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De Blij 7th Edition Chapter 8-10




Language is one of the cornerstones of national identity, cultural unity, and community cohesion. It is the most important cultural glue—an aspect that binds a culture together—because without language, there would he no culture. People have very strong feelings about their language and identify with it (people may be persuaded to change their religion, but not their language). When a people’s language is threatened, the response is often passionate and protective.

Thousands of languages are spoken in the world today (linguists estimate between 5000 and 6000)and they serve as both unifiers and dividers of humanity. Ironically, all languages may have a common origin. Consider the following points carefully as you read this chapter.

Standard Language

Human languages even those spoken in preliterate societies—peoples who speak their languages but do not write it—are fundamentally different from those of nonhuman primates. Human languages are not static but change constantly because a vital culture requires a flexible language and the potential vocabulary of any language is infinite.

Mature and complex cultures—technologically advanced societies—attempt to maintain a standard language sustained by national institutions and official state examinations. In The modern world, where innovations diffuse rapidly, such standards are difficult to uphold one problem that arises is: who decides what the standard language will be? Not surprisingly, the answer has to do with influence and power—circumstances that often produce problems in a world where cultural identity and national self-interest are increasingly significant.

Classification and Distribution of Languages

The problem of language classification relates to the definition of language. At issue is what is a language(according to The dictionary: ”human communication by voice) and what is a dialect (“language of a particular area or class”)? The issue is a complex one and it is clear that the distinction is not based on an objective measure of mutual intelligibility. Instead, it must be recognized that what we consider a language is a function of society’s view of what constitutes a cultural community—a matter mat in mm is influenced by historical development in the political arena.

Language classification uses terms that are also employed in biology, and for the same reasons: some languages are related and some are not. Language families are Thought to have a shared, but fairly distant, origin in a language subfamily, the commonality is more definite. Subfamilies are divided into language groups, which consist of sets of individual languages.

Figure 8-2 shows the distribution of 20 major language families. On this map, only the Indo-European language family is broken down into subfamilies (greater detail is shown in Figure 8-3). Spatially, the Indo-European languages are the most widely dispersed. More people speak languages belonging to the Indo-European language family than those in any other family. There are good reasons that this pattern. When the European migration of emigrants and colonists spread over tile world in the last 500 years, one of the cultural components that spread with them was their language. Add to this the fact that indigenous populations were virtually wiped out in The Americas and Australia (and their languages with them) and the European desire to spread the Christian faith, usually in the language of the European culture invading the area, and the patterns on the map become easier to understand.

Major World Languages

Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language (Table 8-1), with English ranking second. The numbers in Table 8-1, however, should be viewed as approximations only. English is the primary language of 350 million people in 6 major countries and numerous smaller countries with millions of inhabitants; it is also used as a second language of hundreds of millions in India , Africa , and elsewhere. English has also become the principal language of cross-culture communications, economics, and science. In a world where rapid communication and travel is becoming more the norm than the exception, this has some benefits, since there is no such thing as a “global language,” at least not officially. Consider, for example, the possible problems on an international airline trip if the cockpit crew spoke one language and the airport control tower personnel another. Fortunately, there is supposed to be an English-speaking per-son in each location. English is also spreading with the World Wide Web, at least to countries where there is access.

The present distribution of languages, as revealed on maps, is useful in understanding cultural development and change. Figure 8-4, for example, indicates the four Dravidian languages are all spoken in a compact region in the south of the Indian Peninsula . The map thus suggests that these languages (which are older) and the cultures they represent were ‘pushed” southward by the advancing Indo-European speakers. Similar interesting patterns can be observed in Figure 8-3 by looking at the spatial pattern of the Germanic and Romance language subfamilies.



Understanding the origin and diffusion of languages is essential to understanding the diffusion of humanity. By understanding where and how languages developed, we learn about the people who spoke them. Although there is disagreement on when language arose, there is no question that it was vital to the development of humanity. By studying the development and changes in languages we learn much about the development of humans and their cultures.

Language Origins

The search for the origins of language goes back tens of thousands of years. It has yielded information not only about how language changes but also about the environments where early languages were spoken. Linguistic reconstruction methods are still controversial, but with the help of computers, remarkable progress is being made in the reconstruction of ancient languages and their paths of diffusion.

The diversification of languages has long been charted through the analysis of sound shifts—finding similar words with the same meaning in different languages and determining their common language of origin. If it is possible to deduce a large part of the vocabulary of an extinct language, it may be possible to recreate the language that preceded it. This technique, called deep reconstruction, has yielded some important results. It takes humanity’s linguistic family tree back thousands of years.

Scientists do not yet agree on how long ago language emerged. Some believe that the use of language began with the rise of Homo sapiens 200,000 or more years ago; others argue that simple vocal communication began much earlier. The first major linguistic hypothesis proposed the existence of an ancestral Proto-Indo-European language (or closely related languages) as the predecessor of Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, among other ancient languages. The proposed ancestral language(s) would link not only the romance language but also a number of other languages spoken from Britain to North Africa and South Asia .

The Language Tree

In the mid-nineteenth century August Schleicher, a German linguist, compared the world’s language families to the branches of a tree. He suggested that the basic process of language formation is language divergence—differentiation over time and space. Languages would branch into dialects; isolation then increased the differences between dialects. Over time, dialects would become discrete languages. Schleicher’s idea has stood the test of time and criticism, and the language-tree model remains central to language research (Figure 9-1).

