Consonant Battles


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Europe is divided in many ways, but one thing that most countries share is the Latin alphabet.  Dozens of languages across the continent all use the same script, and even languages that don’t, such as Greek and Russian, share many of the same characters. The common script, however, diverges wildly from place to place when spoken aloud.   Each European language has undergone its own unique evolution which affects how its letters are spoken, and it is fascinating to see how and why they diverge.

This post from Dina Rickman on has 9 maps which show how selected consonants vary in sound across Europe, based on the research of post-doctoral researcher Alexander Young at the University of Washington.  Today I want to look at a few of the most interesting ones.


Map of the Letter “J” across Europe (via–xJRqqkw2JZ)

Anyone who has studied another European language has seen how odd the letter “j” is.  It did not even exist in Latin, and only became a letter later on, initially taking on the sound of “y” as a consonant.  In German, it still has this sound (think “ja”).  In French, “j” sounds like the “s” in “vision”, or in the French word “je”, for “I”.  Spanish treats “j” just like an English “h”.  It is odd to think that if you ask an Englishman, Spaniard, Frenchman, and German to read the letter “j”, you will hear four different sounds.  Each one sounds right to speaker but wrong to the other listeners.


The Letter “R” (via–xJRqqkw2JZ)

Who knew there was this much variation in how people say “r”?  There are three different “r”s, and the most popular, by far, is the rolled “r”, which is often a struggle for first-time Spanish students.  This is the first time that I’m learning about the “rough r” spoken in some areas of France and Germany, and I am curious to hear how it sounds.  Finally, there is the “r” that the English and Irish (but not the Welsh or Scottish) are most familiar with.


The Letter “G” (via–xJRqqkw2JZ)

G is a really odd letter, because even within one language, it can be pronounced multiple ways.  In English, we have a hard “h” and a soft “g”, depending (usually) on which vowel follows the “g”.  As the map above explains, the type of “g” used also depends on where the word came from.  French loan words have a softer “g” (like “gem”), whereas German loan words have the harder “g” (think “gift”).  Meanwhile, the French do not pronounce “g” the way the English pronounce “g” words that come from French, instead using the same sound they use for the French “j”.  Go to Spain, and they say a soft “g” like an “h”, in Swedish they say it like a “y”, and in Finnish, they don’t say it at all (“g” only appears as part of “ng”).  This map does not include Greek, but I can attest that the Greek version of “g”, gamma, is famously hard to pronounce for non-Speakers, being a guttural combination of a hard “g” and an English “y”.  This is why the “gyro”, the Greek pita bread wrap, is chronically mispronounced.

For even more maps of consonant sounds across Europe, check out this link:–xJRqqkw2JZ

Touring the Cities of Ice and Fire


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We have previously looked at maps of George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros from the Song of Ice and Fire series here and here.  But we haven’t looked closely at the cities of Westeros and Essos… until now.  In honor of the season 5 premiere of the Game of Thrones series on HBO, I compiled maps and illustrations for some of the most important locations from the series, including King’s Landing, Winterfell, and Braavos.   Some of these are official creations, earning the approval of Martin himself, while others were made by die-hard fans.

This map of King’s Landing is from “The Lands of Ice and Fire”, which is a collection of maps for locations from the Song of Ice and Fire series.  Martin paired up with illustrator Jonathan Roberts to create the maps and provide exhaustive, in-depth commentary about each location.

Map of King’s Landing (from The Lands of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, via

Although an official map of Braavos, the free city on the continent of Essos, does exist in the “Lands of Ice and Fire”, I found this fan-made one to be much more colorful:

Also from the continent of Essos, Meereen is the current home of Daenarys Targarean, who is consolidating her power and building her army before making her much-delayed invasion of Westeros for the Iron Throne.  Meereen’s distinctive feature is its giant pyramid, topped with a statue of a harpy.  This illustration of Meereen comes from the title credits of the HBO series. There are, unfortunately, not many better quality views of Meereen which are available.

The City of Meereen, from the HBO series Game of Thrones (via

Winterfell, although the seat of power for the North of Westeros, is much less a city and more like a castle with the surrounding environs.  One intrepid fan set out to recreate the city, based on its depiction in the opening credits of the TV show, using a CAD tool and a 3-D printer.  The shot of Winterfell in the opening credits is quick, and the only other map he had to go on was this floor plan from the Wiki of Ice and Fire.  Talk about dedication!

