Sheng owes its vocabulary more to English than to Kiswahili

What you need to know:

  • Sheng has been described as a variation of English infused with Swahili phonology spoken by middle-to-lower class students in universities to differentiate themselves from students from upcountry.
  • The fast innovation of new words makes the language not ideal as a language for a grammar school.
  • The language is mainly grown in Nairobi, with different parts of the city producing different words or versions of the same word. 
  • Despite its closeness to Kiswahili, English has had more influence on the language's vocabulary.

Kenya’s former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga once joked on Twitter about opening a Sheng school and it became front-page news as language pundits rebutted the notion. He went ahead and addressed lawyers in Sheng, provoking a discussion on admissibility of the language in official communication.

The word "Sheng" was coined in 1965 by Dr Robert E Wolverton, an American.

The word "Sheng" was coined in 1965 by Dr Robert E Wolverton, an American, who is currently a professor of classical and modern languages at Mississippi State University.

In his book Classical Elements published in 1965, he describes Sheng as a variation of English infused with Swahili phonology spoken by middle-to-lower class students in universities to differentiate themselves from students from upcountry.

Websites such as sheng.co.ke have been cataloging words in Sheng together with their origin and use, thereby creating the reference material for the language. However, the fast innovation of new words makes Sheng not ideal as a language for a grammar school. For example, in the 60s the youth preferred the word sinyaa for police, in the 70s it was ponyi, the 80s sanse and 90s karao. Today, there are more than 10 words for police (e.g vedi, gava, mbang’a, beast, njege, sampa, pae and godon) which are specific to certain neighbourhoods. This presents a second challenge as noted in the book Metamorphosis of English - In the Buruburu area of Nairobi you hear, Ni mrisky ku drive, while in Maringo the same is ni mhard kwa mrengo and in Kariobangi South, ni mdeadly ku drive.

General consensus puts Maringo and its environs as having a  Sheng version that is distinct from the entire Eastlands region of Nairobi (the birthplace of the language).  Dandora and Kayole neighbourhoods have emerged recently to develop unique Sheng dialects. For instance a shoe is generally referred to as chuja or njumu but will pass as njuruchuchu in Dandora. Recently minted Sheng word for fake gun bonoko passes as dikwara in Kayole.

Although the emerging language has been argued to lack a grammatical structure, there are five key ways of creating new words; reversing an existing word, shortening a word, giving new meaning to an existing word, borrowing a word from another language, inflection, or inventing a word. An analysis on a sample of 565 words from the website sheng.co.ke shows that most sources of Sheng words come from English words thathave been shortened or indexed as shown in the diagram on top of the page.

One word too many

In the late 1980s, a new dance, madiaba, emerged among Congolese musicians that saw them favouring ladies of voluptuous stature to lead the dance troupes. Popularity of Congolese music brought the dance style to Kenya and madiaba attained the synonym for the word big among the young and spirited.  Coca-cola jumped on the bandwagon and created a marketing slogan to brand the company’s 500ml stout bottled soda as madiaba. A new cultural phenomenon bloomed involving taking soda madiaba and full bread. Everywhere, everyone knew madiaba. In Migori County, Madiaba Bridge connects two sides of River Kuja. In Homa Bay County, Madiaba Market serves the people of Madiaba village, next to Oyugis town. And in Nairobi, Kabiro Ward in Dagoretti Constituency has a neighborhood named Madiaba Area - famed for illicit brew, illegal drugs and sex work. Perhaps the area draws its name from the alternative meaning of madiaba - a woman’s behind, shortened to diab in current speak.

Money leads the way

In the journal Selected Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference on African Linguistics, it is stated that “Sheng has over 40 words for girl , over 20 words denoting police, over 10 words for marijuana and 10 words for money”.  Sample data from sheng.co.ke shows that money has the highest number of Sheng words when specific denominations are incorporated, e.g. ashu, ashara for ten shillings,  fiu for fifty cents and finje for fifty shillings.

New words

More than 400 new words, senses, and sub-entries have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. For example, A-game for one’s highest level of performance and lol to draw the meaning of being amused, an acronym coined on the internet from laughing out loud. However, Kiswahili has been slow at adapting new vocabulary from Sheng. The only word that seems to have made it into the Kiswahili kamusi (dictionary) is chokora meaning street kids, coined from their behavior of rummaging through trash. Nevertheless, Sheng lives in poetry, music and daily life and eschewed in the Twitter post below.

“Najua hii life ni drama, Kiswahili na English ni grammar, but sheng’ ndio lugha ya mama” - @shengspear_

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