Coquebert de Montbret and the birth of linguistic geography in France. A conversation with Sven Ködel

Sven Ködel was the first person I thought about when I decided to organise a seminar series on the history and methods of linguistic geography, having read about his fascinating research on the diplomat and savant Charles-Étienne Coquebert de Montbret (1751-1831), who carried out groundbreaking work on France’s linguistic geography during the early 19th century. Sven, now deputy director of the library at the German Historical Institute in Paris, will present his research during our next seminar session on Friday 26 March (2PM CET), alongside Guylaine Brun-Trigaud and Mathieu Avanzi.


Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I am fom Germany but moved to France after completing a Master in Romance Studies at the universities of Bamberg, Paris and Urbino. Before starting a PhD, I participated in the Franco-German exchange programm for parliamentary interships, then decided to stay right in Paris in order to engage in a binational doctorate between the universities of Bamberg and Paris-Diderot which allowed me at the same time to give a interdisciplinary framework to my project, combining linguistics and history. Towards the end of my PhD project, I started working at the library of the German Historical Institute in Paris where I had been before as a trainee and then again as a doctoral fellow. After my PhD, I continued with a Master in Library and Information Science at the Humboldt University of Berlin, alongside my work as librarian at the GHI. Today I am deputy head of the institute’s library.


What is your current research topic? How does it relate to language geography or cartography?

My interests evolved along my activities. I am still loyal to Coquebert de Montbret’s research, namely in the field of linguistics, but looking more on his private library from the point of view from the history of science and the history of collections, trying to understand the library’s role as a research place and tool for historical, geographical and linguistic or philological work around the 1800s, with a focus on the multilingual dimension of the collection and its sub-collections covering the regional languages and dialects of France. Nonetheless geography and cartography form an important part of this library, as main interests of Charles-Étienne Coquebert de Montbret, whereas his son Eugène was drawn more to linguistics and philology. Today’s Fonds Montbret held at the library of Rouen still reserves a lot of surprises: it is not yet fully catalogued, and a few hundred maps were “rediscovered” only 20 years ago. I still maintain hope to find Coquebert de Montbret’s manuscript map of the languages spoken in France that was lost somewhat around the 1830s.



What initially lead you to develop an interest in Coquebert de Montbret ?

My Master theses was about the connection beween language policies and national identity in France during the revolutionary period. Coquebert de Montbret’s linguistic survey is often briefly adressed within this context, but most publications focus on a particular language or dialect covered by the survey. I therefore knew that there would be a lot of manuscript material that was still unexploited. My aim however was to understand the methodological approach of Coquebert de Montbret and the scope of the survey as a whole. This replaced the enquête more in the history of linguistics and dialectology – and of linguistic geography of course – than in the social history of France’s regional idioms.



[Heinrich Berghaus, « Sprachkarte von Frankreich », 1848, via Gallica]



What sources do you use? To which extent do you rely on fieldwork or archives, and materials by other scholars

For my doctoral thesis, I depended nearly exclusively on archival material: manuscript notes, correspondencies, maps, dialect samples… The documentation of the execution as well as the results of the survey are very complete but scattered over several archives and libraries. Some scholars cited passages or individual letters and language samples from this rich documentation, but it has never been entirely edited. This is still a project to come. As for the Coquebert de Montbrets’ private library, I am regularly in Rouen since a stage d’élève conservateur a few years ago to work with the physical book copies containing their annotations, markings on book provenance and so on. Isabelle Laboulais, who wrote her thesis on Charles-Étienne Coquebert de Montbret’s scientific biography, is the only scholar so far to have studied his book and map collection.


According to you, what can an historical approach bring to the study of linguistic geography?

As a student, my first encounter with linguistic geography was simply as a means of representation of language variation in space. I would therefore mention the necessary reflection on the concepts and tools we use, i.e. the context in which they originated, to what purpose they were developed and how they evolved over time. Beyond the use of historical data for the diachronic study of the geography of languages, this opens up questions on how the geographical and cartographical representation of language modified the perception of linguistic diversity and what consequences this might have brought, like political or ideological instrumentalizations or how maps as tools of knowledge influenced the work of linguists.


Can you name a couple of books about linguistic geography that you would recommend ?

As my topic falls in the period when geography and cartography were just being established as proper scientific disciplines, I would recommend three books on the history of French geography and their interconnection with humanities and social sciences:

Anne Marie Claire Godlewska, Geography Unbound: French Geographic Science from Cassini to Humboldt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Hélène Blais, Isabelle Laboulais, Charles W. J. Withers, Dominique Margairaz, Isabelle Surun, Géographies plurielles: Les sciences géographiques au moment de l’émergence des sciences humaines. Paris, France: L’Harmattan, 2006.

Jean-Marc Besse, Hélène Blais, Isabelle Surun (ed.), Naissances de la géographie moderne (1760-1860). Lieux, pratiques et formation des savoirs de l’espace, Paris, ENS Éditions, 2010.



See also :

Guylaine Brun Trigaud, « Les enquêtes dialectologiques sur les parlers du Croissant : corpus et témoins », Langue française, n°93, 1992, « Enquête, corpus et témoin », sous la direction de Gabriel Bergounioux », en particulier p.26 et suivantes, URL:

Isabelle Laboulais-Lesage, Lectures et pratiques de l’espace. L’itinéraire de Coquebert de Montbret, savant et grand commis d’État (1755‑1831), Paris: Honoré Champion, 1999

Workshop and conference – Language contact in Francophone African countries [online]

Colleagues at the linguistic department in Grenoble have put up an online workshop that might be of interest for researchers with a focus on language contact or the linguistic geography of several African countries.Le 19 mars 202110h-11h. See information in French below and here.

