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Linguistic Typology

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Volume 21, Issue 3


How does the environment shape spatial language? Evidence for sociotopography

Bill Palmer
  • Corresponding author
  • School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, University Drive, Callaghan NSW 2308, Australia
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/ Jonathon Lum
  • School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, Monash University, Menzies Building, 20 Chancellors Walk, Clayton VIC 3800, Australia
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/ Jonathan Schlossberg / Alice Gaby
  • School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, Monash University, Menzies Building, 20 Chancellors Walk, Clayton VIC 3800, Australia
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Published Online: 2017-12-07 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/lingty-2017-0011


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.

Keywords: Dhivehi; Marshallese; spatial language; topography


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About the article

Received: 2017-08-29

Revised: 2017-10-20

Published Online: 2017-12-07

Published in Print: 2017-12-20

Citation Information: Linguistic Typology, Volume 21, Issue 3, Pages 457–491, ISSN (Online) 1613-415X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/lingty-2017-0011.

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