Forests: the cross-linguistic perspective

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Do all humans perceive, think and talk about tree cover (‘forests’) in more or less the same way? International forestry programs frequently seem to operate on the assumption that they do. However, recent advances in the language sciences show that languages vary greatly as to how the landscape domain is lexicalized and grammaticalized. Different languages segment and label the large-scale environment and its features according to astonishingly different semantic principles, often in tandem with highly culture-specific practices and ideologies. Presumed basic concepts like mountain, valley and river cannot in fact be straightforwardly translated across languages. In this paper we describe, compare and evaluate some of the semantic diversity observed in relation to forests. We do so on the basis of first-hand linguistic field data from a global sample of indigenous categorization systems as they are manifested in the following languages: Avatime (Ghana), Duna (Papua New Guinea), Jahai (Malay Peninsula), Lokono (the Guianas), Makalero (East Timor), and Umpila/Kuuku Ya’u (Cape York Peninsula). We show that basic linguistic categories relating to tree cover vary considerably in their principles of semantic encoding across languages, and that forest is a challenging category from the point of view of inter-cultural translatability. This has consequences for current global policies and programs aimed at standardizing forest definitions and measurements. It calls for greater attention to categorial diversity in designing and implementing such agendas, and for receptiveness to and understanding of local indigenous classification systems in communicating those agendas on the ground.


  • Niclas Burenhult
  • Clair Hill
  • Juliette Huber
  • Saskia van Putten
  • Konrad Rybka
  • Lila San Roque
External organisations
  • University of Sydney
  • University of Regensburg
  • Radboud University Nijmegen
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • General Language Studies and Linguistics
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)455-464
JournalGeographica Helvetica
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Dec 14
Publication categoryResearch
EventThe trouble with defining forests - Hof de Planis, Stels, Switzerland
Duration: 2016 Jun 212016 Jun 23

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