Does language shape the land?

Published 27 February 2015
Mount Relay, Perak, Peninsular Malaysia / Researcher Niclas Burenhult

Landscape influences human existence and experience and it is the spatial backdrop for language, cognition and culture. Dr Niclas Burenhult is working on the relationship between language and landscape in different areas of the planet.

Inspired by current intellectual shifts and technological advances, the project aims to situate our geographical environment within linguistics. With the possible exception of the human body, it is difficult to imagine a domain which is more fundamental to our language. Yet, landscape has hardly been explored from a linguistic point of view. On the other hand, modern geographic information systems (GIS) are currently being developed at a global scale to map out locations, assist navigation, manage geographical information and deliver emergency services. But do they take into account indigenous names and categories? Or are they developed using a Western perspective only? How do different languages label geographic features such as ‘mountain’, ‘river’, or ‘valley’? How and why do categorical strategies vary across languages and speakers? What is the relationship between common nouns (landscape terms) and proper nouns (place names)? These are some of the questions Dr Burenhult’s team aims to answer, investigating five diverse small-scale language groups across the globe in the Amazon, the American Southwest, Australia, Europe, and Southeast Asia. The team collects, analyses, and documents spatially recordable linguistic data with GIS technology, and each language setting offers opportunities to compare closely related languages as well as the use of the same language by several individuals. The results of the project will have a practical impact: understanding differences in labelling landscape is crucial for fields such as navigation, resource management and international law. Researcher: Niclas Burenhult Host institution: Lund University (Sweden) ERC Project: Language, cognition and landscape: understanding cross-cultural and individual variation in geographical ontology (LACOLA) ERC call: Starting Grant 2010 ERC funding: € 1.5 million for five years Project webpage: <link http: lacola>Http:// Researcher webpage: <link http: en person niclasburenhult> Niclas Burenhult in "Spotlight on ERC Grantees: AAAS 2015" (European Commission & Horizon 2020):