The Dagaare language and its speakers



Geographical spread and Genetic classification

Dagaare is the major language of the north-western parts of Ghana and adjoining areas of Burkina Faso. The area being delineated is between latitudes 9o N and 11o N and longitudes 2o W and 3o W. This area covers the Upper-West Region and parts of the Northern Region of Ghana. Other speech forms closely related to Dagaare are Waale; and Birifor. In fact, they constitute a dialect continuum of varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.The Dagaare-Waale-Birifor linguistic continuum is sometimes lumped together as one language in this part of the country. This group is bordered to the east by the Sisaala language and to the South by Gonja, Vagla, and Safaliba. To the west and north, this dialect continuum extends across the Black Volta and the international boundary into Burkina Faso where variants of this linguistic group are spoken in and around towns like Dano, Diebougou, Dissin, and Gaoua. The major towns covered by the linguistic group in Ghana are Wa, Lawra, Jirapa, Nandom, Hamile, Nadawli, Kaleo, Daffiama, and Tuna. It must be realised, however, that Dagaare is not limited to this traditional homeland as has been described above. The language has spread to many parts of Ghana because of the high degree of social and geographical mobility of the people who speak Dagaare as a native language, among other reasons. Today, there are important Dagaare speaking communities in Accra, Kumasi and most major towns and villages throughout Ghana. Genetically, Dagaare has been classified as a member of the Oti-Volta group of the Gur branch of the Niger-Congo language family (Swadesh 1966, Bendor-Samuel1971:144, Naden 1989). Dagaare's immediate geographical neighbours are not its immediate genetic relatives, for most of the languages very much related to it like Moore, Gurenne (Frafra), and Dagbane are found in the Upper-East and Northern Regions. Accurate and up-to-date census figures are hardly readily available but the number of native speakers of Dagaare in both Ghana and Burkina Faso may be put at more than one million speakers. In terms of native speakers, Dagaare may be the fourth largest indigenous language of Ghana after Akan, Ewe, and Dagbane. It has been the principal language of evangelisation in north-western Ghana since the advent of the missionaries in the colonial era. In present-day language policy, Dagaare occupies a considerably important position. It is one of the nine official literacy languages of Ghana. As a result the Bureau of Ghana languages publishes educational material in it. Dagaare is taught and offered for degree courses in the country's higher institutions such as the University of Ghana, Accra, and the University College of Winneba. Further, it is broadcast over the Ura FM radio, which serves the three regions in Northern Ghana.

The People

Native speakers of Dagaare call themselves Dagaaba (singular: Dagao). The term "Dagarti" has been used by non-natives, but is certainly an anglo-misnomer and not appreciated by most Dagaaba. Goody (1967) gives the following terms to describe Dagaaba:

White LoDagaa (LoPiel) - far northwest Black LoDagaba or Black Dagaare (Losaala - both sides of the border near Lawra, on the Burkina Faso side it is also called Dagari-Fi, Soghole). Nura, Loberu, Lobiri - Lawra district. Lowiile (Oule, Wile, Wuile) or Red Dagaare - Birifu-Babile- Tugu areas and on opposite side of the border. Dagaa Wiile (Oule) - Jirapa southwards

These are, however, largely ethnographic designations and not linguistic. Moreover, they seem to be out-of-date, for most native speakers of Dagaare now prefer to use the following terms to describe themselves, their language and their land:

Dagaare - the language Dagao - a person who speaks native Dagaare Dagaaba - people who speak native Dagaare Dagao (or Dagawie, Dagapaalong) - the homeland of the Dagaaba

In Burkina Faso and the northern border areas the corresponding terms are:

Dagara - for both the language and a person or people who speak it Dagarateng - homeland of the Dagara speakers People who speak the Waale and Birifor dialects call themselves "Waala" and "Birifor" respectively.

The migration history of the Dagaaba is most uncertain. The reader is referred to Tuurey (1982), Herbert (1976) and other historical analyses on the Dagaaba. In a nutshell, however, the general discussion points to the fact that the ancestors of the Dagaaba are a splinter group from either the Mossi or the Dagomba or both who moved into the present area and assimilated (or got assimilated by) earlier settlers and/or new arrivals. As has been shown elsewhere (see Bodomo 1994), however, it seems that rather than saying that the Dagaaba are a splinter group from the Mossi or the Dagomba, it is more plausible to say that the Dagaaba, the Mossi, the Dagomba, the Kusaasi, the Frafra, the Mamprusi, and many others are all directly descended from a common ancestor enthnolinguistic group, the Mabia.

