Sheng slang

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Native to Kenya
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None

Sheng is a Swahili and English-based cant, perhaps a mixed language or creole, originating among the urban underclass of Nairobi, Kenya, and influenced by many of the languages spoken there. While primarily a language of urban youths, it has spread across social classes and geographically to neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda.

Etymology and history[edit]

A word "Sheng" is coined from the two languages that it is mainly derived from: Swahili and English. The "h" was included from the middle of "Swahili because "Seng" would have sounded unusual.

Originating in the early 1950s in the Eastlands area of Nairobi (variously described as a "slum", "ghetto" or "suburb"), Sheng is now heard among matatu drivers/touts across the region, and in the popular media. Most of the Sheng words are introduced in various communities and schools and given wide exposure by music artists who include them in their lyrics, hence the rapid growth. It can be assumed to be the first language of many Kenyans in urban areas.

Like all slang, Sheng is mainly used by the youth and is part of popular culture in Kenya. It also evolves rapidly, as words are moved into and out of slang use. It found broad usage among hip hop artists such as Kalamashaka and G.rongi in the African Great Lakes region i the 90s', both mainstream and "underground" (whose music helped spread the language and contribute to rapid changes or shifts in Sheng vocabulary), as well as among virtually all university and secondary-school students, the language was not always associated with people who cannot do much for the society until when the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation noted the rise in both class and diversity. Radio presenters John Karani, Jeff Mwangemi and Prince Otach, and many more, took it to the mainstream by presenting the first radio shows using Sheng phrases on the national broadcast. By 2010 almost every effect media show had some sort of sheng it.

Although the grammar, syntax, and much of the vocabulary are drawn from Swahili, Sheng borrows from every language across the world and from the languages of some of the largest ethnic groups in Kenya, including Luhya, Gĩkũyũ, Luo and Kamba. Words are also borrowed from languages that are neither a local language nor English – such as the Sheng word morgen "morning" – a Sheng word used in some areas with a similar meaning in German.

Sheng vocabulary can vary significantly within Kenya's various subdivisions and the larger African Great Lakes region, and even between neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Many youth living in the capital often use the argot as their everyday mode of communication rather than Swahili or English. In other words, Sheng can be considered as the modern day Swahili Language.

Sheng in literature[edit]

The written use of Sheng in literature is still a minor phenomenon. If some few poems in Kwani? books have been published in sheng, the first and only book in this language is "Lafudhi hip hop poetry in Sheng" written by G.rongi, it was published in 2015.

Sample vocabulary[edit]

Sheng English (definition)
mnati, ras Rastafarian
babi, barbie person who doesn't speak Sheng, person from a wealthy background
bonga (bong-gah) talk
bonga mavi talk smack
dai want
dungia (doong-gi-ah), gawia, chapia, vutia hit up (call someone)
apantambua no respect to that (don't recognize that)
pack, live (somewhere)
deng'a, thwau, bunde, mchuma, mtoo, ridhe, fee, toka gun, firearm
chapaa, munde, mundez, niado, ganji, dough, cheddar/chedaz, mkwanja, makwarkwar money
so, kioo, oss, red one hundred shillings
finje, chuani, guoko, hamusini fifty shillings
mbao, blue twenty shillings
ashuu, shoe, kindee, ikongo, das ten shillings
ngovo, kobole, guoko five shillings
rwabe, jill two hundred shillings
punch, jirongo five hundred shillings
thao, jii (like the letter G), kapaa, ngiri, ngwanye, ndovu, kei (like the letter K), muti, bramba one thousand shillings
fala, mwere (mweh-reh), dwanzi, zuzu stupid person, idiot
ocha, moshatha up country, rural home/area
noma, niku hatata, wa gwan in a mess, trouble
Conte Tough person
Oposh Fat person
njeve cold
ingiza njeve get scared, be afraid, chicken out
Karau, Kerea Police
Kanjo Municipal Revenue Officer
chapo chapati
ngodha underpants
msee, kizee, mdhii, mguys, mzeiya, mtungwaz, mzaee guy, dude
dame, mresh, supuu, msupa, manzi, shore (sho-reh; from "shawty"), msusu, mroro, mshee, totoh girl, chick
buda, mzae old man
gweng, gwan hard (difficult)
zii, nada, do, nah no
mathree, mat, jive, jav, buu, nganya matatu
ngwai, kithuke, vela, ndom bhang
deree, kigonyi driver
konkodi, makanga, manumber, donda bus/matatu conductor
fegi, mozo, ngale, fuaka cigarette
bangi (bang-gee), gode (goh-deh), juala, ngwida, ma'yeza marijuana
karao, gova, sanse police
keja, hao, mbanyu, base, diggs house, home
matha, mathe, mthama woman
mboch housegirl (maid)
mbota watch
mbwenya coat
mdosi, sonko, sos, penki boss, rich person
sonko, donga rich person
msoto, sufferer poor person
sota, chupri go bankrupt/become poor
mdosi, fathe, mbuyu, buda dad
masa, mathe, mnyaka, mokoro, moda, mthama mum
msapere an individual belonging to Kenya's Kikuyu ethnic community
nare (nah-reh) fire, matches
ndai, moti, murenga, dinga car
ngata (ng-gah-tah), gede (geh-deh) fuel
nguenos, ngwex, mwewe, ngwetes chicken
njumu, njuti, ndula, magwanda,manduleng' shoes
poa, wazi,wabe cool
ubao, maunenge hunger
veve, mbachu, shamba, mogoka miraa
kuber (koo-beh-r), kubz (chewing) tobacco
mburungo cargo
chapa, donje, kiatu, forbes, kiraka, kubeat ugly
chipo, chibaz, njiva, vanga chips
fika, ishia, jikata to go somewhere
kirindi crowd
earthwire neck tie
dush, nyoni bird
mavi, mafi, shonde, shoi, shoste faeces
shower rain
mode (moh-day) teacher
mtaa city, town, streets, neighbourhood
mzii tough/bad
majuu, chambele Western world
mngoso, mlami white person, Caucasian person
mtiaji, msororaji snitch, tattletale
kauzi, thegi, gondi, dingo, obe (ob), gwangi thief, thug, mugger, burglar
masaa, githaa time
mshikaji boyfriend/girlfriend
pasuka, raruka laugh
karokota, doze take a nap, sleep
nyaku, waka, washa, gwezere, malaga drink (alcohol)
kalesa, pace walk a distance
tei alcohol
tenje television
chapa, donje, kiatu, forbes, kiraka ugly
N.B. Words in brackets in the Sheng column show how the word is pronounced.


