The Mosaic of Languages
Chapter 5
The Human Mosaic
Why geographers study language
• Provides the single most common variable by
which cultural groups are identified
• Provides the main means by which learned
customs and skills pass from one generation to
the next
• Facilitates cultural diffusion of innovations
• Because languages vary spatially, they reinforce
the sense of region and place
• Study of language called linguistic geography
and geolinguistics by geographers
Terms used in the study of
• Language — tongues that cannot be
mutually understood
• Dialects — variant forms of a language
that have not lost mutual comprehension
– A speaker of English can understand the
various dialect of the language
– A dialect is distinctive enough in vocabulary
and pronunciation to label its speaker
– Some 6,000 languages and many more
dialects are spoken today
Terms used in the study of
• Pidgin language — results when different
linguistic groups come into contact
– Serves the purposes of commerce
– Has a small vocabulary derived from the
various contact groups
– Official language of Papua, New Guinea is a
largely English-derived pidgin language,
which includes Spanish, German, and
Papuan words
Terms used in the study of
• Lingua franca — a language that spreads
over a wide area where it is not the mother
– A language of communication and commerce
– Swahili language has this status in much of
East Africa
• Kenya has two official
languages: Swahili
and English. These
lingua franca facilitate
among Bantu, Nilotic,
and Cushitic
language speakers.
• Swahili developed
along the coast of
East Africa where
• Bantu came in
contact with Arabic
spoken by Arab sea
• English became
important during the
British colonial period
and is still associated
with high status.
• This shopping center
caters to Maasai
herders who speak a
Nilotic language and
Kikuyu farmers who
speak a Bantu
• Jambo means “hello”
in Swahili.
The Mosaic of Languages
Linguistic Culture Regions
Linguistic Diffusion
Linguistic Ecology
Culturo-Linguistic Integration
Linguistic Landscapes
Language characteristics used to
define linguistic culture regions
• isoglosses — borders of individual word
usages or pronunciations
– No two words, phrases, or pronunciations
have exactly the same spatial distribution
– Spatially isoglosses crisscross one another
– Typically cluster together in “bundles”
– Bundles serve as the most satisfactory
dividing lines among dialects and languages
Language characteristics used to
define linguistic culture regions
• Overlap of languages complicates drawing
of linguistic borders
• In any given area more than one tongue
may be spoken — Ecuador
• Language barriers are rarely sharp
Language characteristics used to
define linguistic culture regions
• Geographers encounter a
core/periphery pattern
rather than a dividing line
– Dominance of language
diminishes away from the
center of the region
– Outlying zone of
– Linguistic “islands” often
further complicate the
drawing of language
Language characteristics used to
define linguistic culture regions
• Dialect terms often overlap considerably,
making it difficult to draw isoglossess
– Linguistic geographers often disagree about how
many dialects are present
– Disagreement also occurs on where lines should be
• Boundaries are necessarily simplified and at
best generalizations
Language families
• The Indo-European language family
– Largest most wide-spread family
– Spoken on all continents
– Dominant in Europe, Russia, North and South
America, Australia, and parts of southwestern Asia
and India
– Subfamilies—Romance, Slavic, Germanic, Indic,
Celtic, and Iranic
– Subfamilies are divided into individual languages
– Seven Indo-European tongues are among the top 10
languages spoken in the world
– By comparing vocabularies in various languages one
can see the kinship
Language families
• The Afro-Asiatic family
– Has two major divisions—Semitic and Hamitic
– Semitic covers the area from Tigris-Euphrates valley
westward through most of the north half of Africa to
the Atlantic coast
• Domain is large but consists of mostly sparsely populated
• Arabic is the most widespread Semitic language
• Arabic has the most number of native speakers—about 186
• Hebrew was a “dead” language used only in religious
• Today Hebrew is the official language of Israel
• Amharic a third major Semitic tongues has 20 million
speakers in the mountains of East Africa
Language families
• The Afro-Asiatic family
– Has two major divisions—Semitic and Hamitic
– Smaller number of people speak Hamitic
• Share North and East Africa with Semitic speakers
• Spoken by the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria
• Spoken by the Tuaregs of the Sahara and Cushites of
East Africa
• Originated in Asia but today only spoken in Africa
• Expansion of Arabic decreased the area and number of
Other major language families
• Africa south of the Sahara Desert is
dominated by the Niger-Congo family
