An intro class lecture: New languages- the example of Sheng

AIDS prevention tapes in Oaxaca’s Indigenous languages. Photo by Shawn Smallman. Tapes by Frente Comun contra el SIDA, Oaxaca, courtesy of Bill Wolf.

Several years ago I wrote a lecture for my “Introduction to International Studies” course that looked at the emergence of new languages.  While people are aware of language loss, fewer people know that new languages are also forming. So I used this lecture as a means to talk about cultural globalization.  I’ve talked about Sheng before on the blog, but I thought that another faculty member might want to use this lecture.

It’s important for me to say that I based this lecture on an several peer-reviewed articles, as well as articles in the popular press, but I did not note them. So this material is not original, but I can’t cite the original authors. My apologies to these scholars.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Cultural Globalization and Language: The Example of Sheng



Haitian creole

Lingua Geral






Argot: a secret vocabulary and language for a particular group

(silent t in “argot”)

pidgin: an artificial language created for use between speakers of different languages

Patois (pronounced pat’wa): a dialect separate from the standard language


Lecture Outline:

Cultural Globalization

New Languages in the Americas

Language Creation in Africa

Sheng: Structure and Perceptions

Urban Languages in Africa

Resources on Youtube:

  • Dr Seuss in Jamaican Patois
  • Language is a Virus (really good, must use): /
  • “Jorm and Rabbit in Nairobi”: music video in Sheng
  • Search Scottish Gaelic Discovery Channel(
  • Discovery Channel video on Saami on Youtube

Cultural Globalization

  • With cultural globalization, a global culture is emerging
  • My own experience in the Amazon: a canoe coming down river with someone wearing a  Madonna t-shirt
  • Every traveler has similar experiences
  • Hip-hop has become a global phenomenon
  • People are rapping in Sami in northern Scandinavia
  • Many people decry what they see as the emergence of a global culture
  • Critique: shallow, celebrity focused, and American dominated
  • Argue that we need to maintain local cultural traditions and languages
  • Part of this critique is an argument that English has emerged as a new global language, and the language of globalization
  • Thousands of languages in the world today are critically endangered
  • The rise of English is often blamed for this: kind of like an invasive species that eliminates local species
  • I have a somewhat different perspective on this from my experience in Oaxaca

Language in Oaxaca

  • First began to think about language because my fieldwork around HIV/AIDS
  • Multiplicity of languages in Oaxaca
  • How do you do AIDs prevention work in such a linguistically complex environment?
  • An NGO in Oaxaca made tapes of AIDS prevention lectures in different languages
  • Sent north to migrants
  • Great need: Woodburn is one of the most linguistically complex places that you can find
  • Can’t count on reaching people using only Spanish: migrants may speak Mixtec first, English second, and Spanish third
  • Some of these languages are dying
  • But others are thriving, such as Zapotec
  • Many languages are dying
  • But new languages are also emerging


New Languages in the Americas

  • Of course, new languages are nothing new in history
  • Globalization has helped create new languages throughout the Americas
  • In Canada the fur trade helped to create a new ethnic group the Metis, who were the children of French fathers and indigenous mothers
  • Over two centuries a new language emerged, Michif 
  • Mix of French with Cree
  • What is interesting is that normally when languages mix, the language becomes simpler
  • This is what is called a creole tongue
  • That did not happen with Michif
  • Instead, the new language preserved the most complex grammatical aspects of both mother tongues
  • The exact opposite of what you would expect
  • Suggests that the people who first created both languages were fully fluent in both tongues
  • Many other examples, especially in the Caribbean, where you have Haitian creole and Jamaican patois


New Languages often denigrated.

