Ongoing Featured Artwork
2014, Etching, Edition size: 40
Printmaker: Tim Foulds
Measurements of framed work: 1370mm (width) X 1100mm (height)
290 English/Afrikaans words composed to resemble a wall of bricks
In May, 2011, I visited Stellenbosch to discuss the envisaged Twenty exhibition with SMAC Gallery. Painfully aware of the squabble over Afrikaans as a language of prerogative at Stellenbosch University, I proposed an artwork consisting of one word that makes some sense in both the English and Afrikaans languages, but of which the meanings in the two languages differ significantly. That work was BOOM. I envisaged this work to be a big gabion wall (a bulky wall made up of stones stacked in wire baskets) in which two different coloured stones would be so stacked as to spell out the word boom on both sides of the wall. The wall would be placed in Jonkershoek, a get-away nature reserve where romantic couples often enjoy sanctuary in the shadows of large trees and the spellbinding vistas of mountain cliffs. The wall had to be large and inviting enough to serve as a refuge for amorous kisses. The word boom, in English, is rather onomatopoeic and spells out the noise of exploding bombs, as in the big boom! In Russian, boom! is an accepted toast, like cheers! – celebration laid on thick. In a more sedate sense, boom is also a long pole, usually pivoted to go up and down to let traffic through. In Afrikaans boom is ‘tree’ a word that confirms my life-long interest in and respect for nature. I have tried hard to learn the names of all the plants I come across and I am not doing too badly. Boom, however, has another, far more stress-free meaning in Afrikaans. To the unperturbed it spells out marijuana. The more easygoing students would immediately chuckle at this usage and might even be tempted to slink behind BOOM wall for a whiff or two of the beleaguered stuff. I wanted the work to poke some light-hearted fun at the obsessive linguistic preoccupation of the frantic local academic fraternity. It would clearly satisfy them on one level and most certainly raise eyebrows on another. Unfortunately, or is it fortunately, I never got around to make BOOM, but there is every reason why I still might make it one day.
The idea that one can have words of the same spelling in Afrikaans and English, but that differ totally in meaning, stayed with me. When I was again approached by SMAC gallery in Stellenbosch, to have a solo exhibition in 2012, the memory of BOOM milled about in my head and I began to collect similar words. After more than a year I had come up with a list of two-hundred-and-forty words.
To stay with the idea of using the earthen substance (stones) envisaged for BOOM, I decided to use the sand/soil from the town of Darling, also in the Western Cape. I mapped out the words on small brick-like plaques and I asked my friend Andrew Munnik to collect the soils and fill in the words and their backgrounds on the plaques. Finally, I had a large collage called PLATTER ROOSTER providing a brick wall for the linguistically-minded to run into.
At the time I was convinced that I would not find any new words, but in the two years that followed new words began to surface, and when I was put to bed for months on end by an awful flu at the beginning of 2014, I had time to contemplate new additions. In the end the 240 words increased to 290 and in order to share the work with a wider audience, I decided to turn it into an edition of etchings with the new title WORD WOES. In English, this title laments issues dealing with words and in Afrikaans it instructs all to let go and be wild.
If you are English and had never spoken a word of Afrikaans, the list of words in WORD WOES will appear totally English to you. If you are Afrikaans and had never seen any written English, which is highly unlikely, you might recognise these words as totally Afrikaans.
There is no logical linguistic reason for the choice of words. In a way they are a Dada list – a mini Dada dictionary. Their inclusion is strangely dependent on the throw of a dice, in this case, the dice is the fact that the English and Afrikaans meanings of these words of the same spelling have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
The marvel of it all is for the reasonably bilingual person to read a word from one of the two languages, and then, upon reflection, to find the meaning of that word in the other language slowly dawning upon them.
At first I thought of calling the work LOST IN TRANSLATION because the words play with irreconcilable meanings. This ‘English-only’ title would, however, only serve to anger sensitive members of the Afrikaans community and I decided to name the etching after two of the words that make strange sense when combined: WORD WOES.
The English often see Afrikaans words next to English signage and because of their expectation that all written expression everywhere must necessarily be English, one often gets quite humorous readings. My son, Willem junior, who lives in the United Kingdom, once tried to draw money from the automatic banking machine in the predominantly Afrikaans town of Parys and he could not because he thought the prominence of the word jammer on the monitor meant that the machine had been jammed, when in fact an apology was issued for the fact that the machine could not print paper slips. Jammer in Afrikaans means ‘sorry’. An old English friend wondered for a while about the meaning of the word slegs on a road sign – he read ‘only slegs’ and could not, for the life of him, figure out what kind of things the slegs are. In Afrikaans slegs means ‘only’.
Casual rules for the selection of words
The etching WORD WOES is a small dictionary made up of words of the same spelling in English and Afrikaans but with totally different meanings. The meanings contained in its expressions are meant to be straight-forward, easily understandable, aimed at astonishment and admiration for their linguistic flair. I hope to ambush a certain slice of our bi-lingual society with the work’s quaintness and I mean to keep them at a standstill for some time in front of the work, pondering the marvelousness of our differences. Preference is given to words that are more or less easily identifiable and that might cause the greater interest.
