3.3 Geography of World Languages

Language and religion are two essential cultural characteristics for human geographers to study. Geographers describe the historical and spatial distributions of language and religion across the landscape as a way of understanding cultural identity. Furthermore, when geographers study religion, they are less concerned with theology and more concerned with the diffusion and interaction of religious ideologies across time and space and the imprint it has on the cultural landscape.

Symbols and Language

Humans, consciously, and subconsciously, are always striving to make sense of their surrounding world. Symbols – such as gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words – help people understand that world. They provide clues to understanding experiences by conveying recognizable meanings that are shared by societies.

The world is filled with symbols. Sports uniforms, company logos, and traffic signs are symbols. In some cultures, a gold ring is a symbol of marriage. Some symbols are highly functional; stop signs, for instance, provide useful instruction. As physical objects, they belong to material culture, but because they function as symbols, they also convey nonmaterial cultural meanings. Some symbols are valuable only in what they represent. Trophies, blue ribbons, or gold medals, for example, serve no other purpose than to represent accomplishments. However, many objects have both material and nonmaterial symbolic value.

A police officer’s badge and uniform are symbols of authority and law enforcement. The sight of an officer in uniform or a squad car triggers reassurance in some citizens, and annoyance, fear, or anger in others.

It is easy to take symbols for granted. Few people challenge or even think about stick figure signs on the doors of public bathrooms. However, those figures are more than just symbols that tell men and women which bathrooms to use. They also uphold the value, in the United States, that public restrooms should be gender exclusive. Even though stalls are relatively private, most places do not offer unisex bathrooms.

Symbols often get noticed when they are out of context. Used unconventionally, they convey strong messages. A stop sign on the door of a corporation makes a political statement, as does a camouflage military jacket worn in an antiwar protest. Together, the semaphore signals for “N” and “D” represent nuclear disarmament – and form the well-known peace sign (Westcott 2008). Today, some college students have taken to wearing pajamas and bedroom slippers to class, clothing that was formerly associated only with privacy and bedtime. Though students might deny it, the outfit defies traditional cultural norms and makes a statement.

Even the destruction of symbols is symbolic. Effigies representing public figures are burned to demonstrate anger at certain leaders. In 1989, crowds tore down the Berlin Wall, a decades-old symbol of the division between East and West Germany, communism, and capitalism.

While different cultures have varying systems of symbols, one symbol is common to all: language. Language is a symbolic system through which people communicate and through which culture is transmitted. Some languages contain a system of symbols used for written communication, while others rely on only spoken communication and nonverbal actions.

Societies often share a single language, and many languages contain the same essential elements. An alphabet is a written system made of symbolic shapes that refer to spoken sound. Taken together, these symbols convey specific meanings. The English alphabet uses a combination of twenty-six letters to create words; these twenty-six letters make up over 600,000 recognized English words (OED Online 2011).

Rules for speaking and writing vary even within cultures, most notably by region. Do you refer to a can of carbonated liquid as “soda,” pop,” or “Coke”? Is a household entertainment room a “family room,” “rec room,” or “den”? When leaving a restaurant, do you ask your server for a “check,” the “ticket,” or your “bill”?

Language is continuously evolving as societies create new ideas. In this age of technology, people have adapted almost instantly to new nouns such as “e-mail” and “Internet,” and verbs such as “downloading,” “texting,” and “blogging.” Twenty years ago, the general public would have considered these nonsense words.

Even while it continually evolves, language continues to shape our reality. This insight was established in the 1920s by two linguists, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Whorf. They believed that reality is culturally determined, and that any interpretation of reality is based on a society’s language. To prove this point, the geographers and other social scientists argued that every language has words or expressions specific to that language. In the United States, for example, the number thirteen is associated with bad luck. In Japan, however, the number four is considered unlucky, since it is pronounced similarly to the Japanese word for “death.”

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is based on the idea that people experience their world through their language, and that they, therefore, understand their world through the culture embedded in their language. The hypothesis, which has also been called linguistic relativity, states that language shapes thought (Swoyer 2003). Studies have shown, for instance, that unless people have access to the word “ambivalent,” they do not recognize an experience of uncertainty from having conflicting positive and negative feelings about one issue. Essentially, the hypothesis argues that, if a person cannot describe the experience, the person does not have the experience.

