I’m in the process of doing final edits on my upcoming Kilimanjaro book (which is one reason why the posting frequency here on Joburg Expat might have recently slowed down – visit my Author Website for more book news), and I came across a passage where I described our training hike in Groenkloof Nature Reserve near Pretoria. Mike, one of my co-hikers, had urged us all to carry twelve kilograms of bricks in our backpacks, which had prompted me to write the following:
By the way, I’m not sure what’s harder: carrying twelve kilograms worth of bricks, or pronouncing “Ghghghghgroenkloof.”
This deserves a bit of explanation, so I thought it would make a fun blog post for future (and current) expats in South Africa.
As you can see, that “G” in Groenkloof (which means something like green gorge) is not pronounced the way most people would think of pronouncing a G when they come across one. Even though I speak German, a language itself not without its own periodic table of guttural sounds, South Africa has opened up a whole new dimension for me in this regard. It was like discovering subatomic particles after you’ve just mastered mechanics. If a word is in any way connected to Afrikaans, the language of the Boers and Voortrekkers, the letter G is basically out of bounds for you as the uninitiated, wherever it might appear. You can go the way of most Americans and just substitute an H for every G, much like we’ve successfully done with every Mexican J we’ve come across. Or, if you’re not afraid of making a total fool of yourself, you can try to throw all the blegh! you’ve got in you at any stray G coming your way and hope for the best. You really gotta pull it out from way down your throat, without accidentally hawking up too much phlegm. After living in South Africa for years, you might dare taking the ultimate test, which is pronouncing the number 1999 – Negentienhonderd nege en negentig – in Afrikaans (I forgot to mention you sort of have to roll your Rs too).
I get that they have their language and are entitled to all the throat-clearing they can muster, but where I get irritated is when every G out there gets appropriated as if it were their own. As in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. Or the radio advertisement I used to hear on Radio Jacaranda, where an announcer was praising the virtues of a Volkswaghghghgen. I felt like driving straight to that studio, pulling the guy out of his chair by his lapels, and growling: “This is our G, and it is a proper one, do not ever mess with it again!”
Don’t even get me started on Xhosa, another one of South Africa’s eleven official languages. While a guttural sound is at least in the realm of what’s possible with the average human vocal chords, I am not so sure if tongue-clicking is entirely of this world. You think you can click with your tongue when you first hear it. But then you realize that a) you cannot produce at least five different sounding clicks, and b) you cannot possibly click with your tongue and speak at the same time. It’s either one or the other. I’m sure when I try to pronounce anything in Xhosa, I sound like a hopeless stutterer.
So I’ll leave you to perform some vocal acrobatics with guttural and clicking noises. To pass the time, here are some pictures of Groenkloof Nature Reserve, a place well worth visiting if you find yourself in need of an excursion away from the city: