Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sheng: A New Language in Kenya

Radio Canada is one of my favourite sources of news. Because it is far less populous than the US, Canada tends to pay more attention to the rest of the world. Its membership in the British Commonwealth also gives it a more global perspective.

Radio Canada has a website with a vast array of downloadable podcasts. I frequently download a few hours of their programming and play it over my bedroom radio which is set up to play MP3s.

My absolute favourite programs from Radio Canada are The World At Six and Dispatches. The World at Six is a daily evening news program. They make Canada come alive and look at their large neighbour to the south with a detached intimacy.

Dispatches is a program of about an hour's length that takes about four stories and covers them in somewhat greater depth than would be accomplished in a nightly news soundbite. If you can imagine an audio version of a New York Times background story, then you have an idea of what Dispatches is all about.

The latest "Dispatches" podcast was a collection of popular stories. One was for me a happy story. In a world full of endangered languages, it concerned the birth of a new language in Kenya.

According to the "Dispatches " broadcast, a new language has taken root in Kenya. "Sheng" is a fusion language that draws heavily on Swahili (Kiswahili) and English. Its birth was a natural outgrowth of the migration to Nairobi from all parts of Kenya. Although English and Swahili are national languages in Kenya, the various localities have distinct and separate languages, of which there are at least sixty one. The largest ethnic groups are the Kikuyu, the Luhya and the Luo.

The creation of Kenya was, like that of other African countries done for the convenience of colonising powers. Its borders were drawn with indifference to local tribal divisions.

It is against this backdrop that Sheng was created. It started out as a slang, and has now taken the next step to being a primary spoken language. Like most slang lexicons, there is heavy turnover in its vocabulary, although this process is slowing down. Its use is, according to the Dispatches broadcast heavily discouraged in the Kenyan schools. One teacher expressed a widely held opinion that its use would inhibit the development of fluency in English and Swahili. There is the additional problem of children lapsing into Sheng so the teacher won't understand them.

Use of a tribal language in a school setting can undermine the development of a sense of national cohesiveness. Sheng does not present this problem. Since it draws on different tribal languages, it is in a real sense an outgrowth of a national identity that transcends Kena's many ethnic boundaries.

Sheng has attracted the fascination of linguists who see in it the opportunity to observe the birth of a new language in modern times. It is being spread in the broadcast media and by truck drivers as well. It is even spoken in the Kenyan parliament. In America, large cities like Los Angeles and New York are cultural trend setters. Nairobi plays this role in Kenyan life. It is Kenya's business, cultural and political centre. It draws its vitality from all parts of Kenya. It is in this bustling backdrop that Sheng is taking its steps from becoming a truly transethnic Kenyan national language.

The development of Sheng is a fascinating outgrowth of Kenya's growth as a nation. It is a hopeful sign. I congratulate the Kenyan people on the birth of their youngest language. May it portend peace for a united, free and prosperous Kenya.


I am including a video of Kenyan music as well as some links which deal with the Sheng language. I hope my readers will check out the links.[email protected]/msg00407.html

 Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks this really helped me a lot with my assignment for school on the 'sheng' language!