|What is a People
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
group" is an ethnolinguistic group with a common self-identity
that is shared by the various members. There are two parts to that word: ethno
and linguistic. Language is a primary and dominant identifying
factor of a people group. But there are other factors that determine or
are associated with ethnicity.
Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity
of individuals identified with the group. A common history, customs,
family and clan identities, as well as marriage rules and practices,
age-grades and other obligation covenants, and inheritance patterns and
rules are some of the common ethnic factors defining or distinguishing a
people. What they call themselves may vary at different levels of
identity, or among various sub-groups.
Multi-Lingual Ethnic Groups
There are numerous examples of people who speak multiple languages but
still consider themselves one ethnic group. There are several in the
The Dinka of Sudan speak a range of dialects comprising five separate
languages, yet clearly consider themselves to be one people.
The Beja in Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt are another example. Among the
various groups that all consider themselves to be Beja, different groups
of them speak three languages: Tigre, To Bedawie (Beja) and Sudanese
Arabic. Some are bilingual or trilingual, while some are monolingual in
one of the three.
Multi-Ethnic Language Groups
At the same time there may be different peoples who speak the same
language but distinguish themselves because of different histories, other
factors causing enmity, an endogamous marriage pattern, differing
political alliances, or separate self-name or loyalty to a different
common ancestor or leader of a common source people group in history.
An example of this in the East African area are the many peoples who
speak mutually intelligible varieties of the Swahili language, like the
Arabs and the Shirazi (Afro-Asians).
In East Africa the Arabs have for over a century spoken Swahili as
their sole mother tongue, as have the Shirazi in Mombasa for centuries.
But the Arabs have maintained their self-identity as Arabs, both by
name and culture, and maintained contacts with Arabs from Oman, Yemen and
other Arab countries, some even learning Arabic as a second language.
Thus the Shirazi Swahili and the Arabs speak the same language, and
compared to the traditional Bantu cultures of Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia,
they are quite close in culture and religion. But they definitely
distinguish themselves from each other. Part of the distinction is
political, due to the discriminatory history of British colonialism, which
tried to distinguish various groups of people as "native" or
"non-native," placing the Arabs in the latter and the Shirazi in
Some people groups find their worst enemies in other ethnic groups
speaking the same mother tongue. One example demonstrating radical,
inimical differences within one language group may be found in Bosnia.
Three traditional enemies there, the Serbs, the Croats and the Muslims,
all speak Serbo-Croatian. Yet clear boundaries of culture, history,
religion and self-identity separate them.
Likewise the Tutsi and Hutu inhabitants of East Central Africa now have
a common language and culture and yet have maintained distinct social
identities for almost 2000 years.
Thus various ethnic factors must be considered in addition to language
for a full ethnolinguistic profile.
For gospel strategy purposes, a key principle is to define a strategy
for the largest ethnolinguistic segment or affinity group within which the
gospel can spread through "natural" social networks.
Where barriers are identified which would hinder or prevent the further
spread of the gospel, we have identified the effective boundary of the
ethno-linguistic segment, or people group.
Thus, a group of separate peoples who speak the same language might
need to be identified separately for strategy purposes, because the other
factors of self-identification and social organization for internal
communication would keep the gospel from naturally being spread from one
group to the other even though they speak the same language.
In other cases, the self-identification of the specific people group
might be flexible enough that they would freely exchange cultural
knowledge across their other ethnic factors so that the gospel could
spread from one group to the other. To some extent that is the case with
Swahili in the coastal regions of East Africa, because of the strong
positive association with the language across otherwise separate peoples.
Nevertheless it is usually more effective to conduct gospel access in
their own tribal language. It is in that deep, mother-tongue level where
personal identity is developed and life decisions are made. But again,
leadership training of believers can be effective in a shared
language, because you are dealing with expansion of the accepted Christian
worldview that they are already committed to sharing.
Multi-lingual ethnic groups maintain, or will develop, mechanisms or
strategies for the transfer of information or cultural change across the
language boundaries within their own ethnic groups, and perhaps for
closely-related groups in the broader affinity groupings.
In summary, ethnic identity does largely depend on a people's
self-identity. This centers in relational and social groupings, not just
naming systems. Further, language is a key factor in this group
The western access worker or strategist brings a cultural problem to
this task. Because of the western cultural thought-forms, we take a
"systems" approach, which is abstract in approach.
We take a name for a people and proceed to define who can be called by
that name. In investigating people group identities in the Horn of Africa,
one access worker was reporting some initial findings. His comment read
"the people themselves ... believe they are ...." The problem
with that phrase is that it is a circular argument. This assumes
already that they are a people by a certain name, so that we can
refer to members of the predefined group.
An inductive approach would be more valid, starting with the
individuals to determine who they feel related to. This approach
begins with the concrete relationships and natural social
groupings of individuals, families and the larger society. So the
operative question is "Who does this individual, family or social
group feel related to?" What other families or groups do they
consider themselves related to and in what ways?
It is necessary to ask (by observation, investigation and direct
questioning where possible) how individuals or smaller communities
commonly identify themselves. Then following that relational path, what is
the largest such relational grouping within which ideas are
exchanged and social obligations are maintained. Find out what
the group call themselves at each relational level. A clue to the primary
grouping for self-identity and the larger affinity groups is the various
names that related sub-groups call themselves and each other.
This investigation of relational groupings will be the starting point
for the strategic access person to determine the people group.
A major factor to keep in mind is the relationship of individuals who
speak the language to the larger group identified with the language.
Similarly, it is necessary to verify whether smaller groups speaking the
same language share any supposed universal identity.
This is a simplified scenario of a very common and very complex pattern
of human social ethnolinguistic identity.
Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Last Updated 01 April 2002