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date: 27 July 2017

African (Urban) Youth Languages

Summary and Keywords

A growing phenomena in urban centers on the African continent in the latter half of the 20th century and start of the 21st century has been what have been described as Urban Youth Languages,’ although the ‘urban’ moniker is increasingly being dropped as these phenomena spread out from cities to rural areas. The term tends to refer to language phenomena such as Sheng or Engsh in Kenya, Tsotsitaal in South Africa, Nouchi in Ivory Coast, Camfranglais in Cameroon, and many more, both named and unnamed. These language styles are used and innovated predominantly by young people, and in this way they are distinguished from the large urban vernaculars present in African urban centers such as urban Wolof.

African (Urban) Youth Languages usually utilize a dominant urban language as the grammatical base, such as Swahili in Nairobi Sheng and Zulu or Sotho in Johannesburg Tsotsitaal, and they feature a great deal of lexical borrowing from other languages present in Africa’s highly multilingual urban contexts, such as the colonial languages and the local African languages common to a particular urban center. They also may utilize the dominant European language as the grammatical base, such as French in the case of Camfranglais, with borrowings from English and African languages. They strikingly draw on metaphor and pop culture in the innovation of new terms. These varieties are ‘languages relexicalised,’ in Halliday’s terms, and are used by young people for creativity and entertainment, to have fun with peers, to affirm in-group relations, and to indicate status.

Keywords: urban language, youth language, African language, Sheng, Tsotsitaal, Camfranglais, Nouchi

1. What Is an African (Urban) Youth Language?

African (Urban) Youth Language (AUYL or AYL) is a term that is being applied to the use by youth of particular language resources in dialogue with an urban, modern identity in Africa’s multilingual towns and cities. The term is somewhat misleading, as many of these AUYLs are used by older people as well as youths, are used in rural areas as well as metropoles, and are not always classed as ‘languages’ in the usual sense of the term. AUYLs have become an object of study for both African and international scholars in recent years, and recent research has begun to explore the ambiguities of these varieties and to expand our understanding of the functions, forms, and practices surrounding these phenomena.

The term African Urban Youth Languages was used by Kiessling and Mous (2004) who wrote the first comparative article on these phenomena, focusing on Nouchi (Ivory Coast), Camfranglais (Cameroon), Indoubil (DRC), Tsotsitaal (South Africa), and Sheng (Kenya). Since their article, the term has continued to be used to refer predominantly to ‘named’ varieties—wherein a particular variety may receive a name in a national context—although some of the instances are just referred to as ‘street language’ or ‘youth language.’ These varieties have defied classification as pidgin, creole, slang, or jargon. Some varieties are particularly prominent in large urban centers, such as Sheng in Nairobi. Comparisons with youth language phenomena elsewhere are now starting to emerge (cf. Dorleijn, Mous, & Nortier, 2015) which call into question whether, and how, AUYLs differ from youth language practices in the global north.

According to Hurst (in press) some of the features of AUYLs appear to be:

  • Extreme multilingualism, featuring numerous African languages as well as colonial languages and influences from popular culture such as hip-hop music.

  • Innovation in lexicon, including neologisms and borrowing accompanied by semantic transformation.

  • Link to/origins in criminal argots.

  • The use primarily by male youth, although lingua franca claims are being made for some of the varieties.

  • An urban versus rural dimension, where these varieties are markers of modernity and urbanity.

  • An associated extralinguistic style involving wider communicative strategies such as clothing styles, gestures, body language, ways of walking, etc., which serve to communicate modern, streetwise identities.

  • A subversive relation to colonial languages, wherein they borrow from colonial languages but utilize semantic transformation, or they are based on colonial languages but manipulate syntax and morphology.

These phenomena differ from urban vernaculars such as urban Wolof and other similar vernacular varieties. McLaughlin (2009) describes urban vernaculars in the following way:

In many cases, one or more urban vernaculars have emerged to become the language(s) of the city. These are most often dominant African languages that show evidence of contact with a former colonial language, but not the colonial (or official) languages themselves.