Depiction of Winterfell, created using a 3-D printer, by Daniel Ammann (via

Finally, I found a map of Dragonstone, seat of power for Stannis Baratheon, made entirely in Minecraft.  The several giant stone dragons are quite imposing, even if they are made up of tiny digital blocks.

Map of Dragonstone from Minecraft, Maruku 2012 (via Planet Minecraft,

Defining Scandinavia is Easier Said than Done


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When you hear the word “Scandinavia”, what do you think of?  Maybe you think about Vikings, fjords, and fish.  If you start to consider individual countries, you will probably think of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.  However, one of these countries is not technically a part of Scandinavia as it has traditionally been defined.  And it only gets weirder from there.

C.G.P. Grey, one of my favorite YouTube channels, explains why it is so difficult to delineate the borders of Scandinavia on the map in the following video.  As he explains, Scandinavia includes Denmark but not Finland, even though Finland is adjacent to Sweden and Norway.  If you want to refer to Norway, Sweden, and Finland together, you have to use the little-known term Fennoscandia.  Watch the whole video, it’s 4 minutes of fascinating fact nuggets on these Northern European nations that are sure to tickle any geography nerd.

Happy mapping!

If the Field of Physics Were a Continent, This Would Be its Map


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I just love when abstract concepts are reimagined as continents on a map.  We have already looked at the Map of the Internet and the Map of Fiction, but today I wanted to share something of a more scientific bent: the Map of Physics.

Map of Physics, by Bernard H. Porter, 1939 (via The Quantum Pontiff,

This map was created by Bernard H. Porter and was included in Kenyon College Professor Thomas B. Greenslade’s teaching materials.  The map dates to 1939, but it blends the older touches from the maps of the renaissance explorers with modern designs and concepts.  The continent of Physics is split up by rivers, so that each subsection of physics (such as magnetism or astronomy) is separate but adjacent.  Illustrations of scientific concepts and equipment populate the landscape in lieu of cities or states, similar to how old maps of the New World filled in the empty spaces with colorful drawings of the native flora, fauna, or peoples.

I am particularly interested in how the map acts as a historical background on the subfields of physics as well.  Each subfield contains the names of scientists in that subfield, going back to the founder of that field.  Porter playfully explains that the names of pioneer physicians represent villages on the continent of Physics, and the dates under the names are the dates that these villages were founded.  For example, Thales of Miletus founded the village that bears his name in the land of Magnetism in the year 640 B.C.

This map seems like a pretty novel way to introduce physics to students who may be more visual thinkers and have less of an interest in reading from dense textbooks.  Maps have been unquestionably useful for finding our way in the physical world.   But the Map of Physics shows that maps can give shape and form to anything unfamiliar, whether the subject is a foreign country or a foreign idea.

Happy mapping!

Mapping Post-Apocalyptic Chicago from the Divergent Series


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At first, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy appears to follow very closely in the footsteps of the Hunger Games trilogy.  Both are young-adult dystopian trilogies with strong female teenage protagonists.  In both sets of novels, order is maintained through a rigid social structure, by which the majority of people are denied freedom of choice in how they wish to live their lives, and the protagonist has to fight against this structure.  Although I have not read the Divergent series, I feel that I can pretty much guess how the story will play out, based on having read the Hunger Games series.

However, as I started to read more about Divergent, I became more curious about the world created by Roth, at least from a cartographical perspective.  What is most interesting to me is that the story is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Chicago, many years in the future.  This is in contrast to the world of Panem, of The Hunger Games, which is ambiguously located in former United States, without any explicit points of reference to current-day states or cities.  Other novels, such as The Maze Runner or The Giver, provide even fewer clues about their locations.  Divergent is refreshing, at least, in providing a familiar setting for its characters.

Its version of Chicago, however, has changed considerably from the city we know today.  The highways are crumbling, bridges have collapsed, and many of the once-mighty skyscrapers have been reduced to skeletons.  Most shockingly of all, Lake Michigan has dried up and been replaced by a marsh.  Below is a shot from the film version of Divergent, which came out last year, showing the Chicago skyline from the view of the marshy Lake Michigan.

