Linguistics & Anthropology



Research leader

Magnus Pharao Hansen

Postdoc, PhD., born 1979

Project title

Do we humans adapt our grammar to the landscape we live in? A study of environmental adaptation in the Nahuatl language of Mexico. 

What is your project about?

The project investigates whether four dialects of the Mexican indigenous language Nahuatl have adapted the parts of their grammar that relate to spatial relations to the very different landscapes that their speakers live in. If they have, that means that the grammar of our languages is not only shaped by our brains, but also by our everyday activities and our cultural habits of orienting in space and time. In Nahuatl verbs are not just conjugated for time as in English, but also for spatial categories such as movement and position. By studying the developments of differences in spatial grammar in four dialects spoken in different landscapes using linguistic, psycholinguistic and ethnographic methods, we can determine if there has been a degree of adaptation to the local environment. 

How did you become interested in your particular field of research?

Already during high school, I took an interest in understanding how languages spoken by Native American peoples were different from European languages, and whether these differences may be related to different ways of understanding the world. Through my studies of the Nahuatl and other language, I learned that linguistic differences may have an effect on how we attend to different aspects of the world around us. This is why I became interested in the histories of Native American languages and in the relations between language history and human evolutionary history: how language helps us adapt to our social and natural surroundings. 

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project?

The study requires a long and intense period of field work, almost a year, during which we will collect three different types of data in four different regions. This entails quite a few logistical challenges. It also demands from us that we able to quickly create good working relations with members of the local speech community, to make them feel that they also want to participate in our project – and that they also get something out of it. Here I will be helped by my years of experience doing fieldwork in Mexico. It is a challenge to collect linguistic, psycholinguistic and ethnographic data simultaneously, but also gives us a unique chance to understand how linguistic, cognitive and cultural factors interact when humans relate to the natural environment.  

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term?

Being fundamental science project, it will tell us something foundational about humans as a being located at the intersection of nature and culture. In this way it will help us understand how nature and landscape forms a basic condition for our existence, and how, through language and culture, we can adapt to the environment we inhabit. This may influence for example how we think about our own relation to the environment, and how we are able to consciously or unconsciously adapt our behavior to harmonize better with our surroundings. 

Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher?

First and foremost, it will give me a unique chance to organize and carry out a major research project that I will be able to build on for years to come. In this way it lays a foundation for my continued work here in Denmark, and enables me to contribute to the already vibrant research environment in language history, language evolution and Mesoamerican studies here in Copenhagen. The the knowledge I will gain from this project enables me to take a position in a global network of scholars who work on these topics, and to enhance the profile of the University of Copenhagen and of Danish research abroad. 

Background and personal life

I live in a commune in Ruds Vedby in Western Zealand with my wife Claudia who is from Mexico, and our two daughters, and nine other adults. When I am not working, I like to play folk and traditional music on the fiddle and mandolin, and I am also writing on a crime novel set in 17th century Copenhagen. I have lived ith my family for several years in Mexico, and in the US where I did my PhD and where my youngest daughter was born – but now after two years in Denmark we are almost done readapting to the Danish landscape and environment. 

City of current residence
Ruds Vedby

High school
Kalundborg Gymnasium