Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Laughter in a multilingual society

Semantic is a major branch of Linguistics devoted to the study of meaning in language (Crystal, 1991:310). My intention, here is to look at laughter from Hausa cultural perspective with special reference to the semantic aspects of the subject. Meaning is so important as such, it occupies a significant position in human language, without it, it is difficult to comprehend verbal and non-verbal messages. In the affairs of grammar, literature and orature, it is meaning which leads the floor of discussion. Once meaning is distorted or not properly comprehended confusion may arise which could eventually provoke laughter among the discussants. My concern is with the meaning that provokes laughter in the intended message of the speaker, discussant, or a conveyor.

Laughter in a multilingual society

Aliyu Muhammad Bunza
Department of Nigerian Languages
Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto
Phone: 08034316508

Being a paper presented at the Linguistics Association of Nigeria, National Conference, theme: Language, Literature and Culture in a Multilingual Society, held at Bayero University, Kano, 5th December, 2011

Semantic is a major branch of Linguistics devoted to the study of meaning in language (Crystal, 1991:310). My intention, here is to look at laughter from Hausa cultural perspective with special reference to the semantic aspects of the subject. Meaning is so important as such, it occupies a significant position in human language, without it, it is difficult to comprehend verbal and non-verbal messages. In the affairs of grammar, literature and orature, it is meaning which leads the floor of discussion. Once meaning is distorted or not properly comprehended confusion may arise which could eventually provoke laughter among the discussants. My concern is with the meaning that provokes laughter in the intended message of the speaker, discussant, or a conveyor.

Laughter in General Linguistics
Linguistic groups of any society have certain linguistic modules in their language properties. Morphological aspects of their vocabularies, phonological productions of their sounds and its adoption and syntactic structures of their language are of great importance in their language vocabularies and geography. In most cases, speakers of different languages and dialects do recognize native and non native speakers through the aforementioned linguistic properties. Slips of the tongue, mistakes, hypercorrections all put aside, hence they are linguistically natural in the conduct of verbal conversations. However, the linguistic properties that generate laughter are mostly located in the meaning of a given sounds, word, sentence or phrase. You may wish to study the following observations as it generates laughter linguistically.

Phonological Aspects
In Arabic language the sounds   =J and     dw are pronounced differently even among Arabs let alone the Asians, Europeans and Africans. Interestingly, these sounds are in their hundreds in the Qur’an, and the science of recitation of the Qur’an insist on the proper productions of all its sounds, while leading prayers, a Chinese Iman recites Yaajuuju wa maa juujuu (Gogs and Magogs) as: Yaacucu wa maa cuucu changing letter j to c being the Chinese equivalent sound to J, an Egyptian follower in a prayer quickly interrupts only to correct the wrong pronunciation with yaaguuga wa maaguuga now replacing letter j with g which is common in Egyptian Arabic. The Egyptian’s problem is more severe than that of the Chinese and hence a Sudanese took over the prayer with the most ugly pronunciation replacing J with S yaaguusu wa maaguusu.

In some cases replacement of sounds do happen in borrowed words. Phonological adoptions of English loan words in Hausa are sometimes simple and direct. Thus, it may be of insertion of vowels or consonants or deletion as the case may be. In Hausa dialectical conflicts, Kano dialect is always referred to as standard by Kano elites and their students, thus Sokoto and Katsina dialects are left behind in the so-called standardization of Hausa. It was reported that a Sokoto man wanted to buy ‘sweet’ in Kasuwar Kurmi market. He was so careful to his own dialect that “sweet” is minti in Sokoto dialect but not so sure of the equivalent name in Kano dialect, he then resorted to the trade name ‘tom-tom’ but instead decided to replace the vowel “I” with “u” in an effort to produce a proper Kano realization, hence he mentioned: “Alhaji akwai munta”, unfortunately, in both dialects “munta” means anus. The Kano trader, laughed and said: ‘Ni ma ɗaya ke gare ni’, ka ƙarasa gaba wataƙila da mai ta sayarwa’. Meaning: “Oh my dear! I only have one, you may wish to go round and ask for anyone with an extra for sale”. What generates laughter is the intended meaning is completely lost and the message is therefore wrongly perceived.

