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Kenya --Languages

The official languages of Kenya are English and Swahili. English is the language of big business, higher education and government. Most bills presented to the National Assembly, for example, are drafted in English. Swahili, a Bantu language, is almost universal in small-scale trade and the media and schools through primary education. It is closely connected with urban life and with certain occupations. Television broadcasts and print materials are in Swahili and English.[1] Radio broadcasts may be heard in Swahili, English, and various African languages.

There is considerable variation in spoken Swahili since seven dialects and three sub-dialects are spoken in the country. The standard spoken Swahili is usually considered the dialect of Zanzibar. In rural areas, Swahili is usually encountered only in radio and television broadcasts, local Asian shops, or in Swahili newspapers. In rural schools, children are taught in their local language, but are given instruction in Swahili as well as English. Swahili developed as a common coastal language as early as the thirteenth century and has been greatly influenced by Arabic. It easily incorporates foreign words (primarily from Arabic, Hindi, Persian, and English) and consequently has been considered the most flexible of all languages in East Africa.

Swahili's flexibility is also evident in a new urban "language" that is spoken in Kenya's cities, especially in Nairobi. Swahili, English, and other ethnic languages are combined into a new language called Sheng. Sheng uses the grammar and syntax of Swahili, but incorporates other languages, mainly English. It is a language associated with Kenya's urban youth. Each group, whether they are Matatu operators, schoolmates, parking boys, football teams, or neighbors, will have a style of Sheng with a distinct vocabulary. The historical data shows that Sheng was developed by the poor, marginalized people of Nairobi's slums and informal sector. But it did not remain there. It has moved upwards in the social structure of Kenyan society where speaking Sheng has become a mark of cosmopolitan "coolness."Educated men and women, secondary school students, and an increasing number of city residents are speaking Sheng in the marketplace, in the streets, and even at home.

Here is one example of a greeting sequence in Sheng:

Q: SasaNow (How are you now?)

A: Fit sanaVery fit (Notice the use of the English word fit)

Q: Story[English] (What is your story? Or What's new?)

A: Mob or bestiMany or best (Mob means "many stories"

and besti, which uses the English word "best," means my stories are good or I have good news)

And this next example shows the density of language mixing. It is a conversation between two friends:

Mike: Aa maze John ninje maze hukinishow ati ulikuwa unaishio movie? Milikuchekicheki hulu na huku lekini sikujua ulikrosigi weikya.

John: Wee la Mike usiworry sikuwe na chope lekani nilione man mwingini we kwengu nikomkolic man hate akacough kasomething. (Wambugu 1994:4).

Mike: Aa my man, John, how is it, man, you didn't tell me that you were to be at the movie? I looked for you here and there but I didn't know where you were.

John: Oh, no, Mike, don't worry. I didn't have any money; but I saw another friend from my place [and] I hit him up until he coughed up something [money].

By examining closely the construction of some of the above words, the level and sophistication of mixing will become apparent.This example is rather dense for even simple Swahili words such as Mzee (honorific term used when referring to elders) changes to Maze without mixing with English and is used in referring to a youth. Hukinishow is an English verb embedded in Swahili verb construction. Show is the English verb "show", but in this usage the meaning of "show" has been shifted to "to tell."Milikuchekicheki also contains an English verb within standard Swahili verb usage. The verb in this case is "check" and also shifted in meaning to "looking for you," or "checking out for you." The English word "check" is Swahilized by adding an "i" at the end. Akacoughmenas to "cough up" some money. In kasomething,-kaappears to be present for alliteration. Over 30 distinct languages and dialect clusters are spoken in Kenya. They may be grouped into three categories: Bantu, Cushitic, and Nilotic/ Paranilotic. Bantu is spoken by 65% of the population, Cushitic by 4%, and Nilotic/Paranilotic by 31%. Each of these groups can further be broken into a number of dialect clusters. In addition to being Kenya's predominant language group, Bantu languages are spoken throughout central, southern, and western Africa. Kenya's Bantu speakers are commonly divided into three groups: western (Luhya, Kisii, and Kuria), central (Kikuyu, Kamba, Meru, Embu, Tharaka, and Mbere), and coastal (Mijikenda, Taveta, Bajun, Pokomo, Taita, and Swahili). Cushitic speakers, except for the Gosha and some hunting groups, are pastoralists who speak Somali or Galla. Cushitic languages belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family spoken in northern Africa and the Middle East. Luo is the only Nilotic language spoken in Kenya. Nilotic languages, which are also spoken in Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania, are members of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Paranilotic languages are divided into three groups: Teso (Iteso, Turkana), Masai (Masai, Samburu, Njemps), and Kalenjin (Nandi, Kipsigis, Elgeyo, Sabaot, Marakwet, Tugen, Terik, Pokot).

Asians who have immigrated to Kenya speak a variety of Indian languages including Punjabi, Gujarati, and Konkani.

For further reading:
Abdulaziz, Mohamed H. 1991. East Africa (Tanzania and Kenya). In English Around the World: Sociolinguistic Perspectives edited by Jenny Cheshire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
"Sheng" 1985. The Standard [Nairobi], 30 August 1985, pp. 17-18.
Spyropoulos, Mary. 1987. Sheng: Some Preliminary Investigations into a Recently Emerged
Nairobi Street Language. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. 18(1): 125-136.
Whiteley, Wilfred. 1969. Swahili: The Rise of a National Language. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd.
Whiteley, Wilfred, ed. 1974. Language in Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya: Oxford University Press.


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