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Influence of Mass Communication on Exponential Growth of Kenya’s Pidgin Language: Analytical Essay

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It is surprising the impact a language can have on a people and its influence on a nation as a whole. What is more intriguing is the prospect of an informal language assuming an almost similar role and rising to the surface with the potential to become a nationwide language. Pidgin languages – languages formed through the blending of two or more others – are growing languages which integrate societies and unite people through their relatable nature. In Kenya, Sheng’, a mixture of English and Kiswahili, the two primary national languages, with the spontaneous inclusion of one of the other 40 indigenous languages, is assuming the role of Kenya’s number one ‘pidgin language’. So much so that its inclusion in mass communication has stirred up various debates.

The immense growth of Sheng’ in mass communication, in speeches and advertisements in particular, has seen some of Kenya’s largest corporations and various political leaders include the use of sheng’ in their pieces. The irony, I noticed, comes from the use of sheng’ in a formal setting. Why is it that formal settings have warmed up to the use of an informal language? Could it be that sheng’ has the potential to be recognized as a national language? Having experienced first-hand the creation of advertisements and driving slogans by my father such as “Nipo, natambulika!” for the 2009 general census and “Jisomee, Jiamulie, Jichagulie” for the 2010 new constitution referendum, I realized that sheng’, like any other pidgin language, has its advantages and its shortcomings. This realization triggered me to trace the growth of Sheng’ in Kenya, to see how it came about, and how it is slowly becoming more, and more accepted in Kenya.

Thousands of advertisements and speeches in Kenya are heavily supported by the use of Sheng’, and Sheng’ has since turned out to be a fundamental component of mass communication in Kenya even in the formal setting. For example, in an advertisement produced by Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile operator network, the word “Jisort” is used to call on users to literally ‘sort themselves out’ by subscribing to one of the company’s promotional deals. On another occasion, their Mobile money branch MPESA writes in an advertisement “Lock your Chumz, to unlock your dreams” when urging their users to secure their loan accounts with a durable Personal Identification Number. The use of the sheng’ word ‘chumz’ which translates to ‘money’ is intriguing due to the irony behind the statement. This is due to the fact that MPESA users come from all backgrounds and, according to a report produced by Kenya’s Communications Authority (CA) in March of 2017, Safaricom has over 28.13 million subscribers. The statistics that these subscribers, ranging from corporates, the youth, businesspeople, dictate that the setting ought to be formal. That said, why sheng’?

In this essay, I will be examining the impact of Sheng’ and why it has been used so heavily in mass communication and persuasive works to covey the role played my mass communication in the growth and development of Sheng. I hope to extensively evaluate the question How has the exponential growth of Kenya’s pidgin language Sheng’ been influenced by mass communication?

How sheng’ gained traction

The introduction of sheng’ was ‘as a result of a large migration of people from the countryside to the (metropolitan city) of Nairobi in the 1980s and 90s’(CITE). Tracking back to the reasons for formation of pidgin languages, the emergence of these languages comes from the quest to bring together and integrate groups of people. The communication barrier between different people from all over the country who have suddenly now become one gave rise to the idea of sheng’ where a desire for a connection to fill the vacuum encouraged citizens to customize the national languages, and add elements of their own traditional languages to better understand each other. This mass exodus of people into Nairobi was the genesis of the growth of sheng’ as a language. (CITE)

To try to gain deeper understanding of how sheng’ and mass communication became one, I sat down with Mr. Ngari Gituku from whom I learned that “(sheng’ was) A language cobbled up by the youth… to try and keep off so that people don’t understand (what they are saying). That’s where sheng’ begun. Then it became the language of expression for the youth, especially for those who live in backgrounds that are heterogeneous.’ ‘Young people are by far more than older people. That is why, depending on what segment and audiences you aim at addressing, it becomes easy, or rather logical to use sheng’ because that’s where the majority of them (potential customers) are.” This provided an extra insight on how mass communication took up sheng’, and why since its introduction, it has never fallen out of favour.

Moreover, as Kiswahili is known as the regional language in East Africa, and a national language in Kenya, it is no shock that over 75% of Kenyans speak the language(CITE). English likewise, is a national language of Kenya and majority of Kenyans are fluent speakers of the language.

