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:


Kikuyu: colour spectrum and ‘kikuyunised’ words

Learning a new language is always a mind-boggling process. Learning a language whose origins are very far apart from one’s mother tongue could be assimilated to thought-splitting. One has to totally come out of the usual frame of mind to re-discover the world through ‘the eyes of the language’, if I may.

A Kikuyu lesson threw me off balance and on to a fruitful search: I was told that the language has only three colours, black, white and red! How could people possibly describe every possible nuance using only these three colours, I wondered? And how does one perceive the world then?

  • The three basic colours: black, red and white

The three basic colour adjectives  –irũ (black), –erũ (white) and –tune (red) agree with the noun they qualify by means of a prefix depending on the noun class concerned. We would thus say mũndũ mwerũ (a white/light-skinned person), ikombe njirũ (black cups) and rĩitho rĩtune (red eye, figurative meaning: envious) and so on.

In certain contexts, -erũ can also mean new.

  • Comparison to objects

In fact, what has been translated as black above rather means a dark colour while white refers to a lighter colour. Nuances in colours can thus be expressed through comparisons. For example, to identify something as green – as we understand it in English -, you might say that it is ‘dark like the leaves’. Poetic, isn’t it?

Dark like the grass

To indicate any other colour, direct comparisons also come in handy. This is the case of kimuhu which means ‘grey like the ash’. Other such words seem to have been common in Kikuyu in the past but have since become obsolete.

  • Borrowed words

In fact, many of the colour words used in modern speech are borrowed from English. Although these are not originally Kikuyu, they have become more or less part of the language.

In lesson 13 A of an online Kikuyu forum, we are told that:

In the Kikuyu language, there is not as big a spectrum of colours like in English. However, any of the English names can be Kikuyunised to produce a name.

This would apply to such words as ‘ngirini’ for green or ‘mburuu’ for blue for example. That is to say that the English word is ‘adopted’ and its pronunciation and spelling adjusted to the Kikuyu language.

[Note the interesting neologism ‘to kikuyunise’= to make Kikuyu. I love it! If I learn Kikuyu, am I being kikuyunised?]


What are the words for colours in your language? Do you know any idioms involving colours such as rĩitho rĩtune ?

I have come across a great project gathering idioms related to colours in various world languages and so far the only African language represented is Kiswahili…that’s a shame! Click here to let the world know about your colourful language!


Further Reading:

Alan Kennedy’s color/language project : a great insight into ways of expressing colours across languages.

The Kikuyu Language, a Hub article by Emmanuel Kariuki.

Swahili proverb: Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba

Words of the week: Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba (proverb)

Language: Kiswahili

Meaning (literal): Little by little, the container/pot gets filled.

  • Background

This hugely popular Swahili proverb was recently popularised by Kenyan artist Stella Mwangi  in her song ‘Haba Haba’ which all but propelled her to fame after it won the Eurovision Song Contest.

In spite of the missing ‘na’ supposed to connect ‘haba na haba’ in the original saying, the song conveys the meaning of the proverb quite faithfully and has the merit of creating an international buzz around the Swahili language.

  • Meaning

The literal translation of ‘haba na haba, hujaza kibaba‘ could be ‘Little by little, the container gets filled’. Simple in appearance and made pleasant to the ear by the use of alliteration, consonance and assonance, this proverb carries a deep significance.

While we may overlook small changes, they are the ones which, put together over time, eventually make a difference. Just like the pot becomes full if you keep pouring a few drops of water in it, learning a few words a day can lead you to acquiring proficiency in a language, saving a small amount of money every month may build you a fortune and smiling to strangers day after day can make the world a better place. This, to me, is a metaphor of hope.

Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba also highlights the value of patience and hard work in attaining one’s goals in life. One of the messages that I see as embedded in these wise words is that one should not expect to change a situation overnight but rather work towards the desired end in small, prudent but determined steps.

  • Brief Linguistic Analysis

The prefix hu-, denoting the habitual tense, expresses the time dimension contained in the phrase. It is used to conjugate the verb ‘kujaza‘ (to fill, to fill out), causative form of ‘kujaa‘ (to be full, to become full).

Kibaba designates a small pot or a container.

As a side note, it is interesting to remark that the word ‘haba not only means ‘little’ or ‘few’ but can sometimes be used to refer to affection, friendship or love. I like to contemplate this double meaning as really touching down to the essence of love, which has the power to bring little things together and make them great.

About Maneno Matamu

Maneno Matamu was originally a platform for African poets/writers to showcase their work in various languages spoken on the continent.

It turned into something a bit different over time, focusing more on topics of interest at the interesection between African languages and literature.

This blog welcomes all lovers of words, African or otherwise, to share their passion. You can get in touch with me on Facebook or on Twitter.

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