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What Makes a Sheng Word Unique? Lexical Manipulation in Mixed Languages
Mokaya Bosire
77-85 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


The majority of Sheng speakers are also speakers of Swahili and at least one other Kenyan language. In addition, they are adept at code-switching between the different languages that they speak, leading some researchers to conclude that code-mixing is the "unmarked" code in many conversations in Kenya (Myers-Scotton 1993; Skandera, 2005; Ogechi, 2004; Bosire, 2006). Amid this multilingualism, Sheng is still recognized as a distinct code. The sentence mapinchi watamsanya vizii 'the thieves will have a field day with him/her' is understood as a Sheng construction, although the syntax (and the morphology) is largely identical to Swahili's wezi watamwibia vibaya. What makes this a Sheng sentence then? This paper discusses lexical manipulation as a tool that extends, distorts, and re-engineers the structure and meaning of words in a way that is uniquely Sheng. The paper argues that lexical manipulation is a poetic license generously employed by Sheng speakers to create words with a Sheng identity—the corollary being that other languages in the repertoire are restricted in how much they can use this tool. It is hoped that the study will contribute some insights into the nature of emerging hybrid languages in urban Africa specifically and other urban vernaculars in general.

Published in

Selected Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference on African Linguistics: Linguistic Research and Languages in Africa
edited by Akinloye Ojo and Lioba Moshi
Table of contents
Printed edition: $270.00