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Photo of people walking in front of houses in the town of Ponta do Sol on the island of Santo Antao in Cape Verde.

The former Cape Verde is now known as the República de Cabo Verde, or simply Cabo Verde.

PHOTOGRAPH BY FINBARR O'REILLY, REUTERS/CORBIS

New map of Cabo Verde.

Tanya Basu

National Geographic

Published December 12, 2013

We're not in Cape Verde anymore.

The country, made up of ten islands about 350 miles (570 kilometers) off the coast of western Africa, is getting an identity makeover and reverting back to its original Portuguese name: the Republic of Cabo Verde, or República de Cabo Verde, the UN announced on October 24.

Portuguese explorers came upon the peninsula now called Cap-Vert, the westernmost peninsula in Africa and a Sengalese port, in 1444; they christened it Cabo Verde, which means "green cape." They then used the same name for the islands to the west, which became the country of Cabo Verde.

Centuries ago, the country anglicized its name to Cape Verde.

This got us wondering: How are maps changed? We talked to National Geographic's director of editorial and research for maps and chief geographer, Juan José Valdés, and learned five things you should know about the shifting world of maps.

1. Who's in charge of maps, anyway?

There isn't really an international agency of mapmaking.

"When mapping the world, cartographers are faced with one of two options: to map de jure [by law] or de facto [in reality]," Valdés said. "Because of differences in national mapping policies, to date there does not exist an international governing body that sets such map standards."

This means that each cartographic organization is in charge of creating maps that are as factually accurate as possible. For National Geographic, the policy is to follow the de facto approach and create maps mirroring reality rather than politics.

Which leads us to our next fact:

2. Cartographers map reality.

When asked how many times a year his department alters maps, Valdés laughed.

"Oof!" he exclaimed. "It's hard to say. We make changes as they happen."

Maps are a snapshot in time, according to Valdés.

"We map reality, what's currently existing on the ground," he said. If anything changes—whether it be borders of a country or a shrinking coastline or the addition of cities and states—maps become instantly outdated.

"We make changes as they happen," Valdés said. That means maps are current only as of their publishing. "Something is always happening," he said, whether it be elevations or minute boundary delineations.

Valdés added: "Assume nothing. The world is constantly changing."

Case in point: The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan made some towns around the Fukushima nuclear plant ghost towns. With no population in these cities for the time being, should they be marked? (See pictures inside Fukushima.)

"Large-format maps of Japan will portray the towns," Valdés said. "They will be identified with an open town spot accompanied by a general map note addressing [their] current status."

3. Map changes aren't as simple as deleting old borders and names.

Changing official maps isn't as easy as altering a border or retyping the name of a country, Valdés said.

Changing a country's name, for instance, can be done immediately online and will show up on the next printing of the official map, he said.

But some changes require more work, particularly for places like disputed borders or bodies of water claimed by multiple entities.

"If it's a change with a sensitive area, then we have to do extensive research," Valdés said. "What is the national government policy [on the area's cartography]? Who's administering [the area]?

"We contact experts and the country for views and opinions. And then we go through a map policy committee" at National Geographic that examines the area in question and determines whether (and if so, how) a change should be made.

4. Naming a place is tricky.

Valdés notes that politics also comes into play in rerouting a line or renaming a place like Cabo Verde.

What about different versions, when one group might find one preferential but another might find it insulting? In the case of Mumbai, which is the regional name for the city that was called Bombay as a vestige of British colonialism, National Geographic style is to use both: Mumbai (Bombay).

Or what about historical names that have since been changed to modern and/or local names? Maps show Constantinople's change to Istanbul and Saigon's new identity as Ho Chi Minh City.

Consider also the case of places that are recognized by some governments and not recognized by others. The classic example is the Palestinian territories: Placing the Palestinian territories on a map angers some groups; not identifying the Palestinian territories as a state angers others.

"It's not always easily done," Valdés said.

5. Being a cartographer means also being a detective.

You might think the chief geographer at National Geographic stares at maps all day, but much of his job involves tracking the news.

Not every map change is a publicized event, and even if it is, it may remain highly localized, which means Valdés spends much of his time "sleuthing" for the latest news in cartography.

"Had it not been for a two-paragraph article in an obscure Spanish news site in the fall of 2010, we would not have been aware of the creation of two new Cuban provinces on New Year's Day in 2011," Valdés recalled.

Cabo Verde's name change, however, was well publicized and has given Valdés plenty of time to update the Society's official atlases.

"We've just started updating our maps," Valdés said. "The very first one cleared five minutes ago."

Follow Tanya Basu on Twitter.

15 comments
Four Season News  .
Four Season News .

They forgot language-differences.  Deutschland is Germany in English, for example, yet we still call it Germany.