(McLaughlin, 2009, p. 2)

Thus she highlights the role of contact in the emergence of these vernaculars. She provides the examples of urban Wolof in Senegal, urban Lingala in Congo, Swahili (the regional vernacular in East Africa), and Hausa in Nigeria. These urban languages often have ‘domains of use that expand beyond the city. Wolof in particular has expanded to fill the role of a national lingua franca in Senegal’ (McLaughlin, 2009, p. 2). In contrast, she distinguishes ‘youth and other specialized languages’ (McLaughlin, 2009, pp. 8–10), which she describes as ‘exclusive languages’ that are a ‘result of processes of social differentiation’:

By their very nature, youth languages are short lived and rapidly changing because they are premised on the assumption that others cannot understand them. Youth languages generally originate with lexical borrowing from other languages or slang varieties, including the argots of crime and delinquence, and exhibit high variation. After they become established as youth languages and their speakers grow older they may be adopted by the general urban population and can subsequently become urban vernaculars themselves. One of the best known of these is Sheng […] it is no longer exclusively a youth language but is now expanding its role to become an urban language of wider communication.

(McLaughlin, 2009, pp. 8–9)

The focus in her description is on lexical borrowing, an in-group role, and a relationship to crime and delinquency. These features have led to a number of researchers drawing on Halliday’s description of ‘anti-language’ (cf. Mensah, 2012; Kiessling & Mous, 2004; Dako, 2013; Mugaddam, 2015; Kamanga, 2014; Ntshangase, 1993; Makhudu, 2002). Halliday defines an anti-language as parallel to, and generated by, an anti-society: ‘a society that is set up within another society as a conscious alternative to it’ (Halliday, 1978, p. 164). The main features of an anti-language are relexicalization and metaphor. In terms of metaphor in AUYLs, according to Kiessling and Mous (2004, p. 324) meanings are changed ‘with the function of insult, ridicule, exaggeration, or simple enjoyment and play,’ and this takes place through the extensive use of ‘metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole, euphemism and dysphemism.’ Regarding relexicalization, in anti-languages, according to Halliday (1978, p. 165), relexicalization happens as a result of secrecy and differentiation, and for this reason vocabulary differences are most noticeable in areas relating to subcultures, for example regarding criminal activities, police, and prisons. Halliday (1978, p. 165) states that the language ‘is not merely relexicalized in these areas; it is overlexicalized.’ Many of the early descriptions of youth languages in Africa focused on lexical items rather than grammatical processes, exploring relexicalization in the tradition of slang research and focusing on the sources of borrowings and types of semantic transformation.

Another feature that distinguishes youth languages from urban languages is the domain of use, which is primarily informal in the case of youth languages. They are used by peer groups, on the street (they may be referred to as ‘street language’), by taxi drivers and street vendors, and these domains often betray a gender bias—the varieties are primarily spoken by males. However, it should be qualified that some of these varieties appear to be expanding their domains of use, and simultaneously their speaker base. Some authors are making the argument that these varieties are indeed crossing over to lingua franca status. For example, Sheng has expanded its domain beyond the city (Kioko, 2015), and is possibly taking on lingua franca status in Nairobi. Similarly, recent work by Aycard (2014) indicates that a domain expansion may be underway with Iscamtho in Johannesburg. Some of them appear to be developing an L1 community (Hurst, in press), although it is not clear if they undergo any linguistic transformation in order to make this jump (i.e., from lexical resource to mixed language).

A number of authors, including McLaughlin (2009) and Kiessling and Mous (2004, p. 334), have suggested that youth languages may ultimately develop into ‘urban languages of wider communication,’ although this contradicts arguments that the stabilization of these codes defeats their purpose as in-group codes. Rudd (2013) argues that this is becoming a matter of linguistic human rights, where L1 speakers of Sheng are disadvantaged in educational contexts. There is thus far little evidence to indicate that AUYLs are making the transition into formal contexts such as classrooms as a medium of instruction, although children may use the varieties in the playground.

