"A Language of Many Hats": The Rise of Sheng and other Linguistic Styles among Urban Youth in Kenya

Wairungu, Michael, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Contini-Morava, Ellen, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

In Kenya today, there is a disconnect between the national language policy and peoples’ language use in actual practice. While the government promotes Standard Swahili as a national language to facilitate interethnic communication and alongside English for use in official functions, my research findings indicate that many young Kenyans do not adhere to the said national language policy. Instead, they have embraced unauthorized nonstandard language varieties such as Sheng for distinctiveness among other reasons. I argue that these young Kenyans find the other readily available languages insufficient for their communicative needs, and for negotiating desired distinct social identities. However, while embracing these alternative linguistic forms, speakers engage in social practices that suggest both resistance to and conformity with the official language ideology and local cultural frameworks.
The research study was inspired by three common claims about Sheng which had not been researched before: 1) that use of Sheng among students interferes with their mastery of the officially sanctioned Standard Swahili and English; 2) Sheng unites speakers from diverse ethnic backgrounds; and 3) Sheng has spread beyond its perceived origins, Nairobi. In order to investigate these claims, I conducted an intensive ethnographic study in two co-ed schools in Nakuru and Mombasa, two major towns in Kenya with underlying regional and ethnic tensions. Mombasa provided an additional context for investigating how Sheng is used and perceived alongside competing varieties of Swahili. My study therefore introduces a new point of departure in the study of Sheng by focusing on social and geographical contexts that had not been explored before.
My research found that previous scholarly attempts to define Sheng are inadequate because they did not account for social factors such as speakers’ attitudes, which influence how they perceive and employ Sheng. This finding also challenges the common association of Sheng with urban youth since not all youth speak Sheng, and not all youth language varieties are called Sheng. Instead, what speakers call Sheng is socially defined. I therefore propose that Sheng is best understood via Irvine’s (2001) concept of style, i.e. “social semiosis of distinctiveness.”
Additional findings address the relationship between language and national identity, and also question the viability of the notions of “standard language ideology” (Lippi-Green 2012) and “legitimate language” (Bourdieu 1977). The two notions do not fit well in Kenya, especially in the case of Standard Swahili. Though Standard Swahili is both a national and official language, it is not associated with prestige and power. Instead, it is English, the former colonial language, which generates social rewards among adults, and nonlinguistic varieties such as Sheng among young Kenyans. Overall, my dissertation will contribute to the study of Sheng and other urban youth language varieties in Kenya, and the rest of multilingual post-colonial Africa. Also, my findings could inform language planning and formulation of educational policies in these multilingual settings.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Kenya, language ideology, Sheng, Swahili, style, shrubbing, language and identity, legitimate language
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: