This ‘slang’ called Sheng

01 Mar

Language is the sacred space for self expression. It represents the foundation from which an entire culture is curved out and its ideas preserved. Language forms the avenue by which ideas are formed, nurtured, and communicated. With the above in mind, allow me to address the issue ofthis language that has come under enormous scrutiny and blatant criticism from academic faculties as well as the older generations.  The language in topic refers to Sheng; the lingua of the youth.

At the onset, it is important to state that we as young folk should not expect much complement from the pens of our parents’ generation. Why do I project such a radical statement? Well, history chronicles that the older folk, by default, are severely skeptical of any culture that emanates from young blood, and Sheng is no exception. Our predecessors are somehow convinced that nothing worthwhile can come out from us. It therefore should not come as a surprise just how much parents and teachers continually stump their feet and raise dust over this issue of Sheng. Currently, various charges have been brought against Sheng. Some point out to the illegitimacy of the language, its lack of constancy, its bastardizing of English and Kiswahili, and the most vicious of charges is the proclamation that it is a language unsure of itself (just like those who speak it) for it changes at instant, without warning, each day, every day. Consequently, according to some linguists, the absence of stability qualifies it as a ‘non-language’.

Firstly, it must be stated that there now exists a sharp cultural and linguistic dislocation between the youth generation and the older ones. The youth are continually crafting their own culture based on the current circumstances in which they find themselves. Now, the old folk are unaware or unable to comprehend some of these experiences which their younger generations are encountering, and it would be wrong to blame them. The saying goes that you cannot praise the rain that has not drenched your own clothes. However, I am left no choice than to defend this beautiful language from all those accusations gearing to batter Sheng out of shape.

Allow me to begin my defense against the most ludicrous charge: that Sheng, according to scholastic definition, does not qualify as a language. The sheer claim that what these young people speak falls short of recognition as a language not only expresses the intellectual nakedness of such a statement, but also the cultural confusion of one who believes in such exclamations. You have to be out of your righteous mind to dare weigh Afrikan culture based on western standards. If you attempt such, my lord, the entirety of our rich linguistic traditions will be reduced to demeaning phrases like ‘strange clicks’, ‘unruly chants’, and ‘confusing dialects’. I know some, on hearing the above statements, will rush to say that it is nothing short of a hyperbole; an exaggeration. Such minds are of course ailing from something called historical amnesia because that is exactly the kind of jargon that was used by colonialists, missionaries, explorers, and slave traders, when describing Afrikan and Aboriginal languages. You have to realize that Afrikan standards are, on many occasions, diametrically opposed to western values. Consequently, there exists such a grave danger in measuring our value based on foreign scales. Such an act can be likened to the absurdity of judging a lion by its ability to eat grass (instead of meat).

Next, I challenge the charge of bastardization. Now, to even think that Sheng is a bastard offspring, a poor child or a weaker progeny of other mainstream languages, is actually not to think at all. We are in a delusional age whereby young minds are falling victim to the seduction of foreign cultures and languages such as German, French, English, Spanish and Chinese, all at the expense of our own vernaculars. One is amazed at the grinning expression of a Kenyan polyglot boasting of mastering several European languages yet cannot utter a word in his mother tongue, let alone Kiswahili. Even more surprising is how such a fellow seems unusually uneasy and greatly disgruntled at the slightest encounter with Sheng. Why even when you enter some of these city offices you encounter secretaries who mystically mesmerize your mother-tongue influenced mouth as they majestically masquerade their exquisite British and American English accents. They even shock the foreign tourist by fact that they sound more American than the American himself. Best believe that you wouldn’t pay that secretary enough to speak her vernacular. What would probably ‘stop your heart dead’ is the realization that she came from the village not more than a fortnight ago. As for how she mastered that Englishman’s language that fast, we can leave that to imagination, although I doubt one needs to imagine too hard. The irony of it all is how we overconfidently sing the songs of alien cultures only to quickly chant down our own whenever they get onto the stage. Talk of cultural infidelity at its zenith.

Sheng stands as the buffer against the continual creation of such linguistic zombies. Sheng constitutes within itself languages, words and styles from all over the country, which would otherwise disappear in its absence. The degree of creativity exhibited in Sheng, as is common in other creole languages such as Nigerian pidgin, Jamaican Patois, and Cameroonian Camtok, totally shatters that false ‘bastard-ghetto language’ accusations which have been bandied around by critics.

Finally, let me address the last charge, which states that Sheng is a language unsure of itself, unstable, and with no solid past or bright future. It needs to be understood that any language, Sheng notwithstanding, stands impeccably reflective of those who speak it. If you take a look, a really good look, at our current era, you realize things are changing at an unbelievable rate; from technology, to fashion, and even the government. Truth be told, the young are the most responsive to the change as compared to older folk. They are easily enticed by the cool, hype, radical, and dynamic. Why then should anyone be critical, shocked or disturbed by the vibrant nature of Sheng. Change is like rest and anything that refuses to change with the times has a comfortable place set aside for it in the archives of history. However, there exists a problem. Sheng, oftentimes, is associated with ghetto youth, the hustlers, the rebellious bunch, and ‘no-gooders’. You cannot refute this fact bearing in mind that a significant chunk of the urban high class youth abstain from using Sheng and opt for English. Although Sheng is widely spoken in the ghettos, that statistic is changing drastically, especially when you look at the music industry, urban cities, as well as high schools countrywide. Sheng is indeed becoming the ‘ish’. If I was a prophet, I could envision Sheng phasing out Swahili in a decade or so. Personally, this vision is another surprise that should not be so especially if you understand the mental wiring of a youngster. Allow me to school you a little about our thought process.

