Language (in contrast to speech) may be understood in several ways: (a) as a means of organizing thought; (b) as a way of communicating, that is, producing and sharing meaning; and (c) as a vehicle for bringing the world into consciousness, that is, of converting sensations into perceptions. Language is a system of symbols through which cognition is structured, and it is intimately wrapped up in individual and collective identity. It is impossible to understand the world without it. Language is thus simultaneously a psychological, social, and cultural phenomenon. In many countries (e.g., Belgium, Canada), languages have deep political significance as well and may be the source of ethnic strife. Because languages are unevenly distributed across space, they are also inherently geographical.
Because languages are semantically and historically related to one another, it is common to group them into families of varying sizes. Linguists and cultural geographers typically maintain that there are roughly eight major language families as well as several others termed isolates.
By far the largest and most widespread of the major language families is the Indo-European, a group first identified by the famous linguist William Jones, a British judge stationed in India, in the 18th century. Starting with the migrations of the so-called Aryans around 1500 BC to 2000 BC, perhaps as a result of their domestication of the horse, Indo-Europeans moved in two directions from their homeland near the Caucuses Mountains. (Indeed, names such as Ireland and Iran are derived from the name of this tribe). One group moved east into Northern India, their languages becoming the basis of the Sanskrit-based Indic languages, such as Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati, Bihari, Marathi, Sinhala, and Nepali. Others remained in the Middle East, where their languages eventually became the Iranic family, including Farsi (formerly Persian), Kurdish, Armenian, and Pashto in Afghanistan. The other major branch of Indo-Europeans moved into Europe, where they diverged into several groups. The languages of these groups include the Latin-based Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, French, Romansch, and Romanian), which arose during the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Greek and Albanian form separate categories in their own right. Farther north, the Germanic languages include German, Dutch, the Scandinavian tongues, and English. Celtic, an early branch once widespread throughout Western Europe, today consists of Scottish and Irish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton in Western France, and extinct tongues such as Cornish; this branch is in danger of disappearing. In Eastern Europe and Russia, the Slavic branch includes Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, and Bulgarian. The Baltic group of Lithuanian and Latvian is another branch.
With the expansion of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and British colonialism, Indo-European languages were carried throughout much of the world, becoming dominant throughout the New World, Australia, and New Zealand (Figure 1). Today, about half of the world speaks an Indo-European tongue of one sort or another. English, in particular, empowered and diffused by the British and American empires, has become the lingua franca of more people than any other tongue (when second-language speakers are included). English is unquestionably the world's dominant language in commerce, trade, scholarly publications, airlines, international finance, and tourism. The rise of the nation-state as well as the invention of printing had enormous effects on the social and spatial structure of language. One dialect—typically that of dominant elites, whether in Tuscany, London, Madrid, or Paris—became privileged over others, expanding into national languages, annihilating local differences in vocabulary and pronunciation but integrating diverse groups linguistically into a common group. The newly printed languages were fundamental for the emergence of a national consciousness because they geographically connected speakers of, for example, local varieties of “Englishes,” “Spanishes,” and “Germans” and made known to them the existence of others who shared the same language group. These newly printed languages forged dialects together into national languages. Printing thus constituted a prime dimension in the time-space compression that created modern nation-states.
A second major language family is Afro-Asiatic, which extends across the Middle East and North Africa (Figure 2). This group includes most of the extinct or nearly extinct languages of the ancient Middle East, such as Canaanite, Phoenician, Assyrian, and Aramaic (of which pockets survive). The dominant branch of the Afro-Asiatic family is Semitic, which includes Arabic (with numerous dialects) and Hebrew, nearly extinct as a spoken language until it was revived by the Zionists at the end of the 19th century. Other branches include Berber, widespread in the Mahgreb, and Kushitic, the dominant family of Ethiopia (i.e., Amharic) and Somali.
Ural-Altaic, also sometimes called Finno-Ugric, constitutes a third family. The origins of this group, probably near the Altai mountains of Mongolia, are lost in prehistory. It is likely that speakers of these languages are descendants of several waves of migration that generated populations that continue to speak loosely related tongues stretched across Eurasia (Figure 3). Finnish and Estonian constitute one example; Hungarian, the language of the Magyar who settled in Eastern Europe in the 8th century, is another. A third branch is the Turkic languages, which all emanated from the Turkish migrations into Central Asia and Anatolia in the 9th and 10th centuries; the remaining Turkic languages include Turkish, Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, Kyrghiz, and Uighur in Western China. Yet another branch is Mongol and Manchu, formerly spoken in Manchuria but now extinct, as are the indigenous tongues of Siberia, such as Samoyed and Tungic, Finally, although it is controversial, many linguists assign Japanese and Korean to this family as well.