A view of Chicago from the Divergent series, (via Moviefone,

In Divergent, Chicago has been cut off from the rest of the world by a giant fence, purportedly for the safety of its residents.  Each person is assigned to one of five factions (abnegation, amity, candor, dauntless, and erudite), which control parts of the city, and one’s faction is chosen based on the results of an aptitude test.  It is basically like a personality test, classifying people as selfless, peaceful, honest, brave, or intellectual.  Want to opt out of this process altogether?  Then you will become factionless, and will be living homeless on the streets of Chicago.  The main character of the series, Tris, undergoes this exam at the beginning of the series, and finds that she is one of the rare “divergent” people who do not fit neatly into one of the five groups.  I do not know much more about the story, but from the looks of the movie trailers, action, adventure, and perhaps some romance, ensue.

One ambitious fan of the series, @Jillian, discovered that there were no adequate maps of the Chicago of Divergent, so she went ahead and created her own on Google Maps.  It is really quite impressive to see, as she has used her knowledge of the books to mark areas of Chicago which are the likely zones for the five factions.  In addition, she marks points on the map where major events in the novels occur, such as Gateway Park, the site of the city’s giant ferris wheel.  If you are wondering about her methodology for choosing her locations, she even provides citations and quotes from the books backing up her choices.  Talk about thorough!

Be warned, if you have not completed the whole series, that there are spoilers in the map below:

Jillian offers a further explanation on this map here.

Finally, the movie adaptation of Insurgent, the second novel in the series, opens in theaters this Friday, March 20.  I’m sure that the legions of Divergent fans will make it another box office hit.  But those who are curious about urban geography may want to check it out as well, if for no other reason than to see post-apocalyptic Chicago brought to life on the big screen.

Versatile Blogger Award


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I would like to thank fellow blogger Sue Archer for nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award.  Her blog, Doorway Between Worlds, is about communication, with an element of sci fi and fantasy mixed in.  I have enjoyed reading her posts about writing and fiction, as I continue my own slow journey toward completing a fantasy novel.  When she nominated me for the award, she also nominated fourteen other blogs she found interesting.  So now, I’d like to pay it forward by nominating fifteen blogs that I follow and enjoy.

These blogs are focused on a variety of topics, ranging from writing, to current events, to travel.  Having such a rich collection of blogs populating my WordPress Reader is quite a blessing, because every time I open my Reader, there are fascinating new insights waiting for me. They are all worth checking out and following by email.

A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing – Livia Blackburne writes about writing and blogging, from a scientific perspective.  She has also published a few fantasy novels.  This is one of the first blogs I started following, and it gave me the idea to blog about the themes of my writing (e.g., cartography), rather than solely blogging about writing itself.

Andrew Knighton Writes – With equal parts humor and insight, Andrew blogs about his writing (he has published several novels and short stories) and also discusses mechanics such as plotting and character development, which is very helpful for any aspiring writer.

The Krakren’s Wake – Another fellow writer, with a focus on fantasy.  He has posted quite a lot of character art from his books as well.

The Bully Pulpit – This blog covers too many topics to list, including politics, history, and literature.  It includes many interesting video clips of interviews and speeches, as well as JR Benjamin’s distinctive views on the topics.

Harsh Reality – This is one of the most prolific bloggers I follow.  He is seemingly always updating with posts on every topic under the sun, never failing to spark an argument or a conversation with his many followers.

Knite Writes – Another wonderful writer blog, which also promotes other indie books.

Coffee and Conversation – Kenneth Justice is a blogger who has a habit of sparking fascinating discussions with strangers on current events and philosophy.  Like a roving college classroom, he travels around enjoying coffee and conversation with people, then posts his reflections on his blog.

Don Charisma – This popular blog contains many intriguing photographs and pieces of writing.  Don posts a lot of beautiful photographs from Thailand, making me miss the time I spent in Southeast Asia.

Second in Rome – The writer of this blog is self-publishing his first novel, GRID, which is available on Amazon this month.  He blogs a lot about fantasy and science fiction, including humorous takes on well-worn tropes from these genres.

The Nerd Nebula – A blog run by a few self-described nerds on all things nerdy in pop culture, including videogames, science fiction, comics, and more.

Lulu’s Bookshelf – Lulu reviews many books, some of which are a little under the radar, so it is a great chance to discover something new.

All About Canadian History – This blogger posts often about Canadian history, including many interesting old maps, and I’ve enjoyed learning more about my neighbors to the North.

Dan Alesso’s Blog – A teacher, Dan blogs about history and cartography, two of my favorite things.