– Spoken by about 200 million people
– Greater part of the Niger-Congo culture region
belongs to the Bantu subgroup
– Includes Swahili—the lingua franca of East
Other major language families
• Altaic language family
– Includes Turkic, Mongolic, and several other
– Homeland lies largely in deserts, tundras, and
coniferous forests of northern and central Asia
• Uralic family
– Finnish and Hungarian are the two most
important tongues
– Both have official status in their countries
Other major language families
• Austronesian language family
– Most remarkable language family in terms of
– Speakers live mainly on tropical islands
– Ranges from Madagascar, through Indonesia and the
Pacific Islands, to Hawaii and Easter Island
– Longitudinal span is more than half way around the
– Latitudinally, ranges from Hawaii and Taiwan in the
north to New Zealand in the south
– Largest single language in this family is Indonesian —
5O million speakers
– Most widespread language is Polynesian
Other major language families
• Sino-Tibetan language family
– One of the major language families of the
– Extends throughout most of China and
Southeast Asia
– Han Chinese is spoken in a variety of dialects
as a mother tongue by 836 million people
– Han serves as the official form of speech in
Other major language families
• Japanese/Korean language family
– Another major Asian family with nearly 200
million speakers
– Seems to have some kinship to both the Altaic
and Austronesian
Other major language families
• Austro-Asiatic language family
– Found in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Cambodia,
Thailand, and spoken by some tribal people of
Malaya and parts of India
– Occupies a remnant peripheral domain
– Has been encroached upon by Sino-Tibetan,
Indo-European, and Austronesian
London, England
• This display of
illustrates the fact that
London is an
international city as
well as a major
migration destination.
• In South Kensington,
sizable foreign
contribute complexity
London, England
• to the linguistic
• Both Indo-European
(e.g. French, Spanish
and Swedish) and
Afro-Asiatic (Arab)
language families are
represented here.
Other major language families
• Occupy refuge areas after retreat before rival
– Khoisan — found in the Kalahari Desert of
southwestern Africa, characterized by clicking sounds
– Dravidian — spoken by numerous darker-skinned
people of southern India and northern Sri Lanka
– Others include — Papuan, Caucasic, Nilo-Saharan,
Paleosiberian, Inukitut, and a variety of Amerindian
– Basque — spoken on the borderland between Spain
and France is unrelated to any other language in the
English dialects in the United
• Dialects reveal a vivid geography
• American English is hardly uniform from region
to region
• At least three major dialects, corresponding to
major culture regions, developed in the eastern
United States by the time of the American
– Northern
– Midland
– Southern
English dialects in the United
• The three subcultures expanded westward
and their dialects spread and fragmented
– Retained much of their basic character even
beyond the Mississippi River
– Have distinctive vocabularies and
– Drawing dialect boundaries is often tricky
English dialects in the United
• Today, many regional words are becoming oldfashioned, but new words display regional
• The following words are all used to describe a
controlled-access divided highway
– Freeway — a California word
– Turnpike and parkway — mainly northeastern and
Midwestern words
– Thruway, expressway, and interstate
English dialects in the United
• Many African-Americans speak their own form of
English — Black English
– Once dismissed as inferior substandard English
– Grew out of a pidgin that developed on early slave
– Today, spoken by about 80 percent of AfricanAmericans
– Used by ghetto dwellers who have not made their
compromises with mainstream American culture
– Many features separate it from standard speech, for
• Lack of pronoun differentiation between genders
• Use of undifferentiated pronouns
English dialects in the United
• Many African-Americans speak their own form of
English — Black English
– Not recognized as part of the proper grammar of a
separate linguistic group
– Considered evidence of verbal inability or
– In the Southern dialect, African-Americans have
made substantial contributions to speech
– Southern dialect is becoming increasingly
identified with African-Americans
– Caucasians in the Southern region are shifting to
Midland speech
English dialects in the United
• American dialects suggest we are not
becoming a more national culture by
overwhelming regional cultures
– Linguistic divergence is still under way
– Dialects continue to mutate on a regional level
– Local variations in grammar and
pronunciation proliferate
– The homogenizing influence of radio,
television, and other mass media is being
London, England
London, England
• While English is spoken
in many pats of the world,
all English words are not
mutually intelligible.