Sheng’-based adverts use Kiswahili and English switching regularly between the two languages, in order to find the appropriate word to make sense of the sentence. An example would be the CFC Stanbic Bank advert which says “Macash… leo hustler, kesho sonko.” This advert translates to “Lots of money… today a hustler, tomorrow a wealthy person” when advertising an offer in which they had prize money to be won. The Swahili word “Ma-” used when describing a large multitude of things, is used to describe the English stem “-cash” and the sentence goes on to alternate between English and Kiswahili lexicalisation, the process of adding words or phrases to a languages’ lexicon. This is done in the field of advertising in an attempt to lure potential customers and tempt them into buying a product or using a service. The significance of the use of sheng’ is also to provide a memorable catchphrase which is relatable and has a positive effect on the audience in ensuring they are eager to find out more. A comparison where the exact same advertisement is produced in formal Kiswahili translates to leo mshtuko, kesho mtu tajiri. A Kiswahili speaker would conclude that the sentence loses its zest and is now not even remotely as exciting as before. The use of both languages interchangeably, allows for an easier understanding, depicting the flexibility of Sheng’.

Sheng’ also gained traction and credibility through its recent use in ‘formal’ settings. Only a few years ago, sheng’ carried a strong negative connotation which made many citizens remain reluctant to use Sheng’ as a part of their day to day language. Even though sheng’ was developed in the urban setting, the very fact it is used predominantly in informal settlements including slums such as Kibera Slums – Africa’s largest slum(CITE), Mathare slum, and Kangemi slums among others contributes heavily to this common misconception. Many at times, the slums are associated with crime, gang violence, poor standards of hygiene and living and assorted types of malpractice. It is therefore for these reasons that many Kenyans either are not fond of the language, are not willing to be associated with the language, or do not bother to gain competence.

In this advert by Barclays, one of the largest banks in Kenya and the greater world, sheng’ is deployed to reach out to the youth who rarely ever bank with them because the bank generally attracts corporate customers and is not known for their youth banking solutions. The billboard, which reads “Hii advert haina stori mingi”, a sentence which means “This advert doesn’t have ‘many stories’” has become an online talking point where many have credited its nature and its ability to effectively catch the attention of the audience. It is only recently that Kenyans have become more susceptible of the idea of sheng’. The fact that sheng’ has been used by such a prestigious and well-respected company in the Lavington and Hurlingham areas that are often considered as areas of opulent living, triggers citizens to try and follow the thought process carried out by the company and this eventually allows them to conclude that ‘if the large companies are using it, then so can I”. This reasoning allows Kenyans to see the language as less derogatory subsequently presenting the rise of sheng’ thus demystifying the idea that sheng’ is a ‘language for the lower class’.

As humans, it is our innate nature to seek out acceptance and our own identity (Lauren Suval, 2018, What drives our need for approval?). Therefore, pidgin languages, which are often characterized as flexible and malleable, are used as a means to achieve this end. For many people who seek to be different, Sheng’ affords one the opportunity to have a sense of belonging. One of Kenya’s most popular radio stations Ghetto Radio has revolutionized broadcasting in Kenya through their unconventional style. The 10 year old radio station has managed to amass hundreds of thousands of listeners in the capital Nairobi. However, what makes the station stand out is the means of presenting as the breaking news, announcements and advertisements are all made in sheng’. This comes as a surprise to many that such a large number of people are comfortable with using the informal language on radio where it is expected that the formal register and subsequently formal languages – English and Kiswahili, would or should be used. This profound use of sheng’ conveys the role played by mass communication in giving people the ability to have self-identity, and act as a means of expression for the youth as it provides a middle-ground for citizens who’s preference does not align with the formal register.

Additionally, this use of sheng’ in mass communication acts as a unifying factor between the people of Kenya and particularly Nairobi who hail from different backgrounds. Take this Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) advert, where they are advertising a banking system, the slogan is ‘Bankika na KCB!´ Which directly translates to ‘Be banked with KCB’ essentially urging their customers to not get left behind, and join to begin banking with KCB. The technique, Nativization, which is defined as the “process of adapting a loan word to the phonetic structure of the native language (Kiswahili)” is used to appeal to the audience. In the KCB advert “Bankika na KCB!”, the product being sold, their banking, is advertised as an act to be carried out through the use of the word “Bank-” while the suffix “-ika” is derived from Kiswahili as being the act of doing something. Thus, the final product translates to “Be banked with KCB.” The Kenya Commercial Bank is a reputable bank in which has been present in Kenya for over 45 years. In the past, many have associated with this bank as a bank for those who were wealthy and of high status. However, with the introduction of sheng’, the company has been able to utilize it in their advertising and thus reach out to a larger audience and appeal to customers who do not necessarily fit into that social bracket KCB is often linked with.

