Sheng: Cultural Globalization and New Languages in Africa

With cultural globalization comes cultural change. I have been on the Rio Negro in the Amazon rainforest, only to hear a canoe approach with someone playing Madonna. Hip hop has become a global phenomenon. Many people decry what they see as the emergence of a new global culture: shallow, celebrity-focused and American dominated. Part of this critique focuses on the danger not only to local cultures, but also to languages, thousands of which are endangered globally. The Enduring Voices project of National Geographic is currently seeking to record some of these tongues before they disappear forever, not only to document them for history, but also to facilitate efforts to revitalize them. I have thought about indigenous language based on my field work in Oaxaca around HIV/AIDS. How do you do HIV prevention work in a region that may have more than 16 different indigenous languages, each of which has many different dialects? Zapotec itself has more than twenty dialects, each of which has its own name, such as Lhej, Xan, Xhon and Xidza. The diversity of these languages is amazing. Mazotec is a tonal language, which has a whistled form, so that people can communicate across the valleys through whistles. But while we focus on language loss, and indigenous languages, it is interesting to also remember that new languages are also being born.

Of course, new languages have always emerged through history. In Canada during the fur trade a new ethnic group emerged, the Métis, who were the children of French fathers and indigenous mothers. Over two centuries, this people created a new language, Michif, which is a mix of French and Cree. Often when languages mix they are simplified, to be come a pidgin. This did not happen with Michif, which tended to adopt the most complex aspects of both its parent tongues. It was always a minority tongue in Canada. In Brazil, on the other hand, a new language emerged called the lingua geral (General or Common Language) or Nheengatu. See this youtube clip, with local people singing a song in Nheengatu. Because the Portuguese needed a language with which to speak to diverse linguistic groups, this language spread. Indeed, it became so common that it increasingly replaced Portuguese, until a frightened Crown banned it in the 1700s. It still survives in the Amazon, and is not dying out, although it no longer is widespread. The Portuguese Crown did not want to see a new Brazilian identity emerge. It knew what it was doing when it banned this language.

Languages have not only emerged in the past, however, but also in the present. This is particularly true in Africa, a linguistically complex region in which many people are at least bilingual, if they do not speak three or more languages. The African states that emerged after colonialism were multi-ethnic. At the same time, ethnic groups were drawn together with urbanization, while new technologies facilitated the spread of languages. This has meant that in Africa a whole series of new urban languages are emerging.

You seldom hear of language creation, such as Sheng, which is a new tongue that has emerged in Nairobi. It first appeared amongst the young, in particular grade school children and street kids. It quickly spread to traders, and became very common in the informal sector. But what is striking is how quickly it emerged. There is no record of it, that I am aware of, before Kenya gained its independence in 1963. Swahili was the national language, while English was the language of prestige. But this was a period of rapid urbanization, and migration from rural communities, which mixed diverse ethnic groups together. By the 1970s Sheng had emerged, and by the 1980s it began to get attention.

Sheng was first thought to be an argot, that is a form of slang particular to a certain subgroup. But it has moved far beyond its roots in one neighborhood, Eastlands. Different versions of the language are spoken in different neighborhoods, each of which thinks that its version is best. The people of the Jericho neighborhood take particular pride in their version of Sheng. Perhaps a quarter of youth in Nairobi may now speak Sheng. Many adults claim not to speak it, but linguists find that they may even slip into Sheng while avowing their ignorance. It has become not only a tool to foster inter-ethnic cooperation, but also to create a new urban and youthful identity.

The language itself is based on words from a melange of African tongues, and the particular African languages (Masai, Luo or Luhya) vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. But its grammatical backbone is Swahili, while English is one of the biggest sources of loan words. And it is a true product of cultural globalization, which also includes loan words from Indian languages like Hindi, doubtless brought by traders and laborers.  Of course, words are used in a new context so that linguists have found that the English “spy” has come to mean “I see,” as in the old children’s rhyme, “I spy with my little eye.” But linguists can’t decide on how to classify Sheng. Is it an argot, a dialect, a language or something else entirely?

Like many new tongues, Sheng has a perception problem. On the one hand, the young take pride in it, especially men. It has become a language of the street, and is celebrated by poets and hip-hop artists (check out this tourist singing with local rapper Rabbit). These youth prize Sheng as a means to break down ethnic barriers. Even marketers are getting in on the act, and advertisements now use Sheng to make their products seem hip. But adults have a less positive view. They associate Sheng with gangsters and the street, and dislike the idea that they can’t understand what their children are saying. They also worry that children will learn to speak Sheng, instead of the home languages from the rural communities that they came from.

What is interesting is that Sheng is not unique. Throughout Africa, new languages are emerging. These are not simplistic pidgins, with a basic grammar and structure, but intricate and complex languages. In the Ivory Coast, there is Nouchi; in Camaroon, Camfranglais; in the Congo, Indoubil. Right now there is a great deal of attention to language loss, and where I live -the Pacific Northwest- is one of the places that this is happening the fastest. And languages are dying in Africa. My colleague, Tucker Childs, has done considerable work documenting these disappearing African languages. But languages also evolve, revive and emerge, much like a living creature.

When writing the textbook, one of the points that most struck Kim and I was the overlap between areas that were rich in species, and those that were rich in languages. For this reason, it is intriguing that as new environments emerge -such as the cities of Africa- these niches also develop new languages, much as new environments can create new species. For more information on language, see our language chapter on this website. We originally wrote this for inclusion in our textbook, but lacked room. It might form the basis for a good classroom lecture.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University




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  1. Pingback: Eight mistakes teaching International and Global Studies | Intro to Global Studies

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