Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 


ON first proceeding to West Africa (the Gold Coast), and on commencing a study of the Hausa language, the compiler of this work was struck by the comparatively high standard of education found among the Hausa MAALAMAI or scribes. Arabic characters are used by them, as by the Swahili of East and Central Africa; but, whereas any natives met with there possessed but a very superficial knowledge of the Arabic language or writing, the Hausas could boast of a legal, historical, and religious literature, which was to be found preserved by manuscripts. The MAALAMAI were everywhere the most respected and honoured members of the community. It was disappointing, however, at any rate for one who wished to study Hausa, to find that all their manuscripts were written not only in Arabic characters, but also in that language. This appears to be universally the case, even in Nigeria. The use of Arabic to-day among the educated Hausas corresponds to that of French and Latin in England in the middle ages.

The writer's intention was, as soon as he had acquired a sound colloquial knowledge of the Hausa language, to collect some of their folk-lore and traditions, taking down such information as was required verbatim, and translating afterwards into English. This plan he had adopted when collecting his Chinyanja folk-lore.

The advantage of such a system is that the original text will help the student of the language to appreciate its structure and idioms, in a way that the best grammars could hardly do. The translator will also be bound down thereby. There will thus be no room for embellishments or errors creeping in, as is liable to be the case when the investigator has had to rely on the vagaries of his cook, 'boy,' or other interpreter for his information. It follows that such a collection will be of more value from the anthropological standpoint. Indeed, of late years many collections of native folk-lore compiled according to this method have been called into being by the demand created by this new science of anthropology.

As is to be expected, there are not many persons who have the fortune-or misfortune-to spend four or five preliminary years in acquiring a knowledge of the language of the people whose traditions they hope to study; yet such a probation is very necessary, if the collection is to be of any real value to the anthropologist.

Stories and traditions collected through the medium of an interpreter are amusing, and might prove of interest in the nursery (though much would have to be omitted or toned down, as savage folk-lore is often coarse and vulgar according to our notions, and hardly fit pour les juenes filles); but for the student of anthropology such collections cannot be considered to possess much value.

The anthropological theorist, who is probably some learned professor at one or other of our great Universities, where he made a life-study of primitive customs and beliefs, has, in most cases, to rely for his data on the field-worker. He needs to feel perfectly convinced that the information on which he is seeking to base some far-reaching generalization is absolutely correct; and this can hardly be the case, however skilled, conscientious, or well trained the field-worker may be, if the latter be wholly ignorant of the language of the people from whom he is collecting his information.

Now the literary skill of the Hausas, already referred to, led the writer to depart somewhat from the modus operandi employed in his Chinyanja folk-lore, the subject-matter of which was taken down from the lips of the raconteur. For the present work the services of a learned MAALAM, by name MAALAM Shaihu, were secured. He himself wrote down, or translated from manuscripts in Arabic, such information as was required. Much of the work contained in the present volumes involved, first, a translation from Arabic into Hausa, secondly, a transliteration of the Hausa writing, and thirdly, a translation into English from the Hausa.

During the writer's 'tours' of service in West Africa, as also during his furloughs in England, this MAALAM, who was entirely ignorant of English, made a collection of many hundreds of sheets of manuscripts (1907-11).

In the meantime the present writer was making a study of the Hausa language and script, by way of securing the key to their transliteration and translation. He was fortunate, in the course of his official duties, in being stationed for some time at YEGI on the VOLTA river. YEGI lies on the main caravan route between Nigeria and Ashanti. Each month thousands of Hausas from all parts of Nigeria cross the river here, going to and from Nigeria with kola or cattle. Such a position enables a student, even better perhaps than if he were resident in Hausaland, to get into touch with Hausas from all parts of Nigeria. It was thus possible to select such stories or traditions as seemed most generally and widely known, and therefore likely to be of historical value on account of their antiquity.

The Hausa given in the text is that of Kano or Sokoto, where by general consent the purest dialect is spoken.

The Hausa Manuscript. The writing is throughout clear, correct, and legible. It has been written with the aya between most of the words to facilitate easy reading. Some of the specimens of Hausa writing that have been reproduced from time to time are obviously the work of illiterate Hausas, or at best are very carelessly written manuscripts, and as such afford little criterion of the best work of these people. The hasty scrawls, which, it is true, form the larger part of the existing manuscripts, in which vowel-signs are missed out and words run together, often cannot be deciphered by the Hausas, and sometimes not even by the writers themselves, unless they know the context or subject by heart. Such manuscripts are therefore worthless for scientific purposes. They cannot, for instance, serve to disclose those nice points of grammatical construction which the perusal of a carefully written manuscript will reveal, though they can hardly be noted in the spoken language.

