Linking geography to culture through language: does shape matter?

The first geography course I ever took was Political Geography, in 1987 (taught by Ron Leibowitz, who has since left the geography classroom in favor of administrative duties). The class changed the trajectory of my academic life and left a tremendous impression on me, introducing me to ideas and theories that I’d never considered before.  I remember writing a paper on Finlandization and gaining great insights in the actions of the Soviet Union, a topic of particular relevance in the ’80s.

Then sometime in the last decade I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and was again struck my his arguments about the role of physical geography in affecting social dynamics and development, and political infrastructure.  Plus it was great fodder for collegial discussion with our anthropology and political science friends, who respectfully disagreed with all of the premises.

Yesterday I caught up on blog reading and came across this recent Nature article about country shapes and languages.  The study suggests that long and narrow countries that span across many latitudes (like Chile) have been able to maintain greater linguistic diversity than countries broader and which cross greater longitudes (like Turkey). Of course, there are a finite number of countries suitable to test, and by treating the countries as “independent” samples in this case, we raise other issues. Every country has its own internal geographies that affect cultural development, plus individual histories and situations (or not) amongst neighbors that cannot be ignored. Plus, I agree that language may be a weak proxy for culture, though it’s a place to start.  Quantifiable measures of culture are, by definition, ambiguous and complicated, and capturing this for map use is an ongoing challenge.

Still, I appreciate the study and will keep track of it for our ongoing effort to provide evidence of geography’s import.

I continue to work on my Mapping People Visual Library Catalog, which one day may inspire new directions for social and cultural mapping.

H/t to Cultural Geography for the Nature article.

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