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Accra’s Complex Linguistic Landscape

June 19, 2017

 

If you ask anyone in Accra, they will tell you that Hausa is not a Ghanaian language. In fact, almost everyone I talk to about my interest in the language advises me to pay a visit to Nigeria, where the “real” Hausa is spoken. The truth is, Hausa is not a Ghanaian language. Its roots are instead located in Hausaland in northern Nigeria. First brought permanently to Ghana by Muslim immigrants from this area toward the end of the nineteenth century, it has become a language frequently utilized by diaspora populations that have settled in Accra, serving as a lingua franca in the city’s many zongos. While its origins are thus not really Ghanaian it has truly been adopted by countless communities in Accra. Hausa is one of many languages used in the city in addition to three Kwa languages including Twi, from the Ashanti region, Ewe, from the eastern border, and Ga, indigenous to Accra’s coastline. English also plays an enormously influential role, used widely in schools, government, commerce, and city signage as a testament to the enduring colonial legacy of the country. Accra is a city of immigrants, whether from other parts of the country or the continent, which makes for an extremely diverse linguistic landscape.

 

 

Ghana and West Africa in general are well known as loci of extreme language diversity. Due to this overwhelming variety, most individuals are multilingual, commanding registers of colonial languages, lingua francas, and indigenous varieties simultaneously. Accra is no exception, playing host to a panoply of languages with diverse origins. Dakubu (1997) identifies two important processes that exist in this particular urban setting, explaining, “What seems to be distinctive about this geographical area is a combination of extreme multilingualism (more languages in less space) with an unusually high degree of polyglotism (a high frequency of relatively large individual repertoires of not mutually intelligible languages)” (p. 24). I have found this to be extremely true and most people I meet here would be the envy of wannabe polyglots, effortlessly juggling multiple languages and code-switching often. Although I can only understand English, Hausa, and the occasional utterance in Twi or Ga, it is clear that Accra residents, especially those that I’ve spent time with in Nima, are constantly navigating this labyrinth of multilingualism. The true extent of this language contact is often brought into focus within microcosms of this diversity, such as the market in which individuals from across the country and the continent interact linguistically on a daily basis.

 

However, this intense diversity can often be a double-edged sword. For one, different languages can allow individuals to connect with familiar language communities and achieve membership status with a particular linguistic or ethnic group. Alternatively, these boundaries can produce harmful ideologies that label speakers of particular languages as having certain traits. As Gal and Irvine (1995) explain, “as part of everyday behavior, the use of a linguistic form can become a pointer to (index of) speakers’ social identities, as well as of the typical activities of those speakers. But speakers (and hearers) often notice, rationalize, and justify such linguistic indices, thereby creating linguistic ideologies that purport to explain the source and meaning of linguistic differences” (p. 973). Therefore, depending on what language someone speaks in Accra, they may run the risk of being tagged with assumptions about who they are as a person.

 

I’ve heard whisperings of such ideologies, especially with regards to Hausa. A few consistent themes seem to arise. First, the notion that Hausa is not a Ghanaian language and therefore should be studied in situ. Almost everyone I talk to about coming to Accra to learn Hausa gives me a funny look. Now I’ve come to expect the inevitable question: “Why aren’t you in Nigeria?” As much as I try to explain, people feel as though they must let me know that the Ghanaian Hausa is not the real deal. I’ve heard it called a pidgin, not the “real” thing, and also not as polished as its Nigerian counter part. However, the truth is, I’m here for the Ghanaian Hausa, and as much as I try to reassure people that my choice to come here was intentional, they insist I must visit Nigeria for the full Hausa experience. While I understand to some extent that Ghana is not where Hausa originated and that it is not technically a Ghanaian language, the immigrant populations, largely Muslim, who utilize it daily are my interest here.

 

In my experiences thus far, many questions have arisen, including in what ways non-Hausa diaspora populations use Hausa in the urban setting of zongos such as Nima. How and why do people use it here and why do they deny its Ghanaian merit even though it is used constantly, especially in the zongos. This feels like a classic case of language ideology shaping the ways in which people view their own language use, contributing to dismissal of the quality of one’s own language. It also makes me wonder what disconnect occurs between people not viewing Ghanaian Hausa as “the real thing,” yet using it extensively in their every day lives. Also, the Hausa I hear spoken here does not overtly appear to be a pidgin, as the Nigerian Hausa I study every day seems to go over well at the market where I test it out. From what I can tell (and this is premature to be sure) there seems to be no huge difference in the grammar or vocabulary, but merely the notion that the language is existing out of place.

 

I’m beginning to realize how strong of an association exists between language and place in Ghana, especially with Hausa and its conspicuous non-Ghanaian origins. It seems like there is some sort of link between cognizing non-Ghanaian languages like Hausa as being less real versions because the place and language are disjointed. Yet I have never heard someone negatively speak about Twi in the ways Hausa is labeled, even though Twi has been displaced from its Ashanti homeland and used in Accra. It doesn’t seem like speaking Hausa is detrimental to social life or anything extreme, but it does speak to the saliency of language having an attachment to the Hausa homeland. In other words, the diaspora community of speakers, even though they themselves are Ghanaian people, born and raised, are still holding themselves to the Nigerian Hausa standard. Even though the language itself does not have drastic differences between the two places, this ideology aggravates the conceptualization of the diaspora version as being less than accurate. 

 

 

 

I have also been noticing that many people in Nima are quick to justify their language use of Twi, Ga, or Ewe based on ethnic ties within Ghana. Sometimes when I attempt to say hello to someone in Hausa, someone else at the market will say, “Ba ta ji Hausa,” or “She doesn’t hear Hausa.” Most people either understand Twi or Ga and when asked, I’ve heard such responses as, “Of course I speak Ga, I am a Ga,” or “My grandmother was an Akan, so we speak Twi.” For as much Hausa as I hear every day in Nima, it’s rare that anyone attributes their use of Hausa to an ethnic Hausa tie. Its status as an outsider language is very clearly established by this tendency for people to advertise a Ghanaian ethnicity to pair with their chosen language, but Hausa rarely enjoys this association. Many people will say that they learned it when they moved to Accra and that navigating the zongos and markets is easier with knowledge of Hausa. However, its purpose for immigrants to the city who are not themselves Hausa, seems to be a practical skill or a religious marker as opposed to an ethnic badge. And yet, non-Hausa immigrants still use it all the time, even when friends and family in their company do not speak it. In other words, why use the lingua franca with friends or family when all involved can speak Twi, Ga, or Ewe and no commercial or religious purposes exist? Despite Hausa’s status as a language of commerce and to connect those who otherwise don’t share a language, why use it in familiar contexts when other modes of communication are available?

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