« Dans le cadre des Journées de la francophonie, la communauté doctorante du LIDILEM (Laboratoire de Linguistique et Didactique des Langues Étrangères et Maternelles)  organise une matinée scientifique sur la thématique des francophonies africaines.
Cette matinée s’ouvrira sur une conférence plénière animée par le professeur Denis Creissels, professeur émérite en linguistique : «Dynamique des contacts de langues dans les pays francophones d’Afrique».
Cette conférence introduira la thématique au grand public en mettant en avant les spécificités des langues africaines (différences structurelles, situations sociolinguistiques) et leurs niveaux de contact avec le français.

À distance
ID de réunion : 810 8754 8135
Code secret : 123″

« Crossing historical and contemporary boundaries in geography and linguistics » – a linguistic geography session at the RGS Conference

Extract of Georg Wenker’s Linguistic atlas, via Sabine Kaufmann

Philip Jagessar and I are organising a session at the Royal Geographical Society conference this year. It’s rather broad title is « Crossing historical and contemporary boundaries in geography and linguistics » and we hope to attract participants with various backgrounds in geography. If you are interested, please get in touch wih me or Philip before 5 March 2021.


Language has a broad range of meaning to geographers, from a method of everyday communication to an abstract or metaphorical concept. The geographies of translation, speech and critical discussions over the primacy of English have become matters of linguistic interest among geographers in recent years. Despite this, linguistics – the study of language form and context – is understood to be a distinct discipline from geography, only intersecting in very narrow areas of overlapping interest, notably toponymy.

However, this was not always the case. Linguistics and its earlier iteration, philology, were a significant tradition in geography’s history. In the 19th century, geographical societies across Europe were centres of linguistic study with the growth of imperialism proving to be central to the relationship. Philology was not far behind geography as the science of empire. At the turn of the 20th century, the boundaries between disciplines were increasingly blurred as languages were considered a spatial and cultural phenomenon to be studied, within the broader context of language nationalism and growing questions over linguistic states or territories in the interwar period and during decolonisation.  

This session is seeking papers which recover this historical tradition in geography from different perspectives and different regions, exploring the entwined intellectual and methodological histories of geography and linguistics. We are also interested in papers from scholars whose work crosses the boundary between geography and linguistics today, and what that can inform us about the future of an interdisciplinary linguistic geography.

2021 Linguistic Geographies [online] seminar

Image source :

This week marks the beginning of the linguistic geography I organise online, with some of my favorite researchers in the field joining the conversation this Winter and Spring, in English and French. More will follow later this year.

Our first seminar on the history and methods of linguistic geography will be held online on Friday 8 January at 2pm (CET, in France, Germany, Italy ; or 1pm GMT in the UK).

Our speaker will be Philip JAGESSAR (School of Geography, University of Nottingham) speaking on: ‘Mapping definitely, the indefinite’: the Linguistic Survey of India as an experimental atlas

You can still read Philip’s interview with me earlier this year here and his abstract at the bottom of this article.

If you would like to attend this session or for any enquiries, please contact me (Felix de Montety) at 

All are welcome: please forward this to anyone you think might be interested in attending. Please get in touch with me if you are interested in presenting your own work later this year or if you would like to indicate an event or publication that might be of interest to us.

Full program below !


(all sessions are held on Friday afternoons)

8 January 2021 (14h (France & CET) //1pm GMT (UK))                                   

English language session             

  • Felix DE MONTETY (CNRS, Grenoble, France)

Seminar introduction

  • Philip JAGESSAR (School of geography, University of Nottingham, U.-K.)

‘Mapping definitely, the indefinite’: the Linguistic Survey of India as an experimental atlas

29 January 2021 (14h (France & CET) //1pm GMT (UK))                       

English language session 

  • Alfred LAMELI (Research Center Deutscher Sprachatlas, Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany)

Language Mapping through the centuries (19th century-present)

  • Stefan RABANUS (Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Università di Verona, Italy)   

Traditions and challenges in language mapping

5 Février/ February 2021(14h (France & CET) //1pm GMT (UK))                                  Séance en français / French language session  

  • Matteo DE CHIARA (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris, France)         

Quelles informations nous offre la toponymie ? Le cas de la vallée de Swat, Pakistan

  • Samia OUNOUGHI (LIDILEM, Université Grenoble Alpes, France)    

[titre à définir // tba]

26 Mars/ March 2021(14h (France & CET) //1pm GMT (UK))  

Séance en français / French language session      

  • Sven KÖDEL (Institut Historique Allemand, Paris, France)      

Cartographier les limites des langues dans l’empire napoléonien : l’enquête Coquebert de Montbret et la géographie de la langue française 

  • Mathieu AVANZI (Sorbonne Université, Paris, France)           

Cartographier la variation du français à l’ère des sciences participatives (2000-2020)

  • Guylaine BRUN-TRIGAUD (CNRS/Université Côte d’Azur, France)

Présentation de deux outils pour géolinguistes : ShinyDialect et ShinyClass 

Mapping definitely, the indefinite’: the Linguistic Survey of India as an experimental atlas

Philip Jagessar (University of Nottingham, School of Geography)

8 January 2021

In 1896, George Grierson – a member of the Indian Civil Service and noted philologist – commenced a monumental project to survey, classify and map the languages and dialects of India. A significant ambition of the Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) was to publish maps of the major languages and linguistic areas in India. At the start of the process Grierson had in mind which languages were to be mapped and which maps he wanted published in the LSI. Getting there meant making sense of and piecing together discrete forms of cartographic information so that the final maps were comprehensible to a broad readership composed of scholars, officials and laypersons.

