The Cartographic Representation of Language: Understanding language map construction and visualizing language diversity

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


Language maps provide illustrations of linguistic and cultural diversity and distribution, appearing in outlets ranging from textbooks and news articles to websites and wall maps. They are valuable visual aids that accompany discussions of our cultural climate. Despite the prevalent use of language maps as educational tools, little recent research addresses the difficult task of map construction for this fluid cultural characteristic. The display and analysis capabilities of current geographic information systems (GIS) provide a new opportunity for revisiting and challenging the issues of language mapping. In an effort to renew language mapping research and explore the potential of GIS, this dissertation is composed of three studies that collectively present a progressive work on language mapping. The first study summarizes the language mapping literature, addressing the difficulties and limitations of assigning language to space before describing contemporary language mapping projects as well as future research possibilities with current technology. In an effort to identify common language mapping practices, the second study is a map survey documenting the cartographic characteristics of existing language maps. The survey not only consistently categorizes language map symbology, it also captures unique strategies observed for handling locations with linguistic plurality as well as representing language data uncertainty. A new typology of language map symbology is compiled based on the map survey results. Finally, the third study specifically addresses two gaps in the language mapping literature: the issue of visualizing linguistic diversity and the scarcity of GIS applications in language mapping research. The study uses census data for the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Statistical Area to explore visualization possibilities for representing the linguistic diversity. After recreating mapping strategies already in use for showing linguistic diversity, the study applies an existing statistic (a linguistic diversity index) as a new mapping variable to generate a new visualization type: a linguistic diversity surface. The overall goal of this dissertation is to provide the impetus for continued language mapping research and contribute to the understanding and creation of language maps in education, research, politics, and other venues.



cartography, GIS, language, linguistics, map design