What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more

637 - Hamlet (Generic): A Map of Nowhere through Danish Eyes

December 31, 2013, 12:47 PM

This looks like a pretty standard map of a bit of Denmark. In fact, it is no such thing.  

For there isn’t really a town called Köbstad in Denmark, nor is it close to a village called Kirkelandsby. And neither is Gaard a frequent rural toponym. Each indeed sounds convincingly enough like a proper Danish place-name. Instead, they denote generic toponymical categories. A købstad (1) is a market town, a kirkelandsby is a landsby (‘village’) endowed with a kirke (‘church’), and a gård (2) in Danish can mean either a farm or a yard. 


This is a map of anywhere, or of nowhere. It is a purely generic piece of cartography, its purpose purely intra-disciplinary: not to denote the outside world, but to teach people how to read a map (3).

But the map teaches us one extra, unintended lesson: What an abstract, idealised landscape looks like through Danish eyes. Incidentally, a  landsby - a small village without a church - is frequently called a ‘hamlet’ in English. Which of course has a Danish resonance all of its own (4).

So what does a generic Danish landscape look like? You’ll look in vain for a desert (ørken), a mountain range (bjergkæde)  or a coral reef (koralrev). What there is plenty of, is water, left, right and centre (an indsö, i.e. a lake, literally an ‘inner sea’). 


The left side of the map, in more detail.

On the little island in the western sea, there’s a fyr (lighthouse, a.k.a. fyrtårn), not far from shallows labelled sten (‘rocks’). The mainland beach south of the island is covered in shingle (rullesten), while two booms at the northern part of the beach cordon off an ålegårde (‘eel farm’).  

Prominent features on the coast are a sizeable klit (‘dune’) 18 metres high, an extensive mose (‘bog’) just north of a tørveskær (literally ‘peat-cutting’, a.k.a. turbary), a big lyng (‘heather’) containing a skanse (‘redoubt’)  and a huge marsk (‘marsh’), delimited by a damning (‘dam’). The lake and sea are connected by a vandløb (‘stream’), which is bridged by a spang (‘log bridge’). The incidental kilde (‘source’) keeps the land moist, while the occasional grøft (‘ditch’) helps to keep the land drained. There are no headlands or peninsulas, no rocks or mountains; like the real Denmark, this fictional one is sandy, flat and watery. 

Fictional Denmark may be relatively poor in topographical features, that doesn’t stop the fictional Danes from making the most out of it, who crisscross their imaginary homeland by fodsti (‘footpath’), sognevej (‘parish road’), markvej (‘country lane’), and landsvej (‘country road’) if they’re not taking the jernbane (railway, literally ‘iron road’ - compare French: chemin de fer).

The countryside is dotted with the occasional, isolated hus (‘house’), planted with nåleskov (‘coniferous forest’) and løvskov (‘deciduous forest’), levende hegn (‘hedgerows’), and a række af træer (‘row of trees’). No lush vegetation, no great plantations of cash crops: even in fictional Denmark, the weather is too inclement for extensive horticulture, the occasional jordvold med beplantning (‘planted embankment’) notwithstanding.

But there are other ways to scratch a living from the soil: via a sandgrav (‘sand pit’), a vejrmølle (‘windmill’, literally: ‘weather mill’) or by having your cows graze the eng (‘meadow’), rather than the flyvesand (‘quicksand’). The resources may be scarce, but there is little evidence of ruin and neglect, just a kirketomt (‘empty church’) here and there. Villages and cities are prosperous, no sign of defensive walls. The slot (‘castle’) seems a relic from more violent times, and now purely ornamental.


The right hand side.

How strange it must be to live in this purely instructive landscape. If this were a Google Map and we could zoom in to street view, we’d probably see a bank called Bank, in between a post office called Posthus and a clothes store called Tøjbutik (5). 

What this world suffers from, is a shocking lack of specificity. And, simultaneously, of vagueness: there are no blurry lines, no grey zones, no works in progress in this neat bit of Danish abstractionism. 

But maybe, just maybe, the generations of Danes who trained their map-reading skills on this fictional world, were inspired to dream up their own stories of the goings-on in the Købstad, and the strange miller who lived in the vejrmølle. Perhaps they saw themselves as characters on the map as well - operating the Trigonometrisk Station: what better way to be the demiurge of your own little world than to imagine yourself a land surveyor in a fictional landscape?


This map has been in my files for so long that I forget where it came from. Anybody who can provide a source is very welcome to do so.


(1) Literally ‘buying city’. Note that modern Danish has replaced the ö with ø. 

(2) The Danish orthography on this map is antiquated. In 1948, the letter å replaced the double vowel aa, and the capitalisation of nouns (still current in German) was abolished. The switch hasn’t been entirely consistent: some place names are still spelled the old way, e.g. Aalborg instead of Ålborg. Similarly, the letter ö gave way to the ø, but most reluctantly so on maps. Only in 1957 were cartographic entities like Læsö and Helsingör re-spelled as Læsø and Helsingør.

(3) For another example, in English, see #78.

(4) Although the etymologies are different. The name of the fictional Danish prince, and tragic protagonist of the eponymous Shakespeare play, derives from Amlaidhe, an Irish name for a hero in folk stories, meaning something like ‘furious, raging’. The churchless settlement gets its name from the Old French hamelet, a diminutive form of ham, which is cognate with Germanic words like Heim (German), heem (Dutch) and home (English).

(5) And maybe we’ll be just in time for the seasonal slutspurt (sales period).


637 - Hamlet (Generic): A M...

Newsletter: Share: