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«Context and Meaning: A Semiotic Interpretation of Greetings in Hausa Chaibou Elhadji Oumarou The empiricist.thinks he believes only what he sees, but ...»

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Context and Meaning: A Semiotic

Interpretation of Greetings in Hausa

Chaibou Elhadji Oumarou

The empiricist...thinks he believes only what he sees, but he is much

better at believing than at seeing. (Santayana 1923:201)

The semiotic expression of respect in Hausa is the main concern of

this paper. I focus on greetings from the region of Maradi in the West African

republic of Niger for the practical reason that I was born and raised there,

but reference to other Hausa regions will be made as necessary in order to give a different perspective to the reader; this comparison will also reflect the diversity of Hausa social life. I will avoid generalizations except in cases where I am positive that the practice is widespread across Hausaland.

In looking at Hausa expressions of respect in the context of social greetings, from a semiotic perspective, I will apply a critical semiotic apprcach to the sociolinguistic and folkloric perspectives which stipulate that seeing-is-understanding. By determining the accuracy and reliability of the act of seeing, a critique of such perspectives will develop. I will evaluate these social interactions in semiotic terms, basing my analysis on the idea that any two persons interacting are like a social text or sign for the viewer to read and interpret (Tejera 1995).

When an oral performer and his or her audience share the same social background and physical space, they tend to have in common a linguistic and cultural competence which enables the audience, as viewers and listeners, to figure out the meanings of allusions and fill in what Paul Zumthor (1990) calls the "unsaid," the semantic vacancies characteristicof oral performances.

If the song, poem, tale, or other text is collected, transcribed, translated, and published in a book or other written text by an anthropologist or ethnographer, then additional explanation is required to assist the distant reader in understanding the "unsaid." In other words, the ethnographer has to wrestle with this question: what happens when an oral poem, tale, or other cultural manifestation, such as greetings, is taken out of context and fixed in writing for a foreign audience?

Folklore Forum 28:2 (1997) Chaibou Elhadji Oumarou This question even arises when the performance is in front of a predominantly foreign audience. In the Hausa context, for instance, many ethnic groups in Niger have become "Hausanized" to a certain level; people from these ethnic groups speak and understand Hausa in their own way in addition to their own first language(s). Since they maintain their cultural and linguistic identity, however, the new culture they live by is a mixture of their own heritage and the Hausa influence by way of the Hausa culture and language. Thus a native Hausa oral artist from Maradi or Zinder (southeastern Niger) can perform for audiences in Filingu or Gaya, both in western Niger with a diaspora of Hausa speakers; yet there may still be some cultural allusions or ambiguities that the audiences are not able to apprehend because many of them speak Hausa as a second or third language.

While the meaning of an oral poem, tale, or greeting may be clear for an audience that shares a similar background with the performer, it may be opaque or foreign to other audiences. This makes descriptive interpretation a necessary component in any ethnographic endeavor. The break between the original context of performance and the new moment of reception calls for what Elizabeth Fine (1984) names an interpreter, that is, a critic. The critic's task is to generate clear meanings for the readers who may not be able to understand some allusions of the performance. As a critic, I intend to bridge that linguistic, cultural, and geographical gap by using my competence as a Hausa native speaker to provide the "unsaid," and to fill out the semantic vacancies through a critical use of the semiotic interpretation of greetings and spatial distance in the Hausa epistemological space in Niger. I will begin with a review of the sociolinguistic approach to the topic as developed by Ahmed B. Yusuf, a Hausa scholar from Nigeria.

The Sociolinguistic Approach of Ahmed B. Yusuf

In his sociolinguistic studies of Hausa honorifics and modes of address, Yusuf (1973, 1979) has examined how various degrees of politeness and intimacy are expressed in Hausa social life. He has found that while some deferential terms of address are obligatory, such as when children address their parents baba (father) and mamma (mother), others are less rigid, indicating degrees of formality or intimacy between the persons involved.

For example, when proper names are exchanged freely, Yusuf claims that "it is always assumed that they (the parties involved) either have similar social backgrounds or else lead similar styles of life" (1973:227).

Yusuf also has found that age, seniority, or status are indicated with deference. The junior, or what some call the "inferior," participant will address the "superior" with the appropriate term according to the circumstances. In this respect, Yusuf remarks that the terms mai gida (the male, literally, owner 33


of the house, or the head of the household), uwal gida (literally, the mother of the household), and AlhajilHajiya (helshe who has performed the pilgrimage to Mecca) are applied to people who are responsible and dependable. Furthermore, the terms Alhaji and Hajiya convey the notions that the person referred to has sophisticated commercial skills and has traveled widely. However in contemporary usage, the term mai gida is usually confined to rural areas. In urban centers this form of address is used if it is suspected that the addressee is from a rural setting. MallamlMallama (the Muslim learned manlwoman) also connotes Islamic piety and supernatural feats as opposed to ranka ya da'de or ranki ya da'de (may God give you a long life, for a man and for a woman, respectively), which signifies a "detached secular and sacred authority" (Yusuf 1973:229). According to Yusuf, this secular title of authority was originally associated with the preIslamic rulers of the Hausaland.

Honorifics, respect, and other semiotic signs are used here to carry out an interpretation of social texts. Some of these honorifics, however, have gone through a transition with the introduction of Islam that Yusuf does not indicate. For example, the honorific ranka ya d a ' d e underwent a transformation that has given birth to the expressions Allah ya biya (literally, may God pay (you), meaning may God grant your wishes) and Allah ya ba ka nasara (may God give you victory). The Muslim Allah has replaced the traditional rulers who in many instances incarnated the traditional beliefs or religions. The transformation of the honorific, therefore, clearly indicates the influence of the new religion as well as the decline of the old beliefs and traditional authority. Thus in the region of Maradi, the new expression has become Allah ya biya Maradi (may God grant Maradi (a royal title) his wishes);

local legend says that Maradi is the name of the founder of the city Maradi which has become an official title in the King's Palace.

There are additional usages that Yusuf does not indicate. For example, the term Mallam or Mallama is used in the sense of the American "Sir" or "Madam." In this case it loses its religious connotation and is simply a title of respect used when addressing someone unfamiliar. Mallam or Mallama, therefore, can be used to address those who know nothing about Islam. The same is now true of the term Alhaji or Hajiya; today one does not have to have undergone the pilgrimage to Mecca to be addressed with this term.

Even those pilgrims who have not necessarily lived like saints are addressed using these terms.

In addition, prestige and deference are indicated by symbols such as greetings by a handshake, a salute, or a deep bow, and a wide range of other deferential behaviors, including not speaking until spoken to, removing one's shoes when entering a room, and running errands for a superior (Yusuf 1973).

In any of these cases the so-called "inferior" participant expects some Folklore Forum 28:2 (1997) Chaibou Elhadji Oumarou 34 rewards. This is because, as Yusuf has explained, the entire system of address depends upon give and take, as is clearly underlined by the Hausa maxim "he who does not respect another person's senior risks having his own illreceived elsewhere" (quoted in Yusuf 1973: 229). This means that the reward for treating others with respect is not necessarily material or monetary, but rather in receiving similar respect from others.

Yusuf points out that there are instances where the terms of address such as ranka ya da'de indicate not only respect and formality, but also distance. He states that the Hausa occasionally use terms of address on purpose to express courteous indignation, impatience, sarcasm, hatred, and other sentiments when a person would not readily accord the familiarity that a direct insult would connote.

Finally, Yusuf points to the fact that as changes are under way, some of these terms of address are becoming obsolete. Such is the case with the term Mallam, which is now used less than Alhaji. The latter is in turn being over-used, a sign, according to Yusuf, that it is losing some of its social prestige as well. In conclusion, Yusuf predicts that in the face of Western influence and democracy, the importance of the Hausa honorifics and other terms of address is likely to decline.'