A complicating factor is that with human mobility, languages did not merely diffuse through static populations; they also spread by relocation diffusion (see Chapter 2). If this caused long-isolated languages to make contact, language convergence occurred. Researchers then face special problems because the rules of reconstruction may or may not apply. Modern cultural events add a further complication. We know that the languages of traditional, numerically smaller, and technologically less advanced people have been replaced, or greatly modified, by the languages of invaders. This process of language replacement goes on today, and there is every reason to believe that it has happened ever since humans began to use language. Thus languages change through divergence, convergence, and replacement, making the spatial search for origins problematic.

Recent Language Diffusion

The final stages of the dispersal of the older languages—before the global diffusion of English and other Indo-European languages—occurred in the Pacific realm and in the Americas . One would thus assume that the historical geography of these events would be easier to reconstruct than the complex situation in western Eurasia , but this is not the ease. While the relatively recent spread of languages to these two realms does provide useful information for the reconstruction of language diffusion routes and processes, an examination of the debates over Pacific and American native languages reveals that the problems are not simple at all.

Much remains to be learned about the reasons behind the complexity of the Pacific language map, to say nothing about the debate over human migration to, and language development and diffusion in, the Americas . One theory holds that there were three ~waves” of early human migration to the Americas from Asia producing three families of indigenous American languages. A majority of linguists still doubt the three-wave hypothesis and the three-family map of American languages. Genetic research and archeological studies will ultimately solve the issue. In the meantime, we are reminded of the gaps still remaining in our knowledge.

Influences on Individual Languages

Each of the languages in the world’s language families has its own story of origin and dispersal. It is clear, however, that there are certain critical influences on the diffusion of individual tongues. First, speakers of non-written languages will not retain the same language very long if they lose contact with one another. Second, the diffusion of a single tongue over a large area occurs only when people remain in contact with one another and continue to rely on a common linguistic frame of reference. Three critical components therefore have influenced the world’s linguistic mosaic: writing, technology, and political organization.



Language is an expression of culture, serving to both unite and divide people. The question of which language to use in a multilingual country is an important one since intercultural Communication is essential for political stability. Sometimes an existing language will spread worldwide to serve as a means of communications between people, but in regions where several languages, and their cultures, meet and merge a whole new language may develop. The study of place names, both historical and contemporary, can also reveal much about a culture and its people. In the world of the late 1990s, when the cultural composition of many countries is changing, questions about language are of particular significance.

Choosing A Language

The United States has no official language—The language selected in multilingual countries, often by the educated and politically powerful elite, to promote internal cohesion; usually the language of the courts and government—even though we are a nation of emigrants and enormous ethnic mix. The reason for this is simply that if there were an “official” language selected for this country—no matter which language it might be— it would carry with it the implied preference for the particular culture of which it was the native tongue. It would also imply, rightly or wrongly, that other languages/cultures were not as important.

Historically, languages spread primarily by three means; commerce, religion, and conquest, within the parameters of expansion and/or relocation diffusion. The
Indo-European languages spread globally in this manner and one in particular, English, diffused throughout the world during the era of colonialism. Largely because of the political and economic power of Britain and the United States , English today has become the global language of elites, commerce, and business.

Command of English undoubtedly is an advantage throughout the world and the position of some governments is that the advantages of being able to use English Outweigh cultural considerations. Some countries have made English (or another foreign language) their official language, giving indigenous languages secondary status. This provokes charges of neocolonialism or favoring the interest of educated elites. The emotional attachment to language is not just a matter of protecting threatened tongues. It is also a practical issue.


There is no truly monolingual—where only one language is spoken—country in the world today. Several, such as Japan , Uruguay , Iceland , and Poland , claim monolingualism but even in these countries there are small numbers of people who speak other languages. For example, more than a half-million Koreans live in Japan , and English-speaking Australia has more than 180,000 speakers of aboriginal languages.

Countries in which more than one language is in use are called multilingual states. In some of these countries linguistic fragmentation reflect strong cultural pluralism as well as divisive forces (see Figure 10-5). This is true in former colonial areas where peoples speaking different languages were thrown together, as happened in Africa and Asia . This also occurred in the Americas as Figure 10-2 shows. Multiltngualism takes several forms and can be reflected in regional divisions ( Canada , India , Peru , and Belgium ), but in some countries (far fewer) there is less regional separation of speakers of different languages (for example South Africa ). Multilingual countries sometimes solve the problem of intercultural communication by making a foreign tongue their official (“umbrella”) language, as shown in Table 10-1. For former colonies, this has often been the language of the colonists, even though they may have gained their independence in a violent revolution against those colonists. Such a policy is not without risks, however, and the long-term results of the use of a foreign language may not always be positive.

Lingua Franca

Traders have often succeeded in overcoming regional linguistic communication problems where language planners failed. Centuries ago people speaking different languages were forced to find ways to communicate for trade. This need resulted in the emergence of a lingua franca—any common language spoken by peoples with different native tongues, the result of linguistic convergence. The term comes from the Mediterranean region and its numerous trading posts during the period following the Crusades. In several areas of the world today, linguistic convergence has produced languages of mixed origin. Some of these have developed into major regional languages (see Figure 10-1).


The study of place names (toponymy) can reveal a great deal about the contents and historical geography of a cultural region. Even when time has erased other evidence, place names can reveal much about a cultural area. Welsh place names in Pennsylvania , French place names in Louisiana , or Dutch place names in Michigan reveal national origin as well as insight into language and dialect, routes of diffusion, and ways of life.

Toponyms—place names—make reading a map a fruitful and sometimes revealing experience. A careful eye will spot Roman names on the map of Britain , German names on the map of France , and Dutch names in Australia .