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 They have been replaced by the language of the digital age – “broadband”, “cut-and-paste”, and “blog”.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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The Chaos of the English language

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English spelling is undeniably chaotic. There’s an exception to almost every rule, 26 letters have to do the job of around 44 phonemes, and ‘English’ is less its own language than a strange combination and mixtures of myriad other languages both ancient and modern. The linguistic fingerprints of thousands of people can be found everywhere in our orthography. So no wonder people often think of it as being, well, weird (or should that be wyrd?)

It is little wonder, then, so many people struggle with the pronunciation of English words. The language has so many irregularities that sometimes even native speakers are not sure how to say a word. In homage to the idiosyncrasies of English spelling and pronunciation, the Dutch writer Gerard Nolst Trenité penned The Chaos – a virtuoso feat of composition, a mammoth catalogue of about 800 of the most notorious irregularities of traditional English orthanography.

Written under Trenité’s pseudonym, Charivarius, The Chaos skilfully arranges the inconsistencies of English into couplets with alternating feminine and masculine rhymes. First published in the early 1920s, the poem does include certain words that may appear dated to a modern audience (here at Nothing in the Rulebook, Billy the Echidna and Professor Wu were flummoxed by the term ‘studding-sail’ – a nautical term pronounced ‘stunsail’); yet the overwhelming majority of the poem represents a true likeness of the chaos that is the English language.

We’ve re-printed the poem for your enjoyment here below.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpsecorpshorse and worse.

I will keep you, Susybusy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seerhear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare hearthear and heard,
Dies and dietlord and word.

Sword and swardretain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Saysaidpaypaidlaid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
Wovenovenhow and low,
Scriptreceiptshoepoemtoe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughterlaughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measlestopsailsaisles,
Missilessimilesreviles.

Whollyhollysignalsigning,
Sameexamining, but mining,
Scholarvicar, and cigar,
Solarmicawar and far.

From “desire”: desirableadmirable from “admire”,
Lumberplumberbier, but brier,
Topshambroughamrenown, but known,
Knowledgedonelonegonenonetone,

OneanemoneBalmoral,
Kitchenlichenlaundrylaurel.
GertrudeGermanwind and wind,
Beau, kind, kindred, queuemankind,

Tortoiseturquoisechamois-leather,
Reading, Readingheathenheather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives mossgrossbrookbroochninthplinth.

Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol?

Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquetwalletmalletchalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
Discountviscountload and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward,

Ricocheted and crochetingcroquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
Roundedwoundedgrieve and sieve,
Friend and fiendalive and live.

Is your r correct in higher?
Keats asserts it rhymes Thalia.
Hugh, but hug, and hood, but hoot,
Buoyantminute, but minute.

Say abscission with precision,
Now: position and transition;
Would it tally with my rhyme
If I mentioned paradigm?

Twopence, threepence, tease are easy,
But cease, crease, grease and greasy?
Cornice, nice, valise, revise,
Rabies, but lullabies.

Of such puzzling words as nauseous,
Rhyming well with cautious, tortious,
You’ll envelop lists, I hope,
In a linen envelope.

Would you like some more? You’ll have it!
Affidavit, David, davit.
To abjure, to perjureSheik
Does not sound like Czech but ache.

Libertylibraryheave and heaven,
Rachellochmoustacheeleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
Peopleleopardtowed but vowed.

Mark the difference, moreover,
Between moverploverDover.
Leechesbreecheswiseprecise,
Chalice, but police and lice,

Camelconstableunstable,
Principledisciplelabel.
Petalpenal, and canal,
Waitsurmiseplaitpromisepal,

SuitsuiteruinCircuitconduit
Rhyme with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
But it is not hard to tell
Why it’s pallmall, but Pall Mall.

Musclemusculargaoliron,
Timberclimberbullionlion,
Worm and stormchaisechaoschair,
Senatorspectatormayor,

Ivyprivyfamousclamour
Has the a of drachm and hammer.
Pussyhussy and possess,
Desert, but desertaddress.

