Language families: amazing maps!

What a diversity of languages we have! With 7000 languages spread out over the world in a patchwork quilt, we can fuse linguistics and maps into a single combined representation. That’s what Annemarie Verkerk’s article “Language Family Maps” is all about, so go read it.

Let’s just focus on the gorgeous maps in the article, since those are what leap out both cartographically and linguistically. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap that most people who aren’t familiar with language families fall into: assign one language per country, with a few possible exceptions for the most perspicuous examples such as Canada and India. The reality is far more complicated: a patchwork quilt, as I said. This reality is actually orthogonal to the question of language families, as the various languages spoken in a country might belong to the same family (Canada, for example) or might belong to different families (India, for example).

I’m just going to quote a couple of the maps here, so you should read the article for the rest. The most obvious family to show is Indo-European (I-E), since English is in that family:


As Verkerk observes, India is not clear here in the inset, but let’s see what else we learn from the map:

  • It shows branches of I-E, not individual languages. In Spain, for instance, there’s no distinction between Spanish, Catalan, and Galician (and the Basque area is almost too small to see clearly, though it’s gray, not being I-E at all).
  • The Celtic languages may surprise you, being located in disconnected regions on the west coasts of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and… France? Yes, France.
  • The visual distinction between Baltic and non-Indo-European is not clear, at least to my eyes. Estonia, Hungary, northern Scandinavia, and most of Finland are non-I-E, but Latvia and Lithuania are Baltic.
  • There’s a good chunk of I-E in Turkey. (Kurdistan, anyone, if you’ve been paying attention to the news?)
  • Russia is complicated.

And another interesting map is the one showing the Caucasian languages (not Caucasian in the sense of “white,” I must point out):

This is not a map of a single language family, but rather of a region. Now we really see the patchwork metaphor! It’s hard to wrap your head around all the different languages and where they’re located on this beautiful map. I bet you haven’t even heard of a majority of them! (I never had, until I studied the matter.) My favorite unfamiliar name is Ingush, which looks like a typo but isn’t. It’s actually a language spoken by half a million people (almost the population of Boston) and is closely related to Chechen; the Wikipedia article about it is woefully deficient in its explanation of Ingush grammar, consisting of a single sentence of sparkling clarity:

Ingush is a nominative–accusative language in its syntax, though it has ergative morphology.

Just study the maps!


Categories: Linguistics