In Langscape Magazine Articles

Subversive Maps: How Digital Language Mapping Can Support Biocultural Diversity

Maya Daurio, Sienna R. Craig, Daniel Kaufman, Ross Perlin, and Mark Turin

Maps have long been used for a variety of purposes, including to characterize land use and land cover patterns or to delineate the extent of territorial jurisdictions such as national or regional borders. In this way, cartography has long been a tool of the nation-state. Much like censuses and surveys, imperial governments have used maps to organize, classify, and carve up the world in order to occupy it and control its resources. More nefariously, maps have also been used to facilitate Indigenous land dispossession.

On the other hand, Indigenous Peoples around the world have produced their own maps for thousands of years for navigation, cataloguing, demarcating their traditional territories, and charting land use, to mention but the most obvious uses. And maps are also effective communication tools that allow for marginalized voices to be heard and for different understandings of place and space to be represented, challenging hierarchies and freeing people’s own stories from the bonds of dominant colonial narratives.

In our own work, we explore how cartography might play a role in creating a more just, inclusive, and equitable world. We believe that cartography offers powerful tools to highlight the risks of biocultural extinction and the importance of all forms of diversity. We see digital language mapping as a methodology that can be used in support of biocultural diversity. In particular, language mapping can yield a more accurate account of the distribution of linguistic diversity and can better represent the way in which language communities understand their own linguistic and spatial borders and their changing sociolinguistic identities.

We believe that cartography offers powerful tools to highlight the risks of biocultural extinction and the importance of all forms of diversity.

The beginnings of linguistic cartography—the creation of maps displaying features and locations of languages—coincided with the emergence of the concept of the nation-state in the nineteenth century. The fundamental underlying notion was that a “nation”—as a unit of analysis and as a political reality—ought to correspond to a single language. Associated with that notion was the belief that monolingualism was a desired norm and that multilingualism remained a historic problem to be overcome. To this day, nation-states continue to use territorial maps to define the geographical reaches of the physical, social, and linguistic worlds they imagine for themselves and to obscure other worldviews that do not align with such normative ideologies.

Cartography can also be subversive. There are good examples throughout the history of language maps that defy dominant colonial narratives and weave new stories of resistance and revitalization.

Yet cartography can also be subversive. There are good examples throughout the history of language maps that defy dominant colonial narratives and weave new stories of resistance and revitalization. The maps that accompanied the Linguistic Survey of India conducted in the early twentieth century, for example, diluted the political authority of the British Empire by revealing the elasticity of language boundaries. In Canada, the interactive Native Land Map creatively illustrates the fuzziness of overlapping language spaces and refutes the misconceived but enduring idea that an Indigenous territory is home to but a single language community.

Native Land interactive online map

Native Land is an interactive online map that showcases Indigenous languages and territories and highlights the fuzziness of these boundaries. This view is of the Indigenous languages of northwestern North America. Map: Native-Land.ca, 2020

These and other groundbreaking and more community-led language mapping efforts, such as the First Peoples’ Map of British Columbia, highlight the possibility for digital cartography to visualize how language communities understand their own linguistic borders. Digital language maps can help represent the fluidity of multilingualism and explore the intersection of language use, linguistic identities, and power.

First People’s Map of British Columbia is an interactive online map providing information about B.C.’s 203 First Nations communities and the languages they speak. Map: maps.fpcc.ca, 2020

Yet, technical challenges remain in representing language communities, language mobility, and plurilingual realities in cartographic form. Most digital language maps, such as the important UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, represent languages as specific points in geographic space. Visually, this tells us nothing of the extent of language communities, whether these communities speak other languages, or what relationships might exist between the language and the land. Furthermore, a traditional static map focusing on language endangerment sorts and displays languages solely according to standardized measures of vitality, an approach that some language activists consider reductionist and even potentially harmful.

Conventional cartographic symbols are inadequate for representing lived experience, and mapping efforts have been limited by cartographic constraints that do not actually reflect linguistic realities. This is especially true for the spatial representation of complex language practices. We know that multilingual speakers, for example, choose to speak specific languages in different contexts. They may speak one language at home, another in public, and yet another in religious practice. Or there may be instances of multilingual code-switching within one family household, where parents may speak one language to one another, one parent speaks to the children in a different language, and the children speak among themselves in yet another language entirely. How then can cartography be effectively used to reflect multilingualism and the context of language choices?

We know that multilingual speakers, for example, choose to speak specific languages in different contexts. They may speak one language at home, another in public, and yet another in religious practice.

Drawing from other efforts to use cartography to redress inequity and dominant representations of difference, we are engaged in a project to demonstrate the distinctiveness of the language landscape of New York City, one of the most linguistically diverse urban areas in the world. Through a partnership that brings together the University of British Columbia, Dartmouth College, and the New York–based Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), we are developing a digital, interactive map of the distribution of linguistic diversity across the city, based on data collected by ELA across these language communities. In collaboration with language consultants, ELA has collected linguistic, geospatial, and community information for over 1,000 neighborhood-level language groups that represent approximately 650 unique languages in and around New York City. This collection is enriched with audio and video recordings of approximately a hundred languages.

Our interactive map builds on an existing and publicly acclaimed static map that illustrates the locations of different languages spoken across the city, represented in the communities’ own orthographies. The very notion of mapping languages in a diaspora context challenges traditional linguistic cartography which focuses either on the expansion of “global languages” or on the traditional territories of Indigenous languages, giving only scant attention to the contemporary distribution and movement of the latter. Our interactive map aims to showcase the richness of linguistic diversity in New York City in visually and representationally accurate ways. Through a web-based interface, we also seek to promote civic engagement and needs-based delivery of public services, particularly among historically marginalized immigrant communities.

Languages of New York City map

Languages of New York City map produced by the Endangered Language Alliance. This is the first detailed linguist-produced map showing some 650 languages and dialects mapped to over 1,000 sites around the city. This view shows the linguistically diverse neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. Map: M. Roy Cartography, 2019 (elalliance.org/programs/maps)

We could have not predicted how relevant and increasingly urgent this objective would become when we embarked on this partnership in 2019. Early in 2020, New York City became the epicenter of the global pandemic brought on by a novel coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2, which emerged in China in November of 2019 and has since spread around the world, causing the severe respiratory disease known as COVID-19. Combining ELA language data and COVID-19 testing data released by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, we plotted positive tests per capita and the distribution of linguistic diversity across the city on a map, showing the interplay between the highest number of COVID-19 cases and neighborhoods with the highest linguistic diversity. We may speculate about why this may be the case.

COVID-19 Map of New York

This map shows positive COVID-19 tests per 1,000 people by New York City ZIP Code, along with the distribution of languages spoken in the city. Map: Languagemapping.org, 2020 (languagemapping.org/covid-19/)

During a pandemic, in which public health mandates and protocols can change on a daily basis, the ability of politicians and public health officials to communicate effectively with all members of the population is critical for containing and mitigating the spread of infection. It can be hard to translate complex and rapidly changing messaging and new terminology such as “social distancing” consistently into many different languages without an established and pre-existing infrastructure for doing so. In times of crisis, community networks become vitally important for timely and effective communication. Knowing the approximate locations of different language communities is essential context for city officials to craft appropriate and time-sensitive messaging.

Furthermore, people hospitalized because of this highly infectious virus find themselves isolated and without the comfort of visits from family members—individuals who, under other circumstances, might have served as trusted and accurate, if unofficial, medical translators. This new reality has profound implications for both patients and health care workers facing language barriers during the pandemic.

Our digital map detailing the linguistic geographies of New York City’s urban spaces can help identify the public service needs of urban language communities.

Our digital map detailing the linguistic geographies of New York City’s urban spaces can help identify the public service needs of urban language communities. An advantage of an interactive map, particularly in a pandemic emergency, is its capacity to combine geospatial data provided by agencies such as the New York City Department of Public Health, the Census Bureau, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with language distribution data to spatially visualize patterns of vulnerability. CDC data that can be cross-referenced with language data include, among many other variables, the percentage of uninsured households, the percentage of crowded households or those estimated to have more people than rooms, or the percentage of households with people 65 years of age and older.

New York City and a Social Vulnerability Index

In this map, we illustrate the interplay between the distribution of languages in New York City and a Social Vulnerability Index from the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This index is calculated based on a number of risk factors. Map: Languagemapping.org, 2020

Incorporating such information into an interactive language map offers clues for understanding why it may be that linguistically rich areas of New York City have been hit particularly hard with COVID-19 and can help the city target public service delivery to the most seriously affected neighborhoods through focused translation into specific languages.

If it is clear, for instance, that there are many uninsured households within a five-block radius, then such information would help municipal and community organizations develop messaging in languages predominantly spoken in those neighborhoods about how the uninsured can best access health services. The challenges in actually making this happen are many, from triangulating the data to making and disseminating the messages, but the need is clear. The fast-moving COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the importance of community-based language mapping and highlights the ever more urgent need for cartographers to attend to the diversity of language landscapes, including those in urban areas, and commit to mapping languages in ways that are more representative, collaborative, and participatory.

Underlying our partnership is a shared goal: identifying the role of maps for making sense of marginalization so that resources can be better mobilized to address and mitigate these inequities.

Cartography has a key role to play in highlighting the vital component of language in the biocultural diversity of our fragile planet. Language maps, whether in print or online, need to represent more than just points or polygons. There is great potential for utilizing cartography and visualization tools for illustrating the complexity of language practices, language mobility, and linguistic identities. Our collaborative approach to language mapping offers ways to explore how linguistic geographies may intersect with health disparities and other social vulnerabilities. Underlying our partnership is a shared goal: identifying the role of maps for making sense of marginalization so that resources can be better mobilized to address and mitigate these inequities. We see in cartography an opportunity for untapped social good, harnessing the formidable power of maps to explain, represent, and heal.


Acknowledgments: Ours is a collaborative partnership between the University of British Columbia, Dartmouth College, and the Endangered Language Alliance to develop tools to map linguistic diversity.

We are grateful to the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, the Dartmouth College Office of the Provost – Spark Initiative, and the Dartmouth Department of Anthropology Claire Garber Goodman Fund for their support of our work.


Maya Daurio is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of British Columbia interested in anthropological uses of cartography.

Sienna R. Craig is an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College. Her work focuses on Asian medicines, global health, and migration and social change.

Daniel Kaufman is an assistant professor of linguistics at Queens College at the City University of New York and a founder and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance.

Ross Perlin is a linguist, writer, and translator focused on exploring and supporting linguistic diversity. He is a co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance.

Mark Turin is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, with a joint appointment in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies and the Department of Anthropology.