Dagaare and the Gur
Dr. A. Bodomo
The University of Hong Kong
Dagaare and the Gur Languages
1. Location and classification:
– Dagaare and the Gur languages are situated in
the interior parts of West African subcontinent.
– They cover countries such Burkina Faso, Mali,
Niger and the northern parts of the Ivory
Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria.
Location of
the Gur
family of
The most prominent
languages of the Gur
family are in the
Mabia subgroup.
We focus on the
Mabia subgroup.
Bodomo (1994)
The Mabia languages are divided into five main
groups. These are:
Western Mabia
Northern Mabia
iii. Central Mabia
iv. Southern Mabia
Eastern Mabia
Bodomo (1994)
Western Mabia
It includes Dagaare, Waale, Birifor and Safaliba.
Northern Mabia
It includes just Moore and its dialectal forms.
iii. Central Mabia (also called Gurenne).
It includes Frafra, Nankani (Buli, Konni) and Nabit.
iv. Southern Mabia
It includes Dagbane, Mampruli and Nanuni
Eastern Mabia
It is composed of Kusaal and Talni.
2. Some facts about the languages
a. There are no clear boundaries between the
languages, but a continuum.
E.g. Mampruli may relate to Dagbane or to Kusaal; i.e.,
Manpruli could belong to Southern Mabia or Eastern
b. Typological features:
i.e., phonological, morphological, and syntactic
The languages are marked by preponderance of
consonants and a scarcity of vowel phonemes. There
are also syllabic nasal usage and tone representation.
i. Consonants:
– Some consonants are in double articulation.
• E.g. voiceless labio-velar stop: /kp/ in kpi$ ‘to die’
– Regular allophones often involve /d/ and /r/, and /g/
and // across the various languages.
– There are limited cases of free variation.
• E.g. /h/ and /z/ in the Dagaare word, ha$a /
za$a ‘all’
ii. Vowels:
– There is the feature of vowel harmony (based on
Advanced Tongue Root (ATR)) that divides the
languages into harmonizing and non-harmonizing
• harmonizing languages: Western Mabia (e.g. Dagaare
and Waale)
• non-harmonizing languages: The rest of the group
– Front rounded vowels and back unrounded vowels
are absent in these languages, except in phonetically
conditioned environments.
iii. Syllabic nasality:
– This is a typological feature in the languages.
– Syllabic nasals are often realized as pronouns and
particles. E.g.:
• the first person pronoun /N/ in Dagaare as in
m$ba ‘my father’, n$zu, “my head” and
• the particle, -N, in Dagaare which is a cliticised form of
the polarity marker, la.
iv. Tone:
– Gur languages are tone languages.
– They are primarily two-toned with cases of downstep
(H) in some of the languages.
– tones express both lexical and grammatical
oppositions. Examples in Dagaare:
• in the verbs, da ‘push’ and da$ ‘buy’
• in the declarative and hortative readings of pronouns
e.g. u$ kuli la yiri$
‘He went home’
u kuli yiri$
should go home’
v. Syllable structure:
– Gur languages usually manifest open syllables.
– Usually, a close syllable can be reconstructed into an
open syllable.
• e.g. ba$r (CVC) ‘to leave’ could become
ba$rI$ (CV.CV).
i. Noun classes:
– In noun classification, most Niger-Congo languages
use a system of class prefixes, but
– Gur languages use a system of class suffixes.
– The noun classification is typically based on
singular/plural alternations (in relation to the root).
– That is, most nouns exist in three forms: the root,
the singular, and the plural.
• E.g. in the Dagaare word for woman/wife:
p- (root), pa (singular),
pba (plural)
– In this example the singular/plural affixes are -a / -ba.
– All nouns that exhibit this (-a / -ba) pattern are
categorized into one class.
ii. Verb morphology:
– In most of the languages, there is a regular form of
marking perfective and imperfective aspect by
suffixes on the verbs.
– The perfective and imperfective suffixes regularly
respond to the vowel harmony feature for languages
that have this.
i. Word order:
– Most Gur languages exhibit the Subject Verb
Object order in their basic sentence patterns.
ii. Verb serialization:
– A syntactic construction in which two or more lexical
verbs may share arguments without intervening
• Examples in Dagaare
3sg. take FACT. book
‘S/he gave me the book.’
PAST push 1sg
‘S/he pushed me down.’
FACT. caus.fall
3. Description of some Gur languages
• It is the language of the Mossi.
• It is the de facto national language in Burkina Faso.
• It is the most prominent of the Gur languages in terms
of the number of speakers and its political importance.
• It is spoken by about 5 million people in Burkina Faso
and about 1 million more in neighboring countries such
as Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo.
• It is more closely related to Dagara, a variant of the
Dagaare language.
• Including Nanuni, Dagbani is spoken by about 1½ million
people in Ghana.
• It is a trade language in and around Tamale, the fourth
largest town in Ghana.