• This London tube
(subway) sign say that
anyone performing there
(eg singing or playing for
money) is subject to a
fine of subsection.
• Are tubs, subway, and
busking dialect words?
The Mosaic of Languages
Linguistic Culture Regions
Linguistic Diffusion
Linguistic Ecology
Culturo-Linguistic Integration
Linguistic Landscapes
Indo-European diffusion
• Earliest speakers apparently lived in
southern and southeastern Turkey
(Anatolia) about eight or nine thousand
years ago
– Diffused west and north into Europe
– Represented expansion of farming people at
expense of hunters and gatherers
– As people dispersed and lost contact, different
variant forms of the language caused
fragmentation of the family
Indo-European diffusion
• Later language diffusion occurred with the
spread of great political empires, especially
Latin, English, and Russian
• Relocation and expansion diffusion were not
mutually exclusive
– Relocation diffusion by conquering elite implanted
their language
– Implanted language often gained wider acceptance
by expansion diffusion
– Conqueror’s language spread hierarchically
• Spread of Latin with Roman conquests
• Spanish in Latin America
Austronesian diffusion
• Presumed hearth in the interior of Southeast
Asia 5,000 years ago
• Initially spread southward into the Malay
• In a process lasting several thousand years,
people sailed in tiny boats across the. uncharted
vast seas to New Zealand, Easter Island,
Hawaii, and Madagascar
• Sailing and navigation was the key to
Austronesian spread, not agriculture
Austronesian diffusion
The remarkable diffusion of the Polynesian people
– Form the eastern part of the Austronesian culture region
– Occupy hundreds of Pacific islands in a triangular-shaped realm
– New Zealand, Easter Island, and Hawaii form the three apexes
of the realm
– Made a watery leap of 2,500 miles from the South Pacific to
• Used outrigger canoes
• Went against prevailing winds into a new hemisphere with different
navigational stars
• No humans had previously found the isolated Hawaiian Islands
• Sailors had no way of knowing that land existed in the area
Austronesian diffusion
• Geographers John Webb and Gerard Ward
studied the prehistoric Polynesian diffusion
– Their method involved the development of a computer
model building in data on:
Ocean currents
Vessel traits and capabilities
Island visibility
Duration of voyage, etc.
Both drift and navigated voyages were considered
Austronesian diffusion
• Over one hundred thousand voyage simulations
were run through the computer
• Their conclusions
– Triangle was probably entered from the west—
direction of the ancient Austronesian hearth area
– “Island hopping”—migrated from one visible island to
– Core of eastern Polynesia likely reached by navigated
– Outer arc from Hawaii through Easter Island to New
Zealand reached by intentionally navigated voyages
Searching for the primordial tongue
• Using controversial techniques, linguists
seek the more elusive prehistoric tongues
• Nostratic—ancestral speech of the Middle
East 12,000 to 20,000 years ago
– Ancestral to nine modern language families
– A 500-word dictionary has been compiled
• Contemporary with Nostratic were other
ancient tongues including DeneCaucasian
Searching for the primordial tongue
• Dene-Caucasian reputedly gave rise to
Sino-Tibetan, Basque, and one form of
early Native-American called Na-Dene
• Scholars are attempting to find the original
linguistic hearth area from which all
modern languages have derived
• It is believed the original language hearth
arose in Africa perhaps 250,000 years ago
and diffused from there
The Mosaic of Languages
Linguistic Culture Regions
Linguistic Diffusion
Linguistic Ecology
Culturo-Linguistic Integration
Linguistic Landscapes
The environment and vocabulary
• How the environment affects vocabulary
• Spanish language derived from Castile
– Rich in words describing rough terrain (Table 5.3)
– Distinguishes subtle differences in shape and
configuration of mountains
• Scottish Gaelic
– Describes types of rough terrain
– Common attribute spoken by hill people
• Romanian tongue
– Also from a region of rugged terrain
