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While we can’t explore every cultural trait in the world, language is an important system of spoken, signed, or written symbols humans use to express themselves. It’s a major marker of identity that often unites members of the same nation, or people with similar cultural identity.
And it’s a cultural trait that has enormous power because language helps other cultural traits move through the spoken, visual, tactile, and musical word. So today, we’re going to explore how words move, because the activities that prompt that movement can tell us a lot about how ideas as well move around the world.


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Getis, Bjelland, and Getis. Introduction to Geography, 15 ed. McGraw-Hill Education. 2017. ISBN: 978-1-259-57000-1

Hobbs, Joseph J. Fundamental of World Regional Geography, 4th ed. Cengage. 2017.

Cracking the AP Human Geography Exam: 2020 edition. The Princeton Review.



Isern N, Fort J (2019) Assessing the importance of cultural diffusion in the Bantu spread into southeastern Africa. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0215573.

Click languages
Clicks in south-western Bantu languages: contact-induced vs. language-internal lexical change


Endangered Languages Project

Chickasaw Efforts to preserve language

Miami efforts to preserve language

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CC Kids:
No matter where you are in the world, it’s snack time here on Crash Course Geography, and everyone’s invited!

If April, one of our consultants, was ordering from a cafe in Ohio in the US, she’d say, “Hi, could I get a tea and banana muffin, please.” But if Zohra, our other consultant, orders from a food stall in Kolkata in India, she’d say,”[भईया एक चाय और एक ठोंगा केला चिप्स देना.” In both places, they ordered really similar snacks. In fact, chai and tea are pretty close to the two words most of the rest of the world uses to talk about this universal drink.

Which is wild when you think about all the ways we name other things, like apples. As people move around the world, their words and ideas move too. Like the drink tea originated in China, and where in China different traders encountered tea has a big influence on what word they took back to their language.

If the traders came by land or from what we know as Portugal, they likely met people speaking. Mandarin and Cantonese who pronounced this character as “cha” which is where today we get chai. But other traders learned of it from people speaking Southern Hokkien who pronounced it “te.” And today, most of the world’s spoken languages still reflect this history.

So learning how words move and what activities prompt that movement can tell us a lot about how ideas move around the world. I’m Alizé Carrère, and this is Crash Course Geography. INTRO.

While we can’t explore every cultural trait in the world, language is an important system of spoken, signed, or written symbols humans use to express themselves. It’s a major marker of identity that often unites members of the same nation, or people with similar cultural identity. And it’s a cultural trait that has enormous power because language helps other cultural traits move through the spoken, visual, tactile, and musical word.

As people we’re constantly moving, changing, and adapting, and our culture is no exception. One of the biggest changes in our history -- and the one pretty familiar to us here on Crash Course! -- happened about 15,000 years ago when some humans began to shift from hunting and gathering food to cultivating crops in one place. Agriculture was a major innovation, or cultural change that came from within different cultural groups -- in fact, several groups independently invented agriculture and with it, a whole new way of life with new social systems.

But there have been many more innovations before, after, and during the agricultural revolution. Like cave art or steel beam architecture. Eventually, populations increased, and there were territorial disputes between hunter gatherers and agricultural communities.

Which might not seem important for language, but as different groups disputed and negotiated territory, they had to interact and this was one way cultural traits like language were shared. Today we can map out particular cultural traits to see where they’re used and maybe get a sense of their journey over time. We might have to dig through historical records, anthropological studies, libraries, and museums too, but visualizing cultural traits spatially like this can maybe even uncover the cultural hearth, or origin, of a trait.

Which is what happened with language. Language as a whole can be broken into major language families from which all of the specific languages we speak branch out, like a tree. And each family is a group of languages with a common origin, or linguistic hearth.

There are roughly 7,000 spoken and signed languages actively used around the world today, and it’s difficult to know how many have stopped being used over the centuries. Language is key to communicating, and languages, phrases, or even individual words have been borrowed and mangled like we’re playing an uncountable number of games of telephone all at once. In geography we call this diffusion, which is a way to understand how ideas and things move around the world.

So with tea, that original word branches from the Sino-Tibetan family, through the Sinastic language group. From there, Mandarin branched out. Not all Sino-Tibetan languages would have had the word cha at first -- this is one of the largest language families in the world!

But those who spoke Mandarin and Cantonese did have cha, and when people speaking other languages learned it, they modified it, and worked it into their language. And on and on, diffusing through other languages. Which would be really cool to visualize.

Different cultural traits imprint on the landscape in particular ways that we can see -- and can map! Which is part of how we can locate different cultural hearths. In general, languages can be hard to map.

Because people can speak more than one language, and as we mentioned last time, sometimes one language has more power than others, and it isn’t always easy to know the full extent of where a language is used. Like, [Zohra and I are pretty lucky, because] by knowing two languages, we can communicate in a large number of places around the world. English, French, and Hindi are all lingua francas -- languages that were adopted in an area to make communication easier between people who don’t originally speak the same language, like for trade.

