language and landscape

h/t JH, Intro GIS

While the Modern Language Association, or MLA, is best known for its tedious citation rules and linguistic pedantry, it also contains one of the most interesting, user-friendly geodemographic tools on the Internet: the MLA language map.

The language map is an interactive tool that allows you to view the United States, or individual states, divided by county or ZIP code. It then displays either the percentage or absolute population of primary speakers of any of thirty-three languages, from Spanish to Hungarian to Navajo. The map uses data from the 2000 US Census, which joins individuals’ native language data with the populations and locations of their towns and cities. Its intuitive, intelligent, easy-to-use design makes it fun to generate thousands of variations.

The map uses vector data, in the form of ZIP codes or counties, and stores the relevant data (total population, political boundary nodes, and populations of individual language-natives) in an attribute table. The requested data is compiled newly into a map upon request, making this a true GIS. The site also allows you to simultaneously make, view, and compare two maps of your choice.

Language use in the United States (and anywhere!) is crucial demographic and sociological information. Although English is indisputably the States’ lingua franca, knowing the second languages of minorities in certain areas, and how widely used these languages are, can benefit corporate marketers, government service providers, and individuals. It can also speak volumes about the linguistic, and thus cultural, history of a region, highlight centres of cross linguistic exposure, and generally enrich one’s understanding of a region.

For example, the following is a map produced by this GIS in which I have requested the percentage of people who speak languages other than English at home to be shown by county. Darker regions represent higher percentages of such speakers.

(MLA Language Map, with data from 2000 US Census)

This data clearly highlights the areas of the United States in which languages other than English predominate. Such information could be very useful, for example, in the budgeting of funds towards local multilingual initiatives. Northern Maine, western Texas, and southern Florida are clearly in greater need of multilingual support than are the entire states of Alabama, Kentucky, and Missouri.
Other uses might use language distribution to infer the availability of certain cultural products. For example, an Orthodox Jew on a road trip through New York State might wonder where kosher food is available. The following map looks at concentrations of Yiddish speakers by ZIP code.

(MLA Language Map, with data from 2000 US Census)

In this case, darker ZIP codes represent higher concentrations of Yiddish speakers. In the state of New York, most counties are coloured white (zero Yiddish speakers) or grey (between one and ninety-nine speakers). However, one ZIP code in Orange County shows up as purple (between 20,000 and 39,999 speakers). Zooming in shows the ZIP code of this town and further investigation shows that it contains the Village of Kiryas Joel, an entirely Orthodox village where Yiddish is the primary language and, indeed, many stores sell exclusively kosher food.

These are just two of the many permutations for which the language map is useful. Spend a couple hours playing with the tool and you’ll find many more.

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