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This advertisement allows us to trace the impact of mass communication on sheng’ where it has been able to integrate the society to include people from all social classes to bridge the underlying social gap. Furthermore, due to the fact that only 28% of the country is urbanized (CITE), this could be yet another factor which traces the exponential growth of sheng’ as it could be the key to bringing the society together as it serves as a middle-ground for all people. Having deduced that both formal Kiswahili, and the formal English register which would be used in the conventional style of mass communication may leave out unintentionally a group of people, a mix of the two- Sheng’ provides for a clear understanding of a message, as well as a means of fusing the social divide.

Why is sheng’ so accepted?

Only few years ago, a work pertaining to sheng’, or use of sheng’ would have been dismissed quickly or frowned upon, particularly by the older generation. However, with various changes and factors coming into play such as the reduction of the median age in Kenya to 19.2 (CITE), sheng’ has surprisingly managed to become more recognized and become more of a ‘household name’. The changes of this language are encapsulated though tracking the style and type of language used in older adverts in Kenya. In the past, adverts have seen the prevalent use of formal English or formal Kiswahili however, in recent times; this has not been the case. A comparison between this advert from Tusker Lager in the early 1990s which reads “The last one tastes as good as the first!” and a 2016 advert from the same company which reads “Nduru ya team Kenya” depicts intensively the change in language despite no change in the audience. The more recent advert uses informal language in the word “nduru” meaning “cheers” while the older advert uses a total formal structure with no lexicalisation, nativisation or sheng’ vocabulary whatsoever. This shows the reception the language has received over the years, while conveying the growth of the Kenyan cant.

This raised the question and triggered me to ask, why has sheng’ turned around and become so widely accepted?

The structure of majority of Sheng’-based adverts comprises of either a Kiswahili or English stem, or, a Kiswahili or English suffix. They usually switch regularly between the two languages, in order to find the appropriate word to make sense of the sentence. The compounding of words – which is the integration of two or more words, a common characteristic of sheng’, is used through either short forms or verbs, and is applied to the advert together with sheng’. M-Pesa, Kenya’s largest Mobile money network, owned by Safaricom, is an example of compounding as the English prefix of the shortened word “mobile” becomes “M-“ and the Kiswahili stem “Pesa” meaning ‘money’ is then added to the now hyphenated word. Thus, the full meaning is “Mobile money”. However, the use of the compounded word “M-Pesa” brings about a more memorable catchphrase, while including the use of Kiswahili, subsequently forming sheng’, to reach a wider audience in the process of advertising. As many of M-Pesa’s customers comprises greatly of people who constantly need to have money on-the-go such as service providers, farmers, and other tertiary workers; it is thus fitting and effective in completing this task. This is one of the key reasons sheng’ is growing to be accepted widely at a steady rate due to its ability to appeal to an audience coupled with its trendy nature.

Furthermore, the aforementioned structure of sheng’ as a language comprising greatly of Kenya’s two national languages English and Kiswahili, gives speakers the opportunity to select words from a wider range, and include jargon from different languages to get their points across. On top of that, the option of choosing from one Kenya’s 40 other indigenous languages advances the acceptance of sheng’ where it manages to include people who live in rural communities outside of the metropolitan area.

During my conversation with Mr. Gituku, I decided to ask him why we as a people have warmed up to sheng’ and he said ‘It’s acceptable because it cuts across ethnic barriers. You don’t feel like you’re being profiled, or left out. It brings up the question of inclusion for the youth.” This quote goes to show how mass communication has demystified the misconception that sheng’ is ‘bad’ and sheng’ can never be recognized fully as one of our languages because it came up as a means of concealing information from the older generation and to an extent, a code. Moreover, he added that “Other languages refuse to assimilate new words, and new phrases; they’re slower. But sheng’ is extremely dynamic so much so that tomorrow, there’ll be a new name for anything that comes up. It is therefore necessary to follow that trait as a mass media practitioner so that you ‘catch’ them.’ Essentially, what Mr. Gituku brought out was that mass media practitioners play on sheng’s flexibility and dynamism in order to effectively deliver a desired message.