– Words tend to be keyed to use of terrain for livestock
The environment and vocabulary
• English
– Developed in wet coastal plains
– Very poor in words describing mountainous
– Abounds with words describing flowing
– Rural American South—river, creek, branch,
fork, prong, run, bayou, and slough
The environment and vocabulary
• Vocabularies develop for features of the
environment that involve livelihood
• Detailed vocabularies are necessary to
communicate sophisticated information
relevant to the adaptive strategy
The environment provides refuge
• Inhospitable environments offer protection and isolation
• Provide outnumbered linguistic groups refuge from
aggressive neighbors
• Linguistic refuge areas
Rugged bill and mountain areas
Excessively cold or dry climates
Impenetrable forests and remote islands
Extensive marshes and swamps
• Unpleasant environments rarely attract conquerors
• Mountains tend to isolate inhabitants of one valley from
Examples of linguistic refuge areas
• Rugged Caucasus Mountains and nearby
ranges in central Eurasia are populated by a
large variety of peoples
• Alps, Himalayas, and highlands of Mexico are
linguistic shatter belts — areas where diverse
languages are spoken
• American Indian tongue Quechua clings to a
refuge in the Andes Mountains of South America
• In the Rocky Mountains of northern New Mexico,
an archaic form of Spanish survives due to
isolation that ended in the early 1900s
Examples of linguistic refuge areas
• The Dhofar, a mountain tribe in Oman,
preserve Hamitic speech that otherwise
has vanished from Asia
• Tundra climates of the far north have
sheltered certain Uralic, Altaic, and Inukitut
(Eskimo) speakers
• On Sea Islands, off the coast of South
Carolina and Georgia, some remnant of an
African language, Gullah, still are spoken
• Switzerland has four
recognized national
languages: French,
German, Italian, and
• Romansch, a
language of Latin
origin, is spoken by
only 1.1% of the
• Nevertheless, it has
survived in the alpine
linguistic refuge of the
upper Rhine and Inn
Rivers and was given
official recognition in
• This traditional
Engadine (Inn valley)
house is decorated by
sgraffito whereby
designs are scratched
through a white
limewash coating to
expose the underlying
grey plaster.
Linguistic Ecology
• Today environmental isolation is no longer
the linguistic force it once was
• Inhospitable lands and islands are
reachable by airplanes
• Marshes and forests are being drained
and cleared by farmers
• The world is interactive
The environment guides migration
• Migrants were often attracted to new lands that
seemed environmentally similar to their
– They could pursue adaptive strategies known to them
– Germanic Indo-Europeans chose familiar temperate
zones in America, New Zealand, and Australia
– Semitic peoples rarely spread outside arid and
semiarid climates
– Ancestors of modern Hungarians left grasslands of
inner Eurasia for new homes in the grassy Alföld, one
of the few prairie areas of Europe
The environment guides migration
• Environmental barriers and natural routeways
guided linguistic groups along certain paths
• Indo-Europeans traveled through low mountain
passes to the Indian subcontinent, avoiding the
Himalayas and barren Deccan Plateau
• In India today, the Indo-European/Dravidian
language boundary seems to approximate an
ecological boundary
The environment guides migration
• Mountain barriers frequently serve as
linguistic borders
– In part of the Alps, speakers of German and
Italian live on opposite sides of a major ridge
– Portions of mountain rim along the northern
edge of the Fertile Crescent form the border
between Semitic and Indo-European tongues
The environment guides migration
• Linguistic borders that follow such physical
features tend to be stable and endure for
thousands of years
• Language borders that cross plains and
major routes of communication are
frequently unstable — Germanic-Slavic
boundary on the North European Plain
The Mosaic of Languages
Linguistic Culture Regions
Linguistic Diffusion
Linguistic Ecology
Culturo-Linguistic Integration
Linguistic Landscapes
Urumchi, China
• Urumchi is the capital
of Xinjian Uyghur
Autonomous Region.
