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Sheng language is gaining prominence

By Ronald Njoroge and Chris Mgidu NAIROBI (Xinhua) -- Kenya’s Sheng language, a mix of English, Swahili and other vernacular languages, is beginning to gain acceptance in the country.

Scholars are unanimous that the language, which was once confined to the lowest class of society, has now emerged as the Lingua Franca in Kenya.

Kenyatta University Senior Lecturer Professor Chege Githiora told Xinhua here on Tuesday that Sheng is a youth-based social dialect of Swahili.

“The language was the result of the complex multilingual situation found in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi,” Githiora said during a conference on the use of Sheng language in Kenya.

The one-day conference brought scholars from the east African region to discuss the structure, use and pedagogy of the hybrid language. He said that many languages develop dialects as a result of migration and settlements over a long period of time.

According to Githiora, Kenya’s Swahili suffers from low prestige among its own speakers.

“As a result, speakers tend to switch to English when speaking in Swahili due to linguistic incompetence and negative attitude towards the language,” he said.

Githiora, who is also a Senior Lecturer in Swahili at the University of London, said that the colonial language policy made Kenyans to have disdains for Swahili.

The linguist noted that Sheng’s covert prestige and flexibility has contributed to the spread of the language.

United States International University Associate Professor Fredrick Iraki said that the role of Sheng can be seen in the mass media. “Both local and international companies now use Sheng when advertising their products and services,” Iraki said.

He added that rural youth tend to use the Sheng as they see it as “cool” and trendy.

Professor Iraki noted that Sheng’s prestige among Kenyan youth is due to the fact that the dialect originated in Nairobi.

Nairobi, as the economic hub of the country, has attracted people from all regions of Kenya. “This has resulted in the mixing of all Kenya’s 42 tribal languages,” he said.

Kenya’s constitution of 2010 designated English and Swahili as the official languages.

“While Sheng still does not have official status, it is the most widely spoken language of the youth,” he said.

English is normally spoken while conducting international business, education and news. Swahili, on the other hand, is used for basic inter-ethnic communication, lower level commercial activity and interaction as well as to express nationalism.

“Sheng is now taking over some of the domains especially in news and entertainment,” he said.

U.S.-based Ohio University Associate Professor Peter Githinji said that some dialects have over time become recognized as national languages.

He said that Papua New Guinea has recognized the use of Creole in parliamentary debate while in Haiti, the Creole dialect is used in education. Githinji noted that Sheng began in the 1940s.

“However, it is not until the period of the 1990s that Sheng become part and parcel of Kenyan society,” he said.

Githinji, who is a former Michigan State University Swahili Teaching Assistant, said that Sheng is now the most common language among university students in Kenya.

“Boarding schools also provide the basis for its spread into the rural areas,” he said.

He noted that Sheng can also be used to neutralize the mistrust among Kenya’s ethnic communities. “We need to see how the dialect can be used productively,” Professor Githinji said.

A former member of the Constitution of Kenya, Committee of Experts Bobby Mkangi said that the constitution gives Kenyan citizens the right to be informed of their legal rights in a language they understand.

“This means that if an accused person only understands Sheng then constitutionally, the state will be obliged to find an interpreter,” he said. Mkangi noted that for a language to grow, it requires political will.  



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