Pinning it Down: A Colonial Linguistic Map of Cameroon

Within the vast library of maps within the Perthes Collection are a number of curiosities and objects of fascination. One such map has always intrigued me since I first came across it, not because of the aesthetic value or the craftsmanship of its design, but because of what I perceived as a strikingly disorienting depiction of different languages, layered on a particularly laconic map of colonial Cameroon. Dotted and hatched lines and areas and also a touch of pink depict overlapping areas, while the legend offers explanations of their meanings: All of them symbolise languages used in the Western African area. The lines themselves, despite their erratic movements, indicate precision and measurability, a promise which is swiftly undone by the title of the map itself: Approximate Scopes of Some Lingua Francas (“Ungefähre Geltungsbereiche einiger Verkehrs-Sprachen”), published in 1912, indicates more than a little uncertainty about the trustworthiness of the knowledge the map is trying to communicate.

a rather schematic linguist map of Cameroon

Collected individually by the Justus Perthes publishing house, the map was originally published in 1912 alongside an article by Bernhard Struck in the German colonial journal “Koloniale Rundschau”.
Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPK_40-1402-bA11 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Politics of Linguistic Cartography

Still an early-career ethnologist at the time he wrote the article and provided the data for the map in question, the ethnologist Bernhard Struck nevertheless had it designed and printed by the publishing house Dietrich Reimer in Berlin, the most important publishing house for colonial cartography at that time in Germany. It was accompanying a linguistic article by Struck in the periodical Koloniale Rundschau (also published by Reimer); detached from the framing text, it is now yet another object once collected by the Justus Perthes publishing house to potentially use in future maps (or perhaps just for further study or to keep an eye on the rival publishing house). The cartographers of Justus Perthes were in fact masters of collage, layering and bricolage, and other techniques today most commonly associated with postmodernist art and narration.

Not only the publisher but also the genre of linguistic cartography hints at Struck’s already formed sympathies towards at least imperial and völkisch-nationalist ideology. Ever since their first usage, language maps have been an important tool of reference for nationalists, since the use of a shared language by a majority of the population was considered a cultural marker for a nation. Ideally, languages were considered to overlap with the political territory; multilingualism itself seemed suspect or even detrimental to political stability. As a very different (but coincidentally-named) Bernhard Struck argues, nineteenth-century maps of Poland by German cartographers indicated German language use on Polish territory as a legitimation for political conquest (Struck 2006).

Linguists – and Language – on the Move

Despite the appearance of fixed borders on Struck’s map, in the accompanying article, everything seems to be in motion. This is not only true for the different language groups, although Struck highlights their “wandering history” as especially worthy of study. In a footnote, he argues that this investigation could be carried out “en passant,” as “one needs only to skip a steamer on the uphill or downhill journey in Bolobo” (Struck 1912: 213). But it was also the linguists studying these languages, and not just the practitioners themselves, who are moving around, indeed wandering, and more often than not, Struck describes the gathering of linguistic vocabularies by Europeans by referring to travel routes:

“If one travels from the mouth of the Congo up the Congo and Sanga to the border of the Sudan languages in the southeastern corner of our Cameroon colony, one passes through a geological sequence of strata just as in the shaft, here in the horizontal the ethnic strata of the Bantu language area from the youngest to the oldest, and in much clearer bedding and better preservation than, say, on the way inland from the Cameroon coast.”

„Reist man von der Kongomündung den Kongo und Sanga hinauf bis zur Grenze der Sudansprachen im südöstlichen Eck unserer Kamerunkolonie, so durchfährt man gleich wie im Schacht eine geologische Schichtenfolge, hier in der Horizontalen die Völkerschichten des Bantu-Sprachgebiets von der jüngsten bis zur ältesten, und zwar in wesentlich klarerer Lagerung und besserer Erhaltung, als etwa auf dem Wege von der Kamerun-Küste aus ins Innere.“ ( Struck 1912: 206)

The linguist travels through space, but also time – as Struck equates the layering of languages to the layering of geological strata. It is unclear, and to a certain degree unlikely, that Struck himself at that time had already travelled the region he was writing about. In his article, he mainly compiles data from other researchers. Nonetheless, the narrative he constructs is not one of bordered regions, but of travel and movement – by local populations and by researchers alike.

