Language and Culture: The Creolization of Sheng
Sheng is a Kenyan pidgin language which draws much of its vocabulary and syntax from Kiswahili and English. The word Sheng allegedly comes from the S and H found in the word Kiswahili and the -ENG found in the word English. Taken together they form Sheng. A typical Sheng sentence is written like this:
Come twende home-
Come, let’s go home.
The word twende is Kiswahili for let’s go. A full Kiswahili sentence would remove the English words to become:
Njoo twende nyumbani or Kuja twende nyumbani.
Since Kenya is a country of many tribes and languages; approximately 43, some ethnic vocabulary from dominant linguistic groups are often used in Sheng. A friend who had visited me but is now leaving could tell me:
I’ve gone home.
In this case the word shera is a Kikuyu word used together with the Kiswahili prefix nime-. There are other words such as “msee” which most likely came from Kamba language where words such as “Musee, kasee, etc” are often used either as names or in reference to a person. The word keja is Sheng for house. However, used together with the suffix -ni becomes home just like in Kiswahili “nyumba” is a house and “nyumbani” is home.
What’s a pidgin and how do they come to be?
Luckily, Kenya is not the only country with a pidgin. Many other countries have pidgins which serve the same function as Sheng. By definition a pidgin is a language that grows out of two or more languages especially where people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, nationalities, and tribes come together in ways that require them to communicate together without having to learn each others’ languages.
A good example is the work environment where employees from different tribes have to cooperate, work together, and get things done. The same is true of other cosmopolitan settings like schools and cities which often are dominated by multiple ethnicities or nationalities. Steven Pinker, in The Language Instinct, gives an example of the American South where slaves and indentured servants were brought together in plantations and the necessity for a common language was born. Remember that most slaves did not come from the same place in Africa and there were language barriers among them. Similarly, to reduce chances of rebellion and protest, slave holders deliberately placed slaves from different tribes together. To work and communicate together, these slaves needed to come up with a pidgin language.
A more recent example is In Hawaii’s sugar plantations where the need for labor in the late 1800s outstripped the local supply and more workers had to come from China, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Japan, Philippines, and Portugal. This mix of nationalities created a language barrier in Hawaii and a pidgin language was born. For example, a typical worker in those plantations could say:
Me capé buy, me check make.
Good, dis one. Kaukau any-kin’ dis one. Pilipine islan’ no good. No mo money.
It looks like a language salad but one thing you notice, just like in Sheng, is the English words. The sentence translates to “he bought my coffee; he made me out a check.” The second means: “It’s better here than in the Philippines; here you can get all kinds of food, but over there there isn’t any money to buy food with.” A pidgin is not a fully developed language and could be confusing even within its speakers. The first sentence as Pinker argues, could as well have meant “I bought coffee; I made him out a check.” Imagine talking to a deaf person. Even though you won’t understand each other for a long time, at some point you will create a makeshift language to foster communication. That’s exactly what these workers in Hawaii did.
Sheng, just like the Hawaiian pidgin, was created in a similar fashion. As many people from different tribes came together in cities like Nairobi, a language barrier arose and the necessity for a new language was born. Kenya solved this problem by teaching Kiswahili and English in school even though it did not completely make things better considering many Kenyans were learning English or Kiswahili as a second or third language. An interesting thing about language is that to master it well enough you need to learn it at a critical time in childhood. Most Kenyan children learn their mother tongue first during this critical period and very little time is left to master English and Kiswahili. As a result, most Kenyans are fluent in mother tongue but cannot construct full English and Kiswahili sentences.
In Nairobi children learn Kiswahili as a first language then struggle with English in school. Moreover, the fact these languages are taught concurrently in school might also explain why very few people have full grasp of either. It also explains the “Kenyan English” phenomenon which is English spoken as a direct translation of Kiswahili, or English spoken with Kiswahili vowels and sounds. A good example is the phrase:
It has refused.
Directly translated from Kiswahili: Imekataa.
Should be: It’s not working.
Some people have erroneously called Kenyan English an accent which it’s not. According to Wikipedia, Kenyan English follows the five vowel system used in Kiswahili: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/. English has a phonetic system comprising of diphthongs which determine the pronunciation of words. In Kenyan English, the word “cat” and “cut” have the same pronunciation, but in standard English, cat is pronounced as “ket.” Others are “sport; spot” and “heart; hurt; hut.” Kenyans never make the distinction between short and long vowel sounds in words.
Sheng is a product of this mess. A failure by many Kenyans to either master English or Kiswahili. The original Sheng of the 1990s and early 2000s was created in response to this crisis. Instead of laboring through English and Kiswahili Kenyan youth decided to mix both. It’s not laziness, just efficiency.
Listen to the music below. One of Kenya’s finest and a classic. It features Sheng in the 2000s when it comprised mostly of Kiswahili punctuated with English words.
E-Sir -Moss Moss ft. Brenda: E-Sir died in 2003. He among others popularized Sheng and made it part of Kenya’s pop culture.
Is Sheng a new language? What’s with children?
In the Hawaiian plantations, the original pidgin was mostly spoken by adults who had come to Hawaii to work. With time these adults married and got children and it’s these children who made the language what it currently is. As Steven Pinker observes, unlike adults who were past the age of learning new languages, children were quite adept at grasping the new language and transformed it from a word salad to a full language with grammatical formulations.
