Monday 24 September 2012


If you wish to practise a South African accent, the best sample sentence is, without doubt, "Turn right at the robot, my friend".

Robot is a bit of a surprise for a foreigner, and it took me a worried while to realise that robot is just South African for traffic light.

So I had to set out to discover why. The answer, it would appear, is that South Africa has maintained a usage that has long since died out in England. Once upon a time there were traffic policemen who directed the traffic. Then, in 1927, this article appeared in the London Evening Standard, describing a strange new invention:

We, of course, changed the name to traffic lights. But in South Africa they merely shortened it to robot. So, rolling all your Rs: "Turn right at the robot, my friend."


  1. I always wondered why they were called robots here. Thanks for the information.
    I insist on calling them traffic lights; robot never really made sense to me. As you say, foreigners can get quite confused, whereas with traffic light even the locals know what you mean.

  2. 'Practice' is a noun in British English, not a verb.

    By the way, you haven't answered my email or worked out the South African riddle I gave you. Who was the first South African President to be black? C R Swart - 'swart' in Afrikaans means 'black', and his nickname was 'Blackie' - irnic for a head of state in a white minority regime, but that's history.

  3. Under apartheid, I would have been classified as 'Blank', not 'Black' (or 'Swart')

  4. Sorry for spelling and lack of replies.

  5. Cool beans. I'll drop you an email just now.