Politically, the Dagaaba have evolved a highly decentralised traditional system of government. This has been inappropriately described as acephalous, suggesting a weak and incohesive structure in the absence of a central authority. Unlike the highly centralised systems of government found among some ethnic groups in Ghana and other parts of Africa where a distant monarch may appoint representatives to various towns and villages and exercise control from a central headquarters, every Dagaare village or group of villages is virtually autonomous as far as the day to day administration of natural resources are concerned. The Tindana (owner of the land) is the religious cum political head at this level. In consultation with a council of elders, who are family heads in their own right, the Tindana promulgates and administers law and order affecting cultural, religious, economic and all forms of social practices in the area under his jurisdiction. However, in matters of defence and foreign policy, especially under crises such as death, matrimonial troubles, and, in particular, the threat of invasion from other groups, the Tindana and council of elders can easily exploit the highly sophisticated interlinking of clans throughout Dagao and raise a team of negotiators or a viable army, if necessary, to manage the situation. The British policy of Indirect Rule between 1890 and 1957 has, however, substantially altered this decentralised political system and Dagaaba are now organised into various paramountcies or chiefdoms. At the head of each paramountcy is a Naa who exercises authority over divisional chiefs. Prior to the advent of colonial rule political decentralisation was a democratic system of government that worked for the Dagaaba and since political decentralisation is now a democratic goal in many parts of Africa and beyond, a closer study of the Dagaaba traditional system of government may be a worthwhile exercise in the search for an appropriate democracy.

In economic terms, the Dagaare-speaking population is heavily agrarian. Practically each family deals in at least some sort of subsistence farming. The major crops are millet, corn, guineacorn, beans and sheanuts. They also rear cattle, goats, sheep and fowls. Farming is so central to the economy of Dagao that more and more people migrate southwards in search of better lands. It is fashionable for adolescent Dagaaba to move down south in the dry season to farm for money and the success of their first trip has become more or less a yardstick for measuring their growth to manhood and their ability to live independently and raise a family. But here again, present day trends show a diversification away from a heavily agricultural preoccupation to other fields of economic activity. Non-literate adolescents going down south to work can opt for the mining industry and go to towns like Obuasi, Tarkwa and Prestea or to other industrial urban centres like Accra and Kumasi to work in the factories and other business establishments as labourers, watchmen and in other low income jobs. Further, more and more Dagaaba, especially the women, are beginning to emulate their Waala brethren (who are successful traders and businessmen) and are going into the distributive sector. But more important, with the advent of Western education, Dagaaba, who consider their ethnic group to be one of the most highly educated in the country, can be found in the tertiary sector as teachers, nurses, administrators and other officers in the Civil Service and business corporations.

At the cultural level, among the most conspicuous cultural manifestations are the eating of their traditional staple food, saabo (or T. Z., which is an abbreviation from, tuo zaafi, the Hausa name for the same food ) and the drinking of their traditional alcoholic beverage daazeE (or pito, a borrowing from fitoo, the Hausa word for the same drink); the wearing of the smock, dagakparoo, the playing of xylophones, gyile, and drumming and dancing, especially the bawa dance. In the major towns and villages in Dagao and also in Dagaaba communities in other towns, in the evenings, at the weekends and on public holidays, the stranger will not fail to notice that most young men and women find their way into pito bars. Drinking pito is a favourite leisure time activity and source of entertainment in Dagao! .i.dialects of Dagaare; B. The Dialects of Dagaare The Dagaare-Waale-Birifor linguistic group seems to present one of the most complex dialect situations in Ghana. From north to south (and to a lesser extent east to west) the dialects shade gradually into each other and it is almost impossible to draw a line of demarcation between different dialects. Variation can occur even from village to village. However, one common thing that binds all these groups together is that there is at least some amount of mutual intelligibility within the group . That is why, from a purely linguistic point of view, Dagaare, Waale and Birifor should not be viewed as separate languages but as variants of one language.

How then does one demarcate this continuum into discrete dialect areas? A way of approaching the problem is to apply one theory of linguistic variation which claims that certain (prestige) settlements (in our case the major towns of the area) are centres from which linguistic innovations spread to their individual areas of influence and may overlap each other. Using the major towns in the research area as the centres of linguistic innovations or focal points, seven subdialects may be set up (see Bodomo 1989). Further, taking into consideration prominent phonological, lexical and grammatical variations four main dialects may be abstracted and named Northern Dagaare, Central Dagaare, Southern Dagaare and Western Dagaare.

