by Carol Stetser
We take maps for granted. Accurate highway maps can be purchased at any roadside gas station. Street maps of cities in exotic foreign countries are readily available to tourists in guide books. The Forest Service, a government agency, can provide topographical maps for hikers and hunters. But as recently as World War II vast expanses of the earth's surface had never been adequately surveyed. Today, the technology of satellite imaging has filled in all the blank spaces of "Terra Incognita".
People have been making maps for thousands of years. The earliest maps from Babylon and Egypt defined property boundaries. The Roman Empire produced itinerary or road maps. Medieval maps defined Christiandom depicting the location of Paradise and where man lived before the Flood. Sea charts from the Age of Exploration recorded rhumb lines to transport ships for trade or conquest. Today rockets launch probes to map the galaxies of "outer space".
Maps reveal the culture, politics, and values of-those who make and use them. Before cartography became a precise science mapmakers filled the large empty spaces of unknown territories with exotic fauna, mythological creatures, and allegorical figures. Borders were decorated with Biblical scenes or Greek deities, local landmarks and customs, dress styles of inhabitants, city plans, instruments for navigation and land surveys. A map was more than a destination guide for the traveler; it became a provider of information, an encyclopedia.
The Geographia Poetica is influenced by Stabo as well as Ptolemy. The Greek Stabo believed geography to be a science derived from philosophy and developed by the philosophers. Later, Ptolemy defined geography as, "a representation in picture of the whole known world together with the phenomena which are contained therein." Maps reflect how we see the world and how we see ourselves. The same can be said about language.
There are many blanks in our knowledge of language and writing. What are the meanings of the symbolical images portrayed in pictographs? Whet and where was cuneiform invented? What are the origins of the Elamite script, hieroglyphic writing, Mayan glyphs, Chinese ideographs? What language did the Cretan people speak and what did they call themselves? How did alphabets arise and who created the first system of writing? We have successfully mapped the surface of the earth but we have been unable to decipher the scripts of many ancient peoples who once lived here. Even the origin of the alphabet that we use daily to communicate with each other is shrouded in controversy and mystery.
Language holds a nation together but it also enables us to learn about other peoples and countries. We share our present lives through language and we learn about the past through written records. Languages are thus pathways through space and time. But language also confines our world. What language we speak determines how we think, how we perceive and understand the world around us. The twentieth century linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf said that the language, we learn profoundly shapes the universe we can imagine. We must somehow transcend our native language to be able to see the world as it is.
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Copyright 1999 by Carol Stetser
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