Reading the final maps, on the other hand, suggests that the LSI could not settle on one way to map language. The forty-five maps which constitute a ‘linguistic atlas’ of India are diverse in style, size, scale and methods used. The only consistent feature of the maps is their lack of uniformity. This can partly be explained by the maps being made at different stages over two-and-a-half decades, and the changes in personnel, methods and material in that time. However, this paper argues that the maps of the LSI should be read as an experiment in which Grierson, through a network of surveyors, scholars and interactions with organisations such as the Survey of India, tries to find the most effective way to map language. Crucially, linguistic mapping is not an exact science – languages are only mapped approximately – and the variation in maps are a consequence of trying to capture India’s heterogeneous linguistic geography. The LSI’s maps were trying to answer questions which troubled Grierson such as how to map a language spoken over a large area or small area; how to map languages that extend beyond India; how to map an area with many different dialects; and how to map the geographical limits of a language or dialect. In other words, the LSI was an experimental atlas illustrating different methods and techniques to map the languages and dialects in the Indian subcontinent and beyond.    

Place-names, tree names and linguistic archaeology in Swāt. A conversation with Matteo De Chiara

Source: M. De Chiara

I met Matteo De Chiara in 2016, at the Mondes Indien et Iranien CNRS research unit just outside of Paris, home to several researchers studying the languages, histories and geographies of West, South and Central Asia, as well as to the excellent Cartorient mapping project. A renown specialist of contemporary and ancient Iranian languages, Matteo teaches Pashto at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisation Orientales (INALCO) and has notably published a volume titled Iranian Languages and Literatures of Central Asia (from the eighteenth century to the present)  (with Evelin Grassi, 2015). His more recent work has seen him delve into the linguistic geography of Pakistan’s Swāt valley and develop a fascinating study of its toponyms. Matteo kindly acepted to tell me more about this research project, his methodology and interest for language geography.


Can you introduce yourself in a few words ? What is your background ?

My name is Matteo De Chiara, an Italian from Rome. My mother tongue is Italian. I am a linguist by training: I fulfilled my Master studies in linguistics and Sanskrit at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”. After that, I pursued doctoral studies at the University of Naples “L’Orientale” in Iranian studies and, in particular, in Pashto historical phonetics and lexicology under the supervision of A.V. Rossi. Now, I am Maître de Conférences HDR of Pashto and Iranian Philology at the Inalco of Paris.


What is your current research topic about? How do you use linguistic maps?

At present, I’m continuing my linguistic research on Pashto. Recently my volume on the toponymy of the Swāt valley – a district in the province of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, north of Pakistan (Matteo De Chiara, Toponymy of the Swāt Valley. Linguistic archaeology, Lahore 2020) – has been published by the editor Sang-e Meel and thanks to the funding of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swāt, the Ismeo of Rome and the Inalco in Paris. I have been working on this research project for at least the last seven years, under the auspices of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swāt, founded in 1956 by Giuseppe Tucci, and now directed by L.M. Olivieri, and thanks to funding from the Inalco of Paris. The main goal of this work is to offer new materials on the linguistic and ethnic situation of Swāt from a diachronic point of view.

At the beginning of this project, all toponyms were originally sourced from the Government of Pakistan’s maps from 1950 and 1984. The data was later verified with the 1977 maps from the Soviet Union and from the US Army, which were consulted and used to integrate the cartographic base, and lastly, with Google maps and Google Earth, before being confirmed, corrected and improved with the help of Pashto speakers and residents in loco.

Swāt toponyms have a long history and have been treated in many sources since the 19th century and even before, not only in all English gazetteers, but also in the numerous archaeological surveys. Nowadays, the main language spoken in the Swāt valley is Pashto, in particular the Yusufzai dialect, with Urdu as national language and some minor Indo-Aryan languages, like Gujari. In the northern part of the valley two Dardic languages are also spoken, Torwali and Bashkarik, representing the last remnants of a Dardic substrate.

In recent times, at the time of the “Yusufzai State of Swāt”, the ruler of Swāt “Pashtunised” many village names, and hence the importance of the historical sources. However, notwithstanding this reform, non-Pashto names still exist today. In many cases, very ancient toponyms remain for modern designations, especially with regards to geonyms, i.e. the generic names of place, where we find names of non-Pashto origin – the majority Indo-Aryan.

Starting then from a review of all toponyms and thanks to the program QGIS, I could draw the maps of all toponyms, Tehsil (sub-divisions of the District) by Tehsil and typology by typology, according to their linguistic origin. As an example, I include here the map containing the etymology of rivers.


Source : M. De Chiara


What initially lead you to develop an interest in toponyms and geonyms, as well as for linguistic maps?