Sheng Standard English (translation)
Huu msee ni fala! This guy's an idiot!
Si unidungie chuani? Can you please give me fifty shillings?
Acha kubonga mavi mdhii. Stop talking smack, man.
Ukivuta fegi utajiletea noma. If you smoke cigarettes you'll get yourself in trouble.
Ule dame amechapa! That girl is ugly!
Maisha ni gweng bana. Life is hard man.
Kuja utugawie hizi njiva. Come and share your fries with us.
Budake alishikwa na makarao. His dad was caught by the police.
Aliibiwa mbota na mboch. His watch was stolen by his housegirl.
Aliona magondi akaingiza njeve. He got scared when he saw some thugs.
Budake ni mzii. His father is tough/bad.
Mokoro aliniwai rwabe nikamchekie ka kwota. My mother gave me 200 shillings to go buy a quarter kilogram of meat.
Alirauka gware ndo asihate mat za kwenda kwao moshatha. He woke up early so as not to miss a matatu to his rural home.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online

Additional literature[edit]

  • Abdulaziz, Mohamed H. and Ken Osinde. 1997. Sheng and Engsh: development of mixed codes among the urban youth in Kenya. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 125 (Sociolinguistic Issues in Sub-Saharan Africa), pp. 45–63.
  • Bosire, Mokaya. 2006. Hybrid languages: The case of Sheng. Selected Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference on African Linguistics, ed. Olaoba F. Arasanyin and Michael A. Pemberton, 185-193. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.
  • Fee, D., & Moga, J. 1997. Sheng dictionary.Third edition. Nairobi: Ginseng Publishers.
  • Githinji, Peter. 2005. Sheng and variation: The construction and negotiation of layered identities. PhD dissertation, Michigan State University.
  • Githinji, Peter. 2006. Bazes and Their Shibboleths: Lexical Variation and Sheng Speakers’ Identity in Nairobi. Nordic Journal of African Studies 15(4): 443–472.
  • Githiora, Chege. 2002. Sheng: peer language, Swahili dialect or emerging Creole? Journal of African Cultural Studies Volume 15, Number 2, pp. 159–181.
  • Kang’ethe, Iraki. 2004. Cognitive Efficiency: The Sheng phenomenon in Kenya. Pragmatics 14(1): 55–68.
  • Kießling, Roland & Maarten Mous. 2004. Urban Youth Languages in Africa. Anthropological Linguistics 46(3): 303-341
  • Mazrui, Alamin. 1995. Slang and Codeswitching: The case of Sheng in Kenya. Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 42: 168–179.
  • Ogechi, Nathan Oyori. 2002. Trilingual Codeswitching in Kenya – Evidence from Ekegusii, Kiswahili, English and Sheng. Doctoral dissertation, Universität Hamburg.
  • Ogechi, Nathan. 2005. On Lexicalization in Sheng. Nordic Journal of African Studies 14(3): 334–355.
  • Samper, David. 2002. Talking Sheng: The role of a Hybrid Language in the Construction of Identity and Youth Culture in Nairobi Kenya. PhD Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Spyropoulos, Mary. 1987. Sheng: some preliminary investigations into a recently emerged Nairobi street language. Journal of the Anthropological Society 18 (1): 125-136.

External links[edit]