A Critical Application of the Semiotic Approach

Before bridging the "unsaid" in the specific context of Hausa gestures, I will explain what such an approach should add to the ethnographic process and suggest why it has often been lacking. A number of sociolinguistic approaches rely more on language than on specific events in their contexts.

The problem with many of these approaches, therefore, is that they are influenced by structural anthropology for which "understanding is seeing...other societies from a height, at such a distance that the people seem like ants" (Salmond 1982:73). From such a distance it is difficult for anyone to give an accurate description of events. At best, one can gain a general view but a view that lacks significant details, the absence of which may compromise the credibility of that particular anthropological enterprise. This is what Kay Milton suggests in stating that "if meaning depends on context then the analyst's ability to infer meaning depends on his identification of the appropriate context" (1982:261). In other words, seeing is not enough for understanding. The anthropologist or sociologist must come closer to the actors within their context.

There has been a strong belief, says folklorist Alan Dundes (1972), among American anthropologists for whom seeing is everything, that to see is enough to make one believe and understand. In his article "Seeing Is Believing," Dundes argues that in general Americans tend to see the world metaphorically rather than hear, touch, smell, or taste it. Dundes thinks that 35


this metaphorical "seeing" explains why many American anthropologists cherish the idea of taking photographs, indicating their emphasis on seeing something for oneself along with the tendency to distrust anyone else's report of a given event: "'I saw it with my own (two) eyes' is a common authenticating formula, as is the invitation to 'see for yourself'" (1972: 10).

Dundes emphasizes that this perspective's cultural bias is evident in some anthropological interpretations, a point also made by Paul Stoller (1989).

Dundes thus warns that, "If we are truly interested in understanding how other peoples perceive reality, we must recognize their cognitive categories and try to escape the confines of our own" (1972:86).

An approach that does not overcome this bias tends to neglect the actors and the context, which are necessary to the interpretation of semiotic signsltexts, in favor of the gatherer who has taken the role of the producer of meaning and culture. That is indeed what Anne Salmond implies when she writes that "intellectual work is above all a process of production...and...the structural characteristics of Western production should apply to the production of knowledge as well" (1982:77). Certainly there is no great harm in comparative studies as long as they are held in a standard of intellectual honesty and detachment.

But there is room for doubt when one is aware of the nature of some Western theories, such as semiotic or semantic approaches vis-a-vis the "Third World" literatures and cultures. Whether it is about oral or written literary criticism, most of these theories have been more concerned with the imposition of their cultural models (see also Stoller 1989). As a result, their interrogative power, as Niyi Osundare (1994) has put it, has been severely selective and often ethnocentric (see also Lapid 1996; Frazier 1995; Irele 1995; Yankah 1995; KonC 1993; Bishop 1988).

It is true that one cannot be totally free of one's cultural background as one writes about or interprets something. But to allow cultural prejudices and idiosyncrasies to take over one's intellectual capacity to evaluate is very dangerous, to say the least. For example, Michael Riffaterre's (1978) formalist and structural approach tends to sever the text or sign from its context, as I have argued elsewhere (Oumarou 1994). This is an approach to be avoided in any viable social and cultural semiotic model.

Analysis of Greetings in the Hausa Context

Informed by Dundes's work, I now turn to a critical semiotic interpretation of Hausa social greetings in Maradi, illustrating the problems inherent in the common perspectives that stipulate seeing-is-understanding.

Habib Ahmed Daba (1987) has shown the importance of age in the Hausa social stratification system and its influence on individual members. As a Folklore Forum 2 8 : 2 (1997) Chaibou Elhadji Oumarou 36 result, the general hypothesis held by readers of his work is that younger persons show respect to older ones. One way of showing this respect is through greetings, whose forms vary according to regions and education, as I will detail later.

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