During my doctoral studies, I spent one year in Paris to study the Pashto language (Paris is the only place in Europe where a stable academic master exists). After that, I was invited to Swāt by the director of the Archaeological mission to Swāt, L.M. Olivieri, to improve my Pashto proficiency. I stayed for four months in Swāt in a Pashtun environment. This was at the end of 2006, and I left a few days before the start of the war of 2007-2008 in Swāt. Some years after that, L.M. Olivieri, who developed an innovative methodological model of study for this region, based on a multidisciplinary approach, proposed that I study the toponyms of the Swāt valley.

As toponyms are the names of places, this project obliged me to develop an interest in geography and linguistic geography. I must confess that I was never interested to these topics before. However, thanks to this research, I discovered how fundamental an understanding of the physical features of the environment together with the dynamics of the history are, in order to appreciate linguistic contact: this is particularly true in a milieu of strong multilingualism.

I spent some time, guided by Emmanuel Giraudet of my research unit at the CNRS (UMR 8041 – CERMI), to learn how to use the program QGIS, which enabled me to firstly draw geographic maps, and then the resulting linguistic maps.

As a consequence of this project, I now see how important linguistic maps are for the identification of isoglosses. In my specific case, as I dealt mainly with a single dialect, i.e. Yusufzai Pashto, I individuated some main lexical isoglosses existing in the toponymy of the Swāt valley.

Another interesting issue, which I am confronting at the moment, are the geonyms, i.e. the generic names of places, as ‘mountain’, ‘valley’, etc., from which one can derive useful information on linguistic geography and on toponymical dynamics as well as methodological suggestions on the semantics and etymology of toponyms.


Source: Designer429/Wikimedia Commons


What sources do you use? To which extent do you rely on fieldwork, and materials by other scholars?

As stated above, I firstly relied on the maps of the Pakistani Government, of the Soviet Union and of the US Army, implemented by Google maps and Google Earth. The maps contained in the archaeological surveys of the first part of the 20th century (in particular to those contained in the books by A. Stein and G. Tucci), as well as the more ancient Gazetteers of the 19th century (cf. for instance those by H.G. Raverty and H.W. Bellew), also provided useful and complete data.

However, all of this without checking with Pashto speakers and residents in loco would have been useless. In order to verify all data and to take an advantage of their linguistic expertise, I brought three missions to Swāt, in particular to Saidu Sharif, not far from Mingora, where the headquarters of the Italian Archaeological Mission are located. In Swāt (I travelled up to Bahrain, in the north of the valley) I could verify my material with language informants: I always received excellent hospitality and warm friendship. I am really grateful for all the encouragement and information I received, and for the many agreeable moments I had there during my visits.

The next step of my research was to study in detail the toponyms in two directions: from one side, a comparison with the typology of toponyms, from the other, the linguistic analysis proper. For the first task I compared Gazetteers and toponymical works near or further from my context: for instance, I carefully consulted the useful work of L.W. Adamec, Historical and political gazetteer of Afghanistan, in six volumes; the works of W. Eilers and M. Mokri, among others, on the toponymy in other Iranian languages; and also the Atlante toponomastico della provincia di Cremona, edited by V. Ferrari, dealing with the toponymy of a province in northern Italy. I must cite here also the work of W.Kh. Hakimzay, in Pashto, entitled Daɣa zmunǧ kәlay day [This is our village], which provides useful etymologies, not always reliable, but pioneering, even if quite neglected in Swāt.

For the second task, I consulted dictionaries and repertories of more or less local languages, belonging to many different linguistic families: Iranian, Dardic and Kafiri, Indo-Aryan, Turkish, Mongolian, Dravidian, Muṇḍa (Austroasiatic).

L.O. Olivieri provided me with useful data, such as local chronologies, toponyms of Alexander’s time, etc.: all of this doubtless facilitated my research.

Source: M. De Chiara


According to you, what can your approach bring to the study of linguistic geography?

A multidisciplinary approach, including geography, linguistics, history, archaeology, but also botany and others, can doubtless bring new fuel to the study of linguistic geography. For instance, in my research I identified many names of pastures, passes and villages containing tree names, as shown in this partial list:

  • °Banr (baṇ) ‘forest’
  • Amlukbanr (amlukbaṇ) ‘forest of the sloes’
  • Asharbanr (ašārbaṇ) ‘forest of the silver firs’
  • Ghuzbanr (γuzbaṇ) ‘forest of the walnuts’
  • Gujarbanr (guǰarbaṇ) ‘forest of the Gujars’
  • Loebanr (loybaṇ) ‘big forest’
  • Mabanr (mābaṇ) ‘garden of the moon’
  • Surbanr (surbaṇ) ‘red forest’
  • Tut banrin (tut baṇin) ‘densely wooded by mulberries’
  • Achro Banda (ačro bānda) ‘pasture of the silver firs’
  • Ranjro Sar (ranǰro sar) ‘mountain of the deodars’
  • Nakhtar (naxtar) ‘Himalayan pine’
  • Talgo Nakhtar ‘id.’
  • Shaurai Khwar (šawray xwaṛ) ‘river of the small sissoo’?
  • Banj Banda (banǰ bānda) ‘pasture of the quercus ilex’
  • Tarkana (tarkāna) ‘maple’
  • Baret (baret) ‘bird cherry’

In order to do that, I also consulted the volumes by M. Alam on Trees and Shrubs in Afghanistan (2011) and Sultan-i-Rome on Land and Forest Governance in Swat. Transition from Tribal System to State to Pakistan (2016), as well as Qadeer M.A. Khan’s thesis (n.p.) on Working Plan for the Forests of Swat and Swat-Kohistan, Swat State (Malakand Agency, 1965-1980). The approach of F. Barth in his article on the “Ecologic Relationships of Ethnic Groups in Swat, North Pakistan” (1956) is also important.