In fact, there are dozens of lingua francas around the world. And in a place like Sub-Saharan Africa, many people are also multilingual, meaning they speak more than one language. People of different ethnicities may share an official language, but also have a language they speak at home, or mother tongue, and even a local language.

And we haven’t even gotten into dialects or accents! So the location of ethnic groups, or people who share the same heritage, is one reasonable way to approximate who uses what language where. A large continent like Africa is home to about 6 language families that grew and diffused out of the 4 to 5 major linguistic hearths of Africa.

There are at least 13 subfamilies and then hundreds of local languages that developed from there. Specifically, we know the region around what we now call Nigeria and Cameroon is home to the beginnings of what is known as proto-Bantu languages which are languages that were spoken about 5,000 years ago in this region of Africa. Language is often shared through a type of relocation diffusion, which is when languages or ideas move thanks to people uprooting and resettling.

As the people here moved, they took their language and knowledge of agriculture with them and encountered other groups speaking non-Bantu languages. They’d modify their own language to incorporate some of those words. And geographers and linguists use those words and other elements to reconstruct how language has changed and which languages influenced those changes.

Like a few Bantu-based languages in southwest Africa have click consonants, which we think mostly come from the influence of Khoisan languages. For any similar languages we can look at where they’re spoken and their structure to put together the connections and imagine the places both groups of people were in to influence each other -- both for ancient and more modern populations. Though we can also lose languages through diffusion.

As people move, their languages change or are replaced with new languages, and some languages end up going dormant, or no longer having proficient users. Often as people move or are occupied by other cultures, there’s pressure to assimilate, or give up their cultural traits in favor of another set of cultural traits. There can especially be pressure on immigrants or Indigenous peoples to change their languages.

And after decades of forced assimilation, across North and South America and Australia and the Pacific Islands, there are now efforts to revitalize dormant Indigenous languages. Both the Hawaiian and the Myaamia or Miami nations have programs to train preschoolers and other education programs that immerse students in the Hawaiian or Myaamia language. Other nations around the world have put in similar efforts.

And online the Endangered Languages Project creates a space for people around the world to come together to preserve and revive languages and other cultural traits at risk of going dormant. Cultural identity is deeply personal, and living out all of the traits of that culture, including language, can help people feel an important connection to their history and community. At other times, diffusion and the daily mixing of cultures can cause cultural traits to evolve without one language going dormant.

Like one of the earliest recorded languages considered a lingua franca was born out of utility. Trade on the Mediterranean was huge in the 1200s, but as people tried to trade their goods, communication got in their way. People struggled to identify languages they knew in common, and when they found words everyone knew, they would use them.

Eventually this created a pidgin, or a simplified language and small vocabulary combining two or more languages. Today pidgin is spoken in places with a lot of language mixing, like Nigeria and Hawaii, and creole languages -- which are leveled-up full-language versions-- are used by people often in former colonies in places like Haiti, and other islands around the Caribbean. Similarly, when people don’t have a full language in common, they might rely on having a similar language origin.

Like we have evidence that Africans who were enslaved and forced to migrate to North and. South America used Bantu-based words they had in common to communicate, even if they mostly spoke different languages. And that theory seems plausible because of common words used in North America that seem to have Bantu roots -- like safari (which in the Bantu language Swahili means travel, but Bantu speakers may have gotten from Arabic), jazz (which could be from the Bantu word “jaja” meaning cause to dance), or banjo, which is similar to a Bantu word “mbanza” for an instrument with strings that are plucked.

But even a few words is enough to transport so much more. As people move and language diffuses, they naturally carry all the other innovations a culture has, especially stories, art, and music. Instruments like the modern banjo have roots in the nations of Africa.

As Africans were enslaved and forced to move, they brought that knowledge with them, and found ways to make similar instruments and similar sounds to the ones they had in their homelands. People across North and South America heard that music, and slowly, the music of the banjo transferred and spread to those outside of the African cultural groups. We call this contagion diffusion which is when innovations spread just by exposing others to a new idea or object.

I actually just learned the banjo has ties to Africa this year, which was really interesting when we think about how it’s so widely used today in types of music widely associated with white people, like traditional bluegrass. For an instrument like the banjo, we can see the ways that instrument in the US has been culturally appropriated, meaning that other cultures, especially European cultures, adopted that instrument, and created a culture of using it that erased its African roots. Cultural change is inevitable.

As we learn and grow, each generation is often taught slightly different cultural traits because of mixing and diffusion, and as people move around this globe, so do our cultural traits. Every interaction creates a new space for growth, innovation, and change. But restoring cultural connections to the past, like dormant languages and historical connections to current cultural traits are important too.

Those efforts restore cultural ownership, and help those inside and outside of those communities to recognize the contributions and humanity of our world’s cultures. Understanding the movement and diffusion of language helps us understand other cultures, get their jokes, see the world as someone else, and understand how so many other cultural traits move. And next time we’ll explore the movements of one other major cultural trait -- religion.

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We encourage you to learn about the history of the place you call home through resources like and by engaging with your local Indigenous and Aboriginal nations through the websites and resources they provide. Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course Geography which is filmed at the Team. Sandoval Pierce Studio and was made with the help of all these nice people.

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