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How does the environment shape spatial language? Evidence for sociotopography

  • Bill Palmer EMAIL logo , Jonathon Lum , Jonathan Schlossberg and Alice Gaby
From the journal Linguistic Typology


This article investigates the extent to which the way individuals describe spatial relationships correlates with features of the local landscape. Drawing on empirical data from two unrelated languages, Dhivehi (Indo-Aryan) and Marshallese (Austronesian), across a range of topographic environments, we examine the linguistic resources available to speakers, and spatial referential strategy preferences across languages and environments. We find that spatial language shows sensitivity to features of the topography, but this is mediated by the way speakers interact with the landscape. This leads us to propose a Sociotopographic Model, modelling the complex interplay of language structure, local environment, cultural practices, and language use, at odds with competing claims about the primacy of language or of environment in shaping spatial cognition.


Research reported in this article was funded by Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant DP120102701. We gratefully acknowledge this support. We are deeply indebted to our many consultants in the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, and in Springdale, Arkansas for their participation. We are also grateful to Peter Johnson for creating the maps of Jaluit and Laamu. The article benefited from the comments of two anonymous reviewers, and we are grateful for those comments. All errors remain our own.


1/2/3 = 1st/2nd/3rd person; art = article; com = comitative; cvb = converb; dat = dative; dem1 = this (near speaker); dem2 = that (near addressee); dem3 = that (away from speaker and addressee); dir1 = towards speaker; dir2 = towards addressee; dir3 = away from speaker and addressee; direct = direct case; foc = focus; gen = genitive; loc = locative; p = possessor; prog = progressive; prs = present; pst = past; ptcp = participle; rel = relative; s = subject; seq = sequential; sg = singular; tag = question tag.


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Received: 2017-8-29
Revised: 2017-10-20
Published Online: 2017-12-7
Published in Print: 2017-12-20

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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