This has consequences on our understanding of the economic processes as well as on the drawing of linguistic maps. In this way, I think that my approach can really contribute to linguistic geography and, in particular, to the lexical domain.

Clearly, a more in-depth investigation, valley by valley, could also enhance our knowledge. In this concern, I think that my future research in this domain will follow two paths: a micro-toponymy collection, devoted to local names and traditions; and a macro-toponymy collection, outlining more general comparisons and historical influences.

All these aspects deserve further investigation and my hope is that this work will lead to new interest and energy, and will be considered not a conclusive result, but an open and collaborative starting point.


Source: M. De Chiara


Can you name a couple of books about linguistic geography that you would recommend and explain why in a few words?

I will leave aside the classics of linguistic geography, which already influenced the research in this domain. I would like to mention an inspiring book for me, and a continuous source of materials: the two volumes of G. Fussman’s Atlas linguistique des parlers Dardes et Kafirs, published in 1972 in Paris.

The first volume contains 167 linguistic maps, arranged word by word, as ‘tree’, ‘cow’, ‘summertime’ or ‘to see’. The area covered by the maps goes from the north of Kabul in the west, to Gilgit and Srinagar in the east, and from the springs of the Chitral river in the north, to Peshawar and Parachinar in the south. The second volume contains the commentary to the linguistic maps. Every map indicates the synonyms for the words in the different Dardic and Kafir languages spoken in the area, in addition to  languages with a different origin: Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Turkic, Burushaski. The three useful indexes contain linguistic matters, the cited words and phonetic treatments.

Not only does this work concern exactly the region I am interested in, and represents an inevitable tool for all those dealing with this area, but it is also an important methodological tool. Starting with the linguistic maps, G. Fussman draws verified and reliable conclusions on the movements of the different peoples. For instance, in my work I could verify the accuracy of Fussman’s analysis when he stated that the Damelis and the Gawars would have been expulsed from Swāt “vers le milieu du XVe siècle par les Pathans” (Fussman 1972, I: 23).

The second work I like to name is the Atlas Linguistique de l’Afgahnistan. Unfortunately, it has never been published, but its materials are kept at the archives of Berne. This remarkable research project intended to provide linguistic maps for the whole Afghanistan. In order to do that, many questionaries were submitted to language informants and several scholars took part in the undertaking, including G. Morgenstierne, one of the leading researchers of Iranian philology in the 20th century.


Source :

Fortunately, an Arbeitspapier was published in Berne in 1974 by the three authors, G. Redard, Ch.M. Kieffer and S. Sana: L’atlas linguistique des parlers iraniens: Atlas de l’Afghanistan. In particular,  the article by Ch.M. Kieffer is remarkable: “L’établissement des cartes phonétiques: premiers résultats”. This work of linguistic geography shows its usefulness and possible developments, as it appears from a draft of a paper presented by Ch.M. Kieffer in the Colloque sur l’établissement d’un Centre d’étude de la langue et de la littérature paṣ̌tō, Caboul, 22-29 novembre 1975, and entitled “Dialectologie du paṣ̌tō. Distribution et typologie des parlers paṣ̌tō d’après les premières cartes de l’Atlas linguistique de l’Afghanistan (ALA)”. My hope is that this work will one day see the light.

Moreover, this project was not isolated: indeed, starting from the ’50s, G. Redard himself had also begun preliminary work for a linguistic atlas of Iran and has published many articles on Iranian dialectology.



See also: De Chiara, M. (2019). Swāt Hydronymy at the Border between Iranian and Indo-Aryan Languages, Iran and the Caucasus, 23(1), 64-74. doi:

The Catalan Atlas, transcriptions, translations and toponyms

I have always loved the 14th century masterpiece now known as the Catalan Atlas. I never saw it with my own eyes though, even when I worked at its home, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, but whether online or in print, it still is an enduring source of awe and inspiration to this day and I regularly find myself coming back to its immense breadth, to the simple clarity of its era-defining cartographical language and to its colourful, mysterious, illustrations.


Thanks to a recent Twitter thread by the excellent press cartographer Jules Grandin, I just discovered the Cresques project, a webpage by aerospace engineer and independent map scholar Juan Ceva. Based in California but originally from Spain’s Majorca island, Ceva has made available fascinating materials and secondary literature, notably by Gabriel Llompart and Jaume Riera.

The illustrious Catalan Atlas was produced in or around 1375, very probably by the Majorcan cartographer Abraham Cresques and possibly his son. Acquired early on by the French monarchy, the portulan chart in 6 sheets is still held in the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France‘s manuscripts department and has been the subject of many exhibitions and descriptions. While many mysteries still surround this piece of work and its author, Ceva’s contribution is very enlightening for the non-expert map enthusiast that I am, notably because it provides keys to decipher and understand descriptions and toponyms from the richly decorated maps, for instance in the top left of panel 3: « En Inbèrnia ha moltes illes merevellosas…« .


