Kenya’s former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga once joked on Twitter about opening a Sheng school and it became front-page news as language pundits rebutted the notion. He went ahead and addressed lawyers in Sheng, provoking a discussion on admissibility of the language in official communication.
The word “Sheng” was coined in 1965 by Dr Robert E Wolverton, an American, who is currently a professor of classical and modern languages at Mississippi State University.
In his book Classical Elements published in 1965, he describes Sheng as a variation of English infused with Swahili phonology spoken by middle-to-lower class students in universities to differentiate themselves from students from upcountry.
Websites such as sheng.co.ke have been cataloging words in Sheng together with their origin and use, thereby creating the reference material for the language. However, the fast innovation of new words makes Sheng not ideal as a language for a grammar school. For example, in the 60s the youth preferred the word sinyaa for police, in the 70s it was ponyi, the 80s sanse and 90s karao. Today, there are more than 10 words for police (e.g vedi, gava, mbang’a, beast, njege, sampa, pae and godon) which are specific to certain neighbourhoods. This presents a second challenge as noted in the book Metamorphosis of English – In the Buruburu area of Nairobi you hear, Ni mrisky ku drive, while in Maringo the same is ni mhard kwa mrengo and in Kariobangi South, ni mdeadly ku drive.
General consensus puts Maringo and its environs as having a Sheng version that is distinct from the entire Eastlands region of Nairobi (the birthplace of the language). Dandora and Kayole neighbourhoods have emerged recently to develop unique Sheng dialects. For instance a shoe is generally referred to as chuja or njumu but will pass as njuruchuchu in Dandora. Recently minted Sheng word for fake gun bonoko passes as dikwara in Kayole.
Although the emerging language has been argued to lack a grammatical structure, there are five key ways of creating new words; reversing an existing word, shortening a word, giving new meaning to an existing word, borrowing a word from another language, inflection, or inventing a word. An analysis on a sample of 565 words from the website sheng.co.ke shows that most sources of Sheng words come from English words thathave been shortened or indexed