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Language, cognition and landscape: understanding cross-cultural and individual variation in geographical ontology

Final Report Summary - LACOLA (Language, cognition and landscape: understanding cross-cultural and individual variation in geographical ontology)

This project has broken new ground in the language sciences by pursuing a broadscale and in-depth linguistic inquiry into landscape. From the linguist’s point of view, the geophysical environment used to be 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 and proper nouns? Which are the ontological principles of landscape categories? How and why do categorial strategies vary across languages and speakers? The project’s linguistic attention to the domain has unleashed 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 has played a pioneering role in situating landscape within linguistics as a fundamental domain of human representational systems. It has opened up important links between linguistics and other disciplines concerned with landscape that usually have little to do with language. It has achieved 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. The research team pursued a range of linguistic lines of inquiry into landscape categorization across diverse language settings in the Amazon, Australia, Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia. Each language setting represented a case study carried out by a project member with expert knowledge and prior field experience of the particular setting. Data collection was 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 were carried out with GIS technology, the project thereby trailblazing such technology in linguistic research. Each language setting offered 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 psychological subproject probed landscape preference across cultures, revealing greater diversity in such preference than previously acknowledged.