Even by the dynamic standards of its evolution, the recent tongue-twisting variant of sheng — Kenya’s beloved urban slang that predominantly mixes English, Kiswahili and local languages — shared on social media has left many scratching their heads.
In this nascent version, known as shembeteng, a phrase as straightforward as “I love you”, mouthed as “nakulombotove”, would sound like a foreign language to most Kenyans. The opposite, when the hearts begin growing colder towards each other – and apart, “nakuhambatate” for “I hate you” or “divombotorce” for “divorce” would hide the pain of heartbreak.
The new sheng variant is being relentlessly pushed by a group of friends from Nairobi’s Kayole estate, who call themselves Jembeteshi Jimbitinga or Jeshi Jinga.
Brian Muasya and his friend Zakaria Mwangi, in the company of another, only recognised as Master, have been working on the slang and social media has helped them spread it beyond their neighbourhood.
They thought of a way to communicate within their circles and lock out other people from getting the message. That’s how they came up with the slang, which is different from the mainstream sheng.
The shared passion for music bound them. Their genre – Gengetone, a Kenyan sound with on-and-off popularity among the youth and dancehall enthusiasts. Together, they are now associates and the founders of Jeshi Jinga –a clique of friends associated with the new wave of sheng. The third individual, Master, was tasked with publicity and content creation. Several others have since joined them.
It took them two years to master and use the words flawlessly. Master then took up the role of using the language on social media, Tiktok especially.
Shembeteng is founded on the “vowels” “mbata”, “mbete”, “mbiti”, “mboto” and “mbutu” that are infused into English or Kiswahili words that are truncated and re-joined to form the desired variant.
There is apparently a simple formula to learn this seemingly complex slang.
When Gengetone was blooming, many artistes who were in this genre were mostly explicit in their lyrics and used offensive words. As a result, there was public backlash.
“When we joined the Gengetone club, we infused our new language to hide explicit lyrics from a majority of those listening to the songs,” says Muasya.
He adds: “In 2020, we had a collabo with Juacali. We were only repeating his words with their equivalence in our version of sheng. And it was warmly received.”
But, is the language related to crime? No, says Muasya.
“The first video about us that went viral had ‘dissed’ Madocho – a rival faction. And the public thought that we were out to cause trouble and conceal it with a language no one else understood. But really, that was for entertainment purposes. This language is in no way associated with crime.”
Jeshi Jinga hopes that their language in future “will get a good recognition and acceptance”.
But Prof Nathan Ogechi, a researcher of interlinguistics, discourse analysis and sociolinguistics and a lecturer at Moi University, says a language is just as good as its speakers.
He says the uniqueness about sheng is that “the words are transitional. They are not there for long. As soon as something comes up, the words change. An item called a ‘table’ today, may not be known as a ‘table’ tomorrow”.
Mr Duncan Ogweno, a linguist and a sheng enthusiast who has been passionate about it since 1986 when he was in Class Six and has seen it, has documented it in a sheng dictionary published in 1996 under the domain sheng.co.ke. He has been gathering new words to update the website since then.
To date, he has gathered over 11,000 words. “We have over 5,000 verified words on our website and another 6,000 unverified besides several other words that get updated on the go.”
In any slang, however, Mr Ogweno says there is no authority in-charge.
“The people who have sought to standardise it end up trying to fit sheng into Swahili shoes, which then erupts with problems. The real problem that would happen is; the very nature of sheng is that it is a loose, flexible and as exclusive as possible,” he says.
According to Prof Ogechi, if slang is to play by any rules, then it would largely borrow from the matrix (main) language –in this case English or Kiswahili.
“If you’re talking about the grammatical rules, the rules depend on the matrix language,” he said. “Structurally, it is not independent.”
However, he said, in most of the studies that have been done, the matrix language is usually Kiswahili.
Mr Ogweno said the more unique sheng is, the better it is for the people that use it. And, any attempts to standardise it, kills it.
“In sheng.co.ke, we’ve not attempted to purify it, justify or defend it. We simply document it. It’s really documenting the passage of time and how the words have changed.”
In the project, commonly accepted words across ages are referred to as “settled” and not standardised. These include words like buda or fadhee (father). Others like tenje (previously a music system but now used to mean mobile phone) have had their meanings change over time.
He says, “Whether you’re old or young you’d know whatever these settled words mean”.
Over time as the word “settles”, they find common use and common acceptance. It is then that a word is considered settled for common use.
However, Prof Ogechi says there are some lexical items that are specific and, therefore, identified as a clan or a group.
“So, when talking about a slang, it is specific to a target group. It’s not just for everybody. This can be within a base where the communicators share the same meaning of words.”
And, in another place, the same words a group is using may not mean much to different groups, Prof Ogechi says.