Slang: Botswana’s unofficial third language

Youth at the Main Mall. PIC: TSELE TSEBETSAME
Youth at the Main Mall. PIC: TSELE TSEBETSAME

In the aftermath of International Mother Language Day, Mmegi Correspondent, NNASARETHA KGAMANYANE finds that the youth have their own regional lingua franca, slang, or tsotsitaal as they call it in South Africa aka Mzansi

Ola skim sam! Skipane daah! Hope le mnizi nonke. Vandaag re tsile go qamtha kasi lingo (Hi pal! Howzit?! ‘hope you’re fine. Today we gonna speak slang).

Recently, Botswana celebrated International Mother Language Day in Middlepits where everyone demonstrated pride in their native tongues.

Language, after all, is a unique inheritance from the ancestors, an identity that cannot be easily shrug off or hidden in some dark corner.


Unlike other cultural traits whose importance lie in their timelessness, language evolves, adapts and keeps abreast of change.

The youth know all about change. Over the years, they have developed their own lingua franca, a language so dynamic that a weeklong absence from the platforms where it is spoken, would make a former guru a novice.

Slang, driven by the urban sub-culture, is intricately intertwined with youth interests such as music, festivals, informal gatherings, studies and others, a type of secret code that the young intentionally keep closeted from elders.

Words are adopted from youth in other countries, from music videos, from the Internet, from social media making the language the fastest growing and the most dynamic.

In Botswana, slang depends on where you are in the country.  In Maun, in the far west, speakers have many colourful, if not questionable words and phrases.

For example a girl is called a carcass, while a beautiful woman is called a queen. Other famous slang words are “go kongorela” meaning to squat on something, “go tjimba” meaning to aggressively pull something, “xabva” meaning to know and many other words.

The speakers would declare, “ho shiami,” meaning, it’s great. After a night of heavy drinking, the following day, one would say: “Ke tshwerwe ke magxhama” meaning “I’m hung over.”

With the north west, some spoken words like “moholole,” “rrahe” or “mlomo” could have been influenced by the Setawana (an accent of Setswana).

In the south and east side of the country, the youth have their own lingo. You get lost somewhere in a mall and ask a young man for directions. The response may be perplexing.

“Ga ke xabve,” the reply would come. In that state of perplexion, the “mogo”, “bari”, “momba”, all the words meaning “idiot and its synonyms, would ask:

“What?” It’s slang for “Ga ke itse,” (“I don’t know!).

In places like Bontleng or “Zola” (Old Naledi), guys with caps pulled over their eyes, would meet in dark alleys.

When one hisses out “skhiphane mpinji,’’ ‘‘skimi sa me” (what’s up friend), the other would say “grant”, which is “okay”.

The “mpinjis” might have met to talk about a “frou” (lass) or about “skongoro” (debt) owed by a certain “auti” (guy) who lives (bloma) on the other side of “kasi” town.

Perhaps, the other guy may be meeting his mpinji because he has no

‘‘zaka’’ (money)  to “chilla” (relax) at a certain “sgoti” (beer shebeen) to “shusha” (drink) “spinza” (beer) with ‘mei frou‘ or “Mmamazara”, both meaning girlfriend.

The guys may also talk about something that bothers them, saying “dae ding” (that thing) “ga ke se nxame” (I don’t like it).

Many of the slang words in the south eastern side of Botswana are actually the same with those from South Africa where the slang originates.

The words are borrowed from the major languages used in South Africa, which are Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans.

A popular dance music in Johannesburg called Kwaito which was the rave in the early 1990s, has certainly contributed to the massive transmission of South African slang to south eastern Botswana and from there to the rest of the country.

Thuto Thuto, a South African student at Limkokwing University in Lesotho, is somewhat of a guru in slang. According to him, slang changes everyday and words come from specific events or funny situations. Some of the slang is controversial though, says Thuto (no relations to Botswana’s fitness guru Thuto Thuto). For instance, a “coconut”,  which is brown outside and white inside, would refer to a black person who is deemed to embrace European or Caucasian ideals.

“Shimself’’ is a male gay. Alfred Khuzwayo – is an AK-47 rifle as in ‘ngi zom’ thethisa nge Alfred Khuzwayo” (‘I’ll shoot him down with an AK-47).

“Amashwang-shwang’’ refers to a beautiful hairstyle on a lady while 411 means giving someone the latest news and gossip,” he explains.

Some of these words may not have entered the Botswana scene yet, just as their predecessors had to be brought to the country by Batswana migrant and immigrant who would arrive back into the country with  an adopted posture and speaking tsotsitaal.

The expression “u6 no 9” means “the same difference” while ‘‘dankie san,’’ literally means “thanks dude.” Soweto rapper, Pro Kid, has driven the popularity of the expression, using it in songs and naming his new fashion label after the expression.

“Ama-get-down’’ refers to dancing or having a party, while ‘bo gata’ or ‘bo-4’ are the police. ‘Bling-bling’ means women who are light in complexion while ‘blind’ refers to something or someone who is good or impressive,” he says.

Other hilarious words include “frying pan” for a person with a predilection for telling untruths, “chicken dust” for roadside chicken braai.

“Gashu” is another word for idiot.

Young boys, aspiring to be like their tsotsi brothers would snigger when a female with an unflattering figure passes by and call her “ledombolo” (dumpling).

Slang words for money  would be “clipper” for P100, “choko” (or two tiger) for P20, “tiger” for P10 and “skipper” for P5.

“Majita” (guys) would ask a friend for a “skeif!” and the friend would pass the “dozo” or “nkawuza” (cigarette) to the craving fellow to “fuwa” (smoke).

Social media has its own arsenal of slang where users will “lol” or “laugh out loud” or “kwakwa” at jokes. “Emoticons,” or small characters representative of a range of emotions, are also popular ways of expression on social media.

The question is: Could it be that the country’s unofficial language is indeed growing and the numbers of its speakers are ballooning, or it is becoming as extinct as the dodo?

That, certainly would make our disapproving late grandmothers turn, for better or worse, in their graves.

As for “mina” (me), “go ntswembo” (it’s bad), because “ga ke xabve nix”  (I know nothing).

C u, skim sam.

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