Friday, September 05, 2003

Hausa as a West African Language

One of the fascinating things about Africa is the way in which linguistic relationships often confound one's expectations. For instance, given that most languages in West-Africa belong to the Niger-Congo family, and given the close proximity of the Hausa to many other Niger-Congo speakers (from whom they are often hard to distinguish by dress or appearance), one would expect that their language would also be of Niger-Congo origin. In fact, nothing of the sort is true.

The real linguistic relatives of Hausa might prove surprising to those who are unacquainted with linguistics (which I imagine would be the case for most people) - the Semitic languages, like Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew, along with several other language subfamilies like the Berber tongues (Tuareg, Kabyla and others), the Cushitic languages (including Somali and Oromo), and the Omotic languages (e.g. Dizi and Gamo). All of the aforementioned languages belong to a single phylum, called Afro-Asiatic, and it is estimated that they began to part ways about 8,000 years ago.

As surprising as it may seem that a West-African lingua franca like Hausa should be more closely related to the languages of the Middle East than to its' closest neighbors, it makes sense when we consider the history of an important geographical feature on the African landscape, namely the Sahara desert. There is abundant evidence indicating that the Sahara was not always the parched place it is today, and it was in fact a fairly lush environment within the last 10,000 years, harboring a wide variety of riverine and lacustrine resources, as well as hippopotami, crocodiles and a now extinct relative of the zebra. Rock art to be found in some quantity throughout the Sahara also supports this belief, depicting men engaged in hunting of various kinds of wildlife now to be found only on the plains of East Africa.

What seems to have happened is that as the Sahara began to dry out, it's inhabitants began to migrate either North towards the Mediterranean, south towards the Atlantic, or east, in the direction of the Nile, carrying with them the closely related languages they had formerly spoken as dwellers in the Sahara region. Apart from explaining the strange geographical distribution of the Afro-Asiatic languages at present, this scenario might also account in part for the rise of the Nile civilization that was to become Egypt: only wth the transition to population-intensive, Nile-oriented agriculture imposed by desertification could the conditions materialize that would give rise to Egyptian culture as it has come to be known.

Another question we can ask ourselves is "Where did the Afro-Asiatic languages originate?" Again, this is a question with a surprising and fairly definite answer. To see how the solution arises, we take into account a method used in biology to trace the origins of species. We begin by drawing a dendrogram, or family tree, of the various languages in the family, and we then ask ourselves "Where are the branches bushiest?" Of course, we mean more by this than to ask which subfamily has the most offshoots, for it might well be that one particular subfamily has been more fecund than the rest, purely by an accident of history, as is true of the Bantu languages within the Niger-Congo context. At any rate, the answer is almost definitely as follows: all Afro-Asiatic languages can trace their common roots back to Africa, and that within the last 10,000 years. Yes, Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Hebrew, of Biblical fame, are of relatively recent African origin!*

The reasoning behind this conclusion is simple enough: of all the subfamilies of Afro-Asiatic, including Chadic, Cushitic, Berber, Semitic and Omotic, all but the Semitic languages are confined strictly to the African continent, and even amongst the Semitic languages, several are purely African in reach, some confined to the area around northern Ethiopia. Ancient Egyptian, which merits a separate subfamily all on its' own amongst the Afro-Asiatic languages, is no exception to this pattern.

While I doubt that many of my readers will ever be interested in taking up linguistics of their own accord, I do think the Hausa language well worth knowing if one wishes to learn more about West African culture and history. There is quite an extensive literature in Hausa, though much of it is in the Arabic script that was adopted for writing the language some centuries back (a fact that belies the often advanced claim that writing was entirely unknown in Africa before the coming of European colonizers.) Hausa is widely understood in countries as far apart as Ghana, Benin, Niger and Togo. In addition, Hausa is the common language of daily commerce throughout Northern Nigeria, and often far better understood in the region than English, the nominal official language.

*An answer which ought to surprise certain bigots on the right, many of whom hold at least one of these languages in the highest esteem.