Even by the dynamic standards of its development, the recent tongue-twisting variant of sheng – Kenya’s beloved urban slang, predominantly mixing English, Kiswahili and local languages – has shared on social media, leaving many with headaches.
In this new version, known as shembeteng, a sentence as simple as “I love you” pronounced as “nakulombotove” would sound like a foreign language most Kenyans. The opposite, when hearts begin to grow colder towards each other – and apart, “nakuhambatate” for “I hate you” or “divombotorce” for “divorce” would do that hide pain of heartbreak.
The new Sheng variant is being pushed relentlessly by a group of friends from Nairobi’s Kayole estate who call themselves Jembeteshi Jimbitinga or Jeshi Jinga.
< p>Brian Muasya and his friend Zakaria Mwangi have been working on the slang in the company of another, recognized only as a master, and social media has helped them spread it beyond their neighborhood.
< p>They thought of a way to communicate within their circles and prevent other people from getting the message. This is how they came up with the slang that differs from mainstream sheng.
Read: Don’t blame sheng for poor results in Swahili exams
They shared a passion for music. Their genre – Gengetone, a Kenyan sound that is becoming increasingly popular among youth and dancehall enthusiasts. Together they are now associates and founders of Jeshi Jinga – a clique of friends associated with the new Sheng wave. The third person, Master, was tasked with advertising and content creation. Several others have since joined them.
It took them two years to master the words and use them correctly. The master then took on the role of using the language on social media, specifically Tiktok.
Shembeteng is based on the “vowels” “mbata”, “mbete”, “mbiti”, “mboto “. /em>” and “mbutu”, which flow into English or Kiswahili words that are truncated and rejoined to form the desired variant.
There seems to be a a simple formula Learn this seemingly complex slang.
When gengetone flourished, many artists of this genre were mostly explicit in their lyrics and used offensive words. As a result, there was public backlash.
“When we joined the Gengetone club, we introduced our new language to hide explicit lyrics from the majority of the songs’ listeners,” says Muasya.
Read: Ng’ang’a, what if Mutunga spoke to lawyers in Sheng?
He adds: “In 2020 we had a collaboration with Juacali. We just repeated his words with their equivalent in our version of Sheng. And it was warmly received.”
But does language have anything to do with crime? No, says Muasya.
“The first video about us that went viral had Madocho ‘dissed’ – a rival faction. And the public thought we were trying to cause trouble and cover it up in language no one else understood. But that was actually for entertainment. This language is in no way associated with crime.”
Jeshi Jinga hopes that her language will “gain good recognition and acceptance” in the future.
But Prof. Nathan Ogechi , a researcher in interlinguistics, discourse analysis, and sociolinguistics and a lecturer at Moi University, says that a language is only as good as its speakers.
He says the uniqueness of Sheng is that “the words are transitional. You are not there long. As soon as something comes up, the words change. An item called a “table” today may not be known as a “table” tomorrow.”
Mr. Duncan Ogweno, a linguist and a sheng enthusiast who has been active since his time in 1986 Passionate about it, Class Six saw it, documented it in a Sheng dictionary released in 1996 under the domain sheng.co.ke. Since then he has collected new words to update the site.
To date he has collected over 11,000 words. “We have over 5,000 verified words on our site and another 6,000 unconfirmed along with a few other words that will be updated along the way.”
However, in any slang, Mr. Ogweno says there is no competent authority.
“People who tried to standardize it end up trying to fit Sheng into Swahili shoes, which then causes problems. The real problem that would happen is; The very nature of sheng is that it’s loose, flexible and as exclusive as possible,” he says.
According to Prof. Ogechi, if slang is to follow any rules, then it would largely conform the Matrix (main) language – in this case English or Kiswahili.
“If you’re talking about the grammatical rules, the rules depend on the Matrix language,” he said. “Structurally, it is not independent.”
However, he said, in most studies conducted, the matrix language is usually Kiswahili.
Mr. Ogweno said the more unique it is, the better it is for the people who use it. And any attempt to standardize it kills it.
“At sheng.co.ke we have not tried to purify it, justify it or defend it. We just document it. It really documents the passage of time and how the words have changed.”
In the project, commonly accepted words of all ages are identified as ‘fixed’ and non-standard. This includes words like buda or fadhee (father). Others like tenje (formerly a music system, now referred to as a mobile phone) have changed meaning over time.
He says, “It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young I would know what these fixed words mean.”
Over time, as the word “fixes”, they will find common usage and acceptance. Then a word is considered to be set for general use.
However, Prof. Ogechi says that there are some lexical items that are specific and therefore can be identified as a clan or group.
“Well, when you talk about a slang, it’s specific to a target audience. It’s not just for everyone. This can be within a base where the communicators have the same meaning of words.”
And elsewhere, the same words used by one group may not mean much to different groups, says Prof. Ogechi.