Golfwolfcountenancelieutenants
Hoist in lieu of flags left pennants.
Courier, courtier, tombbombcomb,
Cow, but Cowper, some and home.

Solder, soldier! Blood is thicker“,
Quoth he, “than liqueur or liquor“,
Making, it is sad but true,
In bravado, much ado.

Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Fontfrontwontwantgrand and grant.

Arsenic, specific, scenic,
Relic, rhetoric, hygienic.
Gooseberry, goose, and close, but close,
Paradise, rise, rose, and dose.

Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
MindMeandering but mean,
Valentine and magazine.

And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
Tier (one who ties), but tier.

Arch, archangel; pray, does erring
Rhyme with herring or with stirring?
Prison, bison, treasure trove,
Treason, hover, cover, cove,

Perseverance, severanceRibald
Rhymes (but piebald doesn’t) with nibbled.
Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw,
Lien, psychic, shone, bone, pshaw.

Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffetbuffet;
Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.

Say in sounds correct and sterling
Hearse, hear, hearken, year and yearling.
Evil, devil, mezzotint,
Mind the z! (A gentle hint.)

Now you need not pay attention
To such sounds as I don’t mention,
Sounds like pores, pause, pours and paws,
Rhyming with the pronoun yours;

Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
Funny rhymes to unicorn,
Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.

No, my maiden, coy and comely,
I don’t want to speak of Cholmondeley.
No. Yet Froude compared with proud
Is no better than McLeod.

But mind trivial and vial,
Tripod, menial, denial,
Troll and trolleyrealm and ream,
Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.

Argil, gill, Argyll, gill. Surely
May be made to rhyme with Raleigh,
But you’re not supposed to say
Piquet rhymes with sobriquet.

Had this invalid invalid
Worthless documents? How pallid,
How uncouth he, couchant, looked,
When for Portsmouth I had booked!

Zeus, Thebes, Thales, Aphrodite,
Paramour, enamoured, flighty,
Episodes, antipodes,
Acquiesce, and obsequies.

Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.

Pious, impious, limb, climb, glumly,
Worsted, worsted, crumbly, dumbly,
Conquer, conquest, vase, phase, fan,
Wan, sedan and artisan.

The th will surely trouble you
More than rch or w.
Say then these phonetic gems:
Thomas, thyme, Theresa, Thames.

Thompson, Chatham, Waltham, Streatham,
There are more but I forget ’em
Wait! I’ve got it: Anthony,
Lighten your anxiety.

The archaic word albeit
Does not rhyme with eight-you see it;
With and forthwith, one has voice,
One has not, you make your choice.

Shoes, goes, does *. Now first say: finger;
Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
Realzealmauve, gauze and gauge,
Marriagefoliagemirageage,

Hero, heron, query, very,
Parry, tarry fury, bury,
Dostlostpost, and dothclothloth,
JobJobblossombosomoath.

Faugh, oppugnant, keen oppugners,
Bowingbowing, banjo-tuners
Holm you know, but noes, canoes,
Puisnetruismuse, to use?

Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
SeatsweatchastecasteLeigheightheight,
Putnutgranite, and unite.

Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyrheifer.
DullbullGeoffreyGeorgeatelate,
Hintpintsenate, but sedate.

GaelicArabicpacific,
Scienceconsciencescientific;
Tour, but our, dour, succourfour,
Gasalas, and Arkansas.

Say manoeuvre, yacht and vomit,
Next omit, which differs from it
Bona fide, alibi
Gyrate, dowry and awry.

Seaideaguineaarea,
PsalmMaria, but malaria.
Youthsouthsoutherncleanse and clean,
Doctrineturpentinemarine.

Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
Rally with allyyeaye,
EyeIayayewheykeyquay!

Say aver, but everfever,
Neitherleisureskeinreceiver.
Never guess-it is not safe,
We say calvesvalveshalf, but Ralf.

