Hausa (pronounced HOW-sa
), the principal language of West Africa
, is not however related to many of its neighbours and coastal African languages, since it belongs to the Chadic
branch of the Afro-Asiatic
family, and is thus distantly related to northern and eastern tongues such as Berber
, and the Semitic
group including Arabic and Hebrew. Some distant similarities in grammar can be detected.
Culturally it has been an important vehicle for the propagation of Islam, and has some Arabic borrowings (e.g. hamsin 'fifty', alkalami 'pen'). It was also formerly written in an Arabic-based script called ajami. These days it has quite a few English borrowings too, e.g. minista 'minister', makaniki 'mechanic'.
Hausa has five vowels, which occur both long and short. It was two essential tone levels, high and low, and a third tone that falls from high to low. These features are all semantically and grammatically important, but are not expressed in the standard orthography, so, because of difficulty of representing them in ASCII, I am reluctantly leaving them out also.
Of the consonants, the most notable are the hooked letters. As well as normal b d k, Hausa is written with three extra letters formed from those with a hook curling over to the top right. I shall write these here as b' d' k'. The two voiced stops b' d' are implosive (inhaled). The two voiceless stops k' ts are ejective (glottally forceful). There is no non-ejective ts so that letter isn't hooked.
Another unusual letter is 'y, actually written apostrophe + Y in Nigeria, or with a hooked Y in Niger, which is a glottalized y. It occurs in, for example, 'ya 'daughter' and 'ya'ya 'sons' - which is the plural of d'a 'son'. When I first encountered this I thought how strange a combination. Then years later I was doing Ancient Egyptian, distantly related to Hausa, and came across their pronoun 'I', which is written ynk but related to Hebrew 'anoki, regarded by Egyptologists as an anomaly: but it immediately struck me that it might really have been a glottalized y there too.
There is no p in Hausa (it's rare for a language not to have that sound) but the f is bilabial and may be p-like. The letter c is pronounced as in cello, church. There is one more digraph letter, sh.
The numerals 1 to 10 are d'aya biyu uku hud'u biyar shida bakwai takwas tara goma, and 100 is d'ari.
Hausa has two genders, masculine and feminine. The latter often end in a, and may be formed from masculines: Bahaushe 'Hausa man', Bahaushiya 'Hausa woman'. The difference is pervasive: taking masculine kare 'dog' and feminine kyanwa 'cat', the gender is marked on almost anything qualifying or agreeing with them:
karena 'my dog', kyanwata 'my cat'
karensu 'their dog', kyanwarsu 'their cat'
kare ne 'it is a dog', kyanwa ce 'it is a cat'
wancan kare 'that dog', waccan kyanwa 'that cat'
kare ya zo 'the dog has come', kyanwa ta zo 'the cat has come'
Note the verbal particles ya and ta in the last are exactly the same as the masculine and feminine imperfect prefixes in Arabic: one of the clearer signs of their relationship.
The inflexional system is quite complicated, with numerous different plural endings, derived verbs, reduplication, and particles to mark aspect. It is rich in proverbs; and to conclude I'll mention an interesting class of ideophones, of which Hausa has many. These are qualifiers of very restricted occurrence; English examples would be chock and smack-dab in chock-full, smack-dab in the middle. Zaune is 'sit', zaune sukuku is 'sit despondently'; sauka is 'land, come down', sauka jirif is 'land with a whump'.
Thanks to tres equis for the fact that Niger uses a hooked-y, and for pointing me to this page, where you may see examples of the hooked letters and also the continuing use of ajami in poetry: