Ethnicity, conflict and language choice: an example from northern Ghana

Paul Edward Kerswill, Edward Salifu Mahama

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter considers whether language difference ever causes conflict, or whether it symbolises differences between conflicting groups. Language’s implication in conflicts in Europe, Canada and South Africa suggests that it is not a fundamental cause, but a flashpoint for existing inter-group tensions. Using a questionnaire, our study compares language use in two villages in northern Ghana, where language and ethnicity are closely connected. Recent violent inter-ethnic conflict makes this a good locale for the study of language in conflict. We investigate language choice by international NGOs in their communication about development with local people. One village appears homogeneous and monolingually Gonja-speaking, masking the presence of client groups, who resent being classed as Gonja. The other village houses multiple groups, but no client groups; although Dagbani is the main language, the ethos is pluralistic. For development communication, in the Gonja-speaking village Gonja was used as a pragmatic choice, despite the presence of non-Gonjas. In the other village, Dagbani was the sole choice, despite the fact that non-Dagbani speakers might prefer the lingua franca, Hausa. We find that, despite violent inter-communal conflict, language does not cause conflict, but can amplify animosity. Careful choice of language can increase programmes’ effectiveness and reduce conflict.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Languiage in Conflict
EditorsMatthew Evans, Lesley Jeffries, Jim O'Driscoll
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)978-0-429-05801-1
ISBN (Print)978-1-138-64384-0
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2019


  • Language
  • Ghana
  • Conflict
  • Sociolinguistics

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