Kiessling and Mous (2004, p. 332) describe how these vernaculars are connected to identity, and they suggest that these urban codes may represent new identities for young Africans in rapidly modernizing cities. They suggest that these new identities cut across ‘obsolete boundaries’ of ethnicity, and signal multiple cultural allegiances. They describe them as a response to colonialism and postcolonialism, and attempts at formulating a coherent national identity by youth growing up among the complexities of an Africa intersected by global phenomena. Many of these languages and their accompanying styles appear to be influenced by global popular culture, particularly arising from the African diaspora in cultural productions such as hip-hop and rap.

However, this focus in much of the literature on ‘urban,’ ‘modern,’ ‘global’ identities is perhaps rather simplistic when applied to a continent that has been intersected by modernity for the several hundred years since its advent (roughly coinciding with the European ‘enlightenment’), and it sets up a dichotomy of urban/rural and modern/traditional that reproduces discourses that portray Africa and Africans as ‘underdeveloped,’ ‘traditional,’ even ‘pre-modern.’ In reality, popular culture globally is entirely intersected by influences from geographically distant places and cultures, and in this, Africa is no different. Furthermore, the dichotomy of rural/urban is not so clear-cut, and speakers of AUYLs constantly draw on resources from across these imagined boundaries in their language practices. Categories of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional,’ urban and rural are actually co-constitutive rather than objectively observable. Storch (2011, p. 14) describes how secret languages, languages of ritual, and those restricted to particular social groups, including AUYLs, not only express but also create social identities by constructing and maintaining group boundaries. She furthermore posits that

mimesis and the creation and expression of difference can be correlated with negotiations of dominance and subalternity in asymmetric power relationships. This is also where language becomes extremely marked as an expression of identity, partly deriving from differences, but also from the creation of reductive binaries, such as male/female, white/black, and so on.

Thus the antagonism between rural and urban identities and claims to authenticity on each side are in fact constitutive of that very dichotomy. In practice, urban and rural language resources are not mutually exclusive as markers of identity. For example, speakers may draw on rural varieties as a way of evoking traditional authenticity, at the same time incorporating resources from an AUYL (Hurst, 2017). According to Hurst (2017) the dichotomy ‘between rural and urban youth, in terms of their representations of each other, and their language, clothing and other modalities of style/ semiotic resources’ is not as absolute as it appears.

“Modernity” is not restricted to Africa’s urban centres, and is being reinterpreted in the African continent in ways which can challenge our assumptions about modernity, about the city and about the drive towards an imagined “civilisation” in the European tradition. (Hurst, 2017)

For this reason, new ways of understanding these phenomena are being proposed. Hurst (in press) suggests that the history of these phenomena, arising from colonial contexts, leads to them often being explicitly described as languages of rebellion or resistance. This history, as well as the current realities of African countries wherein colonial inequalities are often perpetuated, has led to Hurst (in press) proposing that these phenomena are a form of ‘decolonial practice.’ This might also highlight how and why African youth languages may differ from those found in, for example, Europe, but may have commonalities with youth languages of, for example, migrant minorities and ethnic minorities.

2. Examples of AUYLs

Some of the best-known and most researched AUYLs are Sheng, Tsotsitaal, Camfranglais, and Nouchi (for more detail on these examples see Hurst, in press). The following section will describe each of these examples in some detail, highlighting the origins and development of each variety; the linguistic features, including the base language or grammatical frame, lexical sources, and strategies; and finally the users and functions of the variety in each case. It will then discuss some recent research on lesser-known examples of AUYLs.

2.1. Sheng

Sheng originated in poor residential areas of Nairobi, Kenya, sometime between the 1930s and 1970s. The name Sheng is an abbreviation for ‘Swahili-English slang’ (Githinji, 2006, p. 444). It has criminal origins and is linked to the language of pickpockets (Ogechi, 2005, p. 334; Mazrui, 1995, p. 173). Its development has been attributed to contact, secrecy, and lack of fluency in standard languages (Githinji, 2006, p. 444). The base language or grammatical frame of Sheng was initially Swahili, but according to Kioko (2015), the use of Sheng has spread beyond Nairobi, and in the process Sheng has developed ‘regional varieties’—he gives the example of a Kamba-based Sheng in Machakos county, in the Eastern Province of Kenya. There is also a related variety, English-based Engsh in Nairobi, described by a number of authors, including Mous and Barasa (2017) and Kioko (2015). An example from Kioko (2015, p. 144) of ‘Shengnized Kamba’ follows:

African (Urban) Youth Languages

Vuta waya/vutia waya is a Sheng idiom describing the action of making a call. The idiom is popularly used in Calif Sheng, while in the Dandora variety, vuta waya also occurs as vuta nangos or shtua tenje… In this context, Kamba morphemes are placed before the Sheng verb. Waya is Swahili and is also the Kamba word for ‘wire’ and thus an English loanword. Matime is a word in the older Sheng where traditionally a class prefix ma-, commonly used to form plural Swahili and Kamba words, is added before an English word (time) to shengnize it into matime. The quantifier angi is again Kamba. (Kioko, 2015, p. 144)

The main difference between Swahili-based Sheng and Swahili appears to be ‘a distinct and an unstable vocabulary’ (Ogechi, 2005, p. 334). This vocabulary takes its lexicon from Swahili and English but also from Kenyan languages such as Dholuo, Kamba, and Gikuyu as well as Hindi and American Westerns (Githinji, 2006, p. 445; Ogechi, 2005, p. 335). Lexical strategies include borrowing, coinage, syllable inversion, compounding, and clipping (Githinji, 2006, p. 450f.).

Today Sheng is used primarily by male youth (Githinji, 2006, p. 453). It is described by Ogechi (2005, p. 353) as a ‘peer group language [which] succeeds in isolating the non-initiated speaker’ through innovation of new lexicon, suggesting an in-group/out-group dynamic and a covert masculine prestige ‘associated with toughness, masculinity and local solidarity’ (Githiora, 2002, p. 174). However, Karanja (2010, p. 1) suggests that Sheng allows youth to re-negotiate their identities and cultures, ‘moving them beyond unitary, fixed identities and binaries of traditional versus urban, and local versus global.’

2.2. Tsotsitaal

Tsotsitaal (also known as ringas, iscamtho, isiTsotsi, kasitaal, and flytaal) began as an Afrikaans-based slang in Sophiatown, a racially mixed suburb of Johannesburg in the 1940s, and was alternatively referred to as “Flytaal.” The term tsotsi referred to a style of trousers, and later to the petty criminals who wore the style (Glaser, 2000). The term tsotsi is still commonly used today to refer to street hooligans or members of street-corner gangs in South Africa’s townships. Taal is the Afrikaans word for ‘language.’

Today tsotsitaal is an amorphous stylistic practice that is present in all of South Africa’s languages, including Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa, Afrikaans, codeswitching, and even English (Mesthrie & Hurst, 2013; Mesthrie, 2014). It can be described as a style or register used ‘through’ (Ntshangase) whichever language is the first language of its speakers (Hurst & Buthelezi, 2014, p. 190). In terms of lexicon, borrowings come from Afrikaans, English, and the African languages of South Africa, along with some other European languages and American slang (Hurst & Mesthrie, 2013). It also features coinages, often metaphorical (Hurst, 2016). Many tsotsitaal terms are long-standing, with some even persisting since the 1940s (Molamu, 2003). The following example is of an isiXhosa-based tsotsitaal, from Hurst (2015, p. 180):

