How language shapes our sense of place



How do people perceive landscapes? And how do they express their connection to landscape in language?

The research project 'How language shapes our sense of place' explores, how people perceive and describe landscapes in Switzerland.

We are developing methods to describe a landscape not only as the sum of its parts (including soil, water bodies, flora and fauna), but as a cultural  landscape - a landscape that we perceive with all our senses and that may be inspiring or relaxing, and for many people may be intimately entwined with their identity.

In the course of this project we investigated mountain, hill, lake, river and moor landscapes. We approached 300 visitors at ten different locations to collect lists of words describing landscapes. In addition to the direct elicitation, we created a webplatform where citizens can upload landscape pictures and descriptions. Moreover, we invited people to send us Swiss German dialect words for specific landscape features or properties. This information will help to create landscape descriptions rooted in the language and culture of the people who live in and visit these landscapes.

We aim to enable the participation of a broad public through our web platform Anyone can write landscape descriptions, upload pictures and send us dialect terms for landscape in Swiss German. Such participation is essential to answer our main research question, namely how people perceive and describe landscape in their own words. We do not aim to collect only 'data', but are interested in methods to document the perception of landscape from the public.

In addition, based on the reactions of participants to our research project, we want to contribute to creating a dialogue between science and society. Through our work, we will foster a discussion about what values we currently use to assess landscapes, and how we can better integrate cultural and social values.


The elicited semantically rich descriptions about landscape and their cultural values show how perception and language are not easily separated. Unfortunately, such cultural values attached to landscape are often missing as inputs to discussions about landscape planning and management, and are therefore not taken into account in decision-making. Our aim is to contribute - through Citizen Science - to including a diversity of perspectives in discussion about the future of our landscapes and to do so while taking account of specific local ways of communicating about language - here in the local dialect of Swiss-German.


Project members:

Department of Geography, UZH

Prof. Dr. Ross Purves, Dr. Flurina Wartmann


Financed by the cogito foundation


Graphic artist:

Tanja Hess