The Traditional Association of Geography and History

Written by Dyami Millarson

Traditionally, geography used to be married to history and people mentioned the two in close association as they spoke of “geography and history.” Take note of the exact order of the pair: geography generally came before history, people usually did not speak of “history and geography.” There were a couple of book titles in the 19th century where the order of the pair was reversed, but the usual order in that century was the one where geography was mentioned first. Such stylistic preference speaks volumes about the importance that people traditionally assigned to geography. Both geography and history used to be subjects held in high esteem in earlier modern times.

Whenever I speak of traditional, I take the 19th century as example because that is the earliest age that we could consider truly modern, as it is culturally and technologically similar to ours. The modern world took shape in the 19th century and important technological events happened during that time, such as the industrial revolution, which resulted in a scientific revolution as well. That is why it is quite relevant to take a look at the 19th-century English language for guidance on what might be considered traditional from a cultural perspective. As noted above, the 19th-century books help inform us that there was a traditional linguistic/cultural norm of mentioning geography before history, and since this is the case, the title of this article adopts that norm conscientiously.

When it comes to the discussion of what is modern, it ought to be mentioned that there are such concepts as modern history (from 1500 to the present) and early modern history (from 1500 to the 19th century). What I said about the 19th century should not be confused with these concepts, because what I mean by the statement that the 19th century is truly modern is that we are culturally and linguistically very similar to the people living in the 19th century, we owe a lot of our modern world to the (unique) developments of that bygone era, and that is why it is informative to look back on that era and look for clues on how they did things or how they thought about things.

In a way, it provides some guidance for how we might do things today; it is a legitimate source of inspiration. The material and spiritual culture we have today is quite similar to that of the 19th century, which means that it is useful to look back in the hopes of finding clues about why this or that is the case, or at least I have always found it quite informative and inspiring to study the 19th century while it helped me to understand the linguistic and cultural foundations of the modern world. Of course, the 19th century does not exist in a vacuum but a historical continuum.

However, the 19th century is particularly interesting because people starting from that time in history never had it as good as before and the human condition only drastically improved from that time onwards. So I look back on the language and culture of the 19th century with some sense of awe. There is good reason to be thankful for the technological and scientific progress of that era. The human lifespan, for instance, has been on a steady increase thanks to these developments. Indeed, the 19th century was a fascinating time of crazy innovation and experimentation. We might do well to learn from that innovative spirit and adopt the free, creative spirit of that time.

This article is not a history lesson, but it is about the link between geography and history. In a very basic sense, geography deals with place and history deals with time. Place and time, in this traditional context, are to be understood as being according to the human experience. Therefore, geography and history are traditionally based on the human perception. This human-based marriage of place and time in the form of geography and history is interesting for the study of local languages and cultures, because this concept of combining geography and history is a useful model for studying and presenting the background story of the locals. All language communities have their local story, and this may be studied as well as taught as local geography and history.

There are two ways to approach this: (1) the local geography and history might be taught in the national language or another widely spoken language, although leaving ample room for introducing local linguistic and cultural concepts, especially those that are untranslatable or very hard to translate, and (2) the intimate knowledge of the local geography and history might only be made accessible through the local language, prompting the members of the culture, whether young or old, to learn to read the language in order to acquaint themselves with their geography and history. It was quite common in the 19th century to teach national geography and history, which is still commonly done today in primary and secondary schools, and this has traditionally helped the people to learn more about the country in which they lived and feel connected with their rapidly changing environment; in a way, it has helped people to adapt to the new world in which they live.

People quite naturally used to have a lot of local knowledge in the past, but this is fading away, as people are losing touch with their immediate environment. For instance, how many people are still capable of naming all the flora and fauna in their direct environment? This used to be common knowledge, but this knowledge cannot be taken for granted anymore today. Therefore, it might be important to encode this knowledge in the local languages as previously explained in point 2, and this might be achieved in the form of writing books on local geography and history.

After all, such books would be quite interesting from a cultural perspective, because indeed they would present authentic cultural geographies and histories. I think that if possible, witness accounts should be included in such books; the personal stories of the last speakers may thus be immortalised. Furthermore, such books will be useful for future generations to study. They may someday be regarded as cultural and linguistic bibles, which would definitely be helpful in case they might want to preserve that heritage and keep it authentic in their changing contemporary world. Just as I may regard written materials from the 19th century as some kind of reference point, they may regard those cultural works written in their ancestral language to be reference points. It is always nice when one has something to go by and it gives a sense of certainty which we need as human beings; without such cultural and linguistic documentation efforts, how is one supposed to know in the far future what is authentic and inauthentic? Of course there are other methods to document a language, but having a cultural guidebook is truly convenient, and might even be indispensable for future generations who wish to keep ancestral traditions alive.


  1. I did not find the exact quote relating people and geography but this one is close from John O’Donohue – “Is it not possible that a place could have huge affection for those who dwell there? Perhaps your place loves having you there. It misses you when you are away and in its secret way rejoices when you return. Could it be possible that a landscape might have a deep friendship with you? That it could sense your presence and feel the care you extend towards it? Perhaps your favourite place feels proud of you.”
    — John O’Donohue (Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace)

    Liked by 4 people

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