The Hausa language is arguably the most important indigenous language throughout the area of West and Central Africa. Spoken by an estimated 40 to 50 million people as a first or second language, it is believed to be one of the most commonly spoken African languages, alongside Swahili.
Classification of the Hausa Language
Hausa is classified as a member of the Western subdivision of the Chadic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. A subdivision of the African language family, the Afro-Asiatic group is comprised of an estimated 400 languages.
The Chadic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family consists primarily of languages found in northern Nigeria. Hausa is without a doubt the best-known and most important member of the Chadic branch. It is the most widely used in the fields of education and commerce, and lays claim to a significant body of Hausa language literature.
The Hausa Peoples
In addition to referring to a type of African language, the term Hausa also is used to refer to a specific group of African people. It is important to note that the Hausa language is spoken by millions of non-Hausa peoples in Africa as well as by the traditional Hausa, who are found primarily along the border between northwestern Nigeria and southwestern Niger.
Primarily Muslim, the Hausa people have a tradition of long-distance commerce and Islamic pilgrimage. This has allowed their language to spread across other areas of the African continent, notably to major cities in North, Northeast, Central and West Africa. Hausa language communities can be found today along traditional trade and pilgrimage routes, and in all major cities of West and North Africa.
Early History of the Hausa Peoples
The Hausa peoples initially existed in groups of feudal city-states. Starting in the 1300s, these city-states were conquered by various West-African kingdoms. Eventually the Hausa peoples managed to unite and gain enough power to rid themselves of foreign domination.
In the early 20th century, the Hausa were again faced with the prospect of outside rule with the arrival of European colonial powers. British colonials invaded northern Nigeria, where they instituted a system of indirect rule over a joint Hausa-Fulani power. This liaison between the Hausa and Fulani people led to a significant amount of cultural exchange. Today, many former Fulani speak the Hausa language and consider themselves culturally Hausa.
Influence of Islam on the Hausa People and Language
It is believed that the Hausa were animists until contact with the Arab-speaking world exposed them to Islam. Today the majority of Hausa practice Islam. A small minority of Hausa people known as Maguzawa practice religions other than Islam. Contact with the Arab-speaking world also allowed for the development of one of the earliest forms of the written Hausa language.
Development of the Written Hausa Language
Hausa was initially written using script known as ajami, which utilizes a modified Arabic alphabet.
Thanks to British colonial influence, in the early 20th century an alternate script based on the Latin language alphabet was also developed. Known as “boko” (from the English word for book), this alphabet is primarily used in formal education. Although the Arabic-based ajami script is still in limited use, the more modern boko script is generally more popular.
Characteristics of the Hausa Language
The Hausa language is a tone language, meaning that the pitch of various syllables affects the meaning of words as much as the actual structure of the word. Written Hausa utilizes accent marks to indicate tone as rising, falling or even.
Hausa uses a basic subject-verb-object word order. Different verb forms are created through inflection and derivation (modifications of verb stems which help to indicate different forms). These variations in the verb can be very subtle. For example while “yánkàa” means “to cut up,” simply changing the accent over the second “a” (yànkáa) means “to cut a piece off.”
Influences on the Hausa Language
The Hausa language has a significant number of loanwords from the Arabic language, as well as the Tamajaq language of the Tuareg peoples, the Nilo-Saharan language of Kanuri and the Niger-Congo language of Mande.
Since the time of colonialism, English and French have also come to contribute to the Hausa language – English primarily on the Hausa spoken in Nigeria, and French on the Hausa of Niger. Although a variety of outside influences can be seen in the Hausa language, its longstanding contact with the Arabic language has had greater influence over Hausa than any other language.
Study of the Hausa Language
Scholarly study of the Hausa language began as early as the mid-19th century.
German missionary Jakob Friedrich Schön’s “Grammar of the Hausa Language” was published in 1862. Since then a number of scholarly works concerning the Hausa language have appeared, including Sergio Baldi’s “Systematic Hausa Bibliography” (1977), Paul Newman’s “The Hausa Language: An Encylopedic Reference Grammar” (2000), and Philip J. Jaggar’s “Hausa” (2001).
Hausa was first formally studied outside of Africa as early as 1885, when the first known Hausa language course was taught in Berlin, Germany. Hausa is now taught at universities throughout the world.
Modern Hausa Language and Dialects
Today Hausa serves as a national language in both Nigeria and Niger.
An estimated 20 percent of the population of Niger claims Hausa as their mother tongue. In Nigeria, Hausa is one of the predominant languages – a significant fact given that Nigeria is home to an estimated 500 different languages.
Numerous dialects can be found within the Hausa language; they are divided into two main groups, northwestern and eastern. The “standard” Hausa dialect is based on the koine dialect of Kano, an enormous Hausa commercial center located in Nigeria. Almost all Hausa language dialects are mutually intelligible.
Hausa Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: HAUSAWA, HAOUSSA, ABAKWARIGA, MGBAKPA, HABE, KADO
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Chadic, West, A, A.1.
Spoken by Approximately 24,200,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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