Talking about the landscape – before the languages die out
03 May 2012
Linguists are in a race against time and estimate that half of all the world’s languages will be extinct within a century. In Lund, Niclas Burenhult and his research team have launched a project that spreads across all continents, from the Amazonian rainforest to Älvdalen in Sweden and East Timor.
“When we applied for funding, time was an important factor; this must be done now, before it is too late”, says Niclas Burenhult, a Reader in Linguistics.
The funding was granted; Niclas Burenhult became the first humanities scholar in Sweden to receive an ERC Starting Grant. The LACOLA project (Language, Cognition and Landscape) is now underway and some of the researchers have already been out in the field to collect language data.
The aim of the project is to map how people in different cultures perceive and talk about the landscape, before the smallest and most original languages have died out. The six languages being studied are all under threat and represent a part of the linguistic diversity that is disappearing.
“Globalisation and the formation of nation states that favour a single official language are two important reasons for this”, says Love Eriksen, a researcher in LACOLA.
Forests have always had a place in Love Eriksen’s professional activities. He has been a forestry worker and an archaeologist. As a human ecologist he studied languages and cultures in South America. He takes that knowledge with him to the rainforest, where he will map the distribution of Lokono, a language spoken by the native people of northern Surinam. The project will also map the landscape using a geographic information system (GIS). In simple terms, this GIS is a combination of maps and linguistic information that is easily accessible in the field through a mobile phone or computer.
“I think it is important to use GIS and describe the landscape; this can strengthen the rights of uneducated people, for example in the rainforest. It is not as easy for major oil companies to go and extract oil if the rainforest has been carefully mapped by those who live there. The more we know about how people use nature, the more difficult it is to plunder.”
The LACOLA project will also result in a database which the Humanities Laboratory will host. It is hoped that the local communities will be involved in creating the database about their landscape and that they will benefit from it.
The researchers in LACOLA are looking for the greatest possible linguistic variation in order to put their finger on what is common to all people and what is conditioned by culture. They will document languages that are spoken by small people groups in the deep rainforests of Malaysia and the Amazon, high up in the Alps, in Älvdalen in Sweden, in East Timor and at the tip of the Cape York Peninsula in Australia. They would also like to study a language from the snowy expanses of the Arctic, but the challenge is to find a researcher with the specific expertise required.
One of their aims is to find out why different languages choose to name different aspects of nature. Is it because of the appearance of the landscape or are the differences cultural? It is likely that the landscape means something quite different for those who live in and off their land than for city dwellers who go on a weekend trip to the country.
“We presume that urbanised cultures have a narrower vocabulary for nature than non-urbanised cultures, because they do not interact with nature as much. Western city dwellers, for example, have a fine-tuned vocabulary for the city, with alleys, shop windows, street lamps, etc. However, in a forest, most of us cannot name the trees we see.”
The differences between how different people groups perceive the landscape can be large, and may lead to misunderstandings, for example when disaster relief is trying to reach an affected area or when legal boundaries are to be drawn. Even closely related languages like English and Swedish are different.
“Take the word ‘mountain’ for example and compare it with the Swedish word, berg. A mountain has to be very high, but a berg can be considerably smaller. However, there are also languages where the equivalent word simply means stone and can refer to anything from a very small pyramid of stones to a high mountain.”
Two of the project’s researchers have already been out working in the field. Felix Ahlner has been to Älvdalen and Juliette Hüber has just returned from a valley in the Swiss Alps. They are working with as many methods as they can to get as complete a picture as possible, from going out into the countryside with elderly hunters and farmers in Älvdalen and talking about the landscape to filming structured conversations.
Juliette Hüber has documented High Alemannic, a dialect of Swiss German. Her father lives in the valley and has helped her come into contact with elderly people with a genuine dialect. She was often invited into people’s homes and took maps with her; they talked about the landscape or went out and looked at different places. Juliette Hüber discovered that when people who live in the village in the valley say that they are going somewhere, they relate it to whether they are going upwards or downwards. The villagers are ‘on the inside’ if they are in the village, but outside the village they are ‘on the outside’.
While the research group works, time is running out. One language becomes extinct every week. There are hundreds of languages that are only spoken by a few elderly people and languages that only have one speaker left. Time is short; for many small cultures the old world is disappearing.
Text: Jenny Loftrup
Photo: Clair Hill