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Visualising Languages with Maps

How many words are really necessary for writing about language? Not as many as you’d think. A book about language was recently published with plenty of pictures and, in places, almost no words.

By Holger Moos

100 Karten über Sprache © Katapult After their books with infographics meant to change our view of the world or to save the world, the team at Katapult, the “magazine for cartography and social science,” has now published a book (100 Karten über Sprache) with 100 maps about language.
As with its predecessors, the folks at Katapult again defined the topic very broadly and didn’t skimp on humour. We learn about untranslatable words from various languages: In Italy there’s a word for sleepiness after a hearty meal, in Hungary for wearing a shirt, but no trousers and pants (literally translated “to do a Donald Duck”) and Finnish has a word for getting drunk at home in your underwear. It might give us German speakers pause to realise that our untranslatable words – like Waldeinsamkeit, verschlimmbessern and Kummerspeck – often radiate comparatively little joie de vivre or eccentricity.

efficient, but laborious

As far as the speed of speech is concerned, German or English, are rather sluggish. Japanese and Spanish are much quicker getting their meanings across. However, we also learn that a similar amount of information is transported per second in all languages. German and English are more efficient because fewer words are needed. The result is always the same, but what often counts is the impression made. “A customer in Spain and one in England placing semantically identical orders at their local bakery leave the shop at about the same time. The Spanish-speaker needs more words than the English-speaker, but in comparison it seems less laborious.”
And anyone wondering how all the chemical elements got their names can turn to a double page explaining at least the chemical elements named after places. There’s also a map with odd street names in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In Germany, you can live on awkward-seeming streets like Im Höschen, Im Funkloch or on the dull Durchschnitt as well as on the ridiculously merry-sounding Flötenhalterweg or Kampfbahn Katzenbusch. In Switzerland, some people happily live Im Paradies, on the languid Teppich der Erinnerung or they stagger home along Promilleweg. In Austria, you may risk living on the Pechgraben or Ursprung, but for the undecided there’s always Zwischen den Wegen.

are you coming or going?

Readers also learn a lot of practical things, for example, which hand gestures are considered offensive in different countries. It’s not just the middle finger everywhere you go. For example, former US President George H. W. Bush learned on a state visit to Australia that an incorrectly executed victory sign might cause offense. And an orgasm is not announced the same way everywhere. We might say, “I’m coming,” but in some countries it’s “I’m going” and still others “I’m finishing.”
100 Karten über Sprache is a book you may find hard to put down. Even when you do, you’ll pick it up again and again as you can’t possibly remember everything you’ve learned about language. It’s also just fun to search through it; thanks to its excellent visuals you’ll find what you’re looking for faster than in a conventional non-fiction book about language.
  • 100 Karten über Sprache, blue whales © Katapult
  • 100 Karten über Sprache, country names © Katapult
  • 100 Karten über Sprache, H(a)i © Katapult
  • 100 Karten über Sprache, male © Katapult
  • 100 Karten über Sprache, animal sounds © Katapult

Logo Rosinenpicker © Goethe-Institut / Illustration: Tobias Schrank 100 Karten über Sprache
Greifswald : Katapult, 2020. 208 S.
ISBN: 978-3-948923-00-6