Kenyan English is a local dialect of the English language spoken by several communities and individuals in Kenya, and among some Kenyan expatriates in other countries. The dialect contains features unique to it that were derived from local Bantu languages, such as Swahili.[1]


The English language was introduced to Kenya along with Great Britain's colonisation of Kenya in 1895, when the East Africa Protectorate was set up before becoming a colony in 1920. Swahili had been established as a trade language in most parts of the Swahili Coast at the time of colonization, and it was also used in education. The British reduced the influence of Swahili and made English the medium of instruction in Kenyan schools. English remained in official use after Kenya's independence on 12 December 1963, and today it is the official language of Kenya, with Swahili recognised as its national language.[2]


Like English in southern England, Kenyan English is non-rhotic. Major phonological features include the loss of length contrast in vowels, the lack of central vowels as with British English, the monophthongisation of diphthongs and the dissolving of consonant clusters.[2] The trap-bath split does not exist in Kenyan English.

Vowel sounds

A good phonological indicator of Kenyan English would be the behaviour of the vowels in "kit" and "bath". The "kit" vowel would generally be pronounced with the close, front /ɪ/. The "bath" vowel would generally be pronounced with an /ɑː/ sound. The /aɪ/ as in "ride" is generally pronounced as /ɑɪ/. The vowels in "go" and "John" are monophthongised from /oʊ/ and /ɒ/ to /o/ and /ɔ/ respectively, and as such the pronunciation of the /ɔː/ sound in words such as "thought" or "straw" does not vary greatly with other dialects of English.

The behaviour of "e" sounds varies in Kenyan English. The vowels in words such as "face", "made", "ate" and "pay" are monophthongised from /eɪ/ to /e/, but words such as "fail" or "vein" are pronounced with an /eɪ/ sound. The vowel sound in words such as "bed" or "men" does not change from /ɛ/. The pronunciation of the vowel sound in a word such as "the" varies, where some would pronounce the usual /ðə/ or /ðiː/, while others would pronounce /ðɛ/.

The behaviour of "u" sounds also varies in Kenyan English. The pronunciation of the vowel sound in words such as "mud", "gun" or "us" is generally open and not fixed, as some would pronounce the usual /ʌ/, while others would pronounce /ɑː/ or /ɑ/. However, unlike a majority of other dialects of English, the vowel sound in words such as "foot" or "good" changes from /ʊ/ to /uː/, and as a result the sound would be the same as in words with longer vowel sounds such as "goose" or "food". The /juː/ sound in words such as "queue" or "tune" does not change, although some people have been known to pronounce this sound as /uː/ instead, where a word such as "fuel" would be pronounced as /fuːɛl/ instead of /fjuːɛl/.

Words that end with -wer and -yer are generally pronounced with the /w/ and /j/ included respectively. As a result, the regular /.ər/ and /ɪ.ər/ sounds in several dialects of English would be pronounced as /wɑ/ and /jɑ/, or in some cases /.ɑ/ and /ɪ.ɑ/, respectively. For example, the word "fewer" would be pronounced as /fjuːwɑ/ or /fjuː.ɑ/ instead of /fjuː.ər/, while the word "lawyer" would be pronounced as /lɔːjɑ/ or /lɔɪ.ɑ/ instead of /lɔɪ.ər/.


Mispronunciation of English words due to the interference of local Kenyan languages is popularly known in the country as "shrubbing", a word which in all its forms is itself prone to this occurrence. It has been noted that "shrubbing" is less likely with upper-middle and upper class citizens, or citizens who do not speak indigenous Kenyan languages and learned English as a first language. Therefore, people living in rural areas and/or those who learned English as a second language and are likely to have a heavier accent are more likely to "shrub".[3] "Shrubbing" is done by replacing a word's consonant sound(s) with another or others of a similar place of articulation.

