Language geography is the branch of human geography that studies the geographic distribution of language or its constituent elements. There are two principal fields of study within the geography of language: the "geography of languages", which deals with the distribution through history and space of languages, and "linguistic geography", which deals with regional linguistic variations within languages. Various other terms and subdisciplines have been suggested, including; a division within the examination of linguistic geography separating the studies of change over time and space; 'geolinguistics', a study within the geography of language concerned with 'the analysis of the distribution patterns and spatial structures of languages in contact', but none have gained much currency.
Many studies have researched the effect of 'language contact', as the languages or dialects of peoples have interacted. This territorial expansion of language groups has usually resulted in the overlaying of languages upon existing speech areas, rather than the replacement of one language by another. An example could be sought in the Norman Conquest of England, where Old French became the language of the aristocracy, and Middle English remained the language of the majority of the population.
Linguistic geography, as a field, is dominated by linguists rather than geographers. Charles Withers describes the difference as resulting from a focus on "elements of language, and only then with their geographical or social variation, as opposed to investigation of the processes making for change in the extent of language areas." To quote Trudgill, "linguistic geography has been geographical only in the sense that it has been concerned with the spatial distribution of linguistic phenomena." In recent times[when?] greater emphasis has been laid upon explanation rather than description of the patterns of linguistic change. The move has paralleled similar concerns in geography and language studies. These studies have paid attention to the social use of language, and to variations in dialect within languages in regard to social class or occupation. Regarding such variations, lexicographer Robert Burchfield notes that their nature "is a matter of perpetual discussion and disagreement". As an example, he notes that "most professional linguistic scholars regard it as axiomatic that all varieties of English have a sufficiently large vocabulary for the expression of all the distinctions that are important in the society using it." He contrasts this with the view of the historian John Vincent, who regards such a view as
|“||"a nasty little orthodoxy among the educational and linguistic establishment. However badly you need standard English, you will have the merits of non-standard English waved at you. The more extravagantly your disadvantages will be lauded as 'entirely adequate for the needs of their speakers', to cite the author of Sociolinguistics. It may sound like a radical cry to support pidgin, patois, or dialect, but translated into social terms, it looks more like a ploy to keep Them (whoever Them may be) out of the middle-class suburbs."||”|
— John Vincent, The Times
Burchfield concludes that "[r]esolution of such opposite views is not possible", though the "future of dialect studies and the study of class-marked distinctions are likely to be of considerable interest to everyone".
In England, linguistic geography has traditionally focussed upon rural English, rather than urban English. A common production of linguistic investigators of dialects is the shaded and dotted map showing where one linguistic feature ends and another begins or overlaps. Various compilations of these maps for England have been issued over the years, including Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary (1896–1905), the Survey of English Dialects (1962-8), and The Linguistic Atlas of England (1978).
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- The Times, 23 February 1983, p. 12
- Burchfield, Robert  (2003). The English Language, New York: Oxford University Press, 128-130.
- In 1985, one could still say that "We still know far more about the distribution of byre/shippon/mistall/cow-stable/cow-house/cow-shed/neat-house/beast-house for 'cow-shed' than we do about urban synonyms for pedestrian crossings, lollipop men, machines used to wash cars, forecourts of petrol stations, bollards, sleeping policemen, pay-out desks, supermarket trolleys, traffic wardens, telephone booths and hundreds of other items found in every city in the United Kingdom." Burchfield, Robert  (2003). The English Language, New York: Oxford University Press, 128.
- Burchfield, Robert  (2003). The English Language, New York: Oxford University Press, 125.