How does the physical environment you live in impact on the language you use to describe it?

Atolls, Arkansas and how the place you live shapes your language

Tuesday, 22 August 2017


How does the physical environment you live in impact on the language you use to describe it?

That’s the question a group of linguistics researchers led by Dr Bill Palmer from UoN’s Endangered Languages Documentation, Theory and Application research program and the Centre for 21st Century Humanities have examined as part of an Australian Research Council funded project.

During the project, researchers conducted field work in some unusual locations including atolls in the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, places which are under threat from rising seas due to climate change. While there they discovered some things that are unique to atoll-based languages.

“We noticed that depending on the environment in which you live, and the way you interact with your environment, the terms you use to describe the space around you differs. For example, when we asked people living in a fishing community in the Maldives to describe the location of things, they more commonly used terms like east and west, and referred to the geographical features around them (e.g. the shore, the interior of their island). We compared this to people living on the same atoll who work indoors and found that they used terms that related more to themselves (e.g. left or right) rather than their physical environment,” said Dr Palmer.

“We found that there is a relationship between the physical environment and the language that is spoken in the way people talk about space,” Dr Palmer observed. “But it goes beyond that. In the Marshall Islands, for example, people live on the sheltered lagoon side of their islands, where they can launch their boats safely and are not exposed to the elements. So terms for lagoon side and ocean side play an important role.”

The team also compared the way Marshallese speakers in the Marshall Islands talk about space with a community of Marshallese speakers in Springdale, a landlocked city in Arkansas, United States. They found that removed from their island environment, the Springdale speakers used egocentric terms like left and right in ways not seen in the Marshall Islands.

The conclusion was clear to Dr Palmer’s team. “Major environmental features tend to be significant to humans and play a role in constructing conceptual representations of space that then interact with how we express this through language,” Dr Palmer explained. “However, cultural and social factors, as well as the affordances of the environment itself, mediate in the relationship between humans and landscape.”

These findings led Dr Palmer’s team to develop a new model of the relationship between language, thought and the environment, known as the Sociotopographic Model (STM)

“There are a lot of cultural practices that influence how people use their language. We’ve proposed this new model to take into further consideration the role of culture in interactions between humans and their environment, and how that impacts on the language they speak,” Dr Palmer said.

The Sociotopographic Model is now being applied by other researchers  investigating spatial reference and the way the physical environment interacts with the conceptualisation of space in the cultures and languages that they are investigating around the world.

The research project also resulted in new methodologies designed to collect the research data needed to examine the atoll-based languages. “One of our PhD students, Jonathon Schlossberg, developed a video game known as the Virtual Atoll Task for our participants to use which helped us gauge the way they described the location of objects within space,” Dr Palmer said.

Dr Palmer and his team recently travelled to the International Cognitive Linguistics Association Conference in Estonia to present their findings. They have also been invited to host a workshop at the Association for Linguistic Typology conference in Canberra in December

“This is a big international conference held every two years with this year to be hosted in Australia. We’re looking forward to engaging with researchers from all over the world who will be presenting their work as it ties in with our Sociotopographic Model,” Dr Palmer said.

“Our workshop will bring together scholars working in linguistic spatial reference in a diverse range of languages in a diverse range of environments, in order to explore the extent to which the Sociotopographic Model adequately captures the interplay of the various linguistic, conceptual and environmental forces at work in linguistic spatial reference, and the extent to which the model reveals systematic variation in some of the cross-linguistic diversity observed in this area of language,” Dr Palmer concluded.