Starry, granarycanary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
Face, but preface, then grimace,
Phlegmphlegmaticassglassbass.

Basslargetargetgingiveverging,
Oughtoust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
Ear, but earn; and ere and tear
Do not rhyme with here but heir.

Mind the o of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
With the sound of saw and sauce;
Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.

Pudding, puddle, puttingPutting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
Respite, spite, consent, resent.
Liable, but Parliament.

Seven is right, but so is even,
HyphenroughennephewStephen,
Monkeydonkeyclerk and jerk,
Aspgraspwaspdemesnecorkwork.

A of valour, vapid vapour,
S of news (compare newspaper),
G of gibbet, gibbon, gist,
I of antichrist and grist,

Differ like diverse and divers,
Rivers, strivers, shivers, fivers.
Once, but nonce, toll, doll, but roll,
Polish, Polish, poll and poll.

Pronunciation-think of Psyche!-
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
Won’t it make you lose your wits
Writing groats and saying “grits”?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlockgunwale,
Islington, and Isle of Wight,
Housewifeverdict and indict.

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying latherbatherfather?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Thoughthroughboughcoughhoughsough, tough??

Hiccough has the sound of sup
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

It is said that at least 90% of native English speakers are unable to pronounce every word of The Chaos correctly. How did you do? Let us know in the comments below!

Bath Spa University receives funding to develop creative writing in local schools

cursive handwriting

Arts Council England is set to award Bath Spa University with £600,000 in funding to develop creative writing education in schools across the South West of England.

The grant is from the Creative Writing in Schools fund, and will support a three-year project called The Creative Writing Education Hub.

This project will be led by the university in partnership with Bath Festivals and the National Association of Writers in Education. The project aims to link nationally recognised writers with hundreds of schools in the region.

Bath Spa University

Bath Spa University

As part of the project, children aged eight to 14 will be given workshops by professional writers, thereby helping them to write and expand their imagination.

Alongside the programme, a series of workshops for teachers and writers will run concurrently to the schools programme, thereby helping to try and develop new approaches to teaching creative writing.

Participating schools will receive support to achieve an ‘Artsmark Award’, and pupils will receive help to achieve an ‘Arts Award’.

Phil Gibby, South West area director for Arts Council England, said: “We believe that every child and young person should have the opportunity to experience the richness of arts and culture and this funding will give more young people the chance to engage in and enjoy producing and showcasing their own creative writing.

“The consortium boasts some of the South West’s expert educators, researchers and writers whose joint leadership will make for a strong and unique programme of work.”

Bambo Soyinka, creative director of the project, said: “Creative writing should be part of every child’s education as it develops imaginative thought, language and literary skills.

“The Creative Writing Education Hub will introduce school pupils from varied social and cultural backgrounds to the joys of creative writing and will enable young people to learn alongside professional writers.

“Over the next three years we will be researching and testing best practice models for creative writing education.

“We will share our findings through innovative events, workshops and digital platforms, to guide and inspire teachers, pupils and creative writing tutors.”

Bath Spa University is one of two lead applicants awarded a grant from the Creative Writing in Schools fund.

The other successful applicant, First Story, will use a grant of £600,000 to bring professional writers into secondary schools serving low income communities.

This fund targets the North and the South West because these are areas outside London where creative writing opportunities for children and young people could be improved.

Analysis

Professor Wu says: “Projects like this are absolutely crucial in a society increasingly devoid of imagination – and a stunted ability to think outside the box. Evidence suggests that creative writing – and, indeed, creativity and art in all its myriad forms – can improve a child’s enjoyment and attainment in English language and literature.”

“What is more, by encouraging children to think creatively, we encourage them to look at the world in new and interesting ways, which is critical for human society as a whole. Just think of those wise words of Albert Einstein: Logic will take you from A to B, but imagination will take you anywhere.”