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Cross-linguistic diversity in forest terminology could inspire policymakers

New research shows that analysis of forest semantics and its diversity across languages could have a bearing on forest policies and agendas.

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Ever since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit), forests have been at the forefront of international policies aimed at tackling climate change, fostering sustainable development and enhancing food security. But is the word ‘forest’, or ‘tree cover’, described in the same way, considering the need for coordinated action towards sustainable forest management? Although some common and workable definitions have been provided by international organisations such as Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, with certain parameters such as crown cover, land area and tree height in terms of threshold values, it has been acknowledged that few concepts have identical lexical expression across all human languages. A team of researchers supported by the EU-funded LACOLA project described, compared and evaluated some of the semantic diversity observed in relation to forests. They outlined their findings in the journal ‘Geographica Helvetica’. The paper ‘Forests: The cross-linguistic perspective’, coordinated by Muriel Côte, Flurina Wartmann and Ross Purves, was produced as part of a workshop funded by the Geocomputation research unit at the University of Zürich. Based on first-hand linguistic field data from a genealogically and geographically diverse sample spanning six language families and four continents (from Avatime of Ghana to Makalera of East Timor), the researchers showed that basic linguistic categories relating to tree cover vary considerably in their principles of semantic encoding across languages. They argued that “forest is a challenging category from the point of view of intercultural translatability.” The team pointed to the diversity of terms that may be assumed to be close equivalents of forest in relation to their meaning. “While some do closely approximate the English meaning of a densely treed area of some size, others refer to untamed vegetation in a more general sense (akin to bush); yet others do not encode vegetation at all but instead evoke more abstract spatial meanings of outdoors or outside,” the researchers noted. The paper concluded that the cross-linguistic diversity in forest terminology may have consequences for current efforts aimed at standardising forest definitions and measurements. It also emphasised the need to pay great attention to categorical variation in designing and implementing forest agendas, as well as the importance of understanding local indigenous classification systems for successful communication of those agendas on the ground. “We hope to have shown that linguistic diversity, although sometimes an obstacle to comprehension, can be a rich source of information and inspiration for scientists and policymakers alike,” the researchers said. The LACOLA (Language, cognition and landscape: Understanding cross-cultural and individual variation in geographical ontology) project, which supported the research, also raised new questions and perspectives of inquiry in other disciplines, such as anthropology and psychology. Completed in 2016, the project highlighted the importance of understanding the variation in geographical ontology for providing clues about human cooperation in several fields, from navigation and resource management to international law. For more information, please see: LACOLA project website



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