In addition to using language, people communicate without words. Nonverbal communication is symbolic, and, as in the case of language, much of it is learned through one’s culture. Some gestures are nearly universal: smiles often represent joy, and crying often represents sadness. Other nonverbal symbols vary across cultural contexts in their meaning. A thumbs-up, for example, indicates positive reinforcement in the United States, whereas, in Russia and Australia, it is an offensive curse (Passero 2002). Other gestures vary in meaning depending on the situation and the person. A wave of the hand can mean many things, depending on how it is done and for whom. It may mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “no, thank you,” or “I am royalty.” Winks convey a variety of messages, including “We have a secret,” “I am only kidding,” or “I am attracted to you.” From a distance, a person can understand the emotional gist of two people in conversation just by watching their body language and facial expressions. Furrowed brows and folded arms indicate a serious topic, possibly an argument. Smiles, with heads lifted and arms open, suggest a lighthearted, friendly chat.

Defining Language

Language and religion are two essential cultural characteristics for human geographers to study. Geographers describe the historical and spatial distributions of language and religion across the landscape as a way of understanding cultural identity. Furthermore, when geographers study religion, they are less concerned with theology and more concerned with the diffusion and interaction of religious ideologies across time and space and the imprint it has on the cultural landscape.

Languages relate to each other in much the same way that family groups (think of a family tree) relate to each other. Language is a system of communication that provides meaning to a group of people through speech. Nearly all languages around the world have a literary tradition: a system of written communication. Most nations have an official language. Most citizens of a nation with an official language speak and write in that language. Additionally, most official or governmental documents, monetary funds, and transportation signs are communicated in the official language. However, some regions, such as the European Union have 23 official languages.

A language family is a collection of languages related through a common prehistorical language that makes up the main trunk of language identity. A language tree will have language branches, a collection of languages related through a common ancestral language that existed thousands of years ago. Finally, a language group is a collection of languages within a single branch that shares a common origin from the relatively recent past and displays relatively few differences in grammar and vocabulary.


There are various dialects within any language, and English in the United States is no exception. A dialect is a regional variation of a language, such as English, distinguished by distinctive vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation. In the United States, there is a dialect difference between southern, northern, and western states. We can all understand each other, but the way we say things may sound accented or “weird” to others. There is also a dialect difference between American English and English spoken in Britain, as well as other parts of the British Commonwealth.

Origins and Diffusions of Language

All modern languages originate from an ancient language. The origin of every language may never be known because many ancient languages existed and changed before the written record. Root words within languages are the best evidence that we have to indicate that languages originated from pre-written history. The possible geographic origin of ancient languages is quite impressive. For example, several languages have similar root words for winter and snow, but not for the ocean. This indicates that the original language originated in an interior location away from the ocean. It was not until people speaking this language migrated toward the ocean that the word ocean was added to the lexicon (a catalog of a language’s words).

There are many layers within the Indo-European language family, but we will focus on the specifics. Though they sound very different, German and English, come from the same Germanic branch of the Indo-European language group. The Germanic branch is divided into High German and Low German. Most Germans speak High German, whereas English, Danish, and Flemish are considered subgroups of Low German. The Romance branch originated 2,000 years ago and is derived from Latin. Today, the Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian. The Balto-Slavic branch uses to be considered one broad language called Slavic in the 7th Century, but subdivided into a variety of smaller groups over time. Today the Balto-Slavic branch is composed of the following groups: East Slavic, West, Slavic, South Slavic, and Baltic. The Indo-European language branch spoken by most people around the world is Indo-Iranian with over 100 individual languages.

The origin of Indo-European languages has long been a topic of debate among scholars and scientists. In 2012, a team of evolutionary biologists at the University of Auckland led by Dr. Quentin Atkinson released a study that found all modern IE languages could be traced back to a single root: Anatolian — the language of Anatolia, now modern-day Turkey.

Distribution of Language Families

The next question that must be asked is why languages are diffused where they are diffused?  Social scientists, specifically linguistics and archaeologists, disagree on this issue because some believe that languages are diffused by war and conquest, whereas others believe diffusion occurs by peaceful/symbiotic means such as food and trade. For example, English is spoken by over 2 billion people and is the dominant language in 55 countries. Much of this diffusion has to do with British imperialism. The primary purpose of British imperialism was to appropriate as much foreign territory as possible to use as sources of raw materials. Imperialism involves diffusion of language through both conquest and trade.

