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Hausa is the second-largest sub-Saharan African language in terms of numbers of native speakers. The greatest number of Hausa speakers are in the West African countries of Niger and Nigeria, but it is also spoken through large parts of West and Central Africa as a lingua franca or universal second language, especially among Muslims. It is written both in our alphabet and, outside urban areas, in a modified form of Arabic writing called Ajami.
Of the some 2,000 languages spoken on the African continent (one third of the world’s known languages!), Hausa is one of the two most important in terms of number of speakers and geographical spread. Hausa and Swahili vie for first place, with both claiming some 50 million speakers, including both native and second language speakers.
Hausa is widely used in West Africa. It is a first language in the northern Nigeria, in much of Niger, and is the second language for many people in Benin, Chad, Cameroon, and Togo, northern Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Libya, southern Nigeria, and Sudan. In addition, communities of Hausa speakers can be found throughout the continent, as well as in Europe and the United States. Hausa is taught in major universities in Africa and around the world and all major international broadcasters include programming in Hausa ( BBC, Radio France Internationale, China Radio International, Voice of Russia, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and IRIB). Hausa also boasts a burgeoning film industry known as Kannywood (named after the major Hausa city of Kano).
Hausa belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family which includes such well-known languages as Arabic, Amharic, and Hebrew. It is written in two different alphabets: the Latin alphabet (boko) and the Arabic alphabet (ajami). In Globally Speaking: Hausa, you will be introduced to both.
The majority of native Hausa speakers reside in Niger and Nigeria. Nigeria, which is the most populous country in Africa, with a population of close to 150 million, is the fifth biggest supplier of US crude oil imports, after Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Venzuela. Hausa is a subject in Nigerian secondary schools and universities and is the language of instruction for the elementary grades in Hausa-speaking areas. More than half of the broadcasting on northern Nigerian radio and television stations is in Hausa, there are several Hausa language newspapers, and an lively publishing industry in Hausa.
The homeland of Hausa speakers is called Hausaland. From the late 9th through to the 15th century, this area which is today northern Nigeria and southern Niger, served as a nexus of cultural and economic activity. Exchanges of language, commerce, and religious belief and thought established this vast region’s strategic importance throughout the Islamic world.
During medieval times, what is now Northern Nigeria had contact with the great African empires of ancient Ghana, Mali, Kanem Borno, and Songhay and with countries of the Mediterranean region and beyond. Islamic influence was firmly established by the end of the 14th century, and Kano was famous not only as a center of Islamic studies but also as an important commercial center of the states and societies in the Western Sudan.
Centers of Islamic learning, such as Kano, not only served to facilitate scholarly exchanges between traveling scholars, but also to cultivate vast numbers of indigenous scholars, who composed manuscript works written in Arabic and in the traditional Arabic script known as A’jami (used to write a range of languages including Hausa, Fulfulde, Kanuri, and Yoruba), and to advance book arts and crafts, including illumination, binding and calligraphy. These manuscripts provide a written testimony to the skill of African scientists, in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, medicine and climatology in the Middle Ages.
A Hausa text in Ajami
The creation of the Sokoto Caliphate in the jihad (holy war) of 1804-8 created one of the largest and most powerful pre-colonial empires which, even after it was overpowered by the British in 1903, continued to be an important force in the region.
Overview of the Hausa Language
The Hausa language is primarily spoken in Nigeria and Niger, although it is also widely used as a lingua franca for communication between speakers of other languages in West Africa. Hausa is a member of the Chadic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family.
The Hausa Alphabet and Hausa Pronunciation
The Hausa language uses a variation of the Latin alphabet, which is also used by English. English speakers learning Hausa will therefore find that many Hausa letters look familiar, even if they don't always sound the same. However, there are also several letters can be written either as special characters (often called 'hooked consonants', because they appear to have small hooks on them) or as regular consonants with apostrophes. These letters represent glottalic consonants, a type of consonant sound which requires controlling the glottis (the space between the vocal cords) while speaking. This type of sound is not found in English.
Hausa is a tonal language, meaning that different tones can change a word's meaning. Language students who are beginning to learn Hausa should pay careful attention to the tones used by native speakers. There are three tones: the low tone, the high tone, and the falling tone.
The Hausa language also distinguishes between long and short vowel sounds. In some dictionaries and language references, tones and vowel length may be marked with various diacritics over vowels. However, the diacritic marks are not used in the everyday written form of the language, so the best way to learn Hausa pronunciation is to listen carefully to the way it is spoken by native speakers.
The language that has had the most influence on Hausa vocabulary is Arabic, from which it has borrowed numerous words over centuries of cultural contact. More recently, Hausa has borrowed vocabulary from English and French, particularly in the realm of technology. Usually, these loanwords are adapted to fit the sound system and grammar rules of the Hausa language.
There are a number of grammar features that English speakers learning to speak Hausa may find interesting. For example, Hausa nouns have gender, meaning that every noun is considered to be either masculine or feminine. Other words in a sentence must agree with the gender of the noun. Adjectives usually come before the nouns they modify, although they can come afterwards in certain constructions. It is also very common to modify nouns with other nouns, especially those representing qualities, instead of using adjectives. The Hausa language has seven tenses plus an imperative mood, but the distinctions between the tenses are usually reflected in the subject pronouns rather than in the verbs themselves. The usual word order in Hausa sentences is Subject-Verb-Object, the same as English.