Africa south of the Sahara desert is a complex mosaic of tongues from several language families. In addition to the Afro-Asiatic languages in the north (Arabic, Berber) and in the Horn of Africa (Amharic, Somali), it has smaller families such as the Nilo-Saharan and, in Southwest Africa, the famous click languages of the Khoisan family (e.g., !Kung). However, the bulk of the many languages spoken throughout this vast region fall under the Bantu or Niger-Kordofanian language family, which includes thousands of tongues (Figure 4). Arising from the migrations of agriculturalists from Central Africa around the time of Christ, this family includes languages as diverse as Mande in Western Africa, Kikuyu in Kenya, and Tswana, Nbele, and Zulu in Southern Africa. Along the eastern part of the continent, Swahili has long formed a lingua franca, a trade language that combined words of different languages, including some from Arabic.
In Eastern Asia, the Sino-Tibetan language family is the most commonly spoken group (Figure 5). Common to this group is the use of tones (although these are found in some African languages, too), in which pitch forms part of the meaning of the word. This family includes Chinese, which embraces a variety of languages that are not mutually intelligible but use a common writing system (a feat only made possible with a pictographic writing system, not an alphabet). Chinese includes Mandarin, the dominant language of Northern China (and the most commonly spoken language at home in the world) and close to a national tongue (Szechwanese is a dialect), as well as Cantonese and less well-known ones such as Shanghainese, Wu, Hakka, and Fukienese or Taiwanese. This group also includes Tibetan and, because of Tibetan migrations down the Irrawaddy River, Burmese.
A sixth major family is the Malayo-Polynesian, a diverse group that extends across much of southeast Asia into the islands of Polynesia and Micronesia (Figure 6), thus including Hawaiian and New Zealand's Maori. Originating among tribes in Taiwan, this group includes the Malay languages of Malaysia and Indonesia (each with countless dialects) and the numerous tongues of the Philippines, of which Tagalog is the best known. Around AD 500, Indonesian sailors crossed the Indian Ocean and settled in Madagascar, making the language Malagasy part of this family.
Several other families are worth noting. Southern India is home to a sizable population who do not speak Indo-European languages but the Dravidian tongues Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam. The Indochinese peninsula is home to two distinct language groups, Austro-Asiatic (Vietnamese, Cambodian) and Thai-Kadai (Thai, Lao). The Aboriginal peoples of Australia and Papua New Guinea, who constitute 1% of the world's population, speak 20% of the world's languages in an enormously diverse group often called Indo-Pa-cific. The Americas were home to a huge range of indigenous languages prior to the mass demographic and cultural extermination unleashed by the Europeans: More than a dozen families existed in North America (e.g., Iroquoian, Siouan, Salishan, Athabascan, Mayan) and in South America (Andean, Chibchan, Macro-Carib). Finally, isolate languages such as Basque, with no surviving relatives, and Kartvelian tongues such as Georgian, continue to survive.
Today, there are roughly 5,000 to 6,500 languages remaining in the world. Most, however, have very few speakers, often numbering only in the dozens, and are not written. The total number was much larger in the past and has been steadily declining for centuries. The rise of the nation-state often led to a deliberate homogenization of cultures and dialects, and today, globalization and national school systems have contributed to the decline. In the Americas, disease, genocide, government-run boarding schools in the United States, and cultural assimilation annihilated large numbers of languages. Today, 96% of the planet speaks one of the top 20 languages, and many observers predict that 50% of all languages will disappear within the next century (one every 2 weeks). This decline represents a crisis in cultural diversity that deprives humanity of the rich ways of viewing the world inherent in the multiple different languages.
Finally, in addition to the geography of languages, geographers have long been interested in the role of language in the representation of space. Because language structures and mediates thought, it plays an enormous role in how discourses about the world are organized. Language as a structured symbolic system has figured prominently in philosophy for decades, including varied analyses by authors such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Benjamin Whorf, Jurgen Habermas, and various poststructuralist authors (e.g., Jacques Derrida), who interpret the world through the lens of discourse. In this light, language is not simply a medium for communicating but an obstacle as well, a force that enters into the making of social and spatial reality. For humanistic geographers, language is a window into the structure of human consciousness and spatial perception, for language shapes how human beings give meaning to space and their sense of place. Language became a central topic in the intersections between geography and literary criticism, including the analysis of landscape as texts. For Gunnar Olsson, the limits of language amounted to the limits of understanding. Feminists have emphasized the gendered nature of language and how it helps to reify or to challenge gender roles and performativity. For followers of Michel Foucault, language is constitutive of ideology and discourse and thus is always intimately associated with power and the social production of subjects. For postmodernists, languages always oversimplify the world, for reality is more complex than any language can admit. A broad consensus emerging from these various perspectives is that all worldviews are inherently and necessarily partial, contingent, and situated in context. Such lines of thought have enormous implications for the ways in which truth is conceived (e.g., as a mirror of the world or as part of a situated worldview) and how explanation is justified. Language is thus a deeply epistemological phenomenon, for humans do not simply use language, they are in turn shaped by it.
Cultural Geography, Discourse and Geography, Epistemology, Humanistic Geography, Literature, Geography and, Olsson, Gunnar, Ontology, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Text/Textuality, Writing
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