• It is a major language of education and literacy in
Dagbon, home of the Dagomba.
• It is taught in various undergraduate programmes at
universities in Ghana.
• Dagbane is more closely related to Mampruli than all the
other languages.
• Dagaare, including Waale and Birifor, is spoken in
north-western Ghana around towns like Wa, Tuna,
Jirapa, Lawra and Nandom.
• It is also spoken in Burkina Faso around towns like
Dano and Dissin.
• Native speakers of Dagaare number up to 2 million.
• It is taught in primary and secondary schools in Dagao,
homeland of the Dagaaba, and at universities in Ghana
and Burkina Faso.
• Including Frafra, Nankanne and Nabit, Gurenne is also
has a large number of native speakers, numbering about
a million.
• It is the language of Bolgatanga, one of the
cosmopolitan towns in northern Ghana.
• It is fast becoming a lingua franca in north eastern
Ghana for speakers of different languages such as
Kusaal, Kasem, Mampruli, Talni, etc. in the Bolgatanga
metropolitan area.
• It is the language of the Kusaasi.
• It is spoken by about 250,000 people in the extreme
north-eastern Ghana around towns like Bawku.
• It is an important literacy language in the area.
• It is related to Mampruli.
• It is the language of the Mamprussi.
• It is spoken by about 100,000 people around towns such
as Gambaga, Nalerigu, and Walewale.
• It is very closely related to Kusaal and Dagbane.
• It is quite intelligible to speakers Dagbane and Kusaal.
• It is the language of the Bulsa.
• It has about 65,000 speakers in and around
• It is closely related to the much smaller language,
Konni, but quite distinct from all the other major Gur
• It is the language of the Kasena.
• It belongs to the Grusi subgroup along with other
languages such as Sisaali, Chakali, Tampulma, Kabre,
Vagla, and Mo.
• It is spoken around towns such as Navrongo in Ghana,
and in adjacent settlements in Burkina Faso.
• It is spoken by approximately 300,000 people.
• Kasem, like Dagaare, was one of the first literary
languages of northern Ghana, having benefited from
early missionary activities.
Sisaali (or Isaaleng)
• It is the language of the Sisaala.
• It is spoken around the towns of Tumu, Gwellu and
Lambussie in Ghana, and also in adjoining areas of
Burkina Faso.
• It is spoken by about 200,000 people.
• It is hardly intelligible with the other languages.
However, many speakers of Sisaali speak Dagaare as
a second language.
• It belongs to the Gurma group along with languages
such as Moba and Bassari.
• It is also called Likpakpalnli.
• It is spoken by about 500,000 people.
• Many speakers of this language speak Dagbane as a
second language in their homeland around Saboba and
• It is taught in primary schools and there are many
literacy programmes involving Konkomba.
4. Conclusion
• Most of these languages are being used for educational
purposes in the communities.
• Hausa is often thought by many people to be an
effective lingua franca in the Gur speaking area but this
is hardly a fact.
• There are serious attempts at functional literacy and
mass communication in all these indigenous languages.
• Gradually, awareness is being raised about the
importance of the mother tongues as important
languages of mass communication for socio-economic
development in this part of West Africa.
Further Reading
Barker, P., Peoples, Languages and Religion in Northern Ghana, Ghana Accra:
Evangelical Committee, 1986
Bodomo, A. B., Dagaare: Languages of the World Materials No. 165. Munchen, Germany:
Lincom Europa, 2000
Bodomo, A. B., The Structure of Dagaare, Stanford Monographs in African Languages,
Stanford, USA: CSLI publications, 1997
Bodomo, A. B., “Language, Culture, and History in Northern Ghana: An Introduction to the
Mabia Linguistic Group”, Nordic Journal of African Studies, vol. 3:2, 1994
Goody, J., The Social Organisation of the LoWiili, London: IAS, 1967
St. John-Parsons, D., Legends for Northern Ghana, London: Longmans, Accra: SPC, 1958.
Manessy, G., Les Langues Oti/Volta, Paris: SELAF, 1975
Manessy, G., “Les Langues Voltaiques,” in Les Langues dans le Monde Ancien et
Moderne, edited by Jean Perrot, Paris: CNRS, 1981
Naden, A., “Language, History, and Legend in Northern Ghana,” Sprache und Geschichte
in Afrika 9 (1988)
Naden, A., “Gur,” in Niger-Congo, edited by Bendor-Samuel, Lanham, MD: Universities
Press of America, 1989
Nikiema, E., Moore: Languages of the World Materials No. 383. Munchen, Germany:
Lincom Europa, forthcoming
Swadesh et al. “A Preliminary Glottochronology of the Gur Languages,” Journal of West
African Languages 3 (1966)
Tuurey, G., Introduction to the Mole-speaking Community, Wa: Catholic Press, 1987
Thank you!

Moore and the Gur Languages