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Mapping language and the language of Pacific maps

Australian National University, Shape, Wellsprings

Date: 26 February 2019

Hedvig Skirgård is a linguist from Sweden who is working on her PhD in Professor Nicholas Evans’ The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity ARC Laureate projectat the School of Culture, History and Language in the College of Asia Pacific.

She’s been researching variation in the Samoan language. During her time at the ANU she has become a co-host of the award-winning radio show/podcast Talk the Talk and writes an entertaining linguistics blog Humans Who Read Grammars.

Here Hedvig proposes that adjustments are needed way we use maps and language of maps in the Pacific, and about the relationship between her linguistic research and mapping:

"There are 135 languages in Vanuatu. There is one language in Samoa. Vanuatu is not 135 times the size of Samoa. I'm trying to find out what it is that drives this difference.

"Languages split up and diversify, but sometimes they don't. One of the questions I want to know more about is what it is that influences that, why do we get more languages in some places than others? In order to understand human history, we must acknowledge that there is a massive diversity out there and we need to consider many different factors to understand why things turned out the way they did. By taking a multi-disciplinary approach to history, we can better understand complex series of events such as the history of the Pacific.

"Maps are important for our understanding of the world, not only in terms of correctly navigating from point A to point B, but also for our understanding of culture, history and, yes, language. The Pacific is a region that has been poorly treated in many maps, the islands are often not shown at all and even if they are they appear isolated and of little consequence, which is far from the truth. The Pacific is a very interconnected place, and in order to represent the region properly this interconnectedness should be incorporated in the way maps are drawn.

"I work on the Pacific region and the languages there. During my PhD here at CHL, I grew dissatisfied with the maps of the region that are commonly used - not only in academia but also in the rest of society. Maps of the Pacific often fail to show the relationship between island groups and the fact that water is not a barrier - but a highway!

"Pacific scholar Epeli Hau'ofa wrote about viewing the pacific as a ‘sea of islands’ instead of a desert of isolated communities, and I believe that is a fitting description of what these maps aim to show:

'There is a world of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’ and as ‘a sea of islands.’ The first emphasizes dry surfaces in a vast ocean far from the centers of power. Focusing in this way stresses the smallness and remoteness of the islands. The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships… Continental men–Europeans and Americans–drew imaginary lines across the sea, making the colonial boundaries that confined ocean peoples to tiny spaces for the first time. These boundaries today define the island states and territories of the Pacific.'

"As a part of the College of Asia-Pacific, I am fortunate enough to be able to collaborate with our cartographers at the CartoGIS unit and design new maps as a part of my doctorate. I have been working with Karina Pelling on several maps of the Pacific that aim to enhance my own research, but also to provide good alternative maps for other researchers, scholars and the general public.

"The maps fall into three categories: contemporary political borders, larger sub-regions of Oceania and grouping of islands based on pre-historic voyaging distances.

"The map of the voyaging distances aims to show the interconnectedness of Pacific islands prior to European influence, and as far as possible I have used non-western names.

"Pacific history is currently under represented on Wikipedia. As I have been looking for information for labelling of island groups in the Pacific, I've encountered some fascinating stories and some depressing ones. There are many cases where the Wikipedia article on smaller atolls and island groups start right away with western colonisers, H-bombs and guano-mining with no mention of how the island or atolls fits into the landscape of Austronesian voyaging or other historic events.

"This is unfortunate, and feeds into the narrative of the pacific as a barren empty space that was filled by western ships. In linguistics, there is an initiative to try and improve language pages on Wikipedia - Lingwiki. I urge historians of the Pacific and linguists to contribute to Wikipedia to improve this situation .

"In total, we have made five maps in this project. They are all currently available for public viewing on my personal website so that Pacific scholars and students can submit comments for changes."

In early 2019, the maps will be finalised based on the feedback and then they will all be available for free through CartoGIS online map archive.

Read more at Hedvig’s website.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University