Map Monday: language, culture, identity and world maps

This week’s Map Monday is an effort to show what languages are spoken around the world. I have learned a lot about the importance of language as central to culture and identity by virtue of where I live, which I will explain below. If your mother tongue is English, as mine is, and you live in a majority English-speaking region, as I do in North America, then you probably don’t think about it too much. You think of language as a way of communicating: communicating your needs, your wants, your questions. And that’s true, partly. If you go to a country or region where another language is spoken, being able to ask for directions in that language makes it easier and also makes the experience more enjoyable. Being able to carry out a conversation with a local in that local language makes the experience even more enjoyable. But language is far more than the straightforward act of polite communication.

I’m going to say more about this below, but I’ll start with the maps. When I went looking for maps that would show the languages spoken around the world, I knew it would be a challenge. Canada alone is a challenge, with its two official languages and more minority languages. Belgium has three official languages. Switzerland has four. India has two nationally official languages, but 22 recognized official languages around the country, and many more minority languages. And these are just starting examples. So I was prepared for it to be a difficult search, but not for it to be an impossible search. I actually found a site called Misleading Language Maps on the Internet which shows several maps and what’s wrong with them, but provides no maps that get its seal of approval. I’m going to give you a few examples here.

This map of official languages from is typical of what you find. It shows the primary language of each country – the language of the most successful colonizer in many/most cases – but not the variety of languages spoken or even each of the official languages. In some cases, even the official language showing is wrong, and this is typical of the maps I could find. Not acceptable.

This next map shows the second most popular language in a few countries. It helps give a flavour of what languages are common in a country besides the main one. There’s lots of detail if you just enlarge it (click on the image and then zoom with your browser).

This map shows the third most popular language in each country. The surprising result for nearly every country gives you an idea of how inadequate maps are to describe the richness and diversity of the languages around us.

This next map attempts to show the families of languages around the world (enlarge for the details). I include it because it at least includes major indigenous language groups. However it still overlays the imported European languages on top of them. But at least it’s trying.

As you can see, these maps leave a lot of questions and are easily open to misinterpretation. I admit to being quite disappointed in the lack of quality in information. Disappointed because language is about far more than just an ability to communicate with others. Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture. Language is the means by which culture and its traditions and shared values are conveyed and preserved. A language is formed by a society’s culture, even by the landscape of the culture. A society’s language is an integral part of making that society and its history unique. Your mother tongue language – the one you started out with – is and will always be an important part of your identity. It’s a part of who you are.

When Europeans began colonizing large parts of the planet nearly 500 years ago, the European colonizers disrupted and – in many cases, yes – destroyed populations and, as best they could, wiped out their native languages. Canada’s biggest shame, the treatment of our first nations and Inuit peoples in their own land, is a shame shared by virtually every country that was colonized by Europeans (or their European offspring, the U.S.). And one of the main pillars of subjugating the indigenous peoples in the efforts to ensure that the colonizers got everything they wanted (land, resources, and power) was to wipe out the indigenous languages. Speak English. Speak French. Speak Spanish. Speak Portuguese. In other words, your languages are inferior, your cultures are inferior.

As an offshoot of this practice among colonizers, aka conquerors, I live in a country and a province that have two official languages, the languages of our two competing colonizers, English and French. In Canada, first the French came and engaged in a variety of relationships with the indigenous peoples they encountered – some hostile, some fruitful – and in more cases than not they found ways to co-exist. Then the British came. Not a good mix. Eventually, the British made a perhaps unprecedented arrangement with the French whereby the French settlers in Quebec were accorded their rights to language and church when the Brits took over what would later become Canada. The French Acadian settlements in the Maritimes of Canada (now New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) weren’t so fortunate. The British rounded up the men, women, and children in their churches, burned their barns and homes, and put them all on ships to somewhere. No real plan, just get them out of here. That period in history is known as the Acadian Expulsions (or more politely, the deportations). Many ended up in Louisiana (the Cajuns) and in other parts of the eastern seaboard.

Many of the deported returned to Acadia and resettled with fellow Acadians who had hidden in remote parts of an already remote part of the world. As a result, Acadian history, culture, and language are alive and well in my small province of New Brunswick. New Brunswick is the world centre for the preservation of Acadian heritage. We are an officially bilingual province, with 30+% of our population French-speaking Acadians. My Acadian friends are fiercely proud of their heritage and their language. They live it every day in their homes, their schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and public places. Always.

Aside from French and English, in this same small province we also have a number of first nations (indigenous) peoples; they speak their own languages as well as English or French, languages that had been used for thousands of years until the ‘settler’ governments began marginalizing them through spurious means.

In Canada, you can find large pockets of mother-tongue French-speakers in many provinces across the country. You can find numerous indigenous languages spoken. In the Arctic regions of Canada, 80+% of the population speaks Inuktitut at home. And of course, in the multicultural society we have embraced, there are numerous immigrant communities that speak different languages at home. And yet on the world maps of languages Canada shows as speaking English, with some maps adding an inaccurate shading of Quebec and, strangely, parts of Newfoundland as speaking French. That’s inaccurate and misleading.

Complicated national language stories similar to Canada’s can be found in many countries around the world. It’s just not that simple. Surely there are ways to produce maps that tell the real story, the story of the richness of languages used around the world.

