By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Hausaphone northern Nigerians on social media celebrate “Ranar Hausa” (Hausa Day) every August 26. In honor of the celebration, I share with the reader a reworked version of a column I wrote on September 4, 2016 in the aftermath of the controversy stoked by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s alleged description of Hausa as a “unique” language.
He actually never said that. Nevertheless, even if he didn’t say Hausa was unique, it sure is a fascinating language for these five reasons—and more.
1. Hausa is by far Nigeria’s, nay West Africa’s, most widely spoken language. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is spoken by up to 50 million people both as a native language and as a non-native language. This means it is outrivaled only by Swahili as the most widely spoken language in Africa.
2. Hausa is also emerging as Nigeria’s only non-ethnic language, by which I mean it is spoken as a lingua franca by millions of people who are not ethnically Hausa. Although Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Fulfulde, and other major Nigerian languages have tens of millions of speakers, their speakers are, for the most part, ethnically affiliated with their languages.
There are more than 25 million non-native Hausa speakers, according to many estimates. That means, like the English language, there are probably more people who speak Hausa as a non-native language than there are who speak it as a native language.
It is now usual to distinguish between native- and non-native speaker varieties of Hausa in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation. There is even pidginized Hausa called Barikanci, which is spoken by non-native Hausa speakers in military barracks.
Hausa is a lingua franca in 16 of northern Nigeria’s 19 states. The only northern Nigerian states where Hausa isn’t widely spoken are Benue, Kogi, and Kwara.
3. Hausa enjoys enormous language loyalty in ways no other Nigerian language does. First, most Hausa speakers who are educated in English are also educated in Hausa. That is, they can write as proficiently in English as they can in Hausa. You can’t say that of speakers of other Nigerian languages.
Second, Hausa speakers don’t subordinate their language to English or even to Arabic. By contrast, the Igbo language has the distinction of being the only endangered language that is currently spoken by millions of native speakers. Typically, languages are endangered because of the numerical insignificance of their native-speaker base, or because younger people refuse to speak them. This fate is often suffered by minor languages with low social and cultural prestige.
But Igbo isn’t just spoken by millions of people in Nigeria, it also enjoys high social prestige. However, the preference for English and Nigerian Pidgin English is endangering the language. That is why in 2012 UNESCO predicted that if nothing is done to reverse the trend the Igbo language could disappear from the world’s linguistic map by 2025. This is obviously overly alarmist, but several Igbo scholars are taking this prediction seriously.
4. Hausa has a rich written tradition that goes back to hundreds of years. For instance, Kano Chronicle, a palace-centered monthly publication, was first published in Hausa (and in Arabic) in 1503 and continued for many years before it stopped publishing. It predated Iwe Irohin fun awon Egba ati Yoruba (“newspaper for Egba and Yoruba people”), which was first published in 1859 by the Reverend Henry Townsend.
5. Hausa is also perhaps the only Nigerian language that has grammatical gender for noun distinction. Every Hausa noun is either masculine or feminine.
Misconceptions about Hausa’s Linguistic Superiority
While Hausa is a lexically rich, structurally beautiful language, it isn’t superior to any language. No language is. As Michael Stubbs points out in his book, Language, Schools and Classroom, “It is accepted by linguists that no language or dialect is intrinsically superior or inferior to any other, and that all languages and dialects are suited to the needs of the communities they serve” (p. 30). Here are popular misconceptions about the Hausa language that I’ve decided to explode:
1. Hausa is not Nigeria’s first written language. Although the ajami script (an improvised Arabic orthography to write non-Arabic languages) emerged in Hausaland around the 1500s, it is not the first writing system in Nigeria. Ajami was preceded by an indigenous writing system called nsibidi in what is now Cross River and Akwa Ibom states by hundreds of years.
The earliest record of nsibidi dates back to more than 1,000 years. It was an ideographic alphabet that was written on pots, calabashes, stools, walls, leaves, etc., which British colonialists initially derided as “a kind of primitive secret writing,” but which actually produced an elite corps of literate people who used it to write court judgments and to chronicle history.
In his article titled “Early Ceramics from Calabar, Nigeria:Towards a History of Nsibidi,” American art historian Christopher Slogar quoted J.K. Macgregor to have said the following about nsibidi in the 1900s: “The use of nsibidi is that of ordinary writing. I have in my possession a copy of the record of a court case from a town of Enion [Enyong] taken down in it, and every detail … is most graphically described.”
It is worth mentioning that a kind of indigenous, nsibidi-like Hausa alphabet that is neither Arabic-based nor Latin-based was discovered in Maradi in southern Niger Republic in 2004. It was discovered by a Nigerien Hausa by the name of Aboubacar Mahamane and brought to the attention of the world by Dr. Donald Zhang Osborn, an American scholar who specializes in African languages. However, no one has determined when the alphabet was invented. Did it predate ajami or did it come after ajami?
2. The notion that Hausa speakers were widely literate before colonialism is a common claim, which has no basis in facts. Although literacy in Arabic and ajami existed in Hausaland before British colonialism, it was never widespread at any point in history. Being merely able to read and write in Arabic isn’t functional literacy. Like most northern Muslims, I can read and write in Arabic, but I can’t claim to have functional literacy in the language because I can’t communicate in it or understand, say, a newspaper article in it.
As Billy Dudley points out in his book, Parties and Politics in Northern Nigeria, according to the 1921 census, the literacy rate in the North (including Arabic literacy) was a mere 1.9 percent. By 1952, the literacy rates in Arabic were 10 percent in Zaria; 8 percent in Kano; 4.8 percent in Katsina; 4 percent in Niger; 2.2 percent in Plateau; 2 percent in Borno; 1 percent in Benue (p. 106).
Like Latin in Medieval Europe, full functional Arabic literacy in northern Nigeria was the exclusive preserve of a few clerical elites. It was never democratized literacy.
3. It’s a misconception that the ancestors of modern Hausa people have always spoken Hausa. First, according to historians, including the late Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman, “Hausa” isn’t even a Hausa word; it’s derived from the ancient Songhai word for “southerners,” which makes sense since Hausa people are located south of the Zarma people of Niger Republic (who are the modern descendants of the Songhai people). The first known use of the term Hausa (in English?) dates back to 1853, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Second, a landmark 2009 DNA study by Sarah A. Tishkoff and 21 other researchers titled “The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans” shows that most modern native Hausa speakers are actually Nilo-Saharans who share genetic affinities with people from Borno, central Chad, Cameroun, and South Sudan. They adopted the Hausa language through elite emulation thousands of years ago. That’s why linguists are often careful not to use language as a basis to make judgments on ethnic origins.
In my April 3, 2016 article titled “Nigerian Languages are More Closely Related Than You Think,” I pointed out that “linguistic similarity isn’t always evidence for common ethnic or racial origin. For instance, although the Hausa people speak an ‘Afro-Asiatic’ language, they have little or no Eurasian element in their genetic profile while the Fulani who speak a Niger-Congo language have substantial Eurasian elements in their genetic pool.