By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg sparked a raucous socio-linguistic debate in Nigeria after he disclosed in Lagos that Facebook’s platform now supports the Hausa language. But his words were quickly twisted to suggest that he said Hausa was a “unique language.”
I looked everywhere on the Internet for the exact quote where he said Hausa was a unique language. I didn’t find any. This is what Biztech Africa quoted him to have said. “I am proud of putting Hausa language on the platform. I know with time more languages from Nigeria will also go live.” The News Agency of Nigeria had a different quote. It quoted him to have said, “I am glad we support Hausa and we are planning on supporting a lot more languages soon.’’
So let’s be clear that Zuckerberg never said Hausa was a unique language. Nor did he, as some Nigerian websites misquoted him as saying, proclaim being “proud” of Hausa.
But even if Zuckerberg didn’t say Hausa was unique, it sure is a fascinating language for these 5 reasons—and more.
1. Hausa is far and away Nigeria’s, nay West Africa’s, most widely spoken language. According to several estimates, such as 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, the speakers are, for the most part, ethnically affiliated with the languages. For instance, although Yoruba is also spoken in Benin Republic, Togo, and Cuba and many other Caribbean nations, it is spoken mostly by people who ethnically identify as Yoruba.
In Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, Cote d'Ivoire, Sudan, etc. Hausa is spoken by millions of people who also speak their native languages. No West African language is spoken as a second language by as many people as Hausa is.
There are more than 25 million non-native Hausa speakers, according to many estimates, and the number is growing courtesy of the increasing reach and popularity of the Hausa movie industry called Kannywood. That means there are nearly as many people who speak Hausa as a native language as there are who speak it as a non-native language. Like what has happened to the English language, in the near future, there may be more non-native Hausa speakers than native Hausa speakers.
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 Arabic. By contrast, the Igbo language has the distinction of being the only endangered language that is 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 the Egba and Yoruba people”), which was first published in 1859 by the Reverend Henry Townsend.
5. Hausa has an extensive lexical repertoire. Apart from its own rich native vocabulary, it has borrowed liberally from Kanuri, Arabic, Fulfulde, Tuareg, and, lately, English—the same way that English has borrowed, and continues to borrow from Latin, Greek, Arabic and other languages.
Hausa is also perhaps the only Nigerian language that has grammatical gender for noun distinction. Every Hausa noun is either masculine or feminine.
Clarifying the Misconceptions about Hausa’s Linguistic Superiority
While Hausa is a rich, deep, 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).
That Hausa is a fascinating language doesn’t mean that it is superior to any language— or that other languages are inferior to it. Here are popular misconceptions about the Hausa language that I’ve decided to explode:
1. Hausa is the first written language in Nigeria. That is not true. Although the ajami script (an improvised Arabic orthography) 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 Akwai Ibom states by hundreds of years.
The earliest record of nsibidi dates back to more than 1000 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. But no one has determined when the alphabet was invented. Did it predate ajami or did it come after ajami? Dr. Donald Zhang Osborn, an American scholar who specializes in African languages, brought this alphabet to the attention of the world.
2. Hausa speakers were widely literate before colonialism. This is a common claim that 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.
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 elite. It was never democratized literacy.
3. Some commentators suggested that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg privileged Hausa over other Nigerian languages because of Afro-Asiatic solidarity. Zuckerberg is Jewish, and Hebrew, the ancestral language of Jews, belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family—in common with Hausa.
Well, while that is true, Zuckerberg’s immediate ancestors were Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish, not Hebrew. Yiddish is a Germanic language, although it has a sprinkling of Hebrew and Aramaic words in it.
4. Modern Hausa people have always spoken Hausa. That is another misconception. First, according to 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 and Dendi 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 gene pool.”