Creating illusions with language maps

Feb 14, 2011 by

At the end of the latest posting, I promised to talk about the controversy surrounding the alledged Altaic language family. But before I move on to that topic, there are two more things I want to discuss in connection with the Turkic languages.

The first issue, which I will address today, concerns the problematic nature of many language maps — it is not specific to Turkic languages, but the map posted in the latest posting and reproduced below can serve as a good illustration. The map suggested by Martin Lewis in his comment to the previous posting would do as well to illustrate my point.

The problem with these and many other language maps is that they typically mark the territory where a certain language/dialect/language family is spoken. However, such maps are often misleading as to how many people actually speak the language.

Thus, if one doesn’t know any better, one can get the impression from the two Turkic languages maps we’ve seen so far that the two most widely spoken Turkic languages are Yakut and Kazakh. But this couldn’t be further from the truth!

By far the most widely spoken Turkic language — and also the best known one — is Turkish. Over 46 million people speak it. This number constitutes about 40% of all Turkic speakers!

Among other large but largely unknown to outsiders Turkic languages are:

  • Chuvash (number 12 on the map above) with 1,640,000 speakers in the upper Volga basin;
  • Uyghur (number 19) with 8,400,000 speakers in western China;
  • Azerbaijani (or Azeri; number 9) with 6,100,000 speakers in Azerbaijan and Iran;
  • Turkmen (number 10) with 3,430,000 speakers in Turkmenistan;
  • Kyrgyz (number 17) with 2,450,000 speakers Kyrgyzstan;
  • Tatar (number 13) with 5,350,000 speakers in the Tatarstan and Bashkortostan Republics of the Russian Federation.

Kazakh (number 11) is also among the larger Turkic languages: it is spoken by 5,290,000 speakers in Kazakhstan. But though this number is large, speakers of Turkish outnumber Kazakh speakers by nearly 9 to 1. Furthermore, Yakut — despite occupying a large territory — is much smaller by the number of speakers: only about 400,000 people speak it today. The huge Yakut-speaking land is largely underpopulated and Yakut co-exists there with Russian.

Note that this problem applies not only to language maps but to any type of map that tries to represent an aspect of human geography: religion, ethnic affiliation etc.

One way to remedy this problem is to overlay the map in question with the population density map. Such maps that reflect more faithfully the true size of population for a given language have been created as part of the Gulf2000 project, such as the one below:

For example, this map faithfully shows large chunks of Kazakhstan as unpopulated desert, which explains a smaller-than-expected number of speakers of Kazakh.

Thus, it is important to remember to take language maps with a grain of salt.

In the next posting, I will consider the impact of Turkic languages on Russian and then I will move on to discuss the Altaic family controversy.


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