  • These languages are often denigrated, because they are not viewed as being as “pure”
  • Certainly the case with Jamaican patois
  • Listen to this example: Youtube clip: Dr. Seuss or “The Night before Christmas” in Jamaican Patois
  • Recently, the King James Bible was translated into Jamaican Patois
  • Created a controversy: some people thought that the English of the King James Bible embodied the dignity of God’s Word.
  • But in churches, people had a powerful response to hearing the bible in Patois
  • These languages often suppressed by the government
  • This was the case in Brazil, for example, during the colonial period
  • Brazil a linguistically complex place
  • How do different native peoples talk with each other
  • Jesuits helped to create Nheengatu or Lingua Geral, the General Language
  • Soon spread to traders, different native peoples and the Portuguese
  • The unexpected happened: Portuguese began to fade out
  • Being replaced by the Lingua Geral
  • The government banned it
  • It still survives in some remote areas of the Amazon
  • But no longer the powerful language it once was
  • New languages are viewed as a political threat
  • The Portuguese Crown did not want to see a new identity emerge in Brazil
  • It knew what it was doing when it suppressed Nheengatu (show clip of song in Nheengatu from Youtube)

Language creation in Africa

  • One of the most complex regions of the world is Africa
  • Colonial powers introduced their tongues
  • Existing African states usually were multi-linguistic
  • As a result, most Africans today are multi-lingual, and speak three or more languages
  • Rapid process of urbanization since the 1950s
  • This has brought people from many different ethnic groups together, often in the slums
  • These are often young communities, in which the age is low
  • At the same time, there is rapid population growth, both in Africa in general, and in these communities
  • New forms of communication emerging, such as the internet
  • Means that in Africa a whole series of new urban languages are emerging
  • You often hear about language extinction
  • You very seldom hear about language creation
  • New languages did not only emerge in the past
  • This is happening right now
  • One of the new languages to emerge is Sheng


Sheng’s Origins

  • Sheng is a complex language that emerged in Nairobi city
  • First appeared in a specific neighborhood, Kaloleni, and then spread elsewhere in the city
  • First appeared among the youth
  • Especially grade and middle school students when they are outside of class
  • Became very popular amongst street youth, and people who work in the informal sector
  • The traders in the street spoke it
  • First began to appear after national independence from Britain in 1963
  • A time of rapid rural to urban migration
  • People from many different ethnic groups being drawn into Nairobi, the largest city in Kenya
  • Swahili was the official national language
  • English was the language of prestige, business, government and education
  • Bills in parliament are typically first drafted in English, for example
  • But in the slums where Sheng emerged, there was a mélange of African languages
  • Only 7% of people spoke Swahil as their first language
  • Even those people mostly spoke it at home, but often found they needed other languages outside of the home.
  • Sheng may have had roots as far back as the colonial period
  • But it really began to spread in the 1970s
  • Didn’t really draw any attention until the 1980s


Who speaks Sheng

  • At first it was thought of as an argot, which is a kind of slang particular to a subgroup
  • In this case, it was thought of as a kind of slang for teenagers
  • Still identified with Eastlands in Nairobi, and with youth
  • But it is spreading
  • Different forms of Sheng spoken in different neighborhoods
  • For example, people in the Jericho say that they speak a different and better form of Sheng than people in Eastlands
  • Show street interviews from Nairobi about Sheng: Language is a Virus (really good, must use): /
  • For about a quarter of youth in Nairobi, Sheng is now their main language
  • Interestingly, more than 10% of adults now speak it as their main language outside the workplace
  • Many others find that they need to use it in the marketplace when buying goods, etc.
  • Has become a means for people to express an urban identity
  • A form of code that gave prestige


