Thursday, May 27, 2021

Where the Mountain Meets the River

Jack Zhao has been Mapping Where the Mountain Mets the River in East Asia. By mapping only place-names which contain the characters for mountain (山) and river (水 or 川) in East Asia Jack is able to explore how closely these geographically associated place-names actually reflect the local geography.

As well as being words in their own right the mountain (山) and river (水 or 川) characters also appear as building blocks in other words with related but unique meanings. For example the character for ‘harbor’ (港) contains the radical for water. This can be seen in the name Hong Kong (香港, fragrant harbor).

Jack has created a series of maps on which place-names are reduced to just the radicals for mountain and water. These are shown on top of a terrain map. There are some obvious patterns which we would expect to see in these maps. For example on the map above (mountain radicals shown in black, water radicals shown in white) we can clearly see lots of white related place-names around the coast. The mountain place-names (in black) mostly seem to be concentrated in areas with high elevations (as we might expect).


By mapping the root radicals for water and mountain Jack's map doesn't reveal the regional differences in the names for these geographical features in East Asia (I don't know if there actually are any). For example in America the navigable passages between mountains in the USA have lots of different names. Some are called 'passes', others are called 'gaps' and some are even called 'notches', or 'saddles'. 

A few years ago Esri's John Nelson undertook a similar mapping project to Jack Zhao's, except in John's case he mapped out place-names in America which contained the word 'pass', 'gap', notch' or 'saddle' in order to see if there are any regional variation in the use of these names for navigable valleys.The results can be explored in his Gap, Pass, Notch and Saddle story map.

To examine the regional variations in the words given to navigable valleys in the USA Nelson downloaded and mapped every named place from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. The result is a fascinating map of 2.3 million place-names in America. As you scroll through the Gap, Pass, Notch and Saddle story map you are shown how place-names in the USA concentrate where humans settle along coastlines, along transportation routes and in major conurbations.

As you progress further though the Gap, Pass, Notch and Saddle story map the non-valley place-names are removed from the map. The different navigable passage place-names are then each given a different color. The result is a map which clearly reveals the regional variations in how these passages are named throughout the USA.

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