My friends playfully came up with two small sentences that read true for both languages: “My hand is in warm water” or “My pen is in my hand.” Unfortunately all these words are totally synonymous for Afrikaans and English and none such totally similar words are admitted in WORD WOES. Entries were omitted if they did not succeed as excellent examples of a true kind of difference.
Words that might normally be accepted in the game of Scrabble are suitable, but note the following relaxed rules:
No synonyms (PLATTER ROOSTER works with words spelled exactly the same, but that carry no similarities of meaning):
• Similarly spelled and synonymous words are unsuitable: hang, arm, hand, bale, was, drank, hinder, note, verse, rose, grief, pan, vat, ring, stand, sending, spanning, slinger, sing, genies, plot, etc.
• Even a slight sense of synonymity is also reason for disqualification. Elf, for example, is good in the sense of number eleven (Afrikaans), but as Santa’s little helper (same meaning in English and Afrikaans) it is disqualified. Other words like slot, pure, blank, mark (market), grade, rose and tasting also have too much synonymity for inclusion.
No informal, colloquial or seldom used words.
• dink – ‘to think’ in Afrikaans and a partner in a well-off working couple with no children in informal English.
• dwang – ‘coercion’ in Afrikaans and ‘serious trouble’ in colloquial English.
• vader – ‘father’ in Afrikaans and a character from the Star Wars films in English.
• swat – ‘to hit or slap’ in English and ‘to study’ in informal Afrikaans.
• gal – ‘girl’ in informal English and ‘contents of the gallbladder’ in Afrikaans.
• loon – ‘salary’ in Afrikaans and ‘silly person’ in informal English.
• gees – ‘spirit’ in Afrikaans and exclamations of surprise in informal English
• toon – ‘toe’ in Afrikaans and ‘cartoon film’ in informal English.
* An exception was made in the case of ‘vroom’ because, even though it is informal English, it has a great onomatopaeic ring to it and is often used. I guess that most (perhaps all) words progressed from a time or sense in which they had been informal. The invention of text and printed matter created rules and formality.
No scientific, overly technical or pedantic words
• bots – ‘to crash’ in Afrikaans and in English the plural of bot, the larva of the botfly, also an abbreviation for ‘robots’.
• tor – ‘bug’ in Afrikaans and a hill or ‘rocky peak’ in English
No foreign or archaic words:
• tome – ‘reins of a horse’ in Afrikaans and ‘book’ in old English.
• nog – ‘small block or peg of wood’ and short for ‘eggnog’ in English. In Afrikaans it means ‘more’.
• brag – ‘to bring’ archaic Afrikaans en ‘to boast’ in English
• rust – ‘oxidation’ in English and ‘to rest’ in archaic Afrikaans
• ween – ‘to be of opinion’ in archaic English and ‘to cry’ in Afrikaans
• lam – ‘to hit’, a verb in nineteenth century English and ‘lamb’ in Afrikaans.
No proper names or words beginning with capital letters are allowed:
• Mars/mars English (two meanings: 1. the planet Mars, and 2. to spoil); Afrikaans (to march)
• Rooms is acceptable in English, but the Afrikaans Rooms is rejected (a proper name pertaining to the Roman Catholic Church).
Words in which the application is strained or hardly ever used:
• staker – in Afrikaans ‘one who ceases to work’ and in seldom used English ‘one who drives in a stake’.
• suffer – ‘more mentally worn out’ in strained Afrikaans and ‘to encounter bad or unpleasant things’ in English
• bros (‘brothers’ in English)
• gat (informal and an abbreviation for ‘Gatling’ gun in English)
• mag – ‘power’ in Afrikaans and a ‘magazine’ in English
• vet – an exception and included. An abbreviation for ‘veterinarian’ and ‘obese’ in Afrikaans.
• veg – an exception and included. An abbreviation for ‘vegetables’, and ‘to fight’ in Afrikaans.
No diacritical marks:
• reel/reels, to stagger or a film spool in English is acceptable, but reël/reëls, rule and rules in Afrikaans have a dieresis and are excluded
• blase, Blisters in Afrikaans, but blasé in English has an acute accent mark and is not accepted
Where meanings are close for some entries, especially of the same word in its plural or in a certain grammatical sense, only the entry with the most letters will be chosen
• gun/guns – take only guns
• die/dies – take only dies
• kale/kales – take only kales
• re-use or reuse is sometimes spelled with a hyphen in British English and without one in American English and because of its rarity in the list (the eu-) it is included.
• The word ‘week’ is entered as ‘a period of seven days’ – English and as ‘weak or ineffective’ and ‘to soak’ in Afrikaans. But, week is also ‘a period of seven days’ in Afrikaans. In WORD WOES this synonymity is of course an oversight