Tsotsitaal (Ethnologue’s Camtho) is a mixed language spoken (as a second language) in South African townships, such as Soweto. (If you saw the movie Tsotsi, you heard it used.) Andie (of Andie’s Web) has put online a selection from Louis Molamu’s Tsotsitaal: A dictionary of the language of Sophiatown; the vocabulary shows the usual flair and humor of popular language creation:

florsheims/A popular brand of expensive men’s shoes, the term is used widely to refer to cooked sheep or pigs’ trotters.

Tsotsi itself means ‘(young) thug, criminal’ and is said to be “tied to the ‘zoot suits’ worn by Americans in the early 1940s”—interesting if true.

Update (Oct. 2022). Andie’s post is no longer findable, even via Wayback Machine, but what seems to be the same vocabulary is available here (scroll down).


  1. Siganus Sutor says

    Having read André Brink’s ‘A Dry White Season’ recently, there is a recurrent word there that I couldn’t quite understand: “lanie”, used by a Sowetan taxi driver to tease Ben Du Toit, the Afrikaner who rebels against the system. I don’t know if it is Tsotsitaal, but I’ve guessed that it was some kind of mirror image of “nigger” or “kaffir”. How to be sure however?

  2. Siganus Sutor says

    Oops! among all the links provided above I hadn’t seen the helpful selection of Tsotsitaal words, in which there is this: “laanie / The term refers to a white person, usually a white male.” (A laanie can apparently be a jaapie — a term of derision for whites — too).
    Also found this amusing version of the yes-man: yabaas, which seems to say it better.

  3. Michael Prytz says

    In South Africa English (as opposed to Tsotsitaal), lanie means ‘fancy’ or ‘posh’: “They came in there with their lanie clothes…”
    Doesn’t relate to race at all (unless historically it was analogous to the American term “acting white”).
    Japie means a hick. Often heard in the (Afrikaans) construction “plaasjapie”: a “farm-hick”.
    So in SAE a lanie couldn’t really be a japie.

  4. Siganus Sutor says

    Michael, I don’t know if the original version of Brink’s book was in English or in Afrikaans, but since the word “lanie” — a noun in this case, not an adjective — was used by a Zulu to address an Akrikaner, it would probably have the meaning found in the Tsotsitaal dictionary mentioned here.
    It is however interesting (and probably confusing as well in some cases) to note that the same word can apparently have another meaning in South African English. Do you have an idea about where it comes from?

  5. Michael Prytz says

    Sorry, I’m not sure where it came from; it’s certainly been around since the 70s at least. You can also use lanie as a noun in “my” SAE, in which case it would just mean a posh person: “Uh-oh, looks like the lanies are here.”
    It’s not that unusual here for a word to have different meanings for different “race groups” – I suspect it’s a product of apartheid’s social silos, whose walls have not yet finished crumbling…
    To pick minor example at random: to a speaker of “white” SAE, a plastic (n.) is something an industrial chemist works with. To a speaker of “black” SAE, a plastic is simply a supermarket shopping bag.
    The most notorious example I know of this phenomenon is South African Sign Language. We originally only had one language for the deaf, but because it was taught in race-separated institutions, often by race-separated teachers, it split into four dialects, corresponding to the four racial “population groups” that were invented by the Nationalist government. By the time apartheid fell, it had (apparently) almost reached the point of mutual unintelligibility, and work has since been undertaken to standardise it.
    There was also a time in the late nineties where I suspect that I could have covered up the byline of a newspaper article and told you the race of the author, just by the “colour” of the language they used. But these differences are now fading.
    Nice to see an interest in my homeland on languagehat.

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