Now, we young bloods are fresh, flexible, oozing with energy, and abounding in creativity. Indeed, we reflect the opposite polarity of older generations. These traits make us allergic to rules and restrictions; naturally, we are intrinsically rebellious to any manifestation of imperatives. We work perfectly and comfortably with anything we can manipulate and exert our energy and creativity. Following such logic closely, you can see, though blurry, why English and Kiswahili do not make ‘the cut’ as optimal languages of communication among young people. Why so? A written language becomes very strict in its use. As a result, it offers little space for flexibility and innovation. When it comes to English and Kiswahili, we have to adjust ourselves (and our tongues) to fit into their diction and pronunciation. Remember that for a young mind, rules instantly ignite rebellion. Therefore, Sheng aims to do the exact opposite; English and Kiswahili are duly adjusted to fit into our natural pronunciations and dictions (which includes mixing words from different Kenyan vernaculars, English, and harvesting other words from nowhere in particular). A creole language such a Sheng stands highly intricate by fact that it exhibits characteristics that are absent in the languages that create it. You would be voluntarily lying to yourself to presume that every word in Sheng can be traced back to English, Kiswahili, or a Kenyan vernacular. Returning back to the argument, the youth feel at ease, free of dis-ease, when they can maneuver something instead of being maneuvered into it. Anytime you are the one adjusting to fit into tiny crevices set aside for you, somehow you automatically put yourself at a disadvantage whereby you have no voice or agency and hence setting yourself up for the exploitation that sprouts from powerlessness. Maybe it is time that some of these critics repent for pointing an accusing finger at one of the most outstanding linguistic innovations of the youth.

As a cultural scholar, I cannot help feeling mentally insulted by those personalities preparing to wage a brutal war on Sheng. Such proclamations are nothing short of cultural coup de tat’s that should be punishable by a UNESCO law. These critics claim that Sheng is duly responsible for the poor performance of students in language subjects. I personally suggest and sincerely recommend they add Sheng to the list of languages in the syllabus. Moreover, if they have the guts, they should bloat that list by incorporating Kenyan vernaculars (which should be tested orally not scripturally). Maybe then they may observe a commendable student performance in language studies and finally attain the most fundamental cultural revelation that it is easier to excel at the indigenous than the imported.

Sheng represents the vocal criticism of the youth against the rigid nature of mainstream languages. Moreover, Sheng stands firm as the linguistic germination of a previously submerged youthful culture in the urban setting; and just like a seed in the soil, at the perfect moment, the submerged, EMERGE! Those who still cannot grasp or fathom the unquantifiable style and creativity inherent in Sheng are either culturally dyslexic or intellectually blinded by the adoration of foreign linguistic traditions. I stand beyond conviction that Sheng has roots so deep that they will neither weaken, let alone wilt, over simple or sophisticated criticisms. I end with a quote from a black linguistic icon Frantz Fanon; he says, “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language; but above all, it means to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”



Posted by on March 1, 2012 in Culture, random thoughts


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4 responses to “This ‘slang’ called Sheng

  1. Kelvin

    August 24, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Hi there Frikalture

    I trust you are well.

    Thank you for this interesting article. only word one word…Nuffsaid!!!

    Let me introduce you to Go Sheng, a not-for-profit organization carrying out work on the preservation and demystification of the Sheng language and culture. Our original intention was to collect Sheng words with a view to demystifying and preserving them for the benefit of those that use the language and for those that seek to understand the language. That however morphed into the civil society space where we translated portions of the then proposed constitution ( into Sheng for the benefit of our audience – many of whom are youth. They had – in the various fora that we had online – sought to know from us whether there was a simpler version of the constitution and we immediately saw the opportunity to break it down for them in something they would better understand. The original Sheng Dictionary project has been online since 1997 but the publicly updateable version (the one that allows members to add and discuss words) has been online since 2006. It is available at

    We therefore would like to invite you to do a review of the sheng website (gloves-off, the good and the bad), and maybe add your opinion to our work. We also hope you can allow us to use excerpts from your article above on our website.

    Again kudos for a well written piece.

  2. frikalture

    September 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Vipi Kevin. Thanks very much for commenting on my post and for the links. I will look at them and see whether I can give a short commentary on the website. You guys are doing really good work.
    You can go ahead and use any excerpts you find enriching to you site (just be kind enough to do a citation). Otherwise, keep up the good work.

  3. M.Dennis

    August 21, 2014 at 10:11 am

    I suggest this article should have been written in Sheng, if Sheng is as useful as you purport. But then from how “African” is being spelt, I can only say its a pity. How much more will sheng cost us? Sheng is a slang, leave it at that!

    • frikalture

      August 26, 2014 at 12:48 pm

      Thanks for the comment. Very intrestin ineed. the article wud hav been written in sheng but that might hav locked out
      plenty of readers out there. But the message went across. Our people say warriors use blunt stones to sharpen iron swords.

      Peace & Light.


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