The full inscription is translated : « In Hibernia [Ireland] there are many wonderful islands whose existence can be credible; among them, there is a small one where men never die, because when they are about to die of old age, they are transported outside the island. »



Other fascinating and very helpful parts of this webpage include transcriptions and translations of the legends as well as of Balearic toponyms. I am by no means a specialist and pre-18th century maps do not relate to my own research work but those toponyms and this map bring back very fond memories of Menorca Island, where I spent time with my grandparents and parents as a child, near Ciutadella, the Catalan Atlas« citaela ».


Congratulations to Juan Ceva for making the language of those maps easily understandable by us all and stimulating original research on this fascinating piece of cartographical history. May it inspire others to do the same for masterpieces such as the ethno-linguistic map accompanying the Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk [ديوان لغات الترك], Mahmud al-Kashgari’s landmark 11th century encylopedia of the Turkic languages and people.



Abelhas e Mapas? : on Valéry, Gilliéron and a « Language and Territory » conference in 2021


A colloquium will be held in the French region of Occitanie next year from 14 to 20 June to « discuss the different ways that languages and territories are linked, and will show the political, social and economic stakes that arise from the relationships between them ».

Paper proposals -in English, French, Spanish or Occitan- can deal with the themes detailed in the whopping list below:

  • « Language and Virtual Territory
  • Language, Territory and Planning
  • Language, Territory and Contacts
  • Language, Territories and Conflict
  • Language, Territory and Law
  • Language, Territory and Economy
  • Language, Territory and Education
  • Language, Territory and History
  • Language, Territory and Identity
  • Language, Territory and Imagination
  • Language, Territory and Literature
  • Language, Territory and Minorities
  • Language, Territory and Mobility
  • Language, Territory and Globalization
  • Language, Territory and Digital Technology
  • Language, Territory and Politics
  • Language, Territory and Philosophy
  • Language, Territory and Nation
  • Language, Territory and First Nations
  • Language, Territory and Religion
  • Language, Territory and Networks
  • Language, Territory and Companies
  • New language(s), new Territory(ies)
  • Languages, Territory and Writing
  • Language « without territory », territory « without language ».
  • Language, Territory and Heritage »

Deadline for proposals is 21 November 2020. More information here:

I will do my best to attend and will post more details when I receive the full program next Spring. The event, held at Montpellier’s University, which is named after one of my favorite poets, Paul Valéry (1871-1945), will no doubt be of interest for linguists, geographers and accross the social sciences.

Valéry never wrote about linguistic geography, nor did he seem familiar with its development, but it is a pleasant coincidence that « L’abeille » (« The Bee »), one of my favorite poems of his, was published in Charmes (1922) only a couple months after Jules Gilliéron (1854-1926) published his « Complementary notes on the name of the bee », a sequel to his landmark study Généalogie des mots qui désignent l’abeille [full pdf from Gallica], from the Atlas Linguistique Linguistique de la France (ALF) (1902-1910/1920).

François Jacquesson mentioned this classic bee example on his excellent blog last year, and Mathieu Avanzi published his own take on Jules Gilliéron and Edmont Edmont’s bee on Twitter last month!











A very useful tool here is the Cartodialect website, where it is possible to visualise maps from the ALF. The map for « Abeille » is of course the first of them!

L’attribut alt de cette image est vide, son nom de fichier est Screen-Shot-2020-11-04-at-12.27.54-417x500.png.


Below is Valéry’s Bee in French and in an English translation by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody published by The Brooklyn Rail in In Translation recently:


À Francis de Miomandre.

Quelle, et si fine, et si mortelle,
Que soit ta pointe, blonde abeille,
Je n’ai, sur ma tendre corbeille,
Jeté qu’un songe de dentelle.

Pique du sein la gourde belle,
Sur qui l’Amour meurt ou sommeille,
Qu’un peu de moi-même vermeille,
Vienne à la chair ronde et rebelle !

J’ai grand besoin d’un prompt tourment :
Un mal vif et bien terminé
Vaut mieux qu’un supplice dormant !

Soit donc mon sens illuminé
Par cette infime alerte d’or
Sans qui l’Amour meurt ou s’endort !


However keen may be your sting,
However fatal, yellow bee,
Over my basket I have draped
The merest dream of floating lace.

So prick that swelling gourd, my breast
Where Love is sleeping, or has died.
A little of myself will rise
Scarlet to plump, rebellious flesh!

A sudden pang is what I need:
A pain that quickens and is gone
I’d rather than this slumbering grief.

Illuminate my senses with
Your microscopic gold alarm
Without which Love slumbers or dies!

(English translation copyright (c) Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, 2014)


Last but not least, Gilliéron’s introductory comments on the names of the bee:



(Jules Gilliéron, Généalogie des mots qui désignent l’abeille : d’après l’Atlas linguistique de la France, Paris: Champion, 1918, p.19)

« D’une langue dans l’autre » – Edouard Glissant (#lockdown reads)

« Alors encore vous entendez ces langages du monde qui se rencontrent sur la vague le mont, toutes ces langues qui fracassent l’une dans l’autre comme ces crêtes de vagues en furie, et vous entreprenez, tout un chacun applaudit, de bondir d’une langue dans l’autre, ça fait de grosses dévirades d’imprévu, puis vous coulez dans ce mystère des mots et voilà que vous quittez la débandade et vous défilez comme une rivière à sec dans le secret de son partage de la rivière, alors là pas un n’applaudit, vous êtes seul à descendre, vous entamez d’avertir ce qu’on appelle un style, plus secret que le changer de peau d’une bête-longue au plus fond d’un bois-campêche, et qu’est-ce qu’ils appellent un style, c’est rien que la manière dont vous racontez la roche de rivière et le courant du vent sur la misère et le malheur, et la fumée des bois sur tous les bonheurs rassemblés ?