Structure of Sheng

  • Based on a Swahili grammar but uses resources from other Kenyan languages like Masai, Luhya and Luo
  • in different neighborhoods the version of Sheng that people speak will be influenced more by one African language than another
  • English is also very important to the language
  • If I show you Sheng, which I will in a little bit, you will find that you are able to read parts of it
  • But words may be used in slightly different ways
  • For example, “spy” is used in the sense of being able to see
  • Much as in the old rhyme: “I spy, with my little eye.”
  • But it is truly hybrid language
  • During the colonial period, England brought laborers to Kenya from India
  • They spoke Hindi and Guajurat
  • You find loan words from these languages in Sheng
  • Of course Swahili is also important to Sheng
  • Swahili is the main language of trade and media now in Kenya
  • It was a common coastal language as early as the thirteenth century
  • Itself a hybrid language, that mixed words from Hindi, Persian, Portuguese and English
  • In theory, Swahili is supposed to be the language of national instruction 
  • Sheng has drawn on Swahili and English, which themselves have drawn on a wealth of other languages
  • The reality is that Sheng is much closer to Swahili in its grammar than either the people who speak it or who disdain it would like to admit
  • If you look at the loan words: very hybrid
  • If you look at the grammar- not so much
  • Often described  as a pidgin: simplified
  • But linguists studying it have found that its underlying grammatical structures are surprisingly complex
  • It seems to be evolving: increasing in complexity, and increasingly distancing itself from Swahili
  • In some areas Sheng is morphing into a new language Engsh, which draws more on English
  • What is interesting to me is that linguists can’t agree on Sheng: is it a language, a creole an argot
  • Big debates


Positive Perceptions of  Sheng

  • Sheng emerged as a low-status language
  • The Eastlands are a high urban density area of Nairobi, which is widely perceived as a ghetto
  • Sheng now gaining in status
  • Many university students speak it
  • At least half of all male university students
  • More men than women seem to speak it
  • It is gaining more and more coverage on TV and the radio
  • But it still has an air around it that it belongs to the street
  • People say that it is not a true language but a pidgin
  • That its structure is simplified and impoverished relative to mother tongues like English or Swahili
  • They point to the way it changes words, almost Pig Latin, to make a secret code that only speakers understand
  • A way, perhaps, to keep adults from following the language
  • So Sheng kind of has a dual identity
  • Amongst the youth it is thought of as being cool
  • Kids interviewed about Sheng said that it was good, because it could help them to keep secrets
  • Interesting: people said that it made speakers smarter
  • Perhaps what they meant by this was that it gave its speakers street smarts
  • It is also seen as an inclusive language, that accommodates many different languages without discrimination
  • It is a means to erase ethnic differences
  • Sheng is the language of poetry
  • A number of hip hop bands are very popular in Kenya, and they sing in Sheng
  • So it has become part of popular youth culture
  • Young people say that it is not only a language but also a philosophy
  • It is a means to assert a positive urban identity
  • So much so, that is no emerging in marketing
  • Companies are now using it in Nairobi to sell products
  • Youtube: “Jorm and Rabbit in Nairobi”: music video in Sheng


Critics of Sheng

  • Critics of Sheng worry that it is designed to exclude adults
  • Many 40-60 year olds say that they can’t speak it at all
  • They feel that it isolates them from their children
  • They worry that it will lead their children to lose their “home” language, of the rural communities from which they came
  • These people often say that Sheng has “spoilt” Swahili and should be banned
  • They dislike the fact that it is secretive, and associate with the criminal class
  • In their view, it began amongst gangsters
  • Language is a way of showing who you are to the world
  • Parents feel that if their children speak Sheng, it will be a way to suggest that they are low class
  • Teachers blame it for their students poor performance
  • Say that high school students are not graduating able to speak Swahili properly because they are spending too much time speaking Sheng
  • But what is interesting is that most students in Nairobi are multilingual
  • Blaming Sheng for difficulties in the class
  • But the students probably speak at least two other languages, and can easily switch from Sheng to Swahili when the context is appropriate
  • But teachers and parents want to play the role of cultural gatekeepers 
  • Ban Sheng
  • Because it is not a true language it will not last; it is a fad
  • One researcher noted that some older people who claimed not to speak any Sheng would use it, seemingly without being aware that they were slipping into Sheng
  • Another point: there is a gender division about Sheng
  • Men tend to view it more positively; women are more likely to want to speak English
  • One study also found that even some young people who spoke Sheng had negative attitudes towards it
  • So the perception of Sheng is not decided solely on the basis of age
  • So Sheng has both status and disdain
  • The difference in how it is viewed is largely based on age and class