The linguistic structure of the Sino-Tibetan language family is very complex and different from the Indo-European language family. Unlike European languages, the Sino-Tibetan language is based on hundreds of one-syllable spoken words. The other distinctive characteristic of this language is the way it is written. Rather than letters used in the Indo-European language, the Chinese language is written using thousands of characters called ideograms, which represent ideas or concepts rather than sounds. Sino-Tibetan language family exists mainly in China—the most populous nation in the world—and is over 4,000 years old. Of the over 1 billion Chinese citizens, 75 percent speak Mandarin, making it the most common language used in the world.

There are a large variety of other language families in Eastern and Southeast Asian. There is Austronesian in Indonesia, Austro-Asiatic that includes Vietnamese, Tai Kadai that is spoken in Thailand and surrounding countries, Korean and Japanese. In Southwest Asia (also called the Middle East), there are three dominant language families. The Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken by over 200 million people in several countries in the form of Arabic and are the written language of the Muslim holy book called the Quran. Hebrew is another Afro-Asiatic language and is the language of the Torah and Talmud (Jewish sacred texts).

The largest group of the Altaic language family is Turkish. The Turkish language used to be written with Arabic letters, but in 1928 the Turkish government required the use of the Roman alphabet in order to adapt the nation’s cultural and economic communications to those in line with their Western-European counterparts. Finally, the Uralic language family originated 7,000 years ago, near the Ural mountains in Siberia. All European countries speak Indo-European languages except Estonia, Finland, and Hungary, which speak Uralic instead.

The countries that make up Africa have a wealthy and sophisticated family of languages.  Africa has thousands of languages that have resulted from 5,000 years of isolation between the various tribes. Just like species that evolve differently over thousands of years of isolation, Africa’s languages have evolved into various tongues. However, there are three major African language families to focus on. The Niger-Congo language family is spoken by 95 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa. Within the Niger-Congo language is Swahili, which is the official language of only 800,00 people, but a secondary language is spoken by over 30 million Africans. Only a few million people in Africa speak languages from the Nilo-Saharan language family. The Khoisan language family is spoken by even fewer, but is distinctive because of the “clicking sounds” when spoken.

In a world dominated by communication, globalization, science, and the Internet, English has grown to be the dominant global language. Today English is considered a lingua franca (a language mutually understood and commonly used in trade by people who have different native languages). It is now believed that 500 million people speak English as a second language. There are other lingua fraca such as Swahili in Eastern Africa and Russian in nations that were once a part of the Soviet Union.

Pidgins and Creoles

Pidgins, also called contact languages, which develop out of contact between at least two groups of people who do not share a common language. A pidgin language is a usually a mixture of two or more languages, contains simplified grammar and vocabulary in, and is used for linguistic communication between groups, usually for trading purposes, who speak different languages. Pidgins are not first/native languages and are always learned as a second language. Many pidgins developed during the European colonization of Asia, Africa, and other areas of the world during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

Creole languages are stable languages that develop from pidgins. Different from pidgins, creole languages are primary languages that are nativized by children. Additionally, creoles have their formal grammar and vocabulary. The grammar of a creole language often has grammatical features that differ from those of both parent languages. However, the vocabulary of a creole is primarily taken from the language of the dominant contact group.

Endangered Languages and Preserving Language Diversity

An isolated language is one that is unrelated to any other language. Thus it cannot be connected to any language family. These remote languages, and many others, are experiencing a mass extinction and are quickly disappearing off the planet. It is believed that nearly 500 languages are in danger of being lost forever. Think about the language you speak, the knowledge and understanding acquired and discovered through that language. What would happen to all that knowledge if your language suddenly disappeared? Would all of it be transferred to another language or would major components be lost to time and be rewritten by history? What would happen to your culture if your language was lost to time? Ultimately, is it possible that the Information Age is causing a Dis-information Age as thousands of languages are near extinction? Click here to view an Esri story map on Endangered Languages.

Consider the impact of language on culture, particularly religion. Most religions have some form of written or literary tradition or history, which allows for information to be transferred to future generations.  However, some religions are only transferred verbally, and when that culture disappears (which is happening at a frightening rate), so does all of the knowledge and history of that culture.

The Endangered Languages Project serves as an online resource for samples and research on endangered languages, as well as a forum for advice and best practices for those working to strengthen linguistic diversity.


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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