Issue 3 |

Language Mapping: Potatoes, landscapes, and the politics of language

by on June 2, 2015

Have you ever wondered exactly where languages are spoken? And have you ever looked at a map and wondered who had the patience to collect all the data and organise it into an accessible visual representation of a geographical space? Maybe you live in a cosmopolitan city and hear lots of languages spoken around you and these have piqued your interest. Maybe the city you live in is predominately monolingual, that you know of, and you would like to know more about the different languages that could potentially exist around you.

Enter language mapping and the different types of language maps that exist today. The tradition of language mapping dates back to the eighteenth century, when geographers became interested in depicting the precise study of a physical space in a two dimensional, visual format. After Edmond Halley created a map of the earth’s magnetic currents (also known as an isogonic map), in order to better navigate the seas in 1701, the use of maps for practical purposes became more common. Soon after, human spatial phenomena such as social demographics became relevant to cartographers, and thematic maps came into being. As a result maps began to be used to depict many aspects of human life including language. Other examples of thematic maps focusing on specific topics such as ‘happiness’ or ‘food’ include the Happy Planet Index and Food Service Warehouse’s map of food consumption and production.

Initially, linguistic maps were created by geographers who were interested in demonstrating the distribution of languages. Early cartographers such as Sebastian Münster would use geographical landmarks to refer to areas where languages were spoken e.g. “between River X and Mountain Range Y, you will find that language Z is spoken as a common language between groups A, B and C”.  This is a method that would have been used by early explorers with little linguistic training to describe the terrain and its inhabitants. Other geographers such as Gottfried Hensel (1741) used maps to depict linguistic variation across different regions. Hensel was one of the first to produce maps of linguistic variation based on his studies; in his maps, he depicted the different realisations of the Lord’s Prayer around Europe.

Right now you might be thinking, “Wait, I thought we were talking about language maps? How does linguistic variation tie in?” Well, through the act of conversing with people on a daily basis, many of you will have noticed slight differences in the language used by the different people you speak with. You might notice words pronounced differently, or that some like to swear more than others. You might notice that some people tend to use words or expressions like “innit”, “d’you what I mean”, “like” or “ya know” before, in the middle, or at the end of every phrase. Maybe you have even noticed that your grandparents have a different way of pronouncing certain words compared to you or your parents, which is not related to the fact that they may or may not be missing some teeth! You might also notice people using different words to refer to the same thing e.g. hair tie, hair bobble, hair thingy. If you have noticed these small differences in human speech, your inner linguist has been keeping track of linguistic variation.

So what is linguistic variation in linguistic terms? Firstly, language variation is a phenomenon often studied—though not exclusively—within the field of sociolinguistics. It is measured by looking at the difference between pronunciation, vocabulary and in some instances, grammatical structure. Similarly, dialectal variation is a type of language variation. Dialectal variation however focuses on how the collective language of a group of people varies from other groups within the umbrella of what is perceived as a common “language”. Most often, dialectal differences are found between distinct geographical areas or between different social groups. Think of the broad differences between New York English, London English and Singaporean English for example. Large geographical and socio-economical distances between several groups of people that speak the same language means little interaction between these groups. This in turn means that the language of each of these groups will change, grow and expand independent of the changes that take place within the other groups.

Eventually, dialects form as the pronunciation of certain words changes, and new words are adopted. Grammatical structures may be altered slightly initially such as the dropping of ‘are’ in “Where are you at?”, but over time as these changes and differences become more pronounced, we may realise that the three groups can now be said to speak different languages. Is there a definitive cut-off point over the course of the life of a dialect when it can be said to become a language? No. The case of France for example, which has 25 different languages of Germanic, Celtic and Gallo-Romance origin. Out of all of France’s languages, French is the only officially recognised language despite the fact that many of the languages within the political border are not mutually intelligible with each other. Though this is now changing, until recent years the languages of France were seen as dialects and not languages in their own right. This same concept applies to the languages of many countries around the world.

So some languages are dialects and other dialects are languages. It is also clear that languages are not necessarily restricted to political borders. With this in mind, how can we accurately map the spread of language on a global scale while being sensitive to socio-political issues? With modern technological and media advances, present-day language maps are very different from those that were first created. Even as little as 10 years ago, an accurate map would have relied on researchers carrying out surveys of geographical areas and charting the results on a map. These results would have either been illustrated as “polygons” or blocks of distinct colours on a map representing where larger languages are spoken such as those used by Langscape, or by ”pinning” languages to the map according to groups of speakers, much like the method that has been used by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

Today with comparatively easy access to computers and geo-tagging software, almost anyone with an internet connection and a mobile device or computer can make their own contribution to interactive language maps such as Language Landscape or the Potato Map. The great thing about these kinds of maps is that they can be much more accurate in demonstrating the spread and location of languages and they can better showcase the interaction between different languages within a specific area. Some of these maps are particularly useful for groups of speakers who wish to tag their own highly specific dialect. Using such a map, a New Yorker from Queens for example would be able to upload a recording of their spoken language and tag it as ‘English, Queens New York’.