Urban Languages in Africa

  • Sheng is not the only new language emerging in Africa
  • There are a host of new tongues emerging
  • For example in the cities and mining belt of Zambia you have Bemba emerging
  • There you had a situation much like that in Nairobi, in that people from many different language backgrounds were drawn together
  • Bemba has become the main working language in the region
  • In South Africa, you have Fanagalo, which emerged as a language in the mining district
  • Draws on Zulu, Xhosa, Dutch, English
  • Evolved out of contact between European settlers and Africans
  • Most languages, however, are emerging amongst urban youth
  • They are true languages rather than dialects, in that they are incomprehensible to people who do not speak them
  • They are also not pidgins, or simplified structures used for trade or basic communication amongst peoples with different languages
  • They are grammatically complex
  • Rather these are urban youth languages, which are emerging from cultural globalization
  • They represent the impact of a number of factors, especially migration and urbanization
  • These languages are emerging all throughout Africa, and are too many to list
  • This are all living languages, which are undergoing a very rapid period of change
  • I will name just a few of these languages so that you have a sense of the scale of the phenomenon
  • You don’t have to remember the names: too difficult and not what is important
  • In the Ivory Coast, you have Nouchi
  • Originally perceived as the language of thieves and school drop outs
  • Spread to youth and the schools
  • Now often used in songs and music
  • In Cameroon you have Camfranglais
  • What languages might you expect to see in this?: French and English
  • In the Congo, you have Indoubil
  • Also emerged as the language of street-wise youths
  • You do see this happening in other parts of the world
  • In the Netherlands, there is a form of street language, but it does not have a name
  • Does not seem to have the power to grow and expand in the same way
  • Nairobi a great cultural melting pot
  • Center of a process of cultural globalization



  • In some ways, languages are like species
  • If you were to look at the areas of the globe with the greatest diversity of species, they are also the areas of greatest linguistic diversity
  • Right now, there is a great deal of focus on language loss
  • In the Pacific Northwest, we are in an area undergoing one of the greatest rates of language loss in history
  • At this moment, a wealth of native languages are dying
  • At the same time, its important that languages not only die, but also are born
  • This is taking place on every continent and every world region
  • But nowhere, perhaps, is it happening as quickly as it is in Africa
  • Languages can also revive


Language Survival and Revival

  • Languages can also change in unpredictable ways
  • Of all the Celtic languages, you would predict that Welsh would be in the greatest trouble
  • Smallest homeland, closest to England, a populous and wealthy nation that speaks the lingua franca of the world
  • Welsh is thriving
  • Youth have embraced it
  • In Scotland there are now more people who speak Farsi as a first language than Scots Gaelic
  • 50,000 people speaker 
  • still important to Scotland’s identity: ( Search Scottish Gaelic Discovery Channel
  • Youtube: Scottish Weather forecast: shows how the state tries to promote the language
  • Sometimes technology can also promote the use of a language
  • Saami is the language of the Laps of northern Scandinavia
  • An indigenous people long marginalized within their cultures
  • Perhaps only 15,000 people speak Saami within Sweden
  • But it now has a presence in youth culture in Scandinavia
  • Attracting attention: may help it to survive
  • Look at Discovery Channel video on Saami on Youtube




  • Why do you think that so many of these languages first emerge in the street?
  • Why do you think that these languages are popular amongst the young?
  • Are there dangers to having languages that are mainly spoken by the young?
  • Can you think of any parallels to these urban languages in other parts of the world?
  • Often these languages begin amongst criminals. For example, Iscamto in Johannesburg, South Africa, began as an argot amongst criminals. Why would criminals develop their own languages? Why would youth then adopt it?
  • Why do youth adopt some languages, while others such as Scottish Gaelic, die?
  • Why do some languages revive?
Privacy & Cookies: This site uses cookies. See our Privacy Policy for details. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. If you do not consent, click here to opt out of Google Analytics.