Reifications and fluidity: English, Swahili and everything in between

Africa is not a country, and I would normally refrain from straying into geographical areas of this continent that are far from my comfort zone. (And note that the areas of specialisation that are prescribed for Africanists from the global North and taken on by them are already huge and would not be permissible for disciplines focusing on other areas of the world, nor are similarly broad perspectives accorded to Africans, who too often are still regarded as credible experts of their local experience only. But this is a subject for a different blog post altogether…)

But today I’m inspired by my colleague Chege Githiora’s new book on Sheng that we will launch tonight at SOAS, so let me leave West Africa behind and extend my gaze to the shores of the Indian Ocean for once.

When we talk about African languages, there is often an assumption that these languages, indigenous languages, stand in contrast with colonial languages – the European languages of the colonial powers that until today remain the official languages of the vast majority of African countries. Yet, many of the languages and associated groups that we know as African languages and ethnic groups are a product of colonisation. Missionaries and colonial administrators imposed the ethnonationalist language ideas that were en vogue in Europe at the time to African settings organised around very different principles, and Africans interact(ed) with these ideas in many different ways. But the big standard languages that we can name and that are taught in formal settings (including universities in the global North) are all colonial creations. Standard Swahili, for example, was born in 1928 at a conference in Mombasa, with the Zanzibar variety serving as the basis for this new norm. Standard Swahili is thus as colonial as Standard English, and both are used for social selection in the education system.

Kenyans and East Africans, however, have their very creative strategies of bypassing these standards, and one of them is Sheng. While the name for this register suggests that it is a mixed code composed of Swahili and English, in reality it is much more inclusive and open to the incorporation of forms from its speakers diverse repertoires. Have a look at this sentence, its equivalent in Standard Swahili, and its English translation (all from Githiora 2018: 97):

Kenyan Swahili/Sheng: Mathrii ya first ilikuwa kirai.
Standard Swahili: Gari la kwanza la abiria lilikuwa tupu.
‘The first matatu was empty.’

The Sheng utterance does not only contain forms that can be identified as belonging to Swahili and English, it also includes the word kirai, from Gikuyu. This is the beauty of Sheng – it allows multilingual Kenyans to flavour and bend it according to their individual needs, breaking down barriers created by impenetrable standard registers. Registers like Sheng (and its mirror register Engsh – English mixed with Swahili) are often highlighted as ‘mixed’ and ‘hybrid’, in contrast to their standard counterparts. But if you have a closer look at the Standard Swahili sentence and the English translation, you can see that mixing is not confined to Sheng – matatu in the English translation is the word for a privately owned minibus; gari in the Standard Swahili utterance comes from English ‘car’. Multilingualism and mixing are thus in the eye of the beholder and a matter of degree.

The main difference between standard registers and so-called ‘mixed’ registers is the greater resistance to variation and mixing in the former and the openness to fluidity in the latter, where it can even be seen as a central design principle. This is why it is not possible to ‘standardise’ Sheng and other ‘mixed’ registers to use them in schools where language education is based on introducing, enforcing and assessing norms, and why they thrive in the shadow of regulated language spaces.

Read more about Sheng in Chege Githiora’s new book:

Githiora, Chege. 2018. Sheng: Rise of a Kenyan Swahili vernacular. Woodbridge: James Currey.

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