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Words on a Map: The Cartography of Language

With possibly as many as 7,000 languages used around the world, it was only a matter of time before some of them would make it onto a map. Language maps, linguistic maps, or – if the map shows ethnic information as well – ethnolinguistic maps are a type of thematic map: a map which displays the spatial distribution of data about a particular subject. As color is frequently used to distinguish between languages, linguistic maps are a visually appealing genre of cartography.

Map of eastern China with German-language text showing distribution of Chinese dialects

Karte vom östlichen China & Korea zur Übersicht der chinesischen Dialekte nach Edkins und der Reisen von Oxenham & Markham 1868-69. A. Petermann and E. Debes, 1869. Geography and Map Division.

What considerations go into mapping human languages? The first and most obvious question has to be, “what’s a language?” While that question is beyond the scope of this blog post, it’s worth mentioning that the distinction between a fully-fledged “language” and a mere “dialect” is not nearly as cut-and-dried as is commonly thought. A language, famously, is “a dialect with an army and navy,” in a quote usually attributed to scholar of Yiddish linguistics Max Weinreich, or a person who attended one of his lectures (in the original Yiddish, “a shprakh iz a dyalekt mit an armey un flot”). The decision to label a speech variety as either a “language” or a “dialect” is fraught with political, historical, and cultural complications. Whether, for example, “Chinese” is labeled as one language (with many dialects) or as many distinct languages varies depending on who made the map, when, and why.

While political maps typically represent international borders with thick, defined lines (and disputed areas in dashed lines stand out as exceptions), the boundaries between languages are much more fluid. Linguistic areas may not conform to national borders, and people – or whole communities – can be multilingual. How do you account for this on a map?

In this ethnolinguistic map of the Middle East, areas of boxy stripes indicate overlap between language areas:

Ethnolinguistic map of the Middle East

Volker- und Sprachenkarte des Vorderen Orient. Deutlichen Ausland Inst., [1941]. Geography and Map Division.

Detail of ethnolinguistic map of the Middle East showing the area northeast of Baghdad

Detail showing overlapping language areas. Yellow indicates Arabic, blue areas are Iranian languages (Persian, Kurdish, and Luri), and pink areas are Turkic languages (Azeri and Turkish).

Meanwhile, large areas of the map of Nigeria below are simply labeled “Mixed;” no dominant language is identified. This reflects the widespread multilingualism in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the presence of many smaller languages not represented on the map.

Map of Nigeria with language distribution indicated by color

Nigeria, languages & dialects. Federal Surveys, 1967. Geography and Map Division.

Perhaps the earliest map in our collections showing the geographic spread of languages is this 1741 map by German comparative linguist Gottfried Hensel, originally published as part of his book Synopsis Universae Philologiae. In his map, the world is divided into four plates and each area of the world decorated with the first line of the Christian Lord’s Prayer in the relevant language and script. In some cases, Hensel was working from second- or third-hand information, and his translations run the gamut from quite accurate to entirely fanciful.

Map of the world in four parts with the first part of the Lord's Prayer written in numerous languages on the map where those languages are spoken

[Linguistic map of the world.] Gottfried Hensel, 1741. Geography and Map Division.

The linguistic maps in the Geography and Map Division are diverse, but most of them date to the 19th and 20th centuries. Some, similar to Hensel’s map above, give a broad overview of the world’s languages. In the late 19th-century German map below, they’re color-coded by language family, according to contemporary theories of language relationships.

Map of the world with language families indicated by color and text

Sprachenkarte. Bibliographisches Institut, [189-?]. Geography and Map Division.

Other maps show the distribution of languages in a particular area, language family, or time period. This 1883 map, published along with a book, Modern Languages of Africa, shows African languages from several families:

Map of Africa with language distribution indicated by color

A language map of Africa. E. G. Ravenstein, 1883. Geography and Map Division.

The historical distribution of Mayan languages is depicted in this map from the World Digital Library:

Map of southern Mexico and northern Central America showing Mayan languages

Map of the Mayance Nations and Languages. Maya Society, 1934. World Digital Library.

Another map shows the staggering diversity of indigenous languages in North America:

Map of North America showing indigenous languages

Map of linguistic stocks of American Indians. John Wesley Powell, 1890. Geography and Map Division.

Language maps may be created for many purposes, from academic study to intellectual curiosity to international relations. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has published a wide variety of linguistic maps, several of which are in the Geography and Map Division’s collections.

Map of Yunnan showing ethnolinguistic groups colored by language family

Yunnan, ethnolinguistic groups. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 1971. Geography and Map Division.

Map of the Philippines showing distribution of languages

Philippines, principal vernacular languages. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 1964. Geography and Map Division.

Map of East Asia. Title reads "Japan, Manchuria, and Korea. Principal languages needed by interpreters in these areas"

Japan, Manchuria, and Korea. Principal languages needed by interpreters in these areas. Office of the Coordinator of Information, 1942. Geography and Map Division.

A very practical map, the map at right was produced by the U.S. Office of the Coordinator of Information during World War II. The languages represented are those spoken by U.S. government interpreters in Japan, Korea, Manchuria, and northeastern China.

Colorful, relevant, and more complex than they might appear, linguistic maps are a visual exploration of the world’s diversity. Explore more language maps in the Geography and Map Division collections.

4 Comments

  1. Andy
    February 16, 2022 at 3:24 pm

    what a great post! Thanks for this, especially the emphasis on those areas where multiple languages prevail and how one is supposed to map that.

  2. Mary Kay Zuravleff
    February 16, 2022 at 5:30 pm

    Terrific post. Great examples, and that Powell map of the indigenous languages is a beautiful surprise. Thank you!

  3. Karen Sagstetter
    February 20, 2022 at 3:35 pm

    Fascinating history & beautiful maps. Thank you

  4. Candice
    February 24, 2022 at 2:47 pm

    It is so heartening to see this contemporary post about language mapping. This was my dissertation topic 10 years ago and I felt like I was in a cartography interest silo, not finding many people who shared my excitement. This post took me back to the days of pouring over every language map I could get my hands on to study the symbology approaches!

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