Mapping wilderness, mapping languages

The main aim of maps is to show the spatial distribution of natural and cultural features, be they rivers and mountains or cities, political borders, oil spills, and even wilderness areas and language groups. It seems that any phenomenon can be mapped if it can be placed unequivocally in space. Cartography has obviously evolved beyond drawings on paper, and there are tools and methods that allow us to represent spatial features in more complicated ways, especially through the development of digital visualizations and geographic information systems (GIS) that track layers of features, as well as temporal changes of these features. Needless to say, the examples of maps offered here should be taken with several large grains of salt.

Extension of wilderness areas according to Mittermeier et al. (2003)
Extension of wilderness areas according to Mittermeier, R. A. et al. “Wilderness and biodiversity conservation”, PNAS 2003;100:10309-10313. © 2003 National Academy of Sciences.
Shepherd's map of the worldwide distribution of European languages in 1911
Shepherd’s map of the worldwide distribution of European languages in 1911. Public Domain. Source: University of Texas Library

The mapping of both “wilderness” and “language” is a difficult task, since in both cases the feature being mapped has flexible and permeable boundaries; both depend enormously on precise definitions, and both display snapshots in time that do not reflect complexities of overlap and hybridity. Any graphic representation of wilderness and language will therefore be fraught with subjectivities. Therefore, in the exhibition navigation map we have decided to represent languages as points, instead of tryng to draw their boundaries. Nonetheless, here we offer a few examples of such maps in order to show how others interpret and graph global wilderness and language, how such maps might generate new ideas about these phenomena, and how wilderness and language shed light on each other.

Global wilderness (in green)
Global wilderness (in green) © ESRI grid on the UNEP-WCMC website
Human language families
Human language families. CC BY-SA 3.0 2005 User Industrius on Wikipedia. View source.

In this regard we also suggest visiting the Last of the Wild project at Columbia University, the Endangered Languages website, and Steve Huffman’s language maps based on the World Language Mapping System.