Travel Between the Pages – A blog that welcomes submissions on travel, writing, and art, including, my personal favorite, maps.

Travelling Histories – Dave, a PhD candidate at Cambridge, blogs about his thesis topic, which is about reading Sherlock Holmes as travel writing, with a wider scope that includes cultural contact.

Finally, to accept the award, I have to provide 7 random facts about myself:

1. The first thing I wrote was a fairy tale called “Suzy and the Goblins” in second grade.

2. My favorite herb is cilantro.

3. I can’t whistle.

4. In college, I once participated in a male beauty pageant/ talent show called “Mr. BC”.

5. I have spent most of my life in the United States, but I spent one semester studying in Athens, Greece, and one year teaching English as a Second Language in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

6. I’ve tried learning six different languages (Spanish, Russian, Latin, Greek, Vietnamese, and most recently, Cantonese), but I can’t speak any of them fluently.

7. My favorite movie, the one that I’ve seen more than any other, is The Big Lebowski.

You can find out more on the Versatile Blogger Award here.

Via the Versatile Blogger Award,

Welcome to the Jungle, Google Maps


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Google Maps’ Street View option has been letting people virtually travel down streets in cities and towns across the world since 2007.  In 2010, it added indoor spaces, in 2012, it began adding exotic, hard to reach places, and in 2014, it added views from different time periods.  But Google’s latest view may be its most ambitious yet: The inside of the Amazon jungle.

Using a backpack-mounted camera (named Trekker), which has previously gone to far-flung places such as the Galapagos Islands and the Canadian Arctic, the Google team traveled deep into the Amazon jungle in Brazil to take photographs.  Working with an environmental group, they set up zip lines through the trees and sent the Trekker camera down the lines to snap pictures.

Image released by Google which was obtained using the Trekker device in the Amazon jungle (AP Photo/Google, via

Another image taken by Google’s Trekker device in the Amazon jungle (AP Photo/Google, via

It’s amazing to see how much Google Maps has evolved in just 10 years.  It began by simply drawing roads.  Then it launched cars with mounted cameras that criss-crossed America (and the world), snapping pictures of the front of buildings.  Now, they’re relying on creative techniques such as ziplines to obtain views of even the most remote places on earth.  The Amazon rainforest is a massive region spreading across several countries in South America, and relatively few people have been inside.  Some tribal groups who dwell there may have never even been contacted by the outside world.  The Amazon used to be considered one of the few places left that had been unspoiled by human development.  Could Google’s latest foray be the first step towards removing the Amazon’s remoteness once and for all?

Map of the Amazon Basin in South America (via Wikipedia)

Well, I certainly hope not!  It is true that, in the past, deforestation has been a major problem in the region. But lately there have been greater efforts at conservation, and more people seem to recognize how critical it is to preserve the stunning level of biodiversity in the rainforest.  So far, it does not look like Google’s mapping efforts will be causing any significant damage, especially due to the fact that they have an environmental group hovering over their shoulder.  If Google brings the inside of the Amazon to our computer screens, and refrains from any other type of interference, this might actually be a good thing.  Being able to virtually swing through the Amazonian trees could increase people’s emotional connection with the flora and fauna of the region, and make all of us a little more cautious about our own personal environmental impact.


The Vinland Map Controversy


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The Vikings, those seafaring warriors who terrorized half of Europe during the Middle Ages, were notorious for their ambitious voyages across the Atlantic.  They traveled farther west than any European before, colonizing Iceland and Greenland.  And it has long been believed that they also reached the northeast coast of North America.  The Viking sagas that were passed down over the centuries told the tale of Leif Erikson founding the colony of Vinland in modern-day Newfoundland and Labrador.  For many years, though, there was no proof to support this claim.

Then, in 1960, the archeological remains of a Norse village were discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows on the Northern tip of Newfoundland.  Dating to the year 1000 AD, the dwelling structures that were uncovered at the site strongly resembled dwellings found in other Viking colonies from the same time period.  This seems to confirm that the Vikings had in fact reached America 500 years before Columbus.

