About Sheng

Sheng is a Kenyan urban vernacular whose linguistic definition has prompted a yet to be concluded debate. Some scholars view Sheng as a slang, others as a mixed code, and some as both. However, there is wide consensus that Sheng includes characteristics of all known language varieties (slang, jargon, mixed code, pidgin, creole) but does not have enough of any (King’ei, 1987; Mazrui, 1995). Simulating Swahili intonation and based in part in a mixture of English and Swahili, Sheng violates Swahili and English syntax.

Spoken mostly in urban areas in Kenya, Sheng is gaining popularity by the day all over the country and although to my knowledge there is no statistics of the number of Sheng speakers, my estimation is about 25 million people – half of Kenya’s population. This estimation is based on the extent to which Kenya has embraced Sheng. Politicians employ Sheng especially in semi-formal gatherings like political rallies. Quite a few Christian preachers too use Sheng in their summons bringing the church, a major institution in Kenya, into the realm of Sheng users. In business, Sheng dominates the register—It is the language that bridges communication between public service vehicle (matatus) attendants and their clients while also dominating verbal exchanges in the marketplace between sellers and buyers, not to mention print and broadcast advertisements. The media too has embraced Sheng. Some radio and TV shows are exclusively aired in Sheng, and there now exists a radio station that broadcasts exclusively in Sheng airing its entertainment, advertisements, announcements, and even news, solely in the language variety.


King’ei, Kitula. “Putting the Sheng ‘Ghost’ to Rest.” Kenyatta University Bulletin, 1987.

Mazrui, Alamin M. “Slang and Code-Switching: The Case of Sheng in Kenya.” Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere, no. 42 (1995): 168–79.


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