What is a People Group?

A "people 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 China-Nepal-India area.

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 the former.

Monolingual Enemies

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.

Gospel Strategy

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 arealready 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.

Ethnic Identity

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 self-identity.

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 apeople by a certain name, so that we can refer to members of the predefined group.

Inductive Investigation

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.