The above-mentioned term lexicalization is “the process of making a word to express a concept.” (ThoughtCo, 2017) Lexicalization simply put is the creation of new words to convey different things. This is a large part of sheng’ is arguably the backbone of the credibility, flexibility and dynamism of the language. The KCB advertisement ‘Bankika na KCB!´ uses sheng’ in a lexicalized form to deliver a message to potential customers and compel them to use their banking services. Another element of Sheng’ which has aided its growth and allowed it to be adopted by mass communication outlets is its heavy use of Nativization. This can be defined as “the policy of making something native.” (Oxford Dictionary, n.d) Recognizing that Kiswahili is the more favorable language in Kenya with over 75% of Kenyans being fluent speakers of the language, the use of sheng’ which includes both English and Kiswahili also aids credibility of sheng’ where it too appeals to the emotions of the audience, and builds credibility for the author or speaker. The two techniques when used together give sheng’ credibility as they contextualize the messages and make messages bitesize by speaking to the heart. The phrase which is lexicaized is “Bankika…” which as stated previously means “be banked with”. This creation of the new word to express the concept “to be banked with” builds up and advances sheng’s credibility where it appeals to the audience’s emotions contextually and in Mr. Gituku’s words “you (media practitioner) get a lot more when you advertise in the language that speaks to the heart” The immense outreach and influence of advertisements on a people has allowed citizens to welcome the language and view it in a slightly less disparaging light.

The entertainment industry in Kenya encapsulates fully the positive reception of sheng’ in Kenya. It is evident that entertainment plays a significant role in the lives of people where icons, idols and role models are found. The heavy use of sheng’ in the entertainment scene also depicts the role of mass communication in Kenya. The television show Churchill Show which airs on Sunday from 8:00pm to 8:30pm. The show, which attracts over 1.5 million subscribers (GeoPoll, 2015), is a platform for upcoming Kenyan comedians who primarily hail from rural settlements and make their performances using sheng’. The large audience the show has conveys how the show has managed to use sheng’ to reach the audience. This is evidence of the role of mass communication in the growth of sheng’ in Kenya.

Furthermore, the Kenyan songs “Position”, which has amassed over 3 million views in a span of three months, and “Kirimino” which has accumulated over 325 thousand views in the span of 3 weeks, depict the influence on music in demystifying sheng’. Similarly to the Churchill show, the large audience is a symbol for the positive reception of the language, thus, serving as an appropriate means of tracking the growth of sheng’ in Kenya.


In conclusion, mass communication has almost concretely concluded the conversation as to whether sheng’ should be recognized as one of the Kenyan patois rather than mere argot for the youth who seek to conceal intentions from adults. Sheng’ is a tool which has the potential to make a remarkable impact on the lives of youth which can consequently translate to a similar impact on all groups of people of Kenya. Its integration into the society through mass communication provides a platform to see it grow as one of the Kenyan languages. Through dispelling the notion that sheng’ is derogatory, aggressive and vile, the self-created dark cloud hovering above sheng’ could be done away with leaving the people to realise that sheng’ does indeed pose various benefits.

So, can sheng’ become a recognized language? Juxtaposing Sheng’ with Pidgin English used in Nigeria can offer insights as to what overall drawbacks or advantages sheng’ can have on a society considering that the two ‘languages are used in similar cultural contexts. Pidgin English, which has been around longer that sheng’ and is more widely recognized than sheng’ has to an extent hampered the learning of children in schools through its informal nature. This has caused pidgin English to sometimes take precedence and many at times has found students preferring to express themselves in pidgin English rather than formal English. These ungrammatical structures could have adverse effects on the society as it may be counter-progressive to ideals of global citizenship and diversification which are being propagated in Kenya which are set to afford Kenyans the ability to integrate themselves with other societies all around the world.

Do I believe it can become recognized as a language? No. As close-minded as it may seem, in my humble opinion, this would require formal teaching and learning in all schools where all subjects would require jargon and other such terms to be translated appropriately from Kiswahili or English to sheng’, where some key terms may be lost in translation, similar to in literary works where meaning of a work is juggled through translation. Furthermore, recognizing that 1% of Kenya’s 47,615,739 (as of July 2017) population comprises of foreigners, the prospect of learning a new language on top of Kiswahili – which may not have already been learned poses a great challenge which could prove exigent.

Word Count: 3,529.


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