Visualizing Language

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Remember those historical maps of European languages in the decades before World War I? They’re pretty common, especially buried in the Bargain Books section of Barnes and Noble. Anyway, the premise was that, by the middle of the 19th century, Europeans were beginning to identify more with their own nationality and language than with their imperial governments. Anachronistic states like Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire had a hard time dealing with passionate nationalist movements erupting in places like Greece and Serbia, and a lot of this had to do with language.

The maps themselves are pretty telling. The boundary between, say, Russia and Austria is a single red line, thin and elegant. But large colored sections with labels like Ukrainian and White Russian straddle the borders, and form large, amorphous blobs across much of Eastern Europe. Because people are less predictable than countries–or at least less tidy–there seems to be little rhyme or reason. Pockets of Finns and Estonians color northern Russia, Greeks go as far east as the Black Sea, and Germans are everywhere.

From this information, it’s clear in hindsight that big changes were in store for Europe.

Today, borders are a lot less important. Innovations like the Schengen Area have made a ghost of centuries of European warfare, and trade pacts around the world further delegitimize official boundaries. A lot of this change is based on communication. By the numbers, Facebook is the third largest country on earth, and Verizon is (economically) bigger than Peru.

Aside from their sheer size, it’s also clear that social media networks, like European languages, are making political boundaries even less significant. Two maps on Frank Jacobs’ Strange Maps blog come to mind. The first is a visualization of Twitter languages across Europe, which looks something like a multicolored “Europe at night” photo. As Jacobs notes, the maps illustrate not only that Twitter has expanded well beyond the English-speaking world, but also that languages are no more tied to national borders than they were in the 19th century.

In the U.S., language is a little more homogenous. But patterns of communication are just as messy and unpredictable as in Europe. Another Strange Maps creation superimposes pockets of cell phone “communities” on U.S. states, which, surprisingly, changes their layout quite a bit. Because people in southern Illinois are more likely to call St. Louis than Chicago, Missouri has grown in size, even taking parts of eastern Kansas. Minnesota has taken western Wisconsin and connected with Iowa, and one of the Carolinas has annexed the other. 

Boundaries, even between states, still profoundly influence our lives, and it’s especially hard to deny their importance during a federal election cycle. But the way we connect with one another is not so clear cut, and that’s likely to inspire ever more complex ways of viewing the world around us.

Sources:Strange Maps, BBC, The Economist,

Image by Andrei Nacu, licensed under Creative Commons

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