Language Compass Landscape and Environment

How language shapes our perception of landscapes

The research project “Language Compass Landscape and Environment” examined key German-language terms used to describe landscapes and nature. The results show how language shapes our perception of landscapes and nature, guiding our thoughts and actions. Examples:  Agrarfläche (“agricultural area”), Landschaftsdienstleistung (“landscape services”), städtischer Raum (“urban space”), Stadtentwicklung (“urban development”), Vernetzungsachse (“network axis”), verdichtetes Bauen (“building densely”)

The Sprachkompass (“Language Compass”) is based on new methods of discourse linguistics and presents its results in an easily understandable manner. By promoting reflective language use, it seeks to inspire careful and sustainable interaction with landscapes and nature and to support understanding between different actors.

Our research uses examples to illustrate which aspects are made visible by use of particular terms and which blind spots they carry with them. It offers experts, decision-makers, and laypeople a tool to critically examine their linguistic resources or means of thinking. One example: landscapes as Fläche (“surface area”).

Different terms describe landscapes according to particular perspectives, which in turn carry with them specific values and attitudes and lead to particular actions. © Sprachkompass

If the landscape is a “surface area“, then
+ we view it as possessing clear boundaries 
+ we mainly pay attention to the surface of the earth
+ we can measure the landscape
- we have difficulty grasping the life within it
- we easily overlook local conditions
- etc.

Geometric area (left part of the graph), Metaphor (right part of the graph): Landscape as a surface area, e.g. Agrarfläche (“agricultural area”), Anbaufläche (“cultivation area”), etc. © Sprachkompass

Project duration: 2014 - 2016

Project website:

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Hugo Caviola, Dr. phil., Linguist, CDE, University of Bern

Andreas Kläy, Senior Research Scientist, CDE, University of Bern

Hans Weiss, Environmental Engineer, former director of the Swiss Foundation for Landscape Conservation and ETH lecturer for spatial planning and landscape protection