The ability to acquire language is part of human nature. Learning a language is universal just like learning to walk is. You do not have to teach a child how to walk because sooner or later he will. The same is true of language. A parent needs not to teach his children how to speak because if the time comes they will speak. The implications for this is important. First, children do not learn to speak from their parents same way they do not learn to walk from their parents. With or without parents or adults, a child will learn to walk and talk. Second, children adopt whichever language is spoken by their peers. There is no language too hard for a child to grasp. A Kenyan child born in China will speak Chinese with ease. In Hawaii children turned their parents’ dull pidgin language into a brisk linguistic formulation complete with grammar and vocabulary without the help of parents. Take for example this sentence which was later spoken by children in Hawaii:
Da firs japani came ran away from japan come.
Which is: “The first Japanese who arrived ran away from Japan to here.”
Some filipino wok o’he-ah dey wen’ couple ye-ahs in filipin islan’.
Which is: “Some Filipinos who worked over here went back to the Philippines for a couple of years.”
It is children who transformed the Hawaiian pidgin into a creole. They listened and noticed the language adults were speaking was incomplete and defective and was not a proper medium for communication. The children according to Pinker “converted some words into auxiliaries, propositions, case markers, and relative pronouns.” If it had been up to parents to teach their children the Hawaiian pidgin, there is no likelihood the language would have developed its current complexity.
Many Kenyans believe that Sheng will not become a language because of its roots as an amalgamation of English and Kiswahili. Like the Hawaiian pidgin, however, it is not up to Kenyan adults to decide whether Sheng becomes a language. Children are already equipping Sheng with a complex vocabulary and grammatical syntax. Sheng began as Kiswahili punctuated with English words as seen from E-sir’s song. It has now morphed into a complex language with original vocabularies, anagrams, prefixes, suffixes, auxiliaries, and more. Kiswahili words in modern Sheng do not mean what they mean in Kiswahili. Today, a Kenya cannot be understood by a Tanzanian even though both countries speak Kiswahili. For example, “naenda kukata maji” in Sheng does not mean “I am going to cut water” as it means in Kiswahili. A Tanzanian would be dumbfounded by such a phrase which means the speaker is going to drink alcohol.
My attention was drawn to Nigerian pidgin which is now spoken by 80 million people. Have a look at this BBC News pidgin site. The Nigerian pidgin is spoken by children and adults which is what happens when a pidgin language is adopted by children who grow up and have children of their own. With time, a whole population will grow and have children who speak pidgin and the children of these children will ultimately adopt the pidgin as their native language. The process is called nativization and it’s what transforms a pidgin language to a creole.
What about SHEmbeteNG?
Sheng has become more complex with time. Children are doing what they do best; looking for more vocabularies, suffixes, auxiliaries, verbs, nouns, adverbs etc. Children have made Sheng more complex that many adults feel excluded by it (explains the resentment). What do you expect? Adults are already past their language learning stage and they cannot pick up the new words and grammar. Recently, a guy called Madocho had this to say to his enemies:
“Hii Kanairo mi NAstay kila mahali. We ata UNInauwo, nakama UNAjinauwo vile UNAjinauwo monchoka ukuje Ubanje hapa kwa ghetto tukuskize.”
Notice the English words such as “stay” and “ghetto.” The word stay is preceded by “NA” a Kiswahili prefix. The words “nauwo” is cryptic but comes from the English word “know” and is preceded by prefixes “UNI” and “UNA” depending on who the subject is. The sentence also retains a few Kiswahili words and introduces some Sheng vocabularies like “banje” and “monchoka.” The latter looks to me like an anagram for the Kiswahili word “chomoka” but with the “n” added to stress it. It is a full grammatical sentence that aptly communicates whatever message was intended. At this point I cannot accurately translate the full sentence into English or Kiswahili without distorting the message. Sheng has morphed into a language that stands out from both English and Kiswahili. Listen to the video below.
From the video, the guy says:
“Hii lumbutugha inaenda hadi majuumbutu. Unajua kwanimbitini? Inaenda hadi majuumbutu juu unaskia unaeza banje nayo hadi kizumbutungu.”
The video above shows further grammatical transformations in Sheng as it seeks to free itself from its mother languages English and Kiswahili. Kiswahili and English words are cut at the center and filler words inserted. However, the insertions are not arbitrary and there is a grammatical pattern. Notice not all words have been altered. From my observations nouns are severely altered. “Lugha” meaning language, is a noun and so is “majuu” meaning abroad or oversees. “Kizungu” is also a noun meaning English. A word that is not a noun but has been altered is “kwanini” which has been replaced with “kwanimbitini.” “Kwanini” means “why.”
The question is why aren’t all words in the sentence altered, and why only content words like nouns and verbs. Many function words such as prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns have been left untouched. The question word “why” though functional has been altered together with quantifiers like “zote” and “kiasi?” Could it be because of the number of syllables in each word? Languages all over the world have a grammatical structure and rules; Sheng has stumbled upon this universal grammar. For example, it’s impossible to transform the pronoun “this” or “Hii” which begins the sentence probably because it is a word with only one syllable. Also conjunctions like “until” are left untouched in their Kiswahili form e.g “Hadi” and “Juu.” The use of the filler word “mbata” seems to follow Kiswahili vocals /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/. The question is, why use “mb” and not any other phoneme? Grammatical necessity?
The image below shows a breakdown of what’s going on:
I’ve tried to show that Sheng is not a lame pidgin language but a creole that is on it’s way to become the largest spoken language in Kenya. I have also shown that Sheng follows a strict grammatical format even though my analysis has not been completely exhaustive or particularly erudite. The only step left is the nativization of Sheng. In this process, many people will in future have Sheng as either their first or second language and with time it’ll become the dominant language. In Nigeria, 80 million people speak pidgin and in Kenya Sheng speakers are slowly increasing.