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AN News: “Charting New Territory: The Intersection of Linguistics and Geography” by Catherine Lee (U Hawaiʻi Manoa)

Anthropology News Column

When most people think about linguistic geography, if they think of it at all, they think of dialect atlases such as the Atlas of North American English (Labov et al., 2006). But linguistic geography has the potential to be far more than isoglosses and vowel shifts. At the recent American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting in San Francisco, I organized a series of three sessions dedicated to linguistic geography, broadly defined. The presenters in these sessions (follow these links for abstracts for Session 1, Session 2, and Session 3) were a mix of human geographers, linguistic anthropologists, and sociolinguists, and together we explored some of the many ways geographic themes interface with linguistic phenomena. Geographers often define their field according to the following themes: location, region, movement, place and human/environment interaction. I hope to show that these themes are also integral to the understanding of linguistic phenomena, and there is potential for extensive transdisciplinary collaboration.

Linguistic geography can study language and location from two main perspectives. The first deals with linguistic cartography: making maps of where the speakers of various languages are located. With today’s Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, linguists and geographers face new questions of how to represent languages and speakers accurately and clearly (Luebbering et al., 2013). The second main way to approach location through language is to look at how location is encoded in language. Two papers in the AAG session focused on this aspect, using completely different methodologies. One paper looked at locational prepositions in Pohnpeian while another developed a Geographic Text Analysis tool to track mentions of disease in 19th century London newspapers.

Several papers in this session dealt with linguistic regions. Linguists often use the term “areal linguistics” to describe linguistic studies focusing on a particular region (Campbell, 2006; Muysken, 2008). By combining areal studies with geographic understandings of political and cultural regions, scholars can explore the mechanisms by which linguistic regions change over time, as well as the day-to-day lived experience of these regions. Two papers discussed the role of language in the identity of francophone minorities in Canada, and a third discussed the role of EU regional language policies in Galicia, Spain. These studies carefully observed the interaction of political and linguistic boundaries, especially where the two do not overlap.

Another talk discussed the perception of linguistic change in a Philadelphia neighborhood undergoing demographic change. The effects of migration on language change and language shift require an understanding of geographic principles of human migration combined with ethnographic and linguistic methods of data collection and analysis, which is most visible in the work of linguistic ecologists (Mühlhäusler, 1996).

Another line of research revolving around human and environment interaction is perceptual or cognitive geography. A number of studies, variously called landscape ethnoecology (Johnson et al., 2010) and ethnophysiography (Mark et al., 2011), support the argument that different languages divide the surface of the earth into distinct landforms based on very different criteria. Some of these studies also indicate that the linguistic categorization of the landscape affects the perception of that landscape, and may affect speakers’ behavior in the landscape.

While all these presentations were well received, there was little time for presenters to discuss the state of the field. Luckily, I was able to participate in a panel session at the same conference entitled “Multilingualism and Translation in Geography,” where we discussed some of the major challenges facing geographers working on projects that intimately involve language. The most daunting issue for geographers is the opaque jargon that is so pervasive in the field of linguistics. Several geographers complained that communicating with linguists in joint research projects is extremely difficult due to their extremely deep, but narrow, knowledge of particular linguistic phenomena. This is why I believe that the further development of linguistic geography requires that at least some scholars receive training in both fields, so that there is a critical mass of scholars able to translate between the two disciplines.

Linguistic anthropologists have an important role to play in the growth of linguistic geography. As scholars at the border of two disciplines, linguistic anthropologists have broad backgrounds, as well as substantial experience negotiating between different disciplinary jargons and expectations. I encourage linguistic anthropologists with an interest in any of the five themes of geography to engage with the geographic literature and consider integrating geographic methods into their studies.

If you are interested in any aspect of linguistic geography, please consider joining the LingGEOG mailing list at

If you are organizing an interdisciplinary session at a conference, please consider applying for the SLA Interdisciplinary Public Engagement Fund!  The deadline is October 1st for 2017 conferences.


Catherine Lee is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hawaiʻi Manoa.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA Contributing Editors Aaron Ansell ( or Anna Babel (