Uwe Seibert is German, has a Ph.D. in African Linguistics and has done research on Chadic languages in Central and Northeastern Nigeria. He likes blogging and is the owner of Hausa Online, Karin Magana, Ron-Kulere meeting place and one of the editors of Chadic Newsletter. He recently agreed to an email interview with me on Nigerian languages:
JW. Approximately how many languages are currently spoken in Nigeria?
US: According to the Ethnologue, an encyclopedic reference work cataloging all of the world’s known living languages, the number of individual languages listed for Nigeria is 527. For Africa as a whole, there are 2110 languages listed. This means that in Nigeria alone, about one quarter of the languages of Africa can be found. Looking at the rest of the world, only Papua New Guinea (841) and Indonesia (726 languages) have higher numbers.
JW. What are the main language groups in Nigeria?
US: Nigeria is not only rich in languages, there are also many different language groups. First of all, three of the four language macro-families of Africa are represented in Nigeria: Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan. Within the macro-families, there are subgroups, e.g. Atlantic, Benue-Congo, Chadic, Mande, and Saharan. These language groups are quite different in terms of their vocabulary and grammatical structures. An Atlantic language like Fulfulde is quite different from a Benue-Congo language like e.g. Igbo and Yoruba, a Chadic language like Hausa or a Saharan language like Kanuri. Within a language group, of course one can find similarities. And you can always find similar words, but this is mostly due to borrowing, often from English or Arabic.
JW. How many languages currently spoken in Nigeria do you expect to die out in the next 10-20 years?
US: This is really hard to predict. Many of the more than 500 languages of Nigeria are quite small and often only elderly people speak them really well. If their children - who still understand and speak a reduced form of these languages - fail to teach them to their children, these languages are definitely in danger of extinction. This could happen to a large percentage of Nigerian languages within the next 20 years. But again, speakers of such languages may decide to take steps to prevent their language's death and it may become vital again. In German we have a saying "Tot Geglaubte lebenlänger" which could be translated as "The one you thought already dead will outlive you". In any case, any language's death is a loss in global language diversity, which is as bad as loss in biological diversity.
JW. Do you expect any of the larger population languages in Nigeria to die out in the next 50 years, if so, which?
US: This is hard to imagine. I don't think that larger population languages like Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Kanuri, Fulfulde or Tiv will die out so easily. But again, this depends on the speakers. If they fail to teach the language to their children and decide to use another language instead, it could happen.
JW. What can languages tell us about the history and culture of those that speak them?
US: Language, culture and history are closely related. People who speak a language also belong to a certain culture. Their language is an expression of their culture's values, attitudes, and thoughts. There is even an ongoing discussion that your language actually shapes your thinking.
A people's language and culture is the product of their present and past experience. For that reason, the study of a people's language may provide clues about their history. But we must be careful with our conclusions, especially about racial relationships. There was a time in the early stages of the scientific study of African languages when some scientists thought that all the people in Africa who were cattle herders and whose languages had a certain grammatical feature were also racially related.
JW. Many ethnic groups in Nigeria trace their origin from elsewhere. Is there any way in which the analysis of language can help authenticate these claims?
US: Again, language study may provide clues. One would expect that people who speak closely related languages also have a common origin. For example, Chadic languages are spoken in Niger republic, Chad, Cameroon and Northern and Central Nigeria. Chadic languages are distantly related to the Berber languages in North Africa, Cushitic and Oromic languages in East Africa, Semitic languages like Arabic, Ethiopian and Hebrew and the extinct Ancient Egyptian. It may well be that in the past they all lived together in one area and then migrated to different directions from there. But again, you must be careful with your conclusions. In hsitory, one can find cases of people taking over totally unrelated languages. Any serious historian will take all sources of information into consideration. In any case, the study of language history can be quite exciting.
JW. Is there any evidence of there having been writing in any Nigeria language from before colonialism?
US: I haven't heard of any. Of course, writing didn't start with colonialism. Hausa was written with Arabic letters long before the Europeans came to Nigeria.
JW. What is the most unusual Nigerian language and what makes it unusual?
US: Every language is unique and you can find many interesting features in Nigerian languages. Many are "tone languages, i.e. they use pitch to signal a difference in meaning between words or different grammatical forms. Some languages have grammatical gender, others have noun class systems. You can find some rare sounds in Nigerian languages, like e.g. a labiodental flap. This sound begins with the lower lip placed behind the upper teeth. The lower lip is then flipped outward, striking the upper teeth in passing. Try to do that yourself.
JW. Which do you think is the most difficult Nigerian language to learn and why?
US: I guess Fulfulde is hard to learn. It has a very elaborate noun class system with more than 20 noun classes. The plural forms of nouns are highly irregular and often do not resemble their singular form. There is also initial consonant mutation between singular and plural forms of nouns and of verbs.
JW. The only well developed local language fiction writing in Nigeria is in Hausa. What is your opinion of Hausa literature?
US: I am afraid that my knowledge of the Hausa language and literature is too small to have an opinion. I enjoy reading Hausa stories as long as the style is not too difficult. I am happy to see that Hausa is used in all kinds of media, including newspapers, TV, radio and the internet. I wish many more Nigerian languages would be developed like that.