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Language and the Specific Gravity of Identity

by Isiyaku Ahmed
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By Prof. Abdallah Uba Adamu

Muhsin Ibrahim had started a very interesting thread on his wall about language usage in northern Nigeria. Basically, the argument is about whether predominantly Hausa (his publics) should intensify their use of English in public discourse, especially now that things are getting more virtual.

There has been a lot of resistance to using English among the Hausa because of the belief that using English (or other languages, except Arabic) leads to the erosion of identity. Muhsin urges the Hausa to embrace, or at least, immerse themselves as much as they can in the English language to gain a competitive advantage. I agree with him.

The arguments against the use of English are predicated upon language and identity.

Generally, language symbolizes our identity and conveys identities by those who speak them. But how true is this in an interconnected world? I have a friend whose children were born in Hong Kong. They are adults now. They hardly speak Hausa. Does that make them Chinese? Imagine an Urdu-speaking Pakistani immigrant whose children were born in Wales and do not speak Urdu. Does that make the children Welsh? In South Africa, the apartheid regime used language as one of the yardsticks, besides skin color, to develop its divide-and-rule ideology against the black population. If a Black South African somehow was able to speak fluent Afrikaans, does that shifts his identity and make him White? I have encountered Hausa merchants in the Deira section of Dubai’s textile market speaking fluent Hindi – are they then Indians?

I once encountered a Yoruba mechanic in Gusau – born and bred there, but could only speak the Sokoto dialect of Hausa, not my absolutely wonderful Kano dialect, and informed me that although his parents were Yoruba, he does not speak the language. So, what was he? Bayarabe or Bazamfare? The Kano Hausa even created sociolinguistic categories for his situation: ‘Ɗan Kano’ (‘son of the soil’), ‘Muna Kano’ (immigrant non-Hausa, Hausa-speaking), ‘Muna Hausa’ (immigrant, non-Hausa, retaining immigrant language identity). The two ‘outsider’ categories are easily recognized by Kanawa who describe their Hausa as ‘wata iri’/strange. Oh, they will interact freely with you – until you come to marry one of their daughters!

So, does merely speaking a particular language confer on the speaker the identity of the originators of the language? We learn English and Arabic. Become fluent in them. Does that make us English or Arabs? Thus, if we speak other languages besides our mother tongue, does that shift the specific gravity of our identity? I have three adult children (an oxymoron, I know, but there you are!). We always address each other in Hausa, but we always write to each other in English! Does that alter our identity?

Then the big one. Any DNA test on me will reveal that I am genetically Fulbe (Silsilɓe/Torodbe mix). I don’t speak Pulaar. I tried to convince myself that I should speak Pulaar as a form of anchor to an identity. When I asked Aliyu U. Tilde about the easiest way to learn the language of my genetic ancestors, he suggested marrying a Fulɓe woman! Not on the cards – I am a single-wife person for life.

So, I moved into the anthropology of cultural preservation. At one stage, I was even the Grand Patron of the Fulani Development Association of Nigeria (FULDAN) Kano Branch. During one or two erratic meetings, I was the only one who could not speak Pulaar – and I was the Chairman! We set up an evening class school at Gidan Makama school in Kano to teach Pulaar. Not many people came – despite the usual posturing of many Kanawa that they are Fulɓe.

Next, with some funding from Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris, I produced two CDs of Pulaar children’s songs (Surbajo, Short Round Crew), and with the help of the British Council in Kano, held a Pulaar music festival, Voices from the Desert, and included a Pulaar rap song (Wazobia Waru). I have no clue what the artists were singing! I next personally sponsored a series of video lessons on how to speak the language and paid lots to make the finished product sleek and professional. I planned to upload the lot on YouTube. That was four years ago. I never got around to it. If I could, somehow, learn Pulaar, what, exactly, would I do with it – none of my publics speak it; so, with whom will I converse this new form of lost-and-found language identity?

I stopped all that and quit deceiving myself on the issue. Not even my great-grandparents from both sides of the genetic pool spoke about it. At all. Only lovely, glorious, wonderful Hausa. In this, I stand with The Nigerian Bahaushe, where I belong. Gregor Mendel, the father modern study of Genetics, rest in peace.

So where do I find the intersection of my identity – at the junction of Hausa and Pulaar languages? And please, don’t say ‘Hausa Fulani’. There is absolutely nothing like that. The fact that the ‘Hausa’ was written before the ‘Fulani’ suggests a linguistic dominance at the very least, not a genetic chiasma.

Yes, there is often a particularly strong link between language and a sense of belonging to a national group, a sense of national identity.  Further, although fears are voiced in some countries about the loss of national identity caused by learning foreign languages, especially English, there is little, if any, research evidence to justify this fear. Studies of language and identity have traditionally focused on how individuals or groups maintain, construct, project, or negotiate their social identities in and through linguistic practices. Speaking English, however, does not make you English (not to talk of being Welsh, Irish, or Scottish) even if you are British.

It is believed that languages become endangered when they are not passed on to children or when a metropolitan language dominates over others. The tenacity of the Hausa language and its speakers will only endanger those who come in contact with Hausa, not the other way around. No matter how much immersion in English the Hausa have, I doubt if they are in danger of losing their language and identity. After all, what is identity? Broken down to the interpersonal level, it is a person’s sense of self, established by their unique characteristics, affiliations, and social roles. We must therefore see identity as a shifting focus on multiple planes – cultural identity, professional identity, ethnic and national identity, religious identity, gender identity, etc. Language can bind, but not suppress them.

Thus, acquiring the English language gives the Hausa a competitive advantage in any international communication, while at the same time, tenaciously retaining their identity. I know. I am one of them!

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