African (Urban) Youth Languages

The final word namhlanje in the tsotsitaal version may also be replaced by an alternate lexifier; for example in Mesthrie and Hurst (2013) two alternatives for ‘today” in tsotsitaal were given: famdukwana and vandag… the novelty of tsotsitaal is found in the lexicon. For example, in the above sentence, the verb for ‘go,’ bethela, is a semantic manipulation with the original meaning ‘to beat’ found in both urban and rural forms of isiXhosa, but it is used here in the sense of ‘beat it’ or ‘hit the road.’ (Hurst, 2015, pp. 180–181)

Tsotsitaal use is no longer restricted to speakers involved in criminal activity; there is rather a continuum of tsotsitaals (Calteaux, 1994), which range from ‘deep’ usage spoken by criminals to ‘light’ use of tsotsitaal terms by everyone in the township. There are some claims that it is used in the home as a first language in the townships surrounding Johannesburg. It is certainly used widely across urban townships by young males and some young females (although there is still stigma attached to female speakers) (Hurst, 2009).

Tsotsitaal is also associated with clothing styles (with a focus on imported American brand names) and musical preferences (particularly hip-hop and local musical genres such as kwaito), as well as aspects of body language such as gestures and ways of walking (Mesthrie, 2008; Hurst, 2009; Hurst & Mesthrie 2013; Brookes, 2004). It is considered urban in opposition to rural and standard versions of African languages (Hurst, 2009). However, as noted above, although this dichotomy is referred to widely by speakers, such a dichotomy is less evident in actual language practice.

It is used mainly for maintaining and challenging status in a peer group, or within a peer group when speakers are having fun, making jokes, and trying to make each other laugh. According to Hurst (2016), this indicates a ‘socialising and friendship-affirming role’ for tsotsitaal.

2.3. Camfranglais

Camfranglais is found in Cameroon, and originated as a language of criminals in the 1970s. It has now become widespread amongst youth (Schröder, 2007, p. 282; De Feral, 2007). It goes by several alternative names (Langage de bandits de Douala, Pidgin French, Franglais, Camspeak, Francanglais). Grammatically, it can be used via Cameroon Pidgin English (CPE) or via standard French (Schröder, 2007, p. 283). Schröder argues that it is in each case relexicalized (Schröder, 2007, pp. 287–288). Its lexicon incorporates words from many of the languages spoken in Cameroon. Ngo Ngok-Graux & Éloundou Éloundou (2011,p. 121) describe it as a ‘hybrid’ language. Kiessling (in press) describes a number of grammatical features of Camfranglais, including the formation of wh-questions as follows:

Word questions are overwhelmingly formed by placing the interrogative pronoun in immediate postverbal position and suppressing the inversion of the subject and the verb… deviating maximally from the Standard French model which is characterized by the inversion of subject and verb plus fronting of the interrogative pronoun…

He provides the following example from Biloa (2008, p. 124):

African (Urban) Youth Languages

He goes on to suggest that ‘this type of syntactic structure in wh-questions is exactly paralleled by many Bantoid and Bantu languages of Cameroon’ (Kiessling, in press). Along with other grammatical features which deviate from the French matrix, this leads him to also suggest a ‘hybridization in both lexicon and grammar’ which draws on CPE and Bantoid languages.

Both Ngo Ngok-Graux and Éloundou Éloundou(2011) and Schröder (2007) focus on how Camfranglais is used as a marker of youth identity. Schröder states it is used as a ‘secret in-group language’ (Schröder, 2007, p. 293) by ‘urban juvenile francophones in the francophone part of the country’ (Schröder, 2007, p. 294). She concludes that:

What all these codes represent is the urge of young Africans to impregnate dominant Standard and colonial languages with local flavor and to add local color to a global language.

(Schröder, 2007, p. 297)

2.4. Nouchi

The term ‘Nouchi’ originally applied to a social category of street gangs or ‘juvenile delinquents’ in Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire/ Ivory Coast (Ploog, 2008, p. 253). According to Ivorians, these street gangs developed Nouchi in the 1980s as a secret language to prevent the police from understanding them, and Nouchi appears to have entered into popular discourse around 1990.

