Lexical restructuring processes in Sheng among the Matatu crew in Nakuru, Kenya

Published in: South African Journal of African Languages
Volume 39, issue 1, 2019 , pages: 42–55
DOI: 10.1080/02572117.2019.1572321
Author(s): Fridah Erastus KananaDepartment of Literature, Linguistics and Foreign Languages, Kenya, Atemo Christine Ny’ongaDepartment of Literature, Linguistics and Foreign Languages, Kenya


Sheng is an urban youth language which originated in the Eastlands areas of Nairobi in the early 1970s. It is now spoken all over the country and is especially popular in the media and among the urban youth across East Africa. Sheng evolves very fast. Its dynamism is seen among its speakers as words gain new meanings and/or get modified according to setting, interlocutors or the topic of discussion. This article outlines the (re)structuring and use of Sheng words in the Matatu transport business in Kenya by discussing the morphophonological processes involved in generating words from the matrix languages. Data used in the article was collected over a period of three months and analysed qualitatively and quantitatively. While youth languages are characterised by neologisms, semantic manipulations and relexicalisation/overlexicalisation, words only change their form to achieve a new ‘look’ for the purpose of secrecy and identity marking. Words from the Nairobi Sheng used by the Matatu crew in Nakuru town are constantly being re-invented to fulfil specific communication needs. Nakuru Matatu Sheng primarily uses metathesis to restructure both Kiswahili and Nairobi Sheng to create a new and innovative Sheng for use in the Matatu crew community of practice. Words considered archaic in the Nairobi Sheng, which is the melting pot of innovation, find their way to other urban centres where they are modernised and rejuvenated to achieve new levels of sophistication.

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