While this site was being excavated, another discovery from a far different source was causing historians to come to the same conclusion: The Vinland Map.  It surfaced in 1957 when a London book dealer offered it for sale within a volume of medieval text to the British Museum.  They rejected it, and the map eventually wound up at Yale University, where it remains to this day.  The first researchers to look upon it were treated to a fascinating view of the world: A pre-columbian depiction of part of the American continent through Viking eyes.  It is purportedly a 15th century reproduction of a 13th century original, meaning that it was made after the Vikings founded Vinland, but before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The caption in the upper left reads: “By God’s will, after a long voyage from the island of Greenland to the south toward the most distant remaining parts of the western ocean sea, sailing southward amidst the ice, the companions Bjarni and Leif riksson discovered a new land, extremely fertile and even having vines, … which island they named Vinland.”

This cartographic bombshell, however, may be too good to be true.  Almost immediately, it began to attract controversy from skeptical scientists.  Many chemical analysis has found that the ink used in the map was modern, although some historians have tried to come up with alternative explanations for how the chemicals from modern ink may have gotten into genuine medieval ink.  Radiocarbon dating has determined that the parchment itself dates to the mid-15th century, further confusing the matter.  Finally, historians have analyzed the content as well, expressing skepticism that Viking explorers from this time period would, for example, draw Greenland as an island, when it had not been completely circumnavigated until the 20th century.

The debate rages on and, quite frankly, a lot of the chemical analysis arguments go right over my head. We may never know for certain if this map is a genuine medieval depiction of exploration of America, or just a modern forgery. But the fact that this artifact has generated such extended academic debate over its authenticity just underscores, once again, the historical significance we attribute to maps.

For more on the controversy, go here:

Who Needs Paper? The Micronesians Made Maps of Shells and Palm Fronds


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Continuing this year’s goal of looking at maps from a more diverse range of peoples, today I wanted to feature the Micronesian style of cartography.

Micronesia is a collection of over 2,000 islands in the South Pacific, covering almost three million square miles of ocean.  It was settled thousands of years ago, and came into contact with European explorers in the 16th century. The islands were soon colonized by the European empires, which began importing Western technology to the tribal societies. But one piece of technology was already in Micronesia long before the Europeans came: the map.

The Micronesian map does not look anything like the Western style of map.  It is made of palm fronds and shells, with shells representing islands, and fronds representing the quickest route to sail between two islands.  More commonly called stick charts, or rebbillib in Marshallese, these maps were used by sailors to travel from island to island, but not in the way you might think.  The sailors were able to study the maps before their trip, commit the routes to memory, and then lay on their backs on the canoe, feeling the swell of the ocean currents in order to measure the distance of their journeys.

Here is one stick chart showing all the islands of the Marshall Islands chain, which is part of Micronesia:

Micronesia Stick Chart of the Marshall Islands (via

And below, you can see how the stick chart relates to the Western-style map of the Marshall Islands.

Just goes to show that maps can come in many forms, and they can all serve a purpose. European explorers may have created rich, elaborate maps, but they often turned out to be full of errors, exaggerations, and mythical beasts. Sometimes the simplest maps work best for getting where you need to go.

Sources: ;

Cartographer’s Bane: More of the Strangest Borders in the World


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International borders run the gamut from straight and simple, to jagged and complex, to downright convoluted and nonsensical.  In an earlier post, we looked at some of the most complicated borders in the world, thanks to a YouTube clip by the WonderWhy channel. The video showcased several unusual demarcations between countries, but also explained the historical reasons for them.  The justifications don’t make the work of the poor cartographer any easier, but it at least they provide some fun trivia in case you ever find yourself having to explain why, for example, a confusing set of angular enclaves and exclaves are scattered along the border between India and Bangladesh.

Now that video has a sequel, and the strange borders are back with a vengeance.

This time around, we learn about the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, each of which technically have exclaves within the other country.  Confusing matters further is the existence of a semi-autonomous region within Azerbaijan (named Nagorno-Karabakh) which claims independence but is not recognized as independent by most other countries in the world.

Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, via Wikipedia.  The historical area of Nagorno-Karabakh is shown in dark brown, but the yellow territory is effectively part of it as well, since it is currently occupied by Armenia, which provides support to the small semi-autonomous Republic. It’s a complicated arrangement.

The video also touches on some tiny house-sized exclaves of Germany that exist within Belgium and Switzerland, the line of control between India and Pakistan through the disputed region of Kashmir, and the border dispute between Croatia and Serbia due to the movement of the River Danube over time, which results in the strange situation that some areas are claimed by both countries, while other areas are claimed by neither.  Check out the video for the full story.

Happy mapping!


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