Global Language Maps

This is precisely the idea behind Language Landscape, a global and interactive, web-based map which aims to accurately represent where languages are actually spoken around the world without the restriction of political borders. A non-profit organisation run by post-graduate linguists who first came together with the common aim of creating a platform to represent endangered, minority, and dominant languages on a single level, Language Landscape has three interrelated goals: to raise awareness of language issues, to provide a platform for speakers of minority and endangered languages and to experiment with new methods of language mapping. The website is populated by encouraging people to create an account and upload samples of language use. These can include samples of spoken or signed interaction, as well as photographs of linguistic landscapes. Some examples include the use of language and scripts on road signs, shop signs, graffiti and so on. While Language Landscape is not a digital archive, it offers its users the tools with which to present their languages and cultures to a public audience, while being conscious of the fact that some users, particularly those from endangered and minority language groups, may wish to restrict the material shared based on own cultural taboos, gender or age restrictions.

A different kind of global map which moves away from the human social side of language and uses computer algorithms tracing actual internet usage to create a map of words and their translations is Word Map. For those who want a visual representation and translations of one word into 90 of the world’s languages, Word Map is a fun option. By combining the forces of Google Translate with Wikipedia, the Easyway Language Centre have created a project “to put into context the relationship between language and geographical space”.

With this map, users type in any word in any of Google Translate’s supported languages (view full list here) in order to create a visual trace of world’s languages. After the search finishes loading, a translation of the original word appears within the political borders of each country. The programme also supports different scripts. I must warn you however that this map is very simplistic and does not represent the complexities of the relationships between the world’s languages. Minority and indigenous languages are not represented and it does not at all take into consideration the multilingual context of many countries. Only one language per country is shown. It is also imperialistic and Eurocentric in nature as a large majority of words seem to stem from European countries, but then again, it is based on Google Translate’s algorithm of public searches.

Dialectal Maps

A map which looks at a very specific example of dialectal variation at a global level is the Potato Map by David Crystal and Ben Crystal. It is a simple but fun map which looks at the distribution of language variation based on the pronunciation of the word ‘potato’. Though this map originally started with recordings from the United Kingdom, it has expanded greatly and now holds recordings from all over world. The aim of this map was to showcase how people from different parts of the world say the word ‘potato’ in English, and it successfully achieves this by allowing all those who visit this map to make a recording of themselves saying, “This is how I say potato”. Some examples of how pronunciations of the word potato may differ include ‘puteira’ (USA), ‘poteito’ (UK) and ‘photeiro’ (Malaysia). In terms of vocabulary, the word itself might also change as can be seen in the following: ‘spud’ (Ireland), ‘tatties’ (Scotland) and ‘taters’ (USA). This simple recording is then placed on the map according to where the speaker is from. Visitors of the map can thus interact first-hand with linguistic data and explore the dialectal variation of the word ‘potato’. Although this map originally started with recordings from the United Kingdom, it has expanded greatly and now contains recordings from all over world. A more contained example of dialectal variation at a regional level is Joshua Katz’ map of ‘Regional Variation in Continental US‘.

City Maps

Here we move on from the regional map to the more specific city map of languages. Touching on the point that was mentioned at the very beginning, what if you’re interested in finding out exactly where languages are spoken in your city? A map which aims to do exactly this in the city of London is Tube Tongues an exploration of London’s languages according to stops on the underground system. It is a very detailed project that is part of the London Tube’s data map which offers an insight into London’s linguistic demographics. Statistics on the second, third, and even twelfth most used language in vicinity of each stop can be seen by clicking on each of the tube stops. Another nice little city map is Twitter NYC. This is a map which displays the languages which have been used to tweet within social media. The data is projected on to a darkened satellite image of the city from above, and each language is assigned a different colour. By projecting the data in this way, the city seems to come alive in a rainbow of colours. Wouldn’t it be great if there were more of these maps?

As you can see there are many different kinds of maps out there using a variety of techniques to collect data. Mapping techniques have come a long way since language maps were first created and I am sure they will continue to develop as new technologies emerge. Because of the fluidity and constant social and political changes taking place within and around languages, there is no entirely accurate map which depicts actual language use and movement of every corner of the world. The science behind Language mapping however is striving to become more precise by exploring the different issues involved and incorporating new technologies. So what if you still want to find out what languages are spoken in a small town in X country? You can visit Language Landscape and find out. You might find the results surprising. If you find that the town, city, or country you’re interested in doesn’t have that many recordings, consider adding your own!


For an in-depth guide to navigating the Language Landscape website, check out Ebany Dohle’s post on Dialogue!

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