One way of identifying the peoples of Northern Ghana is through the languages that they speak. Language can be viewed as a rough guide to ethnic differentiation. A people may speak the same or similar dialects of the same language yet not see themselves as one ethnic unit. Social and cultural differences as well as traditional enmities might divide such people despite shared language. In pre-colonial times it was possible for communities to speak similar dialects and yet not have a sense of common ethnic identity.
The peoples of the Northern Regions of Ghana speak a variety of related languages. However, in spite of the closeness of their languages they did not have the opportunity to develop a pan-Northern Ghanaian linguistic medium of communication among themselves. Therefore, even today these people use several languages including English (if they are educated literates), Hausa, (for those who have lived in the bigger Northern towns where Hausa trading communities had come into existence) and sometimes Twi, (for those who have lived in Southern Ghana) as media of wider communication. Within the Districts some local languages may serve as media of communication between people who do not share the same first language or mother tongue.
Most of the languages spoken indigenously in Northern Ghana have been classified as members of the “Gur” sub-family of languages. These languages are not however unrelated to other West African languages, since Gur itself is a branch of the North-Volta-Congo group of languages which together with the Kwa group (Southern Ghanaian languages belong to this family) and several others make up the Volta-Congo sub-branch of languages found mainly in West Africa. The Gur languages are not however exclusive to Northern Ghana; many of the languages spoken in the northern parts of Cote D’Ivoire, Togo and Benin are members of the Gur branch of languages. The linguistic relationship between some of the Northern Ghanaian languages and some languages spoken in Burkina Faso, such as Moore, is so close that we can talk of the existence of mutual intelligibility. However, not all Northern Ghanaian languages belong to Gur. A number of languages such as those spoken by the Gonja people (Ngbanyito), the Nchumuru, and the Nawuri people are Guang languages and as such fall within the Volta-Comoe sub-branch of the Kwa group of languages. Although the history of the Gonja people indicates a colonization of the vast area once occupied by the Gonja kingdom by a warrior group of Mende or Wangara origin, there are very few traces of the original language spoken by the invaders of the area who came from further north under the leadership of Jakpa. Anufo (Chokosi) spoken in the northern-east corner of the Northern Region around Chereponi in the Chere-Saboba District in fact a Bia language akin to Nzema and the like. These are thus closer to the Akan languages of southern Ghana than they are to any Northern Ghana languages.
Nevertheless and in spite of the linguistic differences and similarities, these people all feel ‘northern’ in every way, being united by history and geography. Their interrelationships in the past have been characterized by both friendship and kinship on the one hand and enmity and antagonism on the other. Powerful and better organized groups attempted in the past to extend territory at the expense of their unorganized neighbours. Today mutual suspicions still obtain between groups. This has sometimes led to conflicts such as those that have bedeviled Nanumba-Konkomba co-existence in recent times. In recent times with the creation of a sense of wider ethnicity and nationality among once acephalous people these peoples have tended to contest the overlordship of the centrally organized peoples like the Dagomba, Gonja and Nanumba over them. Past friendships and alliance such as those that existed between the Dagbamba (Nanumba, Dagomba and Mamprusi) peoples have tended to be upheld to date. However, some formerly antagonistic peoples have since reconciled and transformed their antagonism into friendships, even quasi-kinships. For example, Gonja and Dagomba formerly arch-enemies now have a joking relationship. Peoples who probably had no awareness of kinship now realizing their connectedness have established friends and joking relationships. Sisala and Kasena, both speakers of Grusi have a joking relationship just as Dagaba people have not only institutionalized a joking relationship they now have the friendship games in Accra.
If in the absence of a better criterion for the sub-classification of the peoples of Northern Ghana, we choose to adopt a language-based scheme, then the most widespread grouping of Northern Ghanaian people would be the speakers of that group of languages commonly identified as Moore-Gurma or Oti-Volta. Within this group are the Dagbamba peoples.Oti-Volta Languages and their Speakers Gur languages are sub-divided into sub-branches of related languages. The major sub-branches as far as Northern Ghana is concerned are the Moore-Gurma, also referred to as Oti-Volta branch of languages, and the Gur sub-branch of languages. In terms of numbers and size the Oti-Volta languages are more numerous and individually are spoken by larger populations than is the case with the Grusi languages.
Oti-Volta includes the following groups of languages: Gurma languages: Bimoba (spoken in the eastern part of the Tempane-Garu and Nalerigu districts). Konkomba (or Likpakpaln spoken to the east of Yendi in the Oti basin) and Bassari (spoken in an area east of Zabzugu close to the Ghana-Togo border). Dagaare- Wali-Birifor: These are closely related languages which could even be described as more or less mutually intelligible dialects spoken in broad area within which are situated the districts of Lambussie-Nandom, Lawra-Jirapa, Wa and parts of the Bole district to the south of Wa town. Also closely related to these languages is Safalba (to the south of Wa in the Bole district).
The majority of languages spoken in the Upper East Region are also Oti-Volta ones and include Frafra-Nankani, Talni, Nabit and Kusaal. These too are closely related and to a large extent mutually intelligible languages.
The Dabgani-Nanuni languages spoken by the Dagomba, Mamprussi and Nanumba peoples are found In the Northern Region of Ghana. They are very closely related languages and perfectly mutually intelligible. The Dagbani languages are officially sponsored by the Government of Ghana and are taught in schools and used in radio and television broadcasts.
Below we discuss some of the major ethnic groups of people in the Ghanaian North pointing out some of the features of their social structure and history. We begin with the Dagbamba peoples.