The Transliteration. This has been given, letter by letter, word for word, line by line. Thus it is easy for the student to follow the original on the page opposite.

The Translation. As literal a translation as is consistent with making the subject-matter at all readable has been given throughout. It is primarily as a text-book for students of the language that this work is intended, and for such a literal translation will be of most use. The author would crave the pardon of the general reader for the baldness and utter sacrifice of the English idiom which such a style of translation must necessarily involve. The latter may, however, find here and there a certain touch of 'local colour' in the phraseology, which may compensate for its other obvious defects.

The value of Hausa writings. Hitherto, perhaps, it has not usually been deemed essential to know much about Hausa writing. (A slight knowledge of it is necessary, it is true, for the higher standard Government examination.) This work attempts to go somewhat fully into the subject of the writing and the signs used, in order to assist the student who desires a knowledge of the writing that will enable him to decipher manuscripts as apart from the printed type. The writer is convinced that a thorough knowledge of Hausa writing is essential for any advanced study of the language. Thus he has so far been rewarded for the time spent in the minute perusal of the manuscripts comprising the Hausa portion of this book by the further elucidation or confirmation therein of grammatical structures not perhaps wholly accepted as proved, and by the discovery of some new idioms which, to the best of his knowledge, had apparently escaped the vigilance of previous writers on this subject, or else had taxed their powers of explanation.

The length of vowels, which is so distinctly shown in the written word, does not hitherto appear to have had that attention paid to it that it undoubtedly deserves. Yet the length of a vowel may alter the meaning of a word entirely, e.g. guuda, guda; suuna, suna; gadoo, gado, and soon. Indeed, an educated MAALAM would consider a word as wrongly spelt whenever a long vowel was written where it should have been short, or vice versa. In Hausa writing such an error would amount not merely to the dropping of an accent, as in English, but to the omission of a letter. Moreover such a slip may lead to serious confusion, since the tense of a verb, or even, as has been seen, the entire sense of a word, may depend on the length assigned to the vowel.

The author of Hausa Notes, perhaps the best treatise on the language yet written, remarks at some length on the apparent 'absurdity' of the want of any inflexion for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd persons singular of the past tense, for the plural of which the well-known forms in ka exist, and thinks the forms for these persons are the same as those used for the aorist tense. Yet a perusal of almost any half-dozen pages of the present manuscript will reveal the hidden missing forms. Were the student to search for these by ear only, he might easily never discover them, as they are almost indistinguishable in the spoken word.

Again, the definite article,[1] for many years conspicuous by its

[1. First noted by Professor A. Mischlich.]

absence, will be met with repeatedly in these pages in the final nun, or ra, or the wasali or rufua bissa biiuu.

Enough has been said to show the value and importance of a close perusal of Hausa manuscripts; but emphasis must be laid on the fact that such writing must be the work of a learned MAALAM, or probably these very details, which are of such importance to the scientific investigator, will be omitted, either through carelessness or ignorance.

Proverbs. So far as possible, the endeavour has been made to omit such proverbs as have already been collected and published.

The Notes. The student is expected to be familiar with the well-known works on the Hausa language by Canon Robinson, Dr. Miller, and others; hence only such phrases, words, or grammatical points as are not considered in these works are noticed here.

Acknowledgments. The debt is vast which the student of any language owes to those who have by their labours reduced that language to a definite form. This makes it possible in a comparatively short time for him to master what it has cost the pioneers many years of ceaseless labour to create out of nothing. Availing himself of the fruits of their labour, he can thus move forward to fresh fields of research. Such is the debt that the writer owes to Canon Robinson, Dr. Miller, and others. His thanks are also due to his friend Mr. Diamond Jenness, of Balliol College, Oxford, for revising the English translation; to Mr. Henry Balfour, Curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, for having had the photographs taken that appear in this work, and for his valuable notes on the same which are again published through the courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute; to Professor Margoliouth for having translated the Arabic lines which occur in the Hausa script; to Mr. R. R. Marett, of Exeter College, Oxford, Reader in Social Anthropology, his tutor, who by his wonderful enthusiasm and ability may be said to have organized a school of working anthropologists, building upon the noble foundations laid by Sir E. B. Tylor and Dr. Frazer; to the authorities of the Clarendon Press, who, besides dealing most generously with a work not likely to prove remunerative, have likewise laid the author under deep obligation by their friendly interest and advice.

Finally, the publication of this work has only been made possible by the generous grant from the Government of the Gold Coast, to whom, as also to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, on whose recommendation the grant was made, the writer has the honour to tender his sincerest thanks.


Sept. 8, 1911.

Next: Contents