Also, sometimes a new country's name might not be pronounceable when transliterated for a different audience.  Can you imagine how difficult it is for Japanese cartographers to make maps of foreign countries?  I have a Japanese atlas -- they have to stick with katakana, which makes for pretty clunky approximations.,,,,
http://goo.gl/hPHLzp
http://goo.gl/rlvF2

Gwillim Law
Gwillim Law

"Had it not been for a two-paragraph article in an obscure Spanish news site in the fall of 2010, we would not have been aware of the creation of two new Cuban provinces on New Year's Day in 2011"


Will someone please suggest to Mr. Valdés that he visit the Statoids website once in a while? I published the news of the two Cuban provinces on Oct. 2, 2010. On average, about once a month there is a change to the primary administrative subdivisions of some country. The Statoids site usually manages to provide ample advance notice of those changes.


Dominick Renga
Dominick Renga

Your information, unfortunately,  is WRONG. 

Cape Verde is the westernmost point on the African continent.

It is near Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. I've been there.

The islands west of Cape Verde were called the Cape Verde Islands 

for many years on English language maps and world globes.


The inhabitants of the Cape Verde Islands archipelago speak Portuguese, I think,

and I know that the European language used in Senegal is French. 

As I said, I've been to Senegal.

(By the way, the local African language in the western region of Senegal is 'Wolof'. I heard that being spoken- very interesting.)


The nomenclature problem is that, a while ago, some nitwit or nitwits, decided to leave the word "Islands" off the English name of the country, so that the country ended up with the SAME name as Cape Verde itself.

This caused MUCH confusion, I am sure, so changing the name of the island 

country officially to the original Portuguese spelling is long overdue.

Hurray for "Cabo Verde".  

Now 'Cape Verde' will clearly refer, in English language texts,

to the spot in Senegal!


                                                                    Dominick S. Renga

                                                                     A World  Traveler



Argumentonio Adjudicium
Argumentonio Adjudicium

There is no such name changing! The decision is about to just stop changing the country's name: Cabo Verde.


So, the only change is in the procedures, to not allow any more arbitrary changes or anglicize the portuguese and the current official name of Cabo Verde.

Miguel Guerreiro
Miguel Guerreiro

Never thought that National Geographic would make such a huge mistake as this news! I am disappointed.

OSWALDO MESIAS
OSWALDO MESIAS

The question is they do not want the country name altered by translation

Fernando Mateus
Fernando Mateus

The official name of Cabo Verde has been the same, since it was discovered by portuguese navigators on the 16th century.

OSWALDO MESIAS
OSWALDO MESIAS

Good point, Daniel Gameiro. It seems the explanation is this, as explained by Wikipedia:  "On October 24, 2013 it was announced at the United Nations that the official name could no longer be translated into other languages. Instead of Cape Verde or Cap Vert, the designation 'Republic of Cabo Verde' and 'République de Cabo Verde' are to be used."

Daniel Gameiro
Daniel Gameiro

This is a very strange news. 


Cabo Verde has always been Cabo Verde. The translation to English makes it Cape Verde.


"Centuries ago, the country anglicized its name to Cape Verde." ??? 


Cabo Verde was a Portuguese colony until 1975! 


It was decided that the official international name is from now on is Cabo Verde? Is that it? 



CJ Parks
CJ Parks

They forgot language-differences.  Deutschland is Germany in English, for example, yet we still call it Germany.

Also, sometimes a new country's name might not be pronounceable when transliterated for a different audience.  Can you imagine how difficult it is for Japanese cartographers to make maps of foreign countries?  I have a Japanese atlas -- they have to stick with katakana, which makes for pretty clunky approximations.

Burkhard Herbote
Burkhard Herbote

@Dominick Renga Hi Dominick, I do not intent to "beat" you, but unfortunately you are wrong. I have in hand a copy of an official statement of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Cabo Verde (formerly Cape Verde), also confirmed by an official letter of the United Nations. It is same like what happened with Ivory Coast before. In the past Ivory Coast was accepted to be the official name of the country by the government in Abidjan, like Cape Verde was accepted for the Anglophone world with the government in Praia. But that is no more fact. Fact is Ivory Coast or Cape Verde or any other translation in any other languages is no more accepted. Only Cote d'Ivoire and Cabo Verde are accepted, and all governments around the world are informed officialy to change their records. Of course that will take long time until that really work out and maybe until that point the name has been changed again ;-) But what you did here was also a bit mix of translation something into an other language and the official name.

This are two different pair of shoes.


Is it US Embassy or is it Embassy of the United States of America or is it Botschaft der Vereinigten Staaten or Embaixada de la Estados Unidos Americanos usw. usw. 


When you go to the Embassy of CV in Washington, you will see they currently change the sign at the house from Cape Verde into Cabo Verde, the stationary/letter head, website, business cards etc. etc. - however, it will take some time.

cj h.
cj h.

@Miguel Guerreiro 

care to elaborate on what the mistake was? crying foul doesn't really accomplish much if no one knows what you're talking about

Khan M.
Khan M.

@Daniel Gameiro  Exactly! How can National Geographic be screwing up on something they should be experts on.

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