Vowel Length:
What makes language to be rich and relevant in all ages is the abundance of vocabularies and the quality of such vocabularies in given multiple meaning in different contexts. In the study of laughter, vowel length is another area of its special interest. A speaker be him a native or non-native speaker of a given language may encounter problems in the tone pattern of a given “word” especially when in duress or not comfortable with the text or passage he is reading: An amateur Hausa Radio reporter, reporting a case from the Lower Area Court, Andarai, Kebbi state, reporting a judgement pronounced by the court in respect of nine ladies found guilty of malicious offences and the court therefore fined each of the culprits respectively. In the report it reads:
HS: Alkalin Andarai ya ci ‘yan mata tara taaraa jiya
Eng: Andarai area court judge has fined nine ladies yesterday.
The news caster’s own version of the news reads:
HS: Alkalin Andarai ya ci ‘yan mata târâ târâ jiya.
Eng: Area court judge of Andarai had sex with eighteen ladies yesterday.
The vowel length of tara (nine) is low-low while that of tara (fine) is high-high. Therefore, “nine” is pronounced târâ while fine is taaraa accordingly. The difficulties encountered by the news caster in distinguishing the intonations of the two vocabularies of same orthography but of different intonation is the basis of laughter in the reports he read. Examples of such instances are many in a multilingual society.

Extended Meaning:
A word may be used in different context with different meanings especially in Figures of speech, poetry, proverbs and praise epithets. Vocabularies under these categories may be utilized in cultural context as per their meanings. A hilarious example is the case of a Kataf man who pride himself in his proficiency in Hausa that he challenged a fellow Kataf to a contest on any aspect of Hausa, and invited their Hausa friends to conduct the test. A Hausa proverb was then thrown at them thus:
Hausa: Iya ruwa…
Kataf1:             sai ki fi.
Kataf2:             Ah! Bulus ka yi kure, “sai kwaɗo”

Hausa: the best swimmer…
Kataf1: is fish
Kataf2: oh! Bulus you are wrong, “it is frog”.
In Hausa proverbs, the second segment of the proverb is “fid da kai”, meaning, “The best swimmer is he who swims successfully”. The best swimmers known to Katafs are fish and frogs. To Hausa native- speakers the meaning is far beyond the imagination of an outsider who happened to learn the language either in the market or on the football field.
The extended meanings do happen even among the native-speakers with different dialect or educational background. Professionals and skilled working class persons are aware of the varieties of meanings especially in poetry and the professions. An example to this is a story of a Kano petty trader and a blind beggar from Sokoto, in Sokoto market. The beggar was reciting a Hausa verse of Sheikh Usman Bn. Fodiyo Ma’ama’are (in praise of Prophet Muhammad (SAW)) as he got to the shade of the Kano trader, he recites:
Cikin zuciyata shina zaburowa,
Kaman dai a ce jiya na san dare can,
Wurin ɗebe kewa walau ko yini can.

In my heart it provokes me,
How I wish to spend a night there,
Just to be relieved or to spend part of the day.
The ordinary meaning of “Zaburowa” as it relates to heart is “Vomiting”. However, in poetic usages more especially in the context it refers above it means unlimited love of the poet to the Prophet and his prayer to visit him or the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Kano man knows only the first meaning and therefore complain to the blind beggar thus:
“Ka yi hattara kar ya zubo mani a hajata in yi hasara”.
“Be careful not to vomit it on my
displayed wares and put me in trouble”.

