Most of the languages in the north of Ghana are part of a family known as Gur, and all but one of these which are listed in Ethnologue are in the Central branch. Despite the multiplicity of distinct languages, which can be seen on the language map, there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility among speakers of many members of  the family, particularly within the sub-group often called Mole-Dagbani, as was described by the anthropologist R.S.Rattray in his work, “The Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland” (1932).

Until the 20th century the northern peoples of Ghana did not generally form towns or villages in the modern sense, notable exceptions being places on the major trade route junctions, such as Salaga, Tamale and Wa, and the seats of government of ruling classes, such as Yendi and Nalerigu. The common practice of the indigenous people was rather to create extended family compounds, from which members would move to start new compounds when social or subsistence needs arose. Such needs might arise from marriage, land use or dispute. This could eventually result in a large scattering of homes belonging to a single ‘clan’.

Many of the names that appear on maps as villages reflect these customs. The simplest are those which identify the family of the founder. Others refer to the nature of the environment, and some to the reason for, or result of, migration from a former home area.

In the Buli language area, for example, a number of place names end in –bisi (meaning children or descendants), such as Fumbisi (Afim’s children). In Dagaare, yiri (pl. yie) and in Dagbani, yili/yiri (pl. yiya/yia/ya) mean house(s) or compound(s). These are sometimes seen at the beginning of the name, with a qualifying adjective, as in Yipieliga (white house) and Yapala (new houses), or at the end, denoting possession, as in Nayeri (Chief’s house) and Dariyiri (Dere’s house).

It is less common in the north to see places named after environmental features in contrast to the ubiquitous Akan constructions of ‘tree-name + -ase’ (e.g. Odumase) and ‘river-name + -so’ (e.g. Praso). But some such names do occur, e.g. Bolgatanga (clay-rock), Kulupielugu (white river) and Tanchera (between the hills). There are even a few references to trees, e.g. Kpalsawgaw (Doka tree, species Isoberlinia Doka), Taalipuo (Among the Shea Nut Trees), and Gean (West African Ebony tree, sp. Diospyros Mespiliformis).

Migration stories also provide the founders of settlements with toponymic epithets, generally based on their satisfaction with their new situations. A conflict between the Karni and Dier peoples is said to have given rise to the name of Guni, 'to settle there and have peace of mind'. The town of Lawra is said to derive from the word ‘lura’ meaning ‘having more food than one can use’, and Paga (‘ayipaga’) from 'my eye is fixed on this land'.