For those of you with a real interest in what languages are used where in the world, here is a non-map diagram that can answer most your questions (really needs expanding!).


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26 Responses to Map Monday: language, culture, identity and world maps

  1. Jean says:

    Didn’t know NB was 30% French speaking.

  2. There is nothing about Greek Language why? Even in a group?

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Fascinating. I am embarrassed to say that I hadn’t noticed that before. It looks like the reason the “author” gives is that it’s one of the languages that has too few speakers to be included. I suppose this may be partly because Greece wasn’t one of the colonizers during the 16th-19th centuries, when they exported their languages along with their power, However, when you consider the importance of Greece and the Greek language in setting the standard for modern day democracy, philosophy, and poetry, it’s astounding, you’re right. Two generations ago, students in North America were learning Greek and Latin in school precisely because of their dominance in philosophy and poetry.

  3. Pingback: A COVID kind of year-end | Robby Robin's Journey

  4. Roy McCarthy says:

    Fascinating stuff Jane. I dare not get into it too deeply or I’d never get anything else done. Those maps sure tell a story. There are bound to be inaccuracies and debating points. For example, I, too, am surprised at Welsh coming in at no.2 in Britain, but that’s correct apparently.

    And see how Chinese/Mandarin has gotten so embedded.

    As you say, there are an amazing amount of minority languages, many kept alive artificially. That’s leaving aside regional variations and dialects. Each of the Channel Islands has its own native language, though they are hardly ever heard outside the classrooms now. And apparently Jerriaise, the original Jersey Norman-French tongue, had variations throughout the twelve parishes. You’d need a very large-scale map to show them 🙂 I’m presently copy typing up some old Jerriaise stuff so that it can be more easily found and studied by those who might be interested.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      How interesting, Roy, that there are that many dialectic differences in Jerriaise in Jersey. That had to date from when there was virtually no movement from one small village/settlement to another. You do find these differences right around the world, and when people hear their mother-tongue language or accent spoken, it brings forth a very powerful emotion. I love this subject!

      • Roy McCarthy says:

        Another aspect that fascinates me is how certain languages have been ‘transplanted’ – Acadia is an example. But you’ll find Jersey accents in Newfoundland, Welsh in Patagonia, and Shakespeare English in North Carolina. Endless fun.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Endless fun, indeed. All because of colonization and migration over centuries. Many Newfoundlanders sound more Irish than the Irish. There are still people who speak Gaelic in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. And there’s a reason why Canada’s third most popular language is Punjabi! You’re right, Roy, endless fun!

  5. K E Garland says:

    Thanks for another interesting map!

  6. Thanks again Jane for another wonderful learning experience. One thing I came to realize here is the common usage of the term English or French to characterize our languages here in Canada. In fact they only resemble those languages in some areas. I remember many years in my home province of Newfoundland visiting my sister and they had friends drop in and after I asked her where they were from because I could barely understand them and she laughed because they were from a small town around the bay but probably ;ess than 100km away.
    I have always marvelled at the differences in the same language, either English or French, within relatively small geographical areas such as England, Newfoundland or the eastern seaboard of the US.
    Yes we may all be basically speaking the same major language but the regional differences are as huge as the cultural differences.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Very good point, Wayne. Newfoundland accents are indeed unique in Canada and are an integral component of Newfoundland culture. Similarly, Acadian French is easily distinguishable from Quebec French, two different cultures. Gosh, the map I’m dreaming of us getting more and more complicated!

  7. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    Really need to spend time with these if you want a little broader understanding of languages.

  8. barryh says:

    I find it quite pleasing that it is not possible to analytically simply show the prevalence of various languages around the world. Languages and cultures are living things and not easily subject to metrication. The charts actually have a lot of interesting information anyway.

    And sorry to hear about the shootings in a part of the world I just would not have expected it to happen. Oh dear.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      That’s a refreshing way to look at it, Barry. I’d agree – it’s clearly nearly impossible anyway – but by having only the main spoken language in each country showing, and so many being languages of the European colonizer, it erases the diversity and richness of languages and cultures within borders. It’s not too helpful to show that English is the main language of India, for example. I was hoping for more. But I’m an idealist by nature!

      Thanks for your sympathies about the horrific and inexplicable shootings, in rural Nova Scotia of all places. There are no words. 😥

  9. Marushka says:

    Thanks for sharing the resources and the Canadian history!

  10. In the second and third languages maps, I think they have the UK countries a little mixed up. I doubt that Welsh is the second language of Scotland. ☺️ Nevertheless, interesting. Thanks Jane.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. I saw that and assumed they meant Welsh to be the second language in Britain, including the three countries (?) on the island. But my husband wondered if Hindi or another immigrant language wouldn’t have more native speakers. You have a good eye, Francine. Another example of how uncertain a lot of language data is. Thanks.

  11. As always you leave me wiser, baffled and impressed by your diligence

  12. A fascinating blog entry. I learned a lot.

  13. Jill davies says:

    Not only is map Monday interesting as usual, I learned things, especially about 3rd languages, who knew ours was Punjabi? Also, so nice to think of things other than Covid 19 and now inexplicable mass shootings….dear god.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Jill. I’m pretty sure you’ll find more Punjabi in Toronto than in N.S. or N.B. but we do get a Punjabi TV channel. Now that makes sense. I’m going to stick with my French lessons! Beyond horrible, the killings in N.S. 😥😧

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