How does the environment shape spatial language? Evidence for sociotopography

Bill Palmer, Jonathon Thomas Stephen Lum, Jonathan Schlossberg, Alice Rose Gaby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)


This paper 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)457–491
Number of pages35
JournalLinguistic Typology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • spatial language
  • landscape
  • Cognition
  • Language and thought

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