Et alors enfin vous tournez la parole non plus comme un fil mais comme un tourbillon, et avec tout ce vent et toute cette fumée vous convoquez la tempête, un cyclone qui débâcle sans déraciner, et là vraiment vous imaginez le monde alentour. »

Edouard Glissant, Tout Monde, 1993

Language surveying, cartography and colonialism. A conversation with Philip Jagessar

Map illustrating the area in which the languages of the Dardic Sub-family are spoken. LSI Volume 8:2, p.1, link:


I met Philip Jagessar around 2018 in Nottingham, where we both did our PhD under the supervision of Mike Heffernan. I had then already left the UK to finish writing up in my hometown and we did not spend much time together but I was fascinated by his topic, his insightful views on linguistic geography and felt almost jealous of the incredible material that he was exploring! Last week we sat down for a quick Zoom chat and talked about our common interest for linguistic maps. Despite being very busy writing up his dissertation, Philip has been kind enough to accept my invitation to interview him and told me about his current work on the Linguistic Survey of India maps and his perception of our field of research.


Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I’m currently in the final year of my PhD in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, where I presently live. I previously lived in London and Birmingham and grew up in the Caribbean before moving to the UK. In terms of tongues spoken, I’m bilingual in English and Dutch but otherwise generally terrible at learning languages. I took classes in Latin, Russian and Farsi once upon a time but have completely forgotten anything I did learn….

What is your research topic? 

My research looks broadly at the mapping of languages by the Linguistic Survey of India in the late colonial period (c. 1896-1928). The Linguistic Survey of India was a colonial project proposed by George Grierson at the Oriental Congress in Vienna (1886) to survey, classify and map all the languages and dialects of India which had to this point been underestimated. Over the course of five years, ‘specimens’ of each dialect or languages were collected by Grierson’s contacts and he, along with colleagues across India and Europe, edited and classified them according to language group, family etc. The results of the LSI were published in 11 volumes by language family.

However, the LSI was not simply a philological exercise but also aimed to locate and fix the geography of India’s languages – and maps were crucial to this process. The final published version of the LSI had 45 different language maps ranging in scale, type and colour. My research is specifically interested in the Linguistic Survey’ cartography and examines the relationship between the colonial state and surveying language, the methods and practice of language mapping as it appears in the LSI (i.e. how does one map language, and crucially, what does a language map actually depict) and the afterlife of Grierson’s maps in provincial linguistic movements.


Map of the Dialects of the Kachin Group…. LSI Volume 3:2, p.499, link:


What initially lead you to develop an interest for linguistic geography and maps in particular?

I must admit that before starting my PhD I knew very little about linguistic geography or language maps. My passion lies in maps, and their history, more generally. I’ve always been interested in old maps, even collecting them as a hobby since I was an undergraduate, particularly old maps of India, Afghanistan and Central Asia. My Masters research grew out of this interest by examining the legacies of the Survey of India’s maps after independence.

My PhD project came out of discussions with my current supervisors in which we concluded it would be interesting to examine the maps of a less well-known but arguably more impactful colonial survey – the Linguistic Survey of India. Since then I’ve come to develop a greater interest in the intellectual history of linguistic geography and how languages were mapped in other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa.  

What sources do you use? What strikes you most about those documents? 

I principally use archival sources and, of course, the maps of the Linguistic Survey. The majority of the LSI archive is neatly catalogued in the British Library but there is also a large quantity of material at the National Archives of India in Delhi.

What strikes me about the two archives is their differing view of the Linguistic Survey. The materials now in the BL were mostly self-archived by Grierson towards the end of his life and much of it reflects his own interests and what he felt was important to keep to supplement the published material. The material in Delhi, on the other hand, is the records kept by the Home Department of the Government of India so we see more of the internal dynamics of how a colonial linguistic survey is funded, supported and scrutinised by government, which we might not gather to the same extent from Grierson’s own material.

According to you, what can historical geography as a discipline and approach bring to the study of linguistic geography?

As someone focused on maps, I would say that historical geography can critically examine the roots of contemporary linguistic surveying and mapping in disciplines such a dialectology, geolinguistics and others which fall under the rubric of linguistic geography. From the perspective of my own research on India, you realise that some of the practices or methods used in language surveying today evolved out of the colonial ambition to rationalise or hierarchize language and space. More could be done to interrogate that legacy in modern linguistic cartography, even in the use of digital tools such as GIS, and historical geographers are well-placed to do so.

