Sheng’ : a Kenyan linguistic phenomenon – part 1

If you have spent at least a couple of days walking the streets of Nairobi, you cannot but have encountered this characteristic mode of speech we call Sheng’. Although it is still a matter of debate (to be elaborated by more competent linguists), I consider Sheng’ to be an African language and a lively one at that.

  • Sheng’ structure and grammar

As Pr. Iraki of USIU was explaining at the last POWO discussion, Sheng’ has adopted a simplified version of the Swahili grammar while retaining its overall structure. Thus for example, Sheng’ uses fewer noun classes, many of them conglomerating towards the N- class, and its system of agreement between noun and qualifier is much less rigid than that of Swahili.

This, in turn, partly accounts for the low status Sheng’ has long had in Kenya, being relegated to the rank of ‘corrupted’ Swahili and thus not deemed worthy of much attention despite becoming one of the dominant languages in urban Kenya.

On the flip side, Sheng’s less constraining grammar has provided a space for flourishing creativity in music, poetry, creative writing and even advertising which has penetrated almost all levels of the urban – and to a lesser extent rural – society.

  • A bit of fun with words…

At first, Sheng’ sounded to me like Swahili with a twist but even as I attuned my ears to the new intonation (new to me, that is), it appeared that some of the words just escaped my understanding. I later came to realize that Sheng’ vocabulary is a melting pot of words from Swahili and English but also heavily borrowed from a variety of other Kenyan languages.

Here is an example: in Sheng’ ‘ocha’, a word of Luo origin, means the rural home or hometown, which is conceptualized as the place where the family ‘belongs’ and originates, not necessarily congruent with the birth place of each member of the said family.

As you can see for yourself, ‘ocha’ captures an idea which would otherwise require a long-winded explanation in English. It is therefore not uncommon to hear this word thrown in matter-of-factly in the middle of a sentence in English or Swahili!

Emanating from the Kikuyu ‘gĩshagi’ (village), ‘ushago‘ carries a similar meaning to ‘ocha‘.

Let’s hear it from QTAC:

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