The true map of a textual description

The differences between maps and texts as a special case of media differences have been pointed out at several levels in this blog. Moving from one to the other necessarily changes not only how things are said but also what is said. Texts and maps describe different landscapes, different worlds, they apply different types of truthfulness. The space of the text is used to spread out letters and words that constitutes mainly symbolic signs, signs where the relationship to an external reality is arbitrary. ‘Cat’ has no visual similarity with any cat.

The space of a map is laid out as an indexical space, where the geometrical relationship between two signs of the map is a claim for an isomorphic relationship between two things in an external world. Yet, many map signs seen in isolation are also mainly symbolic. There is little visual similarity between a red dot and a city. Others have stronger iconic aspects, like the cross representing a church.

Putting something on map while at the same time claiming it does not exist or that it may have another location is difficult, and there are no solutions which does not at some level involve using text. In a text, statements such as ‘There is no cat in the house’ and ‘The cat is either on the floor or in the sofa’ makes perfect sense and pose no problems in ordinary communication. Anyone skilled in English will understand their meaning.

Only philosophers are sometimes puzzled by the reference to something that is not there and may not even exist, but that is more a worry about how language works than it is a concern for the well being of the cat. This is different from most non-philosophical uses of language where the worry is not if a non-existing cat can be talked about but rather the fact that there should have been a cat in the house, as it uses to live there, and not being in the house might mean it is in trouble. The statement can also be used to reassure an allergic person. Whatever the context and meaning of the statement might be, it makes perfect sense in ordinary communication.

Many statements in ordinary language can also be put on maps without much problems. The expression “put on map” is of course ambiguous, it could mean to put the letters making up a statement on the map as a string. What I mean here is rather the more common meaning: to understand the meaning of the statement and then put a spatial representation of that meaning on the map, transferring it from the syntax of the text to the syntactics of the map. Consider the following excerpt from Robinson Crusoe:

…we made but slow way towards the Shore, nor were we able to reach the Shore, till being past the Light-House at Winterton, the Shore falls off to the Westward towards Cromer, and so the Land broke off a little the Violence of the Wind (Defoe 1719/1981, 13–14)

Mapping fiction to real world maps is sometimes a dubious activity and the is today a consensus that the island on which Crusoe was shipwrecked later in the book does not exist in the real world. However, according to the title page of the first edition of the book from 1719 it is an autobiography, thus, not fiction at all. One would expect that well know places are used in the book in accordance with their properties in real life expect when explicitly modified (the principle of minimal departure) and that such modifications are rare. In fact, the only modification I have found is the existence of the island and everything on it.

The coastline from Yarmouth to CromerThe coastline from Yarmouth to Cromer

Figure 1. The coastline from Yarmouth to Cromer. Map © OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA, cf.

So this early part of the book in which England is described one would expect to describe the real England. One would assume that a map with the places referred to by the place names in the text can be used for a mapping of the text. In figure 1 an excerpt from Open Streetmap covering the Winterton–Cromer area is included.

I do not know if this is caused by my non-native English but that map surprised me a bit when I first saw it after reading Defoe’s description. The surprise can also be caused by my growing up in forests far from any body of water where travelling in anything larger than a canoe is never made difficult by wind. I felt that the coastline should show a sharper turn at Winterton. The map I would have expected is not the one in figure 1 but rather something like figure 2.

The coastline from Winterton to Cromer based on my interpretation of  the text.

Figure 2. The coastline from Winterton to Cromer based on my interpretation of the text.

However, as a good and loyal reader I accept the reality. I assume the coastline has not changed since the early eighteenth century, or indeed since the late seventeenth; that was when Crusoe was supposed to make this travel. I will either think, oh well, that is how reality is, or go on to find out how winds work at sea, possibly realising that also bends seemingly weak on a map can have significant consequences for the wind.

But maybe I am not the only one. It has been shown that when asked to draw a map for someone to follow when giving route descriptions it is common to express all turns as more or less 90°. We tend to overrate turns. Or maybe this is a better way of seeing it: we tend to visualise the landscape differently from what we see on a scaled map. Maybe this can be called misconceptions. But it seems to serve us well, many of us are pretty good at finding the way also without maps, and maps actually make things more difficult for many people. So maybe the language I think in, and the language most people think in when they give route descriptions, is just different from the language of the map.

Maps are based on a geometrical similarity to the mapped landscape and based on that principle maps can be judged as more or less correct. Textual statements express their relationship to the landscape in other ways. Drawings like the one in figure 2 and in route descriptive drawings are not incorrect, they use another system, a system more similar to an underground or train network map. The only reason for calling them wrong is if they are evaluated based on the workings of a scaled map. That would be to see an expression in one medium as a failed attempt to make an expression in another medium rather than seeing it as a different type of expression. It would be like seeing photography as a static and thus failed attempt to make a film.

Editions used

Defoe, Daniel (1719/1981). The life and strange surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, mariner. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ed.: J. Donald Crowley.

2015-01-29 Øyvind Eide

Cite this blog post
Øyvind Eide (2015, January 29). The true map of a textual description. Modelling media boundaries. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from

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