Sheng slang

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Native toKenya
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Sheng is a Swahili and English-based cant, perhaps a mixed language or creole, originating among the urban youth 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]

The 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. The term is first recorded in 1965.[2]

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 in 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 media show had some sort of sheng it.

Although the grammar, syntax, and much of the vocabulary are drawn from Swahili, Sheng borrows 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.

Sheng in literature[edit]

The written use of Sheng in literature is still a minor phenomenon. Some poems in the African literary magazine Kwani? have been published in Sheng, but the first and only book in this language is "Lafudhi hip hop poetry in Sheng" (2015), written by G.rongi.

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), Roroa talk
bonga mavi talk smack
dai want, view
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, doe, keroma, cheddar/chedaz, mkwanja, makwarkwar money
so, kioo, exsoo, red one hundred shillings
finje, chuani, pachas, hamusini fifty shillings
mbao, blue twenty shillings
ashuu, shoe, kindee, ikongo, das ten shillings
ngovo, kobole, guoko five shillings
rwabe, doso, jill two hundred shillings
punch, jirongo five hundred shillings
thao, jii (like the letter G), kapaa, ngiri, ngwanye, ndovu, azar, 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, momo Fat person
njeve cold
ingiza njeve get scared, be afraid, chicken out
Kanjo city council 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, yeng, mdenge girl, chick
buda, mzae, arinzu, mzing father
gweng, gwan hard (difficult)
zii, nada, do, nah no
mathree, mat, jive, jav, buu, nganya matatu
ngwai, Tire (Tea-Reh), kithuke, vela, ndom, aroma, shashi, kenti, mashashola bhang
deree, kigonyi, vandere driver
konkodi, makanga, manumber, donda bus/matatu conductor
fegi, mozo, ngale, fuaka cigarette
Mzae Parent
karao, gova, sanse, beast, afande police
keja, hao, mbanyu, base, digs, ndaki house, home
matha, mathe, mthama woman
mboch, chinebo housegirl (maid)
mbota watch
mbwenya, jako, blazer coat
mdosi, sonko, sos, penki, donga, bombay, bola Rich person
msoto, sufferer poor person
sota, chupri go bankrupt/become poor
mdosi, fathe, mbuyu, buda, arinzu dad
masa, mathe, mnyaka, mokoro, moda, mthama mum
msapere an individual belonging to Kenya's Kikuyu ethnic community
Mkao, mcambodia, mnduli an individual belonging to Kenya's Kamba ethnic community
mjaka an individual belonging to Kenya's Luo ethnic community
mlunje an individual belonging to Kenya's Luhya ethnic community
mkale an individual belonging to Kenya's Kalenjin ethnic community
Arges an individual belonging to Kenya's Somali ethnic community
Kasee a male person from the Kamba ethnic community of Kenya
Baite(pronounced vaite) a male person from the Meru ethnic community of Kenya
nare (nah-reh) fire, matches
ndai, moti, murenga, dinga car
ngata (ng-gah-tah), gede (geh-deh), irori fuel
nguenos, ngwex, mwewe, ngwetes, ngokos chicken
njumu, njuti, ndula, magwanda,manduleng', chuja shoes
poa, wazi,wabe,fiti 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, mbogi crowd
earthwire neck tie
nyonde bird
dush dove/pigeon
mavi, mafi, shonde, shoi, shoste faeces
shower bath
mode (moh-day) teacher
mtaa city, town, streets, neighbourhood
mzii/noma tough/bad
majuu, mayolo, chambele Western world
mngoso, mlami white person, Caucasian person
mtiaji, msororaji, mrazi 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 Radio/ music system
Nangos/ Phone Cellphone/ mobile phone/ telephone
N.B. Words in brackets in the Sheng column show how the word is pronounced.


Sheng Standard Kiswahili (translation) Standard English (translation)
Huu msee ni fala! Huyu mtu ni mjinga. This guy's an idiot!
Si unidungie chuani? Unaeza nipa shilingi hamsini? Can you please give me fifty shillings?
Acha kubonga mavi mdhii. Acha kuongea vibaya, kaka. Stop talking smack, brother.
Ukivuta fegi utajiletea noma. Ukivuta sigara utajiletea shida. If you smoke cigarettes you'll get yourself in trouble.
Ule dame amechapa! Yule msichana ana sura mbaya. That girl is ugly!
Maisha ni gweng bana. Maisha ni ngumu kaka. Life is hard man.
Kuja utugawie hizi njiva. Kuja utugawie hivi vibanzi. Come and share your fries with us.
Budake alishikwa na makarao. Babake alikamatwa na polisi. His dad was caught by the police.
Aliibiwa mbota na mboch. Aliibiwa saa na mjakazi. His watch was stolen by his housegirl.
Aliona magondi akaingiza njeve. Aliona mhuni akahisi woga. He got scared when he saw some thugs.
Niko mbioni. Niko na haraka. I am in a hurry.
Budake ni mzii. Babake ni mkali. His father is tough/bad.
Mokoro aliniwai rwabe nikamchekie ka kwota. Mamangu alinipa shilingi mia mbili nikamnunulie kilo nusu ya nyama. My mother gave me 200 shillings to go buy a quarter kilogram of meat.
Alirauka gware ndo asihate mat za kwenda kwao moshatha. Aliamka mapema ili asikose matatu ya kuenda kwao kijijini. 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
  2. ^ Lambert, James. 2018. A multitude of ‘lishes’: The nomenclature of hybridity. English World-wide, 39(1): 13. doi:10.1075/eww.38.3.04lam

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.
  • Beck, Rose Marie. 2015. "Sheng: an urban variety of Swahili in Kenya." Global Repertoires and Urban Fluidity. Youth Languages in Africa, Nico Nassenstein and Andrea Hollington, (eds.) 51-79. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Bosire, Mokaya. 2009. What makes a Sheng word unique? Lexical manipulation in mixed languages. In AkinloyeOjo & Lioba Moshi (Eds), Selected Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference on African Linguistics, 77-85.
  • Bosire, Mokaya. 2006. Hybrid languages: The case of Sheng. In Olaoba F. Arasanyin & Michael A.Pemberton (Eds). Selected Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference on African Linguistics, 185-193.
  • Fee, D., & Moga, J. 1997. Sheng dictionary.Third edition. Nairobi: Ginseng Publishers.
  • Fink, Teresa Kathleen. 2005. Attitudes toward languages in Nairobi. Diss. University of Pittsburgh.
  • 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.
  • Vierke, Clarissa. 2015. "Some remarks on poetic aspects of Sheng." Global Repertoires and Urban Fluidity. Youth Languages in Africa, Nico Nassenstein and Andrea Hollington, (eds.) 227-256. Berlin: de Gruyter.

External links[edit]