Limits of My World: Words and Maps

“Hemispheriu,” 1593
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world” runs a paraphrase of Wittgenstein, and never has this seemed more true than when I came across a collection of fantastic old maps as I was in the midst of reading The Secret Life of Words, a history of the English language. I’m on the Powwow chapter, and guess what? The English language is adapting to the discovery of the New World.
“Universale,” 1546
As further reaches of the new world were explored, a much more detailed coastline appears, even while the interior remained blank (or filled with fanciful pictures of native people and animals).

“The North part of America Conteyning Newfoundland, new England, Virginia, Florida, new Spaine, and Nova Francia,” 1625

The Western coastline protrayed (more or less) correctly in the first two maps has changed strangely here–California is an island! A misinformed Spanish letter came into the hands of the Dutch, and Dutch and English cartographers subsequently replicated this mistake for a hundred plus years. At this point the Spanish were settling all along the California coast so it seems astounding such a mistake was maitained for so long. It also suggests the large amount of imagination mapmakers of the time used to fill in blank areas. The cartographer was imagining a coastline that fit in with the scant information he had.

Right above Virginia you can see “James Citie,” or Jamestown, which became the first permanent settlement of the English in 1607. After 1607, English settlers were adapting to their new enviornment and dealing with the natives of “New India.” As horizons expanded geographically, English appropriated new words to describe it. Here are some words that entered the English language in the 16th and 17th c. as England began to explore and colonize the new world:

to smoke

I don’t know if you can read the place names listed, but this detail includes Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. English maps gradually filled the blank spaces with names we recognize even today. The Native Americans’ presence in the English language was simularly reduced, to a handful of words and geographical names. Considering maps and words as signs of how the English concieved of the New World suggests a place of vast possibilities and exotic plants and animals with origins more in the imagination than in reality.

Detail of map header, labelling it “The North part of America.”

2 thoughts on “Limits of My World: Words and Maps

  1. omigosh i am so so SO obsessed with symantics and the history of words/languages. my fave book ever is The Monther Tongue by Bill Bryson, you should ABSOLUTELY read it. i am adding The Secret Life of Words to my wish list.

    awesome awesome post

  2. Sweet. Thanks!

    May I recommend Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis and The Professor and The Madman by Simon Winchester? Both fun reads, both absolutely fascinating.

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