The Learning Culture:
Learners of a second language are usually slow in pronouncing words and sentences. In learning a language, a learner tends to be slow so as to avoid minor pronunciation errors and mistakes. In an attempt to address his case carefully, the meaning may be inadvertently distorted to the listener, thus resulting in incomprehension of the utterance by the listener. This usually happened to speakers from different linguistics background. Consider the following debate between a Lelna (Dakarkari/Badakkare) speaker of Zuru and a Hausa friend from Zamfara:
A Zamfara Hausa speaker pays a visit to his Zuru friend, during Ohola festivals. The guest was well received by his host at early morning hours. He was served with delicious hura cake and honey. It so happened, the family prepared a good pepper soup of dog’s head. As a traditionist, he knew that Muslims do not eat dog and pig. When the dish was brought to the dining table the conversations run thus:
Host: ka da ka ci ka rena.
Guest: In rena ni na dafa?
Host: Don’t eat and be dissatisfied
Guest: Why should I be dissatisfied with what I did not cook?
The host is trying to tell his guest not to eat dog meat, but the words are separately pronounced, deadly slow, and hence the distorted meaning from “dog” to “dissatisfaction”. He keeps warning the Bazamfare (Zamfara man), who heedless of the warning was busy with the dog head soup, which in no time he had devoured along with two legs of the dog. The host became short of words to stop the guest from the prohibited meat until he think of an option to demonstrate the dog barking of a dog for the guest to realize what he mean. He therefore barked at the plate before the guest, won! won! won! Then the guest realized that the worst had happened. The Lelna speaker’s inability to put the words as they are, as in:
HS: Ka da ka ci kare na/ne.
Transl: Don’t eat it, it is a dog meat.
In this regard the dog had caused a major misunderstanding between him and his guest name “kare” improperly pronounced as “ka” and “re” together, instead of the separate way the Lelna man realized it evokes laughter in both the victim and the head.
Likewise, it is also observed that this situation is observed in sub-dialects group as in SK and KN dialects. The two dialects are sometimes far apart in pronunciation and tonal differences. In Kano dialect, cake is “waina”, while in Sokoto is “masa”. A Sokoto man who wanted to buy cake from a Kano lady selling cake, requested her thus:
SK:      Maasaa ta?
KN:     Kwa saataa in ta gidanku ce.
As the Sokoto buyer pronounced Maasaa cake a complimentizer ce is expected to follow, not ta as in Sikoto dialect. Ta complicate issues further, the saa of maasaa is joined to taa the Sokoto pronoun for cake, giving the implicated meaning of saataa. Therefore, the Sokoto man is by implication telling the Kano lady a different story which distorts the direction of their discussions. Instead of saying:
Maasaa ta?      Is this a cake?
He said:
Maa saataa?    Can we steal   (the cake) from you?
She replied:
Kwa saata in ta gidanku ce.
Yes, you can, if it your family property.
We can see it here, that, the two speakers are far apart only because the elongated nature of the speech of the first speaker (Sokoto man) confused the meaning of the message for the receiver (Kano lady). What causes the laughter here are the two different realization of the same word ensues in a misunderstanding by one of the parties in the dialogue. Sokoto man here is trying to imitate Kano speech style and in the process of imitating the Kano dialect, he woefully failed.

Co-Incidence in Meaning:
This refer to a situation whereby ward of the same number of syllables, same pronunciation and orthography but with different meanings in the said languages are used the word “kwaɗo” in Fulfulde, means “guest”, in Hausa it refers to an emergency uncooked food for lunch specifically prepared for an unexpected guest. When a Fulani man pay a sudden visit to a friend in Katsina, the host invites his wife for a secret meeting of what to prepare to the unexpected guest. She suggested, “a ci kwaɗo” “Why not eat kwaɗo“? The husband was so pleased and answered, “Yawwa! A ci kwa kwaɗo asirinmu rufe” “Oh yes, we can eat kwaɗo secretly and quietly”.
The Hausa-Fulani culture believes in witchcraft as a mysterious form of cannibalism. The guest happened to hear the debate and the arrangement to eat “kwaɗo“ right away. He therefore decided to take to his heels to save his dear life. This is how he left the house of his host unceremoniously. The “kwaɗo” in his language is same “kwaɗo” in Hausa as in pronunciation, but with different meanings in their respective cultural contexts. The desired target in this narration is the meaning therein and nothing else.
The co-incidence in meaning can also be found whereby a non-native speaker could not distinguish the two variants. It is very difficult for an Igbo speaker to identify the differences in Hausa sounds of /k/ /s/ and /ts/. These sounds are usually recognized through the explosive nature of their sounds. Thus, to an Igbo speaker, the word “dacewa” “lucky” and “datsewa” “cut off” are same in the production of the sounds there in. It was said that a leper beggar visited the shop of an Igbo man begging in the name of God, saying:
Bgr: Allah Ya sa mu dace
Transl: May we be lucky in the name of God.
The Igbo was so surprised that, this man is already a leper who lost all his fingers and still praying for another cut-off, what else remains to be removed again/ he lamented saying:
Igbo: Baba wane dacewa kana son ku yi kuma?
Transl: Baba, what do you want to be removed from your limbs again?
In the Igbo speaker’s: perception, dacewa and datsewa are the same. This is because he could not distinguish between sound /s/ and /ts/ before long vowel /ee/. The co-incidence in the assumption of Igbo speaker is the subject of our discussion in the argument of meaning in multilingual society.