The most common examples of "shrubbing" include mispronunciation of the /ʃ/ sound in words such as "shop" and "hashish", the /z/ sound in words such as "is" and "has" and the /ɛnd/ sound in words such as "intend" or "endocrine". Following these examples, a person may mispronounce "shop" as /ˈsɔːp/ instead of /ˈʃɔːp/, "hashish" as /hɑˈsiːs/ instead of /hɑˈʃiːʃ/, "is" as /ˈɪs/ instead of /ˈɪz/, "has" as /ˈhɑːs/ instead of /ˈhɑːz/ and "endocrine" as /ˈɛd.o.krɪn/ instead of /ˈɛnd.o.krɪn/. The word "intend" may be mispronounced as /ɪnˈtɛd/ instead of /ɪnˈtɛnd/, while its past participle "intended" may be mispronounced as /ɪnˈtɛd.ɛd/ (inteded) or /ɪnˈtɛnd.ɛnd/ (intendend) instead of /ɪnˈtɛnd.ɛd/.

The pronunciation of the "s" in possessives is also prone to "shrubbing", and varies with the ethnic origin of the speaker. For example, a word such as "John's" would generally be pronounced as /ˈdʒɔːnz/, but a person may mispronounce it with a "ss" sound, as in /ˈdʒɔːns/.

Confusing certain consonant sounds is another prominent feature of "shrubbing", the most common being the /b/ and /p/ sounds in similar words such as "back" and "pack", and the /l/ and /r/ sounds in similar words such as "load" and "road". In these examples, "back" would be mispronounced as /pɑːk/, while "pack" would be mispronounced as /bɑːk/. Similarly, "load" would be mispronounced as /ˈroːd/, while "road" would be mispronounced as /ˈloːd/. In many cases, both words would also be mispronounced as /ˈɽoːd/, where this particular "r" sound, known as a retroflex flap (listen here), would be similar to that with the Hindi pronunciation of the word "sari".

The /g/ sound in words such as "bag" is also often eliminated in replaced with a /k/ sound, resulting in cases where, for example, the words "bag" and "back" would be pronounced the same way, as in /bɑːk/ (or /pɑːk/ if the /b/ sound is "shrubbed"). Some people eliminate the /dʒ/ sound in words that end with –ge, such as "passage", and replace it with a voiced palatal implosive (listen here), or a /ʄ/ sound. In this case, the word "passage" would then be mispronounced as /ˈpɑseːʄ/. This also occurs with words that begin with a "j", such as "jeans", where the word would be mispronounced as /ˈʄiːnz/ (or /ˈʄiːns/ if the /z/ sound is "shrubbed").

As mentioned before, dissolving consonant clusters is a prominent feature in Kenyan English, and is also considered "shrubbing". This is done by adding vowel sounds in between the consonants of these clusters, and is a result of interference of indigenous Kenyan languages. For example, /sk/ is a consonant cluster in the word "confiscate", while /tw/ and /lv/ are consonant clusters in the word "twelve". Using these examples, a person may dissolve the /sk/ cluster in "confiscate" and mispronounce the word as /kɔnfisiˈkeːt/ (confisicate), or dissolve the consonant clusters in "twelve" and mispronounce the word as /ˈtwɛlɔf/ or /ˈtwɛlɔv/.

Pronunciation of dental consonants also varies with the ethnic origin of the speaker. For example, words such as "the" or "thin" would generally be pronounced with a voiced dental fricative /ð/ and a voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative /θ/ respectively as with a majority of other English dialects. However, the pronunciation of a word such as "theatre" can vary between /ˈθɪ.e.tɑ/ and /ˈðɪ.e.tɑ/ depending on the speaker's ethnic origin.


The most evident grammatical features of Kenyan English are the omission of articles, the pluralisation of uncountable nouns, the avoidance of using the relative pronoun "whose" and using adjectives as nouns.[2]

In Kenyan English, a large number of speakers tend to omit articles in words that would otherwise need them. For example, when ordering at a fast food restaurant, a person may say "give me burger" or "I want burger" instead of "give me a burger" or "I want a burger". Similarly, the article "the" in Kenyan English is often used in cases that would otherwise be deemed inappropriate, especially with uncountable nouns. A good example would be adding the article "the" to the uncountable noun "mud" (for example, I stepped in the mud on my way home.)

