Accepted Paper:

Sheng as Fractal Language Practice  


Philip W Rudd (Pittsburg State University)

Paper short abstract:

The urban vernacular of Nairobi, Kenya, reflects a history in which English and Swahili converged with local indigenous languages into Sheng, a medium of wider social communication. A metaphor of fractals explains how the hybridity reflects the diversity in the language and society.

Paper long abstract:

In the glare of monoglot ideology, scholarship on African languages sometimes blindly attempts to push the square "master narrative" of colonial contact in Australia and the Americas (McLaughlin 2008) onto round African linguistic ecologies. Swahili in contact with local indigenous languages led to the development of Sheng, non-standard "ghetto dialects" in the Eastlands area of Nairobi. This postcolonial reality of Kenya's capital leads to the misconception that Sheng is not a real language. This paper presents a brief history of Sheng and likewise proposes a reconceptualization of African Urban Youth Language or AUYL as practice rather than as object. Language usage in the postcolonial context can be depicted as "fractal practice" (McLaughlin 2015: 144). In linguistic fractal fashion, speakers at the level of discourse "mimic" what they do at the morphological level. Viewed through the prism of the metaphor of fractals, Sheng, along with other varieties of AUYL, reveals its code-mixing, code-switching, and borrowing as reflections of the practice of having an ex-colonial language (English), a local lingua franca (Swahili), and other indigenous languages, merely as the refraction of actual practice at different levels, in the daily linguistic repertoires of urban Africa. Any controversy spawns from monolingual ideological misconception. Languages are not rigidly demarcated, and though Sheng is continually changing, it is not broken or fragmented, nor deserving of dismissal for being illegitimate. On the contrary, its hybridity emanates from the diverse realities in which cosmopolitan speakers find themselves.

Panel P172
African indigenous languages as urban youth languages: the rural-urban exchange