The meaning of a word or sentence may be confusing and continue to be used thus in the adopting language. This wrong adoptation may be the cause of laughter in a conversation. An example here is the concept of “timber” in Igbo and Hausa languages and cultures. Timber being hard and dry is named “katako” in Hausa, and whatever is hard and dry can be named as such in the extended meaning. An Igbo timber merchant insulted a Hausa carpenter over a bad debt. The client was annoyed for the public assault and warned the Igbo to desist from using vulgar language on him, the Igbo repeated the same insult out of annoyance. In return, the carpenter slapped him the Igbo man collapsed and cried for help.
Policemen were invited, but the community intervention could not allow the Igbo man to sue his client (carpenter) to court. They were both advised to forgive and forget. It is usual, it is common, we cannot avoid quarrel and fight, no society is conflict-free, said the elders. However, the Igbo merchant insisted:
Igbo: “Ko mun yi hakuri sai an ba mu katako wanda aka buge mu”
Transl: “Even if I forgive and forget, I would like to see the very timber he used in hitting my face”.
What confuses the Igbo merchant is the serious pain he received from the slap and felt that no human hand is so dry and hard, as such it must be a timber. No doubt, it is a human hand, but not an ordinary hand as such. It is a living hand of a peasant carpenter and farmer who uses his hands manually in tilling the soil and hammering timber day and night.

By this, I mean an act of deceiving the meaning of a word, sentence or phrase. In this context, a learner or listener may be deceived by the speaker/speakers of a particular language by using language in such a way that hides the real meaning of the word or phrase. A good example to this is the case of a colonial slave dealer in trans-Saharan slave trade, where Africans were forced to sing a song in English language in praise of Europe and condemning their own native land. This was cited in (Roddney).
“Africa, Africa,
Africa loves Britannia,
Britannia shall never, never be slaves”.
The white colonizers, drunk and entertained, laughed at the follies of the Blacks who were made to sing a song in praise of their enemies. A similar example to this is the use of the word “Acabe” in Hausa struggle. It is common in Hausa community that if men are put under hard labour and forced to work under pressure they would be shouting “Acabe”! to serve the purpose with all their strength. The white colonizers used this as a mockery on Blacks whom they termed as “monkeys” using the alternative word “apes” in giving command: “Apes obey” the “Acabe” of Hausa nowadays originated from this phrase and continued to be used wrongly. May He in His glory cast racism and the racist.

Language is a great treasure to its speakers in all aspect of their lives. It is through language we understand our linguistic and cultural differences which enable us to communicate in a friendly manner. Laughter in as much about social relationship in which language plays significant part. Certainly, people love to laugh and love anybody who make them to laugh. In the discussion, we understand that most of the things we laugh at are far beyond mere jokes. The possibility of language use resulting in laughter because of its linguistic and cultural misrepresentation by speaker listener remains a constant reminder to a speaker to be consciously awake to the implication of word-choice.


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