Alicia van Zyl Illustrating South Africa’s extensive vocabulary of slang

Cover Image - Alicia van Zyl
WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

In South Africa, there are 11 official languages. But off the record a rich culture of slang weaves in. These words grow from different tongues, creating new meanings that somehow need no translation. The South African graphic designer Alicia van Zyl makes them dance on your screen in her fun series Lekker Slang.

Her ongoing project is a collection of animated stickers locals can use to flavor their Instagram stories. Lekker means good or nice in Afrikaans, Alicia’s home language, but the words she illustrates have varied origins.

When Alicia became an official Giphy artist earlier this year she began her slang sticker pack as a way to practice her custom lettering. “There’s a major trend in hand lettering at the moment,” she says. “As much as I appreciate the beautifully curly scripts with their deeply considered licks and delicate flourishes, that’s just not what we’re about in South Africa. We’re bold and graphic!”

And so she looked to the strong traditions of hand-painted signs in the country’s streets and townships for visual inspiration. In the GIFs, gritty texture, bright color and a looseness of style became important elements. To instill a sense of spontaneity in her lettering, Alicia was careful not to spend too much time on each word, the longest taking three hours from initial sketch to finished animated piece.

The meaning of a word influences how she approaches it visually. She starts with a few rough sketches to see which approach gives her the right feeling. For example, the word Aikona means you strongly disagree with something or someone. “It’s like no, but with feeling,” Alicia says. And so for the sticker she used red, blocky letters finished with an exclamation mark.

Another word, Heita, is a greeting often shouted in passing on the street. “I have these big, graphic shouty lines coming from it,” she explains. Larnie, meaning fancy or rich, is decorated in gold glitter that sparkles.

To cover sufficient ground on South Africa’s diverse cultural landscape, Alicia accepts submissions for new words via Instagram. “Because there’s a constant flow of new slang words, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own,” she says. “I wanted to represent as many perspectives as possible.”

For people who stumble upon her account and don’t understand what certain words mean, she includes a handy description with each addition explaining how it’s used.

“Foreigners struggle to pronounce a lot of the sounds we make across all of our languages, so it can be quite entertaining teaching them some of these words,” she says. “I think it’s probably most confusing when we have several languages in one phrase. Especially when we have words that don’t really have an English translation.”

Two decades after the end of the apartheid regime, South Africa can still feel divided racially and culturally, but Alicia hopes to open up conversations through her animations. “I think these slang words give us a way to communicate exactly how we feel in a way that all of us understand, no matter which of the official languages is our mother tongue,” she says.

“The more everyone integrates, befriends and communicates with one another, the more those languages melt into a whole new, uniquely South African language.”

Words by Alix-Rose Cowie.