A while back I posted about Tsotsitaal, a South African township dialect; here‘s Andie Miller’s interview with Athol Fugard, who wrote the novel Tsotsi (along, of course, with the many plays that made him famous), and it has some interesting linguistic discussion:

On the subject of the term tsotsi, Stephen Gray reflects: “I’m interested in how the word has become so familiar since the Oscar. Now it’s known to the whole world.” A Google search yields 12 million results. “But in the late fifties it was a minor cult word that people had difficulty with… Drum [Magazine] saw the potential of the posed zoot suit. You know tsotsi‘s meant to be a corruption of zoot suit… fashionable clothes, Florsheim shoes, white hats that came from gangster movies … By April 1956 there was a character that Drum launched, called Willie Boy, and then Alex le Guma took it up as well, for the first of his beautiful books. So it became a media feature, this juvenile delinquent tsotsi-boy. And now of course we have musicals about Sophiatown, and university presses publish dictionaries of tsotsitaal for academic scrutiny.”…
Tsotsi, the winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, introduced English-speaking audiences to an unfamiliar subculture and its language, Tsotsitaal, used on the streets of Soweto, a group of townships in Johannesburg, South Africa. The area was segregated (Black only) by the Apartheid government, and its population of some two million is still largely Black and poor. Tsotsitaal is a blend of Afrikaans, English, and African language stocks, and though the current version of it, “isiCamtho,” is now spoken in the townships, it originated in Sophiatown, a multiracial/multicultural Johannesburg suburb which was bulldozed in the early sixties.

She ends the piece with a substantial selection of terms from Louis Molamu’s Tsotsitaal: A dictionary of the language of Sophiatown (2003).


  1. Tomasz Kamusella says

    Language-lovers may like the following tidbits. Jean Banford’s South African Dictionary (Cape Town 1987) records the earliest quotation for tsotsi from 1971, and for Tsotsi-taal from 1976 (p 382).
    I wonder whether Tsotsi-taal might originate from Fanagalo (Fanakalo), a creole based on Zulu syntax and Afrikaans and English vocabulary, to this day used as the lingua franca in the gold mines of the Rand. When I studied in South Africa in 1991, phrasebooks of Fanagalo were readily available in bookshops, as this creole was often used for communication between white employers and black/colored ‘domestics’ (that is, servants), especially in Transvaal.

  2. Frankly, I found the film a story-telling failure. The director somehow contrived to throw in all that is worst about Hollywood-style tearjerkers, with the result that not a tear was jerked from my stubborn eye.
    But the cinematography was excellent, and the soundtrack (the non-orchestral bit of it) is surely the most rousing thing I heard last year. Well worth seeking out.
    (Hello, Venerable Hat!)

  3. I agree about the Hollywoodizing of the film, although the travelogue and linguistic aspects made it worth my while. (Hi, Man of Many Masks!)

  4. I’d love to see the film. I’m curious as to which language the word tsotsi came from – Tswana? Xhose? Anyone?

  5. Found this:
    Glaser’s Bo Tsotsi shows the term tsotsi, still current usage for gangster, originated either from the tightly tapered trousers of 1950s zootsuits, preferred by township ‘wide-boys,’ or from the Sotho phrase ho tsotsa, meaning to sharpen, another sartorial reference to trousers.

  6. Tomasz Kamusella says

    Obviously, the word comes from Afrikaans, or the slangy variant of this langhuage, fly-taal, used in the Rand cities of Jo’burg and Pretoria.

  7. Except that it’s not obvious at all. See Eliza’s comment.

  8. Nor is there a corresponding cognate in Afrikaans. “Ts” is commonly found in Sotho words – more likely northern Sotho than southern Sotho, I’d guess.

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