Not Swahili, not English: Sheng

With its roots as a trade language, Swahili has always been adapted to local environments and uses, leading to 15 main dialects and various local pidgins. One of the most famous of these pidgins is called Sheng, a combination of Swahili and English widely spoken by Nairobi youth and popularized throughout East Africa with music.

Kenya teaches both English and Swahili in its primary education curriculums. Between these two languages and cultures, one global and one regional but both with storied histories in the country, Nairobi’s urban youth have carved out a unique identity through the combination of these two languages, along with additions from local languages and pop culture.

Heavily influenced and popularized by rappers and drivers of Nairobi’s minibuses or “matatus,” Sheng became popularized in the mid-1980s and continues to act as an evolving slang useful for reinforcing youth culture and masking meaning from adults. Sheng’s grammatical structure still largely adheres to Swahili, but code-switching is common; for example, “cheddar” may refer to money, “barbie” to a wealthy person or someone who does not know Sheng and “diggs” to one’s home.

Sheng is credited as successfully diverging Kenyan rap as a unique art form independent of imported Western rap music. With the growing fame of Kenyan musicians throughout East Africa, Sheng has spread to Tanzania and Uganda, where it continues to influence the language of urban youth.


Works Consulted:


  1. “SHENG DICTIONARY, KAMUSI, WORDS, SLANG – NAIROBI.” Sheng za Nairobi. November 17, 2017. Accessed December 11, 2017. http://shengzanai.blogspot.com/2014/11/sheng-dictionary-kamusi-words-slang.html.


Samper, David Arthur, “Talking Sheng: The role of a hybrid language in the construction of identity and youth culture in Nairobi, Kenya” (2002). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3043947. https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI3043947


“Swahili language.” (2017). Encyclopædia Britannica. ttps://www.britannica.com/topic/Swahili-language.


Timammy, Rayya, and Jane Oduor. “THE TREATMENT OF KISWAHILI IN KENYA’S EDUCATION SYSTEM.” The University of Nairobi Journal of Language and Linguistics 5 (2016): 174-94. http://erepository.uonbi.ac.ke/bitstream/handle/11295/96011/Oduor_The%20treatment%20of%20Kiswahili%20in%20Kenya%20s%20education%20system.pdf?sequence=1.


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