Ploog (2008, p. 253) and Kube-Barth (2009, p. 105) show that it is based on français populaire, the local variety of French, with lexical borrowings from other languages, including English, Spanish, German, Dioula, Baoulé, and Bété (Vakunta, 2011; Newell, 2009). It also includes new coinages. Vakunta (2011) provides the following examples of Nouchi sentences:

  1. 1. J’ai un gba avec un mogo= J’ai un rendez-vous avec une fille [I have a date with a girl]

  2. 2. Ça c’est ma gnan= voici ma petite amie [Here is my girlfriend.]

  3. 3. Ça c’est ma go= voici ma petite amie [Here is my girlfriend]

  4. 4. Le gboo a behou= le groupe a fui [The gang has vanished.]

Nouchi is mainly used by youth between 10 and 30 years old (Kouadio, 2006), and researchers have argued that it is linked to masculinity, although not used exclusively by men. Today, youth from all classes and regions of Côte d’Ivoire use Nouchi, and Newell suggests that it is now the ‘first language of many Ivoirians’ (Newell, 2009, p. 158). Ploog (2008, p. 253) suggests that the term now refers to ‘the local [Ivoirian] linguistic identity, including non-marked daily use of spoken, non-standard French,’ which she calls ‘Nouchi-French.’ Kube-Barth (2009) argues that its use is interpreted three ways: as a medium of interethnic communication, a future national language, and an indicator of the failure of the national language policy in education.

Nouchi is also widely used in the media. It links to a Nouchi style involving brand names and a particular way of walking (Newell, 2009, p. 163; Kube-Barth, 2009, p. 105). Newell associates the language with a postcolonial identity, which she argues involves the ‘enregisterment of modernity in language.’

2.5. Emerging Examples of AUYLs

Some new examples of AUYLs are emerging in recent scholarship. It is not necessarily the case that these are more recent phenomena than those described above, but only that the scholarship itself is more recent. For example, in the city of Kampala, Uganda, the youth language Luyaaye emerged around the 1970s in the wake of socioeconomic and political changes as a result of Idi Amin’s regime. Namyalo (2015) describes how it may have originated as a secret language used by Kampala’s business community to exclude Amin’s security forces. Alternatively, she suggests that it can be viewed as arising from rural-urban migration and increased multilingualism in the city; through trade with Swahili-speaking countries, particularly Kenya, and the influence of Sheng; or as a street code for underprivileged youth. By the 1990s and 2000s, it was being used by taxi drivers and informal businesses and by school-age youth. It is now present in popular media in the country, and is spreading to rural trading centers (Namyalo, 2015, 2017). The grammatical framework of Luyaaye is Luganda, the major language of Uganda.

Lexical features of Luyaaye, in keeping with other AUYLs, include borrowings from English, Swahili, Sheng, and some Sudanese languages; new coinages; semantic change; metaphors; synonyms; and polysemy.

Regarding its users, according to Namyalo (2015):

Luyaaye is now synonymous with the urban-youth, a powerful social identity characterized by a unique linguistic expression, a unique lifestyle which is manifested in hair style, mode of dressing, excessive use of gestures, music and dances, names and subversion of norms.

A number of different youth varieties have been described from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (cf. Nassenstein, 2014 for Yanke; Mutambwa, 2009 for Kindubile; Kiessling & Mous, 2004 for Indoubil). One new example from DRC is Langila, a ‘youth and artists’’ language spoken in Kinshasa (Nassenstein, 2015a). It was created in 2003–2004 by King Kester Emeneya who led the band Victoria Eleison; he spoke it with his musicians, and it quickly spread as a ‘sociolect.’ Langila is Lingala-based and is used by approximately 20,000 people, most of whom are young dancers, choreographers, painters, and musicians (Nassenstein, 2015a).