Language as a Multi-Layered Experience

Struck himself also designed another map for his article, which shows neatly separated areas of language use by language groups. This eschews the complicated issues that surface in the map discussed here. But while these analytical levels add up to a seemingly confusing design, they are also on par with the reasoning of his article. The need to pin languages to a certain ‘area’ reveals itself on the map by the hatched, dotted and sometimes even straight lines, which supposedly encircle different areas of language use. Their style indicates these borders being ‘porous’ to at least some degree, and to our detriment, Struck even adds another caveat to his map: Carelessly, “the names of a few other languages, whose areas of language use could not have been distinguished, are given on the map.” Additionally “the Haussa language, only intensively used in Nigeria, was left out for emphasis.” The mixture of several styles, which were necessary for Struck to show different layers of languages used in similar areas, only adds to the confusion of the reader: In some instances, entire areas are hatched, while in others, only borders are indicated. The use of colour, which should help to orient the reader, serves more to confuse than to clarify.

While being based on the work of a young ethnologist, the difficulties in reading the map might not only result from Struck’s difficulties to present his material, but his incapability to tie it effectively to territory, as he is used to – and which he tries, without success, in this case. The article accompanying the map suggests that the natural mobility of a lingua franca severely undermined Struck’s goal of fixed clarity. The same seems to ring true to the linguistic method of acquiring data through language probes and, inevitably, travel. On the other hand, the side effect of indicating political instability or fragility in the region by depicting its stunning multilingualism, compared to German monolinguistic expectations, might have been intentional for legitimising German involvement in the area.

Languages, organised in overlapping regions indicative of the historicity of their use, but also evading a clear-cut connection to a specific territory: It seems no wonder that Struck himself was perhaps overwhelmed by his own topic. Yet this can also be explained by the fact that it was not, strictly speaking, Struck’s own topic; he had not chosen to write on it, but instead, he had been asked by the editor of the journal, D. Westermann, to elaborate on existing work (as he dutifully points out in the introduction to his chapter). The design of the accompanying map — a confusing mess of hatched areas, lines and colour — might point to the difficulties to reduce a dynamic phenomenon to something fundamentally static and fixed.

An Academic Future in the Third Reich and Beyond

Struck, who at that time had just finished his studies in Heidelberg and Berlin, was still a fairly young man. Later, while teaching in Dresden, he would be among the hundreds of professors who proved their allegiance to the Third Reich by signing a Vow of allegiance of the Professors of the German Universities and High-Schools to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialistic State in 1933. While his ethnographic map predates this by many years, his derogatory word choice for certain language variations point to the racist nomenclature of the völkisch-nationalist discourse of the time as well.

Three years after having allied himself with the National-Socialist regime, he helped founding the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology (Institut für Anthropologie und Völkerkunde) in Jena, where he had been teaching as a full professor since December 1937. Additionally, he was one of the editors of the Zeitschrift für Rassenkunde (Journal for Racial Studies) (Klee 2005: 610). Despite his allegiance to the National-Socialist regime and ideology, Bernhard Struck was able to continue teaching in Jena after the war without any repercussions and was mentioned fondly for his Africana collection (Bach 1958: 180). This was due to the fact that, while he had aligned himself with the NSDAP, he had never been a formal member of the party. In addition, his work received favourable reviews from his peers, ensuring his continued employment in the post-war era (Müller-Kelwing 2020: 445).

Despite his later career, it can be argued that this early map predominantly depicts European insecurities regarding the research of African languages and their practitioners, underlining the mobility of both. The certainty maps are eager to induce cannot be established, leaving the reader with a multiplicity of possibilities and challenges.

Cite this article as: Claudia Berger, "Pinning it Down: A Colonial Linguistic Map of Cameroon," in Mapping Africa and Asia, 17/11/2021,


Bach, Herbert, Das Institut für Anthropologie und Völkerkunde an der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena. Prof. Dr. Struck zum 70. Geburtstag am 28.8.1958. In: Ausgrabungen und Funde. Nachrichtenblatt für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, vol. 3 (1958), pp. 380–382, URL: [01.11.2021].

Klee, Ernst, Struck, Bernhard. Anthropologe. In: ibid., Das Personenlexikon zum Dritten Reich. Wer war was vor und nach 1945, zweite, aktualisierte Ausgabe, Frankfurt 2005, p. 610.

Müller-Kelwing, Karin, Bernhard Struck. In: ibid./ Lupfer, Gilbert (ed.), Zwischen Kunst, Wissenschaft und Politik. Die Staatlichen Sammlungen für Kunst und Wissenschaft in Dresden und ihre Mitarbeiter im Nationalsozialismus, Wien et al. 2020, pp. 443–446.

Struck, Bernhard, Farben, Sprachen, Territorien. Die deutsch-polnische Grenzregionen auf Karten des 19. Jahrhunderts. In: Christoph Dipper/Ute Schneider (eds.), Kartenwelten. Der Raum und seine Repräsentation in der Neuzeit, Darmstadt 2006, pp.177–192.

Struck, Bernhard, Die Sprachverhältnisse im ‚Moyen Congo‘. In: Koloniale Rundschau (1912), vol. 4, pp. 204–225.

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