The changing language of nature

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Is the language of the countryside is being replaced by that of the digital era? Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

Over the last decade, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has cut a suite of words from the natural world, including “buttercup”, “acorn”, and “mistletoe”. They have been replaced by the language of the digital age – “broadband”, “cut-and-paste”, and “blog”. A question that surely arises from this is what effect such subtle changes in our curation of language will have on our future writing – and even the way future generations perceive the world, and interact with it.

If it is the priority of a dictionary to state the obvious rather than to encourage learning, then it may be argued that something has gone drastically wrong with our approach to life and – even more worryingly – with our relationship to the countryside.

In an open letter to Oxford University Press, 28 leading writers, including Margaret Atwood, penned an open letter urging the publisher to reinstate the words of nature. They wrote:

“We base this plea on two considerations […] Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.

Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.”

They add:

“All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages. We employ extremely rigorous editorial guidelines in determining which words [can] be included in each dictionary, based on several criteria: acknowledging the current frequency of words in daily language of children of that age; corpus analysis; acknowledging commonly misspelled or misused words; and taking curriculum requirements into account.”

[…]

We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today. In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature; and the dangers of their lack, we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered. We find the explanations issued recently too narrowly focussed on a lexicographical viewpoint without consideration for the social context.”

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Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

In riposte to digital language

How might we counter the encroachment of the digital era on the language we use to describe the world – particularly the natural, ‘real’, world?

For decades the leading nature writer Robert Macfarlane has been collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena – from aquabob to zawn. His curation of such natural lexicons pulls together nine glossaries of terms taken from 30 languages, dialects and sub-dialects around Britain and Ireland. They all describe aspects of weather, nature and terrain.

Many of these words are dying out, slipping out of conversation and forgotten by those who once spoke them freely. They are being – and in some cases have already been – lost. By rediscovering them, Macfarlane offers a clear riposte to the move by Oxford University Press to replace words of the natural world with those of the digital one.

In an excellent interview with the brilliant Rowena Macdonald – whose book, The Threat Level Remains Severe, has been longlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize – Macfarlane describes two of his favourite rediscovered words:

“One is this lovely Cornish word ‘zawn’, which means a wave-smashed chasm in a sea cliff – it’s so evocative of that gaping mouth, and the power of those places,” he says. “Another is this soft, Gaelic phrase ‘rionnach maoim’, the shadows that clouds cast on moorland on a windy day. There’s something about the poetry of that, the precision and the need to compress that phenomenon down into that gorgeous soft phrase.”

Macfarlane is convinced the importance of words that describe or engage with the natural world extend beyond being simply of interest. By enriching our vocabularies, Macfarlane believes, we can change the way we interact with our landscape:

“We increasingly make do with an impoverished language for nature, a generic language: ‘field’, and ‘wood’, and ‘hill’, and ‘countryside’. It’s a very basic way of denoting, and that’s fine, and sometimes we need to speak generally,” he says. “We can’t always speak absolutely precisely. But I’m fascinated by details and by the specifics of nature, and its particularities – and language helps us to see those.”

Why should the loss of such words matter? And why should we be so enthused by Macfarlane’s work? Simply, it matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. To quote the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry – “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” Or as the author Mark Cocker puts it, “If acorn goes from the lexicon, the game is up for nature in England.”

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Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

Chasing the sublime

The Victorian and Romantic poets found in nature something beyond superficial human understanding or meaning: that sense of the sublime. In Peri Hypsous or On the Sublime, a work of literary criticism by the Greek author pseudo-Longinus (1st century BCE), sublimity refers to ‘excellence’ in language and to whatever is elevated or noble in the human spirit. That it has been so intrinsically bound in nature – and some of our finest examples of writing and usage of language tied in turn to this – speaks to the enormous importance of the natural world to inspire our creative minds in myriad unexpected and beautiful ways. Standing beneath Mont Blanc, Percy Bysshe Shelley found “the everlasting universe of things” and “the source of human thought”.  If we are to begin eradicating the language of nature – however slowly, or by however small degrees – we also begin to eradicate our ability to see, through nature, something that exists beyond our superficial and tenuous experiences and understanding of reality and human knowledge.

Perhaps it will one day be possible to encounter the sublime within blogs, emails, and social media. But for now it seems the likeliest way of elevating our consciousness remains in the countryside, surrounded by the beauty of the natural world.

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2 thoughts on “The changing language of nature

    • Thanks very much for your comment, amigo! Really glad you enjoyed the post and also great to hear you found it eye-opening. It’s an oft-unreported topic but one we still nevertheless feel is an important one.

      Like

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