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  • The atlas of languages: The origin and development of languages throughout the world ed. by Bernard Comrie, Stephen Matthews, and Maria Polinsky
  • Peter T. Daniels
The atlas of languages: The origin and development of languages throughout the world. Rev. edn. Ed. by Bernard Comrie, Stephen Matthews, and Maria Polinsky. New York: Facts on File, 2003. Pp. 224. ISBN 0816051232. $35.

Eight authors (besides Jean Aitchison, who provides the foreword) collaborate on this book’s ten chapters. After Bernard Comrie’s introduction (on the properties and variety of language, 8–15) and Stephen Matthews’s ‘Development and spread of languages’ (16–35), six of the remaining eight chapters cover continents: Matthews and Maria Polinsky, ‘Europe and [northern] Eurasia’ (36–55), Matthews, ‘South and Southeast [and East] Asia’ (56–71), Owen Nancarrow, ‘Africa and the Middle East’ (72–90), Polinsky and Geoffrey Smith, ‘Pacific’ (90–107), Peter Austin, ‘Australia’ (108–23), John Stonham, ‘The Americas’ (124–41); then Smith and Matthews, ‘Pidgins and creoles’ (142–59), Roger Woodard, ‘Writing systems’ (160–207), and Matthews and Polinsky, ‘Epilogue: Language loss and revival’ (208–17). With one exception, the chapters are balanced presentations of the languages of their areas; with a couple of exceptions, the maps show only language families and major languages.

My review of the 1996 first edition (Language in Society 27.113–17, 1998) concluded that the texts were generally quite good and the maps were not. The texts have been altered minimally in the new edition (mostly to correct mistakes; population figures have with one exception not been updated, and no attempt has been made to improve the typography of exotic diacritics and phonetic characters), but the maps have been completely replaced, correcting nearly all of the errors I noted (although Bissau is still shown as the capital of French Guiana on one of the two maps of South America, and on some the names of rivers are typeset but the rivers themselves are not drawn). The cartographers have not assimilated the valuable advice of the graphic designer Edward Tufte (e.g. The visual display of quantitative information, Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1983), who inveighs against ‘chartjunk’, and they have put ‘three-dimensional’ effects on every map. Usually these are merely distracting, but sometimes they interfere with the information represented (213, the indicator for Istro-Rumanian points to a graphic ‘cliff’ instead of to the relevant peninsula), and when small islands are depicted, they are unrecognizable.

There are three new maps: (i) the shrinkage of Basque-speaking territory, correlated with the distribution of Paleolithic cave art (45); (ii) the indigenous languages of Taiwan (68), to which there is no cross-reference from the discussion of Austronesian (92–99); and (iii) Western Hemisphere Ice Age settlement sites (133). More tree diagrams of language families are shown, and detail is added to existing ones. Charts of ‘long-ranger’ proposals are presented without comment, though the texts usually add cautions to their mentions. To make room, many of the photographs have been reduced, a few are omitted, and nearly all of the cute vignettes that accompanied the maps are gone. The figure legends have been revised to remove anything that could be construed as political commentary. The bibliographies are scarcely updated.

The Africa chapter still focuses on Bantu to the near exclusion of any other languages, extinct languages are all but completely unmentioned, and neither a mention of hPags-pa (still appearing in the vignette accompanying Ch. 2) nor an illustration of Glagolitic has been added to the chapter on writing. Nevertheless, the Atlas could well serve as the text for a ‘languages of the world’ survey course introducing the basic concepts of linguistics for nonmajors. [End Page 517]

Peter T. Daniels
New York City


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