Downtown Nairobi. The Sheng Capital.

The evolution of Sheng as an opensource language.

I LMFAOed the other day when I remembered how with much conviction my Swahili teacher told us that if we continued to speak Sheng we would wind up as unproductive members of society with no language skills spending our days at Matatu stages hustling for change. For those who may not know, Sheng is a street language commonly spoken in major cities and towns in Kenya while matatus are a kind of punishment the British meted on us for kicking their behinds in the 60s. Being a natural born contrarian, I needed no more convincing to pursue the resourceful street language with much enthusiasm.

Now, you probably rolled your eyes halfway into the back of your head when I started this article with the expression LMFAOed. It is no doubt well past its expiry date but bare with me. It is all part of my ingenious plan to win you over to my respect and admiration for a form of language that may characterize the future of our highly connected multicultural world. In the mid naughties (2003 onward), abbreviated language emerged with the infiltration of SMS communication into mainstream culture.

This then reached its zenith with the invention of the SMS to web application later christened twitter. Twitter for those who may not know is a non-profit organization promoting the right of human beings around the world to shut up and pick their words more carefully when they do speak. It wasn't successful, unfortunately. Human beings proved that their ability to say stupid things is not limited by the number of words they are allowed.

Young people around the world took liberties with the English language as they tried to fit complex communication within the limits of 140 characters of text. Shortened compound words and abbreviated sentences became common place and could easily be used and understood in written form and sometimes even spoken. Of course almost immediately the literary priests of the sacred halls of English grammar went up in arms over this heinous degradation of proper language.

The same kind of rhetoric has surrounded the Swahili based pseudo language we in Kenya call Sheng. The evolution of this language has sometimes been traced back to the maumau uprising when African rebels used a customized form of Swahili to communicate coded messages right under the long noses of their British oppressors. Whether this is true or not, my belief is that Sheng was bound to spring to life in Kenya’s capital Nairobi either way.

Nairobi is a bewildering cultural melting pot where walking down any street you would meet a hip hop thug, a Masai Moran, a Sikh, an imam, a goth, a Rastafarian, a nun and just about any kind of human being imaginable. Walk a hundred meters down any busy street in Nairobi and you are likely to here more than fifty ethnic, regional and global languages crisscrossing each other in this complex African city. This is the ecosystem within which the Sheng language inevitably formed.

So why an opensource language you may ask? Well, let’s start with the definition of opensource. The word was coined in the late nineties to refer to software that was created and released into the public domain where any one who so wished could edit and develop it for their own use on an open license. This led to a revolution in customization of software applications that have greatly changed the world we live in today. Unlike standard software, opensource software evolves according to need and creativity.

The sheng language evolved under similar circumstances. In Nairobi’s highly multilingual mix of tribes and cultures, there was a need for a flexible and highly customized language to communicate the expressive subtleties and nuances that were unique to the variety of people who coexist in this melting pot of African and global cultures. The rigid formality of the Swahili language was a poor catalyst for this need leading to it’s inevitable failure as the dominant spoken language in Kenya.

Although it is not officially recognized as a language, Sheng is quite likely the most widely used form of communication in Kenya. It comes in a wide variety of dialects and variations that emerge from inner-city estates, small towns and villages. Like open source software, Sheng evolves by borrowing on the basic structure of Swahili grammar and inserting modified words and expressions from other languages and cultures to form a kind of amorphous pidgin. This pidgin allows Kenyans from different backgrounds to express subtle but culturally important ideas adopted from ethnic languages as well as global pop culture.

The exact nature, evolution and future of this form of communication will quite likely remain a topic of debate but it is clear that it is not going anywhere. The language has made great advances through pop-culture, broadcast and advertising. I still speak it; learning new words every so often and lending my own to the language yet somehow I have managed to avoid a vagrant lifestyle of hustling for coins at matatu stages (See Definition Below).

I believe the world may witness an increase in theses kinds of languages as the rate of interaction between cultures and languages increases. Open source languages may some day be the standard form of communication but they could also be just an intermediary stage towards the formation of a unified global culture. Who’s to say?

DEF: Matatu Stage: Not to be confused with a bus stop, a matatu stage is any vaguely horizontal surface adjacent to a major road where a public transport van or Mini-bus can stop awkwardly for passengers to board or alight. The laws governing where matatu stages can emerge are still undocumented but it is a requirement for the area to be near or next to but not actually at a bus-stop, it should be awkawardly slanted causing great discomfort to those inside and making it almost impossible to alight or board without some gymnastic skill and most importantly it should be at a location where just one or two matatus can cause the maximum possible disruption to the smooth flow of traffic.
A matatu Picking up a passanger.

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The images in this article are chosen for the purpose of illustrating free ideas for the public. I do not, nor do I wish to gain any financial advantage from their use or from the publishing of this blog. If you own any of the images herein and have any objection to their use please notify me and I will remove themimmediately.

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