Imvugo y’Umuhanda from Rwanda (Nassenstein, 2015b) arises from the multilingual context of Kigali, and the shift of official languages from French to English after 1994. Imvugo y’Umuhanda is based on Kinyarwanda and involves one type of phonological manipulation, one morphological strategy, semantic manipulations, coinage, and metaphors. It is used throughout Kigali and other Rwandan cities, and is linked to hip-hop and rap and street identities.

Moving to Nigeria, Mensah (2012) describes the language of the Ágábá boys in Calabar South. Features of the language include metaphors and ‘taboo expressions embodied in expletives, profanities, insults, curses and swear words’ (Mensah, 2012, p. 387). The language is used for in-group cohesion and solidarity, as well as in the pursuit of an anti-establishment identity. It is associated with other factors such as the emerging Naija hip hop and the okele music genre, dance styles, dress sense, and ideology or ‘worldview’ (Mensah, 2012, p. 389).

From Ethiopia, Yarada K’wank’wa (Hollington, 2015) is spoken in Addis Ababa. It is Amharic-based, and possibly has its origins in argot. It features ‘playful and creative language manipulations,’ and serves as a marker of group identity for streetwise urban youth.

Kirundi Slang, found in Bujumbura, Burundi, has emerged from the context of a multicultural and multilingual city. It carries the identity of that city where

young people of different ethnic, national and social backgrounds create a new youth culture, listen to the latest hip hop from Kigali (in Kinyarwanda), the latest soukous from Kinshasa (in Lingala) and the up-to-date beats from Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, rapped in Swahili (respectively the so-called genge and bongo flava).

(Nassenstein, 2017)

More examples of AUYLs are continuously emerging, for example, Sncamtho from Zimbabwe (Ndlovu, 2013), and Chibrazi from Malawi (Kamanga, 2014). In addition, scholarship on AUYLs from Arabic-speaking African countries has also begun to emerge in recent years. Manfredi and Pereira (2013) offered a comparative overview of a number of examples of youth languages from Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Southern Sudan. And yet, many examples remain unstudied, as Hollington and Nassenstein (2015) describe:

it is known that in numerous African cities (and probably also in rural areas) youth languages are commonly used and created by young people although no scholarly work has so far been carried out to describe or analyze them. Some examples are Ciluba de jeunes in Mbuji-Mayi and Kananga (DR Congo), as well as youth slangs in Lagos, Luanda and Accra that have not been described yet.

Critical Analysis of Scholarship

Recent scholarship in AUYLs has advanced beyond the gathering of ‘word lists’ which was typical of early research on these varieties, and is now advancing debates and theories beyond the immediate field. Advancements in the field can be divided into linguistic research, sociolinguistic research, and education and policy research.

In terms of linguistic studies, researchers are considering questions of morphology and syntax in the construction of these varieties (cf. Gunnink, 2014), the role of contact in their development (Ploog, 2008), the role of youth in language change, the influence on vernaculars, and processes of standardization, including the possibility of these varieties becoming lingua francas, or even ‘new languages.’ Researchers are also documenting the spread of these phenomena out of urban areas and into rural regions and the diversification of the base language through this process (Kioko, 2015). Finally, recent work is looking at the role of specific processes, such as the use of metaphor, in these varieties (cf. Hurst, 2016, Mensah & Nkamigbo, 2016).

In the realm of sociolinguistics, authors are contributing to scholarship on language and identity, such as the relationship of these phenomena to national identity in postcolonial states (Newell, 2009) and the use of style, gesture, clothing and other identity markers in personal identity performances (Hurst & Mesthrie, 2013). The dynamics of gender are also being explored in publications such as that by Maribe and Brookes (2014) on the use of tsotsitaal by women and the work of Githinji (2008) looking at Sheng and sexism. There is also increasing interest around the presence of these phenomena in media, such as television, film, music, and in digital spaces—new media and social media, as well as a number of studies looking into the use of AUYLs in advertising and their presence as part of linguistic landscapes (cf. Kariuki, Kanana, & Kebeya, 2015).