• Uyghurs are one of
China’s 55 minority
• Because this
resource-rich area is
also a strategically
significant borderland,
Urumchi, China
• official policy has
been one of
Sinicization whereby
Chinese have been
encouraged to move
to the region.
• However, most of the
Chinese are
concentrated in the
capital city where
Urumchi, China
• sinage is in two
• Ugyhur, written in Arabic
script, belongs to the
Altaic language family
while Chinese, written in
characters is part of the
Sino-Tibetan language
• Together, they produce
an alien linguistic
landscape for most
Language is intertwined with all
aspects of culture
• Comparative social, demographic,
political, and technological characteristics
groups are needed to understand the
linguistic map
• Linguistic cultural integration can reflect
the dominance of one group over another
— a dominance based in culture
Technology and linguistic
• Technological superiority is usually involved in
allowing one group to gain dominance over
• Importance of the development of alphabets
– Certain cultures became more complex and dominant
– Written languages advanced at the expense of
illiterate cultures
– Were invariably the invention of agricultural societies
– Greek, Latin, and Chinese, along with other tongues,
enjoyed early advantages because of literacy
Technology and linguistic
• Importance of the development of alphabets
– Facilitated record keeping, allowing government to
– With empire building, languages tend to spread with
imperial expansion
– Imperial expansion of European and U.S. power
altered the linguistic patterns among millions of
• Superimposed Indo-European tongues in the tropics and
• Areas most affected were Asia, Africa, and the Austronesian
island world
Technology and linguistic
• In South America, the expanding empires of
Spain and Portugal clashed in the fifteenth
– Signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494
– Spain received control over all colonial lands west of
a certain meridian
– Portugal gained control over lands east of the line
– Brazil eventually became Portuguese speaking
– In most of the rest of South America Spanish
Technology and linguistic
• When imperial nations gave up their colonial empires,
their languages remained
– English is still spoken in much of Africa, the Indian subcontinent,
the Philippines, and certain areas of the Pacific islands
– French persists in north, west and central Africa, Madagascar,
and Polynesia
– In most areas English and French function as languages of the
educated elite and of government, commerce, and higher
– Often hold status as legal languages, serving has link languages
– Help hold countries together where native languages are
multiple and divisive
Technology and linguistic
• Affect of transportation technology on geography
of languages
– Ships, railroads, and highways usually spread
languages of cultural groups who build them
– Sometimes spells doom for the speech of peoples
whose lands are opened to outside contacts
– Trans-Siberian Railroad spread Russian language
eastward to Pacific Ocean
– Presently highway construction into Brazil’s
Amazonian interior threatens Indian languages
The social morale model
• Model built by geographer Charles Withers
• Explains the process of language loss incurred
by conquered cultural groups
– Placed in a lower social class
– Lose pride in their language and culture, eventually
abandoning both
– Education system based solely on socially dominant
language produces bilingualism
– Monoglots, or persons speaking one tongue decline
The social morale model
• If conquered group literate, they will
usually start to become illiterate in their
traditional language
– Often no legal or religious status is accorded
the conquered language
– Old way of speech considered primitive and
its use socially degrading
– Denying the oppressed language access to
broadcast facilities can hasten process of
United States reveals decline of
languages other than English
• Native Americans subjected to linguistic assaults
from dominant culture
• Indian children taken from families and placed in
boarding schools
• Indian children were forbidden to speak their
own languages
• In 1910, one out of every four Americans could
fluently speak some language other than English
(14 percent could in 1990)
• Only Spanish speakers have had long-term
success in keeping their speech
Morale is not always broken by
conquest and subsequent
• Greeks have suffered periods of rule by
Romans and Turks
– Have kept their language
– Remained convinced their culture was superior
• Chinese absorbed Mongol invaders and made
Chinese out of them
• Sometimes languages of conquered and
conqueror blend
The economic development model
• Also developed by Charles Withers
• Industrialization accompanied by urbanization
breaks up social structure needed to perpetuate
an indigenous language
• Transition from subsistence farmer to factory
laborer is destructive to minority tongues
• Particularly destructive when factory language is
not that of the farm
The economic development model
• Industrialization tends to draw population from