Northern Dagaare, which is also known as Dagara, comprises Nandom, Lawra and their areas of influence. A greater number of the speakers of this dialect group live in Burkina Faso. From the data, Nandom and Lawra share common linguistic features that are generally distinct from the other major dialect groups. Most of the linguistic analyses of this group of Dagaare have been undertaken by French and Francophone African linguists in Burkina Faso.

The next group is Central Dagaare which is made up of Jirapa, Ullo, Daffiama, Nadawli and their spheres of influence. This group is so called because it occupies approximately the middle of the Upper-West Region, and it enjoys a considerable degree of intelligibility from speakers of other dialects. Probably because of this, most of the linguists who have worked on Dagaare in Ghana like Wilson (1962), Kennedy (1966) and Hall (1973) have based their analyses on it. It is the version of Dagaare used for publishing church literature, educational material and, lately, broadcast over the Ura-Radio because of its relatively high intelligibility with the northern and southern dialects.

Southern Dagaare is the dialect of Kaleo, metropolitan Wa and their surrounding villages. Again, Kaleo and Wa share more common features than with all the others. If the Central dialect is the language of literacy, Southern Dagaare, especially that spoken in the Regional Capital called Waale, is the trade language and is widely spoken in markets and other trading centres.

The other dialect group represented by Tuna is called Birifor. Birifor shares affinities with Waale (e.g. absence of the phoneme, /z/ ) and especially Northern Dagaare. A greater concentration of this dialect is also found on the western side of the Black Volta river in Burkina Faso and C矌e d'Ivoire. It is only recently that speakers of Birifor moved into the area south of Wa. Dakubu (personal communication) suggests that it be called Western Dagaare because its traditional homeland is at the western side of the Black Volta river.

It would be worthwhile here to note other interesting divisions and treatments of the dialects in this linguistic group. Rattray (1932) draws up word lists showing differences in speech of the "Dagaba" speakers from place to place. This could also be of interest to people doing a study of dialects from a temporal point of view (diachronic dialectology) because his work is the earliest published ( at least at the Ghana side of the border) giving word lists portraying dialect variation in Dagaare.

Callow's (1969) article is the first devoted solely to the study of dialects of Dagaare and therefore gives important information about dialect variation.

Delplangue's (1983) Phonologie Transformationelle du Dagara, even though not a work on dialect variation, gives an interesting division of Dagara (Dagaare) into three dialects (following Girault's classification):

Lobr spoken in the North-East (towns of Ouessa, Dissin in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), towns of Nandom, Lawra, Babile in Ghana). Dagaari-wiile spoken in the Northwest and Centre (towns of Dano and Legmoin in Upper Volta, Jirapa, Sabuli, Dorimon in Ghana). Birifor spoken to the west and south (towns of Diebougou, Batie in Upper Volta and Sawla, Bole in Ghana). Commonly attached to Dagara, from the linguistic point of view. (pp17-18)

His Lobr and Birifor fit perfectly into our Northern Dagaare and Western Dagaare respectively, while his Dagaari-wiile, according to our classification, is too broad. It would comprise our Central and Southern Dagaare. As he pointed out himself, each of these groups could further be divided into subdialects upon a more systematic linguistic study.

The Dagaare Language Committee's (1982) guide divides Dagaare into Northern, Central, Mid-Central and Southern Dagaare and gives word lists showing pronunciation differences of some lexical items. This division, however, does not include Waale and Birifor. Their 'Northern Dagaare' is exactly our Northern Dagaare, their 'Central Dagaare' and 'Mid-Central Dagaare' is our Central Dagaare, their 'Southern Dagaare' does not include Waale while ours does. They do not have a corresponding division for our Western Dagaare.

Finally, various other bits of information on the dialects and their names and designations could be acquired from most of the works on general Dagaare linguistic analyses.


This introduction (based on the introductory chapter of one of my books, The Structure of Dagaare ) has sought to provide basic information about the geographical location of the Dagaare language, its genetic relationship and its sociolinguistic profile. For a more extensive analysis of these issues, including the history and culture of the speakers of Dagaare and other Mabia languages see Bodomo (1994).