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Verba Incognita: A Guide to Deciphering Latin on Maps

This is a guest post by Kelly Bilz, Librarian-in-Residence in the Geography and Map Division.

Even though Latin had fallen out of vernacular use after the fall of Rome (and began to evolve into the modern Romance languages), it lived on in its written form, becoming the lingua franca, so to speak, of scholarship. In particular, western cartographers during the Renaissance used Latin in their maps, resulting in a large collection of maps in the Geography and Map Division written in this ancient language. Seeing these polysyllabic words in a long list of search results can be disorienting; fortunately, being familiar with a couple key terms can help you navigate Latin titles with ease– without having to study Latin for eight years, as I did!

Map by Guillaume de L’Isle and Tobias Conrad Lotter, 1775.

Mappa totius mundi : adornata juxta observationes dnn. academiae regalis scientiarum et nonnullorum aliorum secundum annotationes recentissimas. Map by Guillaume de L’Isle and Tobias Conrad Lotter, 1775. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The most obvious place to start is with the various Latin words for map, and as in any good language, there are a couple of them, each with different shades of meaning.  The words mappa, tabula, and carta, for instance, all mean “map,” but they originally referred to the different formats in which maps appeared. Mappa, in classical Latin, is often translated as “cloth” or even “napkin,” so it might indicate that a map is mounted on cloth, like the map above, Mappa totius mundi (“Map of the whole world”), by Guillaume de L’Isle and Tobias Conrad Lotter in 1775. Tabula (“tablet”) and carta (where the word “chart” is derived from) indicated something printed on wood or on paper, respectively; however, the meanings of these words evolved from classical Latin to the medieval and Renaissance cartographer usage. They all came to mean “map,” regardless of the material.

Other map words focus on the information presented, instead of the format, like typus, delineatio, and descriptio, and are remarkably similar to their English counterparts (type, delineation, and description).

Imperium Romano-Germanicum. Map by Johann Baptist Homann, 17--. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Imperium Romano-Germanicum. Map by Johann Baptist Homann, 17–. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The next few words in the map’s title will likely describe its geographic coverage. It might be a land (terra) or two (terrae), or even a pars (part) of a terra. Perhaps it covers a specific kingdom (regnum) or empire (imperium), like the map seen above of the Holy Roman Empire from 1700. In the top left corner, there is a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, with even more Latin in his motto, amore et timore (“through love and fear”). Additionally, the terra could also be sancta (holy), if it’s a Bible map.

If it doesn’t cover a terra, it could be a map of an island (insula) or group of islands (insulae). The map seen below, from 1600, Insulae Indicae cum terris circumvicinis, or “Indian Islands with neighboring lands,” is a map of the East Indies, or the Malay Archipelago. So, if you were hoping for the subcontinent of India, you’d know from the word insulae in the title that this map doesn’t cover the area you need.

Insulæ Indicæ cum terris circumvicinis. Map, 16--. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Insulæ Indicæ cum terris circumvicinis. Map, 16–. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Latin terms for landforms and natural features can also be helpful in identifying a map’s coverage. The names of mountains (montes) and rivers (flumina, or singular, flumen) can identify a region—which is particularly useful when looking at a historic map without modern boundaries.

That’s a lot of Latin vocabulary! Let’s see what it looks like when we put it all together using this next map: Tabula Mexicae et Floridae : terrarium Anglicarum, et anteriorum Americae insularum, item cursum et circuituum fluminis Mississipi dicti. It’s a long title, but let’s just focus on the words we know: first, we know that tabula means map, and we can recognize the terra in terrarium (which was later borrowed to become an English word) to know the map covers a set of lands. We can also see the insula in insularum and the flumen in fluminis, so we know that the map contains at least an island and a river (perhaps more!). The place names are also recognizable: Mexico, Florida, America, and Mississippi. Fortunately, many Latinized place names look similar enough to the names we know to be identifiable, but the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association also maintains a database of Latin Place Names, which can be a useful tool. Now that we’ve got a pretty good idea of what this item is, let’s see how we did:

Tabula Mexicae et Floridae : terrarum Anglicarum, et anteriorum Americae insularum, item cursuum et circuituum fluminis Mississipi dicti. Map by Peter Schenck, ca. 1710. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

We find that it is, in fact, a map, covering Florida and Mexico; that the river is the Mississippi River; and the island is actually a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

You can try deciphering these Latin map phrases yourself with other maps in our collection. Ite et discite!

Learn more:

5 Comments

  1. john lockwood
    October 28, 2020 at 3:06 pm

    Very interesting, but I wish it had been more intensive! I love old maps and seeing their intentions and speculations!

  2. Thomas Holbrook
    October 28, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    Fortunately I had two years of Latin in a public high school in Michigan, taught by an excellent teacher. That was long ago, however, and decades later my scholarly grandchildren don’t mention Latin as a subject taught in their schools, though they are in the same area of MIchigan in which I studied.

    I’m no Latinist, but I find that the relative smattering of that language which I enjoyed–and I did enjoy it–quite useful in later life.

    Thanks for your excellent summary of Latin related to older maps!

    –Tom Holbrook (also a refiree from LC/CRS

  3. frank
    October 29, 2020 at 9:29 am

    Takes me back to my first geography lesson in Latin at St. Ignatius high school in Chicago where I learned that All Gaul is divided in three parts. Nice blog !

  4. Chad
    November 1, 2020 at 10:45 am

    As a long ago cartography major I think I geeked out a bit!

  5. Sr. Nancy Kordenbrock
    November 30, 2020 at 8:44 am

    I enjoyed this article which helped me recall my Latin and put it to use on these great maps. Thanks, Kelly. Great job!

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