rural linguistic refuge area leaving fewer
speakers of minority languages behind —
process called the clearance model
• If industrial development occurs in refuge area,
speakers of dominant language are drawn in
producing a changeover model — native
speakers are overwhelmed by intrusion of
The economic development model
• Plight of Welsh language in Great Britain
– Illustrates Withers’ social morale, economic
development, clearance, and changeover models
– Now stands at the threshold of extinction
– Speakers were long denigrated
– British educational system promoted English
– Urbanization and industrialization knocked holes in
spatial fabric of Welsh
– Massive rural emigration followed to English-speaking
towns and factories
The economic development model
• Geographer Keith Buchanan referred to decline
of Welsh and other Celtic languages as a
“liquidation” by ruling English to produce a loyal,
obedient work force for mines and factories
– Recently the Welsh language has been granted
educational and media privileges by British
– Social morale of its speakers is broken
– Largely aged speakers survive
– The day nears when inhabitants may not know what
the names of towns, rivers, and mountains mean
– The Welsh may not even be able to understand their
family names
The economic development model
• The ongoing achievement of
independence by various linguistic
minority groups could rescue some
languages previously endangered —
examples of Estonia and Latvia
Language and religion
• Occasionally a language is linked to a
particular religious faith heightening
cultural identity
• Example of Arabic
– Spread from a core area on the Arabian
peninsula with the Islamic faith
– Without the evangelical fervor of the Muslims,
Arabic would not have diffused so widely
Language and religion
• Other Semitic languages also correspond
to particular religious groups
– We can attribute the preservation and revival
of Hebrew to the tenacity of the Jewish faith
– Amharic speakers in Ethiopia are Coptics, or
Eastern Christians
Language and religion
• Link between speech and faith can be seen
within very small areas
• Example of Pakistan — studied by German
geographer Hermann Kneutzmann
– Studied 17 languages in isolated mountain valleys in
northernmost part of country
– Over 90 percent of speakers of 12 of the languages
belonged to one of four local Muslim sects
• Language a mountain person speaks usually
helps determine religious denomination
Language and religion
• Latin survived mainly as the ceremonial
language of the Roman Catholic Church
• In Iran, a non-Arabic Muslim land, Arabic
is still used in religious ceremonies
Language and religion
• Religious books can shape languages by
providing a standard form
– Luther’s translation of the Bible led to
standardization of German language
– The Koran is the model for written Arabic
– Early Welsh translation of a hymnal and the
Bible helped the language survive
– In Fiji, the Bible published in one of the 15
local dialects elevated it to the dominant
native language
Language and religion
• Linkage of language and religion increase
chance of nationalistic conflict
– Greek/Christian - Turkish/Muslim problem in
– Armenian/Christian - Azeri/Muslim war
– Battle against Nio-Saharan/Christian and
animist tribal groups in Sudan
The Mosaic of Languages
Linguistic Culture Regions
Linguistic Diffusion
Linguistic Ecology
Culturo-Linguistic Integration
Linguistic Landscapes
Linguistic landscapes
• 1. Cultural landscape bears the imprint of
language in various ways
– Example-road signs, billboards, graffiti, etc.
– Can be a visual index to bilingualism or
linguistic oppression of minorities
• 2. Differences in alphabets render many
foreign linguistic landscapes vividly alien
Samoan, a Polynesian language
• Both friendly and hostile messages are sent by linguistic
• Often have political content—deal with power,
domination, subjugation, or freedom (Figure 5.13)
• Example of Turkey
– Kurdish or Arabic speakers are not allowed any visual display of
their languages
– Linguistic landscape displays only Turkish
– Linguistic minorities are visually reminded of their inferior
• Québec has tried to eliminate English-language signs
• Place-names
• Often directly reflect spatial patterns of language, dialect, and
• Become part of the cultural landscape when they appear on signs
and placards
• Highway signs such as Huntsville, Harrisburg, Ohio River, Newfound
Gap, etc. often provide a visible index to distribution of other cultural
• Many place-names consist of two parts — the generic and the
– The specific part of the names listed above (#4) would be: Hunts,
Harris, Ohio, Newfound, and Hatteras
– The generic parts, which tell what kind of place is being described are:
– vile, burg, river, gap
• This is a French
toponym meaning
“grassland of the
• The French explorers
Marquette and Joliet,
following natural
routeways from
Montreal, reached
this prairie site at the
• confluence of the
Mississipi and
Wisconsin Rivers in
• Alim, mean “dog” was
the name of the local
Indian chief.