Another important area of relevance to these varieties is in the fields of language policy and education, including linguistic human rights. The response of popular media and policy makers to these varieties has placed an emphasis on the need for understanding the role of these varieties in educational contexts, unpacking the tension between these practices and official language policy (both national and educational), and a reconsideration of the concept of ‘mother tongue’ in light of these new vernacular forms. Many young people growing up in Africa’s highly multilingual urban centers do not speak a ‘standard’ form of an African language. This has implications for the language being used in the classroom; if teachers and policies emphasize standard forms, this can disadvantage young people who have not encountered the standard (cf. Rudd, 2013). Concurrently, there are also calls for some of these varieties to be recognized as ‘national languages’ (cf. Hurst, 2013).

Some recent theories emerging from international sociolinguistics have been found to be particularly helpful for AUYL research. Hollington and Nassenstein (2015) describe the influence of the Labovian paradigm and the study of sociolects, as well as more recent studies on multilingual and urban forms of communication such as work by Rampton (1995), Blommaert (2010), and contemporaries.

The work of researchers such as Eckert (2012) has emphasized a ‘third wave’ of sociolinguistics in which variation can be described as ‘a social semiotic system capable of expressing the full range of a community’s social concerns’ (Eckert, 2012, p. 94). This theory enables AUYL researchers to expand their object of study beyond linguistic forms and to encompass other meaning-making systems, such as gesture and style. An accompanying emphasis on language as social practice enables researchers to move away from notions of discrete, fixed languages and consider language as a fluid repertoire drawn from our full range of resources, arising from our linguistic biographies, our social histories and contexts. This approach is better able to respond to the dynamic nature of African youth languages, which should not be understood as discrete languages but rather as fluid, amorphous, and shifting practices. Similarly, theories of ‘disinvention’ and ‘destandardisation’ (Makoni & Pennycook, 2005), and the rejection of the ‘monolingual orientation’ (Canagarajah, 2013) are useful moves in reconceptualizing the dynamics of youth language, particularly in light of the role of colonialism in standardization and the pervasiveness of the notion of ‘one nation, one language’ in spite of the inherent multilingual nature of African countries. However, these theories, while informed by a historical understanding of the project of colonialism, are not yet having a substantial impact on policy decisions.

In turn, the research coming out of Africa on AUYL varieties is pushing the boundaries of international scholarship. Questions around the influence of youth on language change need to be considered more fully, and the rapid change taking place in the ‘melting pot’ conditions of postcolonial, rapidly modernizing centers is a clear demonstration that there are things at play in language change other than just contact. Youth language and the ways that youth relexicalize from all their resources, in this age of intense multilingualism and global cultural exchange, can highlight how social change leads to language change. African Urban Youth Languages therefore constitute a fruitful site of study which exemplifies these processes, and their theorization can interact with international theories of urban and youth language, can challenge or support, develop or adapt these theories to contribute to the progress of international variationist sociolinguistics.

Further Reading

Ebongue, A., & Hurst, E. (Eds.). (2017). Sociolinguistics in African contexts: Perspectives and challenges. Berlin: Springer.Find this resource:

Hollington, A., & Nassenstein, N. (Eds.). (2015). Youth language practices in Africa and beyond. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.Find this resource:

Hurst, E. (Ed.). (2014). Tsotsitaal studies: Urban youth language practices in South Africa [Special issue]. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, 32(2).Find this resource:

Kiessling, R., & Mous, M. (2004). Urban youth languages in Africa. Anthropological Linguistics, 46(3), 303–341.Find this resource:

McLaughlin, F. (Ed.). (2009). The languages of urban Africa. London: Continuum.Find this resource:

Mensah, E. (Ed.). (2016). The dynamics of youth language in Africa [Special issue]. Sociolinguistic Studies, 10(1–2).Find this resource:

Storch, A. (2011). Secret manipulations: Language and context in Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

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