10 Geography of Language

Talking about talking

If you’re reading or listening to this book and understand it, then you comprehend at least one language: English. Language is a spoken, written, or spoken and written system of communication that is understood by groups of people. English is the current global lingua franca, or a language of international business and exchange. In terms of sheer numbers, here’s how the 5 most spoken* languages rank according to Ethnologue in terms of native and second-language speakers:

  • English…………………..1.3 billion
  • Mandarin Chinese…1.1 billion
  • Hindi……………………637 million
  • Spanish……………….538 million

*NOTE: if we only consider native speakers, Chinese has by far the highest number of speakers.

Sign language is an un-spoken and un-written form or mode of language for people who are deaf or hearing-impaired (certain systems of sign language like American Sign Language (ASL) are considered stand-alone languages complete with their own grammar) and braille is “a code by which many languages […] may be written and read” (https://www.afb.org/blindness-and-low-vision/braille/what-braille).

Exercise: Language map

Check out this map by Ethnologue of the ~7,000 languages of the world.

One of the most common questions when it comes to languages is: how many are there? Just as it’s not so straightforward to declare how many countries there are in the world due to variation in definition and recognition, so too is the case with languages. However, according to Ethnologue, a leading source on all-things-language, there are just over 7,000 language in the world with about 4,000 of them being written.

In addition to size and whether the language is written or oral, languages can be classified in terms of health, referring to the level of robustness and growth they experience or if they are threatened and/or dying, to be discussed towards the end of this chapter. Furthermore, linguists, or scholars who specialize in studying language, organize language hierarchically as follows:

  • Language family (ex: Sino-Tibetan, Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European)
  • Language branch (ex: Tibeto-Burman, Semitic, Romance)
  • Language group (ex: Burmese, Arabic, Romanian)

Using the model of a tree, you can think of each language family as a trunk (stretching furthest back in time), each giving rise to branches, and then leaves (language groups). This chapter examines language from a geographical standpoint, using a spatial perspective, by providing an overview of the spatial distribution and diffusion of languages and how language relates to power, culture, and place.

Please note that examples used in this chapter tend to be centered around Indo-European languages, in particular English. This is because English is the language of this text and therefore it is presumed that readers have much familiarity with it and its history more-so than other languages. 

Distribution & Diffusion of language

Let’s start with an exercise to warm up our brains: examine this map of language distribution through ArcGIS. Click the hold to drag the map and use the +/- on the top left corner to zoom in and out and consider:

  • How does the distribution of major language families align or not align with major world regions?
  • Which regions have the most diversity in language families?
  • What processes might explain how a language part of the Indo-European family ended up being dominant in a place far away from it’s origin point?
  • White space appears and is not labeled. These areas are not completely unpopulated, so what kinds of languages do you think are present there?

From the map and section linked above, you’ll see the major language families associated with each major world region and how the distribution of language families spans world regions, even ones that are not connected by land.

So, how did these languages get WHERE they are? Check out the video below for a quick overview and then see below for more.

The most common theories as to how language diffuses, in particular the largest language family, Indo-European, are through:

1. Peaceful, passive interactions.

Agricultural theory holds that the Indo-European language spread from its likely origin point, also known as a linguistic hearth, of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) alongside farmers who moved further and further out from the agricultural hearth. Agriculture provided the opportunity for settlements with large numbers of people residing in one spot needing a way to interact and communicate with one another.

2. Conquest/war/invasion.

In contrast with the agricultural theory, conquest theory or nomadic warrior theory refers to the claim that the Indo-European language family diffused due to violent expansion and take-over by people from Anatolia to other parts of Europe.

2.5. Colonialism.

We can look to a more contemporary but still historical example of how colonialism, which tends to involve violent forms of conquest usually coupled with less violent forms of influence, as a related mechanisms that facilitates language diffusion.

Latin America provides a tidy example of this. The red vertical line on the map below, from the Library of Congress, divided territory in the “new world” between Spain and Portugal in 1794 as part of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Area to the west of the line came under Spanish colonial rule and area to the east, Portuguese.