• “Prairie” is the generic
and “du Chien” the
• specific part of this
• Developed as a fur
trading cener, it
indeed became a
rendezvous or
meeting place, a
notion incorporated in
the civic boosterism
of modern times.
• Generic toponyms are of greater value to
cultural geographers than specific names
– They appear again and again throughout a
culture region
– Every culture or subculture has its own
distinctive set
– Can be particularly valuable in tracing the
spread of a culture
– Often aid in reconstructing past culture
Generic toponyms of the United
• New Englanders, speakers of the Northern dialect,
frequently used the term center in the name of the town
or hamlet near the center of township
• Outlying settlements in New England frequently bear the
prefix east, west, north, or south — the name of
township being the suffix
• Using these generic usages peculiar to New England we
can locate colonies New Englanders founded as they
migrated from their homelands
– Westward through upstate New York, Ontario, and into the upper
– Toponymic evidence can be found in Walworth County,
Generic toponyms of the United
• Other generic place names identified with the
Northern dialect—brook, notch, and corners
• The trace of New England even reaches Seattle,
Washington where “center” and “corner” are
frequently used
• Midland American areas can be identified by
such terms as gap, cove, hollow, knob, and
• Southern speech is recognized by names as
bayou, gully, and store (for rural hamlets)
Toponyms and cultures of the past
• Place-names may survive long after a culture
has vanished, thereby preserving traces of the
• Australia abounds in Aborigine toponyms—even
in areas where the native peoples have long
since disappeared
• Toponyms identifying physical geographical
features seem to last permanently
• Study of archaic names has greater value in the
Eastern Hemisphere
Australian Aborigine toponym
Toponyms and cultures of the past
• Example of eastern Germany
– Suffixes ow, in, and zig are common Slavic suffixes in
village names
– Suffix distribution accurately reveals the culture region
peopled by Slavic tribes as late as A.D. 800
– Slavic languages have disappeared from most of
eastern Germany
– Suffix weiler, in names of German villages south of
the Danube and west of the Rhine, reminds us of
former Roman rule and Latin usage
Toponyms and cultures of the past
• Example of Spain and Portugal
• Moorish rule for 700 years left many
Arabic place-names
• Prefix of guada on river names is a
corruption of the Arabic wadi
Toponyms and cultures of the past
• Example of New Zealand
– The Maori, a native Polynesian people, are today confined
mainly to refuge areas
– The smaller the town the larger the percentage of Maori placenames
– Twenty percent of provinces have Maori names
– Fifty-six percent of counties have Maori names
– Nearly all streams, hills, and mountains retain Maori names
– Implication—British settlement remains largely an urban
• Linguistic landscapes can help shape the character of
Toponyms and environmental
• Generic place-names tell us about humankind’s
past alteration of the environment
• Germanic peoples cleared forests from England
eastward into present-day Poland
– Toponyms sometimes indicate how clearing was
– Suffixes roth and reuth, as in Neuroth and Bayreuth,
mean “rooted out” or “grubbed out”, and refer to the
practice of digging out roots after cutting trees
Toponyms and environmental
• In England, ley or leigh, as in Woodley, means
“clearing” or “open place” in the forest
• In European place-names, brind, brunn, and
brand, reveal clearing by using fire
• In eastern woodlands of the United States,
American Indians cleared considerable forest
areas before the coming of Columbus
– Abandoned grass-covered fields survived
– Europeans recorded these places of deforestation by
calling them prairie
• Over 200 of these generic terms appear in
wooded eastern Texas alone

The Mosaic of Languages - University of Texas at Austin