A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Monday, 27 October 2008

"South Africa has many robots." -- "Is it?" -- "Ja!"

I'm in South Africa and observing life and language as usual. Within hours, I was reminded of three observations I made in 1992, the previous (and first) time I was in South Africa.

First, they've got plenty of "robots" here. But that's not R2D2 or anything that would interest Isaac Asimov. Robots are traffic lights in South Africa.

Second, there is this peculiar use of "is it?". I would find this normal: "South Africa is a warm country." -- "Is it?". But here, even this seems normal: "South Africa has eleven languages." -- "Is it?". People are saying "is it", regardless of the verb used in the sentence they refer to.

Third, people say "ja" all the time, for "yes". I would not spell it "Yeah", but "ja", as it seems to be influenced from Afrikaans.

As for the reason for "robots", I would expect it to be because "traffic light" as a word didn't exist when the ancestors of most native English speakers of South Africa left their mother country.

But the "is it" part surpises me. Is this one also due to Afrikaans influence? I've heard it from numerous native speakers of both Afrikaans and Sotho, perhaps also of local English speakers.

Ah, and finally, I never heard anyone use the phrase "Overseas" this time. Visitors, travel, and everything else formerly known as Overseas seems to be replaced by "International" nowadays.


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  4. Interestingly, I have also come across the use of the "Is it?" phrase in a few places in India where it seems to be used as a rhetoric question to affirm what the user has just heard.

    At times, it appears that "Is it?" is used to tell the opposite person that what was just told was something new which the user of the phrase did not know about or maybe even did not expect.