Source: https://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/guide/hs046001.jpg

The linguistic impact of this is evident today: Central and South America are largely Spanish-speaking (with notable pockets and second languages of various Amerindian and Indigenous languages) except for Brazil, where Portuguese is predominant. In fact, the reason this region is widely referred to as Latin America and people from this region are called Latinos/Latinas/Latinx (the latter term is a gender-neutral way to refer to Latino men and Latina women) instead of Hispanic America, for instance, is because of the two Indo-European linguistic influences of Spanish and Portuguese. Take a look at a colonial/second-language map of of Africa, and you’ll see a similar colonial legacy. Proselytizing, or trying to convert people to a particular religion, tends to be part of colonial practices and as such also plays a direct role in language diffusion.

3. Cultural imperialism and the internet? 

When thinking about how language–entire communication systems or even parts of the system, like particular words or even gestures–spreads today in the 21st century, we must consider forces of cultural imperialism, referring to how more indirect (but strong) cultural influences (largely American, referring here to the US) are imposed on usually less developed and less powerful regions of the world. Take a look at these charts of language used on the internet and compare the most common internet languages with the most spoken languages.

Pidgins, Creoles, & Place-Making

In the context on language, pidgins don’t refer to the birds (i.e. pigeons) and creole doesn’t exactly refer to delicious food from Louisiana (although it is related, as we will see below). Instead, these terms refer to types of communication that emerge alongside human interaction.

A pidgin is a simplified language that emerges when two people who each speak different languages come up with another language by which they can communicate. That new language is a pidgin, or sometimes just called pidgin. For example, if I speak Spanish and you speak Korean, we may come up with a simplified pidgin language drawing from each of our own languages that, mixed with gestures and other symbols, is mutually intelligible to each of us. We may also draw from a language that we both already know, like a lingua franca, and use that as base for our simplified communication.

Pidgins are very geographical in nature because they emerge as people traverse through space, arriving in a place where they don’t speak the language. Pidgins have historically sprung up along historic trading routes and at ports where people needed to communicate in order to conduct business and interact. For this reason, pidgins are often called contact languages. Check out the video below and ponder the accompanying questions.

Questions about Hawaiian Pidgin

After watching the video above, consider the following:

  • From what languages is Hawaiian pidgin drawn?
  • How was Hawaiian pidgin perceived in the past and what things indicate that these past perceptions are changing?
  • How does Hawaiian pidgin relate to cultural identity?
  • If someone grew up speaking Hawaiian pidgin as her first language, would the communication system of “Hawaiian pidgin” be a pidgin language or a creole language (see below)?

A creole is a formalized, developed pidgin that has a complete grammar and lexicon (vocabulary) and has native speakers, meaning that babies are born who grow up learning the creole language (sometimes just called creole) as their first language. Perhaps familiar examples of creole languages within North America and the Caribbean include Louisiana creole (which also refers to a style of cuisine), and Haitian creole, spoken in Haiti. Many creoles emerged within maroons, or communities of Africans (and often later Indigenous peoples) who were formerly enslaved or were descendants of formerly enslaved parents. One such example of this is Garifuna, referring to a language and a group of people who were marooned in the Caribbean after a slave-ship shipwreck. Read more about the status of the language and group here and note how much overlap there is between language, culture, identity, and even cuisine and how these aspects are written about in the article.

Exercise: The Gullah

Learn about the Gullah here by reading the following pages and answering the questions below: “Introduction,” “Origin of the Gullah,” and “The Gullah Language.”

  • What does Gullah refer to?
  • From what languages is Gullah creole derived?
  • What factors explain why the Gullah emerged as a distinct and persisting group?
  • What information did Dr. Lorenzo Turner discover about the Gullah in terms of the linguistic knowledge and even cultural practices of the Gullah?

By learning about the various creoles and pidgins above, you can hopefully start to see the power that language has in making meaning regarding identities across a range of scales: from the individual, to the cultural/sub-cultural/counter-cultural, and even to a specific place or entire region. As a dimension of culture, language plays a big role in creating the identity of a place, or place-identity, and a sense of place, or a uniqueness of feeling people attach to place.

Think of words that you may use from another language and how those give you a sense of your own individual heritage and cultural identity, and may even identify you with a particular place or region. Or perhaps you avoid using certain words to signal a distance between what they signify or have come to signify and your own values and identity.