Some uncountable nouns such as "data", "equipment", "money" and "software" are also often pluralised in Kenyan English, but this is especially prevalent in the rural areas and among the lower and lower-middle classes.

A very large number of Kenyan English speakers often use "My names are…" when introducing themselves instead of "My name is…". For example, a person named John Omondi would introduce himself by saying "My names are John Omondi" instead of "My name is John Omondi". Again, this is especially prevalent in the rural areas and among the lower and lower-middle classes, but also depends on the ethnic origin of the speaker.

As mentioned before, there is a tendency to avoid the use of the relative pronoun "whose" in Kenyan English, where the use of the word would usually be replaced with "that". For example:

In written English, Kenyans often use British English spellings in favour of those in American English, such as –our instead of –or (e.g. "colour", "flavour"), –re instead of –er (e.g. "metre", "theatre"), –ogue instead of –og (e.g. "prologue", "catalogue") and –ce instead of –se (e.g. "defence", "offence"; noun/verb distinction between words such as "advice" / "advise" or "licence" / "license" is maintained). However, the use of –ize and –yze has become more frequent in favour of –ise and –yse, although the latter is still more common. For example, more Kenyans have been known to write "criticize" and "paralyze" as well as "criticise" and "paralyse".


As Kenyans generally use British English, vocabulary in Kenyan English is very similar to that of British English. Common examples are "chips" and "fries" ("french fries" and "fries" in American English), "crisps" ("chips" in American English) and "football" ("soccer" in American English, although the use of the American term has become increasingly common).

Kenyan English often borrows vocabulary from local languages which would otherwise be difficult to translate to English, such as "ugali", "sukuma wiki" (collard greens) and "matatu". The wide use of Sheng in Kenya has also affected the vocabulary of Kenyan English speakers. White people in Kenya are often referred to as "mzungus" or "wazungus" (the word "mzungu" is Swahili for "white person"; its plural form is "wazungu"). Other borrowed terms include "pole pole" (Swahili for "slowly"; as a result some people also say "slowly slowly"), "Harambee", "nyama choma" (barbecued meat) and "nini" (used when one forgets the name of something; equivalent to the word "thingy", which is itself also widely used).[4][5]

Example vocabulary
Kenyan English Standard British/American English
Are you getting me? Do you understand what I'm saying?
Let me confirm. Let me check.
I'm alighting. I'm getting off the bus.
We've reached. We're here.
We've gotten to our destination.
I gave him 20 bob. I gave him 20 shillings.
Even me. Me too.
It has refused. It's not working.
It's stopped functioning.
Isn't it? Isn't that right?
Don't you agree?
I'm wearing slippers. I'm wearing flip-flops.
Please add something. Add some more money. (You're being stingy.)
(Used by street vendors when negotiating transactions)
I have to survive.
What religion are you? What religion do you follow?
One of these fine days. Some day.
Some time in the future.
Take tea and bread. Have some tea and bread.
I'm starting a chama. I'm starting a cooperative.


An example of the use of proverbs and idioms in Kenyan English, from the front page of The Standard on 5 August 2014.

Some Kenyan English speakers occasionally use proverbs borrowed from Swahili and other languages, as well as English proverbs, when conveying a moral to a story or giving advice, and sometimes translate these proverbs to English. For example, when advising someone to take his/her time when doing something, a person may use the proverb "Haraka haraka haina baraka" (roughly translates to "More haste, less speed") and translate it to "Hurry hurry has no blessings".

See also


  1. ^ Nyaggah, Lynette Behm. "Cross-linguistic influence in Kenyan English: The impact of Swahili and Kikuyu on syntax". University of California. Retrieved 8 August 2014.
  2. ^ a b c "The Bochum Gateway to World Englishes – Kenya". Ruhr University Bochum. Retrieved 7 August 2014.
  3. ^ Llamas, Carmen; Watt, Dominic (2010). Language and Identities. Edinburgh University Press. p. 121. Retrieved 8 August 2014.
  4. ^ Marie Fahy (24 May 2011). "24 Months in Kenya – Kenyan English". Retrieved 7 August 2014.
  5. ^ "Jambo Rafiki – Kenyan English". Retrieved 8 August 2014.