Fishy taal

Today I’m thinking about the tyranny of “proper English” as she is spoke by (proper) South Africans. A childhood memory. We’re sitting around the breakfast table and I want some more milk.

“Can I have some milk please?”

Mother: “It’s not millk. It’s milk [as in silk]. And you don’t say “can I have” you say “may I have””.


Fast forward to this year. P and I are dining at “one of the best fish restaurants” in South Africa. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon. From the outside the restaurant looks like a little beach cottage with a fish painted on the roof. Inside it is very down-to-earth with a lot of bricks which have been signed by patrons. You are practically in the kitchen of Jacqui and Stefan’s homely bistro and Stefan is playing the talkative host, regaling a table (of his friends apparently) with some anecdote from his fishy past.


When it is our turn to order he berates us for having more than a single wheat-cracker between us for breakfast since we will not be able to appreciate the delicious fish. P apologises. We do not make the same mistake as the people next to us by asking the host what he recommends.


“This is the best seafood restaurant in South Africa,” he splutters at them. “Everything is recommended” or words to that effect. I bravely order some fish whose name I’ve never heard of before and am slightly underwhelmed when it arrives. This could well be because we’ve just had a fairly decent-sized breakfast. But it’s reasonably good. Roll on dessert. I ask if I can have the (highly recommended) choc pot.


“You may” is the smug reply. Now I am a bit put out by this smugness. I want to tell the chef (who is also the owner and now our waitress) that I know the difference between “may I” and “can I” and that I have chosen to use “can I” because I am enquiring whether it is possible to have the dessert. Her “you may” changes the dynamic of the situation. I am now a child being given adult permission. There’s an element of smug superiority about her insistence on using the more correct form of the verb. Perhaps she is also deliberately taking back the power that usually lies with the customer in those situations. 


English teachers will tell you that you need to know the rules of grammar so that you can break them. Pedants will correct your usage at every opportunity. But then I can also often be pedantic. So where to draw the line?


6 Responses to Fishy taal

  1. Can I just make one observation? 🙂

    I love South African English!

  2. litlove says:

    I don’t like the sound of this restaurant – too up itself by half! (and that’s a very English expression). Any restaurant owner shouldn’t be listening out for any word other than the derivatives of ‘yummy’ and they certainly shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to correct your English. I say that there is a time and a place for offering corrections, and that was not it! Do hope the chocolate pot was nice when it came. 🙂

  3. Pete says:

    Ian – yes, seffrikan english can be very colourful. It’s lekker kif hey (which is actually pretty dated now). I see from urban dictionary that sick is now one of the new words for cool. Could be confusing if you say, “That’s pretty sick!”

    Litlove – I like that expression (is that related to Up the Queen!) The choc pot was very good though. Jacqui sprinkles brown sugar on top and then whips out a little blowtorch and glazes the sugar to provide a nice crunchy outside and a warm chocolatey inside. To die for doll!

  4. Emily Barton says:

    Oh, I just want to go to that restaurant and break every rule of the English language I ever learned. Can me and my friends go with next time (and mispronounce all the dishes with very loud American accents)?

  5. seachanges says:

    This could be the setting of a crime story! Or perhaps not. Breaking the rules in more way than one. Who is this owner, trying to impress with faulty queen’s English? Perhaps you should have responded with ‘in that case I shall refrain from any further indulgence’, or some such nonsense 🙂 Yes, I still think this makes a wonderful setting for some kind of story – spin it out.

  6. Pete says:

    Emily – LOL 😉 I like the idea of sharing a meal with you and your friends (dodgy restaurant or not). I’d love to see the expression on Jacqui’s face when she has to deal with a whole table of Americans!

    Seachanges – interesting idea. I’ll have to practice my story spinning!

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