Language then, including place names or toponyms, street names, plaza names, and school names is an element of a cultural landscape and contributes to the overall place-identity of a location. Language is a form of and canvas for power and power is exercised from above and below, equally including efforts to enforce authority and contest authority. We can see what this looks like on the ground by analyzing some examples of naming and re-naming or un-naming. Check out the links below:

  1. Swaziland becomes eSwatini.
  2. Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia becomes Republic of North Macedonia.
  3. Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, VA to get a new name

Words & Sports

It is not uncommon for sports teams–local, state, and national–to have controversial names. This just points to the power of language and naming. Read up on The Washington Redskins for a case study here

The first example reflects a trend among formerly colonized places to re-name places based in languages and systems of meaning that pre-date colonial influence. Re-naming, thus, is a way to symbolically and sometimes materially throw off or reject colonial power, possession, influence, and identity.

The second example illustrates how naming is deeply and inherently tied to cultural, national, and place identities.

The third example may strike much closer to home and illustrates how the choice or avoidance of certain names and words themselves is a way to signal allegiance with or distance from widely perceived meanings of those names. Controversies surrounding the changing of names (not to mention removing statues), in this case, associated with the Confederacy in the US, abound among everyday individuals, public historians, businesses, and local, state, and national governing bodies and policy-makers. The controversies are based around language–a system of communication that produces meaning.

We as individuals and a society have to determine which particular words and symbols we want to be associated with and accept, reject, or re-interpret popular and contemporary meanings of said words and symbols. The process is and should be continuous.

Linguistic Variations

You learned about two major linguistic variations above, pidgins and creoles, but let’s pause and talk briefly about two more commonly discussed features of language: dialect and accent. The basic distinction is that a dialect differs from its base language in vocabulary, grammar and spelling, and pronunciation whereas an accent differs from its base language in terms of pronunciation style. Think of it like this: dialects are place-based variations of language and the aspect of a dialect that includes variations in pronunciations is called an accent. See the video below for more and consider how dialects and accents are tied to conceptions of identity across many scales.


Exercise: English accent quiz

Take this quiz from Babbel (scroll below video to see quiz) to see if it can determine from which region of the US you are from or learned English. Did it guess correctly?

Check out these heat maps of language use in the US for fun.


The Language Lifespan

By now, you should already have a good sense of how languages are born and how they grow through time and across space, but you might be wondering: do languages die? The answer is yes, more or less.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, classifies languages in terms of several levels of endangerment, ranging from safe, referring to languages that are spoken and transmitted across generations, to vulnerable, referring to languages typically only spoken in certain spaces or circumstances, to endangered, referring to languages that are not spoken nor transmitted across generations, to extinct, referring to languages with no native speakers (extinct languages can possibly be revitalized, so you can think of them as technically dormant). See UNESCO’s chart of endangerment for more.


Exercise: Endangered Languages

Read through UNESCO’s Frequently Asked Questions on Endangered Languages to learn more about causes of language endangerment, examples of extinct languages, and what might be done to preserve and revitalize vulnerable and extinct languages.

The number of speakers of a language is certainly a key criterion in determining its overall health status or level of endangerment. As a general rule of thumb, areas that have high linguistic diversity are most susceptible to some kind of endangerment or extinction. Papua New Guinea, which is an island-nation in the world region of Oceania, is the most linguistically diverse place in the world. Of the approximate 7,000 known languages, over 800 of them are spoken in this country. What?! But more importantly, why? The most commonly cited reason includes the fact that the mountainous terrain creates isolated communities of people who have little interactions with each other over time. Thus, pockets of speakers of one language exist in relative isolation from other geographically proximate pockets of speakers of another language and languages do not collide or co-evolve due to contact. We see here a clear example of how the physical geographic layer of place plays a role in shaping human systems, in this case, language. As a very linguistically diverse place, Papua New Guinea is also at high risk for experiencing language losses and given how integral language is to culture, this could prove to be rather culturally damaging and traumatic.


Exercise: Language Loss

View this Story Map of endangered languages. Select a language to examine by choosing one that appears on the top scroll bar or clicking a pin on the map. Read any information associated with the language that appears in the left pane. Then search the language in the UNESCO Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger and respond to the following prompts:

  • Summarize key features about the endangered language you chose to examine (ex: where is the language spoken? what level of endangerment does it suffer? how does it relate to the culture and identity? Cite specific statistics when possible (ex: number of speakers). 
  • Conduct a web search to find out what efforts are being made to preserve or revitalize the endangered language. If you cannot find anything about the exact language, research efforts being made to revitalize other languages and/or brainstorm your own ideas on how this could be done. Describe at least 3 ways that the language is being or could be revitalized, being as specific and precise as you can. 




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Human Geography Copyright © by Christine Rosenfeld & Nathan Burtch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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