing flick-flacks in heavy traffic get hit by a taxi this morning!”
“Yep. It hit him so hard that the guy in the back tore his newspaper.”
“Hau! Hau! Hau!”
“Hayibo!” is the local equivalent of the American “Get out of town!” If I told you the driver got out of his taxi and backhanded the injured street-acrobat for getting in his way, you might sit up, raise your eyebrows, and exclaim “Hayibo!”
So how does this all help with storytelling? Well, imagine you were sitting down with a bunch of friends and told them a story;
“I was walking past our neighbour’s house yesterday when I caught sight of their dog in the back garden. It was huge. Head like a cannonball.”
You might hold up a hand to show how tall it was.
“He was kept on a chain. He had bitten the gardener a month before and put him in hospital.”
You could pause, and maybe look around to make a bit of eye-contact, to make sure everyone got how big the dog was.
“But as I walked along the fence, he came barrelling towards me. And he didn’t stop. The chain was broken.”
You might even widen your eyes a little. The chain. It was broken. Wow.
“I wasn’t too stressed though. He was behind a fence, and the gate was closed. I was safe. Or so I thought. Next thing I knew, the enormous bastard jumped straight over the gate!”
You could pause again. Wider eyes. And a little more looking around. This is dramatic stuff; you’re allowed to ham it up a little.
“I ran. I ran like I’ve never run before! Straight for the nearest tree. I got there just in time; I could feel his breath on my back. I hauled myself up, and breathed a sigh of relief. Safe. Or so I thought. Until I looked down and saw the bastard was climbing up after me!”
Sorry. It’s a boring story. It’s supposed to be. But round here, you could tell it like this;
“I was walking past our neighbour’s house yesterday when I caught sight of their dog in the back garden. Yoh! It was huge. Head like a cannonball.”
Time to stand up. You could hold both hands up, grasping the imaginary dog on either side of its enormous head and shaking it up and down.
“He was kept on a chain. He had bitten the gardener a month before and put him in hospital. Eish!”
That poor gardener. Look down at your shoes and shake your head as you “Eish!”
“But as I walked along the fence, he came barrelling towards me. And he didn’t stop. Hau! The chain was broken.”
Widen your eyes so much it hurts. Drop your jaw. The chain! It was broken! Can you believe it?
“I wasn’t too stressed though. He was behind a fence, and the gate was closed. I was safe. Or so I thought. Next thing I knew, the enormous bastard jumped straight over the gate! Yoh! Yoh! Yoh!”
Bend your whole body forward a little, and by the time you get to the “straight over the gate!” part, you need to be speaking in a strangled shout. Bend you elbow and extend your first two fingers and your thumb, and whip your arm down so that your fingers crack together like a whip as you shake your head from side to side. “Yoh!” Crack! “Yoh!” Crack! “Yoh!” Crack!
“I ran. I ran like I’ve never run before! Straight for the nearest tree.”
Ball your hands into fists and hold your thumbnails against your lips. Suddenly punch one of your hands forward as you breathe out a loud hiss.
“I got there just in time; I could feel his breath on my back.”
Look around behind you. Are these people getting quite how close this damn dog was?
“I hauled myself up, and breathed a sigh of relief. Safe.”
You can let out a sigh of relief. Let your arms flop down at your sides.
“Or so I thought. Until I looked down and saw the bastard was climbing up after me! Hayibo!”
It’s all a bit dramatic; as much a piece of theatre as it is a dinner time anecdote. But if you hear a story told like this, you’ve been there with the teller. You’ve had that dog bearing down on you, panting at your heels. And it bloody nearly got you. It helps if you’ve had a drink or two.
Sadly, I grew up in the old South Africa. These words were not a part of my childhood. I can and do use them occasionally, but mostly for effect. They will never be spat from my mouth with the passion and conviction they require. They sound hollow. Unconvincing, like a cracked bell.
But all is not lost. My kids are growing up in a very different place. Most of their friends are black, or Indian, or Chinese. The world is very different for them.
I picked my nine-year-old son up from school this afternoon. I asked him how his day was. “Yoh!” he spat, with passion, “Gary was chasing Luniko across the table when he slipped and cut his head!”
He paused and looked at me, waiting for the required “Eish!”
But it wasn’t there. I hope one day it will be.