The Faculties of Humanities and Theology | Lund University


Language, cognition and landscape:

Understanding cross-cultural and individual variation in geographical ontology

This project – funded by the European Research Council and hosted by the Humanities Laboratory, Lund University – pursues a broadscale and in-depth linguistic inquiry into landscape. From the linguist’s point of view, the geophysical environment is virtually unexplored. Yet it is a fundamental spatial domain with enormous potential for influence on the discipline. How do languages select geographic objects to be labelled? Are there universal categories? What’s the relationship between common nouns (landscape terms) and proper nouns (place names)? Which are the ontological principles of landscape categories? How and why do categorial strategies vary across languages and speakers? Linguistic attention to the domain is also certain to unleash a variety of new questions and perspectives of inquiry in other disciplines, like anthropology and environmental psychology. It is also of huge practical importance, since understanding variation in geographical ontology is crucial to major fields of human cooperation, from navigation to resource management to international law.

Inspired by current intellectual shifts and technological advances, the project situates landscape within linguistics as a fundamental domain of human representational systems. It also opens up links between linguistics and other disciplines concerned with landscape that usually have little to do with language. It achieves this by pursuing a program geared to (1) exploring systems of landscape categorization in a number of languages, (2) comparing such systems as well as comparing systems in language with those in cognition, (3) developing a model for understanding categorization strategies across languages and speakers, and (4) documenting vanishing landscape systems. Thus, the research team pursues a range of linguistic lines of inquiry into landscape categorization across six diverse language settings (in Australia, Europe, South America and Southeast Asia). Each language setting represents a case study carried out by a project member with expert knowledge and prior field experience of the particular setting. Data collection is carried out using a bundle of elicitation and experimental techniques, detailed in a field guide developed by the project. Collection, analysis, and documentation of spatially recordable linguistic data is carried out with GIS technology. Each language setting offers opportunities of studying closely related language varieties as well as individuals speaking the same language, making comparison possible not only among maximally diverse languages but also at finer levels of linguistic granularity. An exploratory psycholinguistic subproject probes the relationship between language and cognition in the landscape domain.

This project has received funding from
the European Union’s Seventh Framework
Programme for research, technological
development and demonstration under
grant agreement no. 263512.