I would also add that there is a broader point to make about the disciplinary history of geography. Maybe it was not described as such, but linguistic geography was a recognised sub-discipline of geography throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and language was understood as a geographical phenomenon which could be studied. One only has to look at early proceedings of the RGS and other geographical societies to see that they were interested in language as much as ethnographic or geographic discoveries. At some point in the early to mid-20th century linguistic geography diverges and comes to be seen as principally the realm of linguists rather than geographers. Historical geography can help recover the history of geography’s engagement with language and chart a new way forward for linguistic geography which is as much part of geography as it is linguistics. 


Philip recently published a fascinating paper in Geography Compass: « Geography and linguistics: Histories, entanglements and departures » is a must read for anyone interested in the history of language geography. You can read it here

The Digital South Asia Library has a complete online copy of the Linguistic Survey here:

Map of the Dialects of the Tibetan Language…. LSI Volume 3:1, p.1, link:




Politics and Geopolitics of Translation // Politiques et géopolitiques de la traduction


The ultimate translation cliché? Peter Brueghel the Elder’s magnificent vision of the tower of Babel.


Terra Brasilis, the Brazilian journal of historical geography and history of geography, recently launched a call for proposals (in Portuguese, French, Spanish and English) about the issue of translation in geography. While distinct from linguistic geography and language geography, this topic is of course of the utmost importance for anyone interested in linguistic matters in geography, a discipline that can still lament its « linguistic blindness », both in its limited spatial analysis of language and tongues and in its lack of reflective thought on the role of languages in the developement and maintenance of its international networks.

On a side note, I must admit that my enthusiasm is obviously subjective, as translation has become both one of my favourite themes over the years while researching the history of geography and cartography. It was also one of my main and certainly most pleasant sources of income during my studies and early career in research. I regularly worked as a professional translator while studying for my masters and PhD from 2011 to 2018, working on articles for various media, on books for publishers, on an exciting project for the International Cartographical Association, as well as for cultural institutions and journals. I do not get paid to translate anymore, but I still enjoy working on shorter documents from time to time, as well as on my favourite poetry and songs. Translating is very often useful, sometimes frustrating but always very satisfying and even fun in the end. In my view, translating is like laying bricks to build a wall: it is never going to be perfect, there will always be misalignments or cracks, but it instantly gives you a sense of accomplishment that academic writing usually gives you more scarcely, or painfully.

Over the past decade, several initiatives have pointed at issues of translation in geography and tried to develop networks of like-minded researchers accross human geography. In 2014, Luise Fischer and Jochen F. Mayer, then both at the University of Edinburgh, organised a roundtable during the RGS-IBG conference in London titled « Trials and Tribulations of Translation between Languages: Lessons from Research in Geography (and Beyond) ». The discussion was fascinating, even though the limited number of participants (about 12) during a crowded conference highlighted the need to reach larger audiences among our colleagues.

That was also the case during a panel session on « Language in geography » that I organised at the AAG conference in San Francisco in 2016, even though the variety of case studies presented and the stimulating discussions that followed  seemed to pave the way for further debates and the constitution of a dynamic international network (Canada, US, Brazil, India, Japan, UK, France). It did not happen and I am largely to blame, for I did not manage to follow it up with another event or an online platform, as I was busy trying to finish writing up my dissertation at the time.

Happily, other initiatives flourished here and there over the past years and while several researchers have emerged as specialists (I will talk further about their work on this Carnet),  questions of translation and linguistic seem to have become more common in geographical journals and in the preoccupations of geographers in general.

This call for proposal is a much welcome step further. The editors Guilherme Ribeiro, Laura Péaud and Archie Davies write:

« Reconnaissant que ces enjeux linguistiques pèsent, de manière aussi bien historique que contemporaine, sur le travail des géographes, et qu’ils peuvent être interrogés selon un angle de vue renouvelé, la revue Terra Brasilis – Revista da Rede Brasileira de História da Geografia e Geografia Histórica propose un numéro spécial « Politiques et géopolitiques de la traduction, circulation des savoirs et histoires transnationales de la géographie ». Depuis sa refondation en 2012, la revue se penche sur les enjeux de traduction, de manière ponctuelle. A travers ce numéro, elle cherche à questionner plus systématiquement les enjeux de traduction, langage et circulation. »


Articles could be submitted about the following topics:

1 The politics and geopolitics of translation and their impact on the production of geographical knowledge.

2 Publishing, reading and writing in a transnational approach to the history of geography

3 Language, geography and intersectionality.


Details (in French) can be found here:



In addition to the bibliography provided by the editors, below are a few references I enjoyed using recently and would recommend.

  • A few classics on translation as a practice :

Lawrence Venuti, The Scandals of Translation, London: Routledge, 1998

Douglas Robinson ed., What is Translation? Centrifugal Theories, Critical Interventions, Kent: Kent State University Press, 1997

Michael Cronin, Across the Lines. Travel, Language, Translation, Cork: Cork University Press, 2000

  • On the so called “translational turn”, see

Doris Bachmann-Medick, “Introduction: the Translational Turn”, Translation studies, 2,1, 2009, p.3

  • A major example of a less-literal use of the notion of translation (in anthropology):

James Clifford, Routes. Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997

  • On translation in geography, David Harvey’s short remarks can be a starting point:

David Harvey, Spaces of Capital. Towards a Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001, p.187 & p.199

  • Last but not least, fascinating reflections can be found in Italiano’s historical analysis of translation in geography :

Federico Italiano, “Translating geographies: The Navigatio Sancti Brendani and its Venetian Translation”, Translation Studies, 5, 1, 2012