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I saw this map while reading an article on Buzzfeed about “38 Maps You Never Knew You Needed”.


And I was just amazed by it. Although this blog has an extremely heavy Thai language focus, I am very interested in many other languages. When I was in school I studied German, but in the past few years I have studied Thai (obviously!) and also Mandarin Chinese.

Part of the attraction behind Thai and Chinese is that they have extremely different writing systems to English! They are harder to learn, but it is also a lot more satisfying when you can gain some meaning from them.

I got into East Asian languages “by accident” at University while I was studying computing – and I think that being exposed to a technical background gave me a slightly clinical approach to language learning. Certainly with written foreign language, I consider it more like ‘cracking a code’. I got really into my Chinese classes through this mindset.

I also remember when I was coming to the end of the Chinese course (which I did for extra credit at University), but I was hanging out with lots of Thai friends, and I decided to begin casually studying Thai. Chinese has lots of straight lines in the pinyin, but Thai has many curves, circles and loops.

And then it occured to me that all written communication are just shapes on a page. Of course, this is a very obvious thing. But the meaning is what we give to these shapes. I remember that day, doing the routine of writing Chinese in the morning and then practising Thai writing as hobby and then switching to my native English and thinking “that’s a line” “that’s a circle” “that’s a cross” and just reflecting on how as humans we have encoded information and data this way.

The most satisfying thing about language is definitely the positive feedback that you get from real life human interactions, but I do also have a deep interest in the technical side of languages too. They are an inviting blend of logic and creativity, and I feel that it is something which I will maintain a strong interest in well into the future.

EDIT: I have been reading a book called The Structure of Language by Emma Pavey and the introduction mentions exactly what I was saying about how we create shapes on a page and then give arbitrary meanings to them.

The shapes of letters and symbols in different languages represent different sounds in their respective language. The official term for this is phonological shape and it is literally concerned with the form of a language. So we could look at the shape of “A” and as native English speakers we know the sound it represents. Even non English speakers probably recognise and know the sound of “A”. But identifying a sound in a language is not enough! You need to know the meaning that goes with it.

So native English speakers would know that the sound “A” can be used to represent confusion (where it is confusingly written as “eh?”). The meaning and specific contextual use that we give to sounds in a language is known as the function of a language.

In summary, what I have learned since writing the original post is that this map specifically charts the phonological shapes used by different cultures around the world. The map also briefly shows us the differences in form (but not function!) of the languages.