The Ecology of Language

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Language shapes our reality.

This is not a new idea. The Buddha taught about the importance of right speech, the root of Abracadabra lies in the ancient Hebrew phrase ‘אברא כדברא’ or ‘I create as I speak’ and the Gospel of John begins with those immortal words ‘In the beginning there was the word and the word was God.’ To have language is to have the power to express, name, label, categorise and define things, people, experiences and feelings.

And these words have power.

We can be caught forever in the thrall of a psychiatric diagnosis or teacher’s remark, moving from being ‘lively’ to being a ‘naughty’ child in a single breath. Every word comes with its own baggage and its own history. Some words cannot be spoken because they hold so much weight, whilst others are moving into common speech as the passage of time wears away old meanings and clothes them in new.

Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.
— Buddha

To use an old English phrase, we each have our own word-hoard – a store of words collected from our parents, carers, siblings, teachers, peers, the books we read, the programmes we watch. We can then draw from this stock to communicate and express.

In times of extreme or unusual emotional states — the pain of loss or the ecstasy of birth — we often find our word hoards insufficient. When our lover leaves us, when we are struck with that strange yearning to be something or somewhere we are not, when we meet the inevitable end of life, we turn to the poets to offer us the magic combination of words that provide the image or the rhythm that expresses where we are — that resonates at our level of feeling.

Language is more than functional; it is an essential tool in the gardening shed of the soul.

But maybe it isn’t a word-hoard at all. Word hoard conjures to mind some sort of pantry or chest — quite possibly very old and wooden and filled with bio dynamic, organic apples, but cut off and not-living nonetheless. And language is living; it is a constantly evolving ecosystem — a word-wood.

Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. Parts of it become old: they drop off and are forgotten. New pieces bud out, spread into leaves, and become big branches, proliferating.
— Gilbert Highet

As we grow, our word-wood grows. If we are lucky, the earth beneath our word-wood is made fertile by those around us. If we are unlucky, the earth is grey and cold; in that scrubland, bramble words grow, filling our mouths with dry, spiky, withered attempts to express the fire within. We swear, scream and hit because we have nothing else. These are the children who lash out in frustration because they don’t have the words to help us understand how they are feeling — the force of the absent word rises like a tsunami of the soul.

Word-wood soil can be enlivened with the right treatment — the right authors, speakers, words and phrases being introduced in the right way — but just as easily a fertile landscape can be destroyed by carelessness and commercial consumption. Monoculture language creeps in promising better communication through over simplification, manipulation through vile advertising, or utter confusion through ‘specialised’ jargon. Invasive species spring up — the word ‘like’ is the ground elder of speech — and GM word crops slowly change the natural landscape of our language and in doing so, redefine our internal and external experience of the world.

Especially prized was the capacity to name, abundantly and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering; ‘willow’ ‘holly’ ‘bat’ ‘dog-rose’. They are not their names. Not really.
— Dr Martin Shaw, School of Myth

Robert Macfarlane recently reminded us of how many words we are losing in the UK on a daily basis and the danger that poses to the future of our countryside: ‘[We are in] an age when a junior dictionary finds room for “broadband” but has no place for “bluebell'”. What will happen when children can no longer name Oak or Beech, Sparrow or Robin? Will they wish to protect an area of nameless land inhabited by nameless creatures?

To take away a person’s name is to ‘de-humanise’, making it easier to avoid any sort of messy emotional attachment and opening the ‘thing’ up to exploitation, abuse or extermination. If we are losing the lexicon of the natural world, is it any wonder that rainforests full of trees, insects and animals are being destroyed by CEOs of foreign companies who have reduced the entire, living ecosystem of the Amazon to a ‘commodity’?

Mythologist Martin Shaw encourages his students to develop a practice of giving twelve secret names to the plants, animals or ‘things’ they encounter in nature and to speak those names out loud. He comments that ‘inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world’ — an enlivening force. And surely it must be seen that those that love and know the land they live upon have a hundred names for snow or twenty different names mud or, at the very least, three different names for the garden robin. In giving something a name, we deepen our relationship with it and in finding many names we find ourselves watching, listening, thinking more deeply about that bird, plant, flower or bug — by engaging through language, we come to know it better.

Green Curve
Udder of the Silver Waters
The Hundred Glittering Teeth
Small Sister, Dawning Foam
On the Old Lime Bank.
Five names for the River — Dr Martin Shaw, School of Myth

So get out there and find the folkloric name of the hill behind your house, or watch the little plant determinedly pushing its head between the pavement cracks and realise that the word ‘daisy’ just isn’t enough to encapsulate that being. In opening ourselves to language as a dynamic force, rather than just a communication tool, we can begin to experience the world in a new and deeper way.

Now, a language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.
— Wade Davis, anthropologist and explorer

Abbie Simmonds is a writer, teacher and student of myth. She is convinced that her enthusiasm for shamanic mythology, commitment to education and desire for a deeper connection to the environment will all come together if she goes on enough walks and reads enough books. Abbie lives and works in between Ditchling Beacon and the Seven Sisters and tries to spend as much time outside as possible. When she is not outside, she is usually in a school teaching teenagers words, story and self.

Image by Judy Denison

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12 thoughts on “The Ecology of Language

  1. These words are incredibly relevant. As a student of languages and comparative literature I have written a thesis about alterity in modern poetry. It is basically similar to what is suggested above: words imply a conceptual grasp of reality but there is always something else, something other because words deny the actual being of things. I am applying for a PhD and would very much like to pursue these ideas in accordance with nature after having read Fukukuoka’s books in order to raise awareness and to focus on the ecology of language. This matters. This is truthful.

    • Thank you for your comment Rosie. I am glad you are exploring this concept – I hope we get to hear about your future adventures in the word-wood.

  2. Great post Abbie, many thanks. Brought back great memories of a damp Dartmoor weekend with Msrs. Shaw and Kingsnorth.

    Mat

  3. Lovely thoughts here Abbie! Thank you. And for the reminder about Martin Shaw’s secret names; yes yes yes. I am constantly fascinated by the old growth forests of human language. Where I am from, there were once over 100 indigenous languages (within the borders of California)– each one covered often no more than 30 square miles, and many were mutually unintelligible. Imagine– so many tongues, rising up out of each different landscape! Our language has become much impoverished, and I often wonder what it would be like to learn one of the tongues that was born out of this place; what root deep shifts it might bring– though that is a very loaded and complex topic, as a white European woman! Anyhow, thanks again for your thoughts here.

    Warmly

    Sylvia

    P.S. I highly recommend Robert Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning, if you haven’t already read it– fantastic thoughts about language, land, poetry, ecology.

    • Nice analogy & evocative piece over all, Abbie. I’ll have to try that 12 secret names thing, although a lot of the time I notice that names (nouns even) are imposed on things or creatures as a means of control or an attempt at putting the world into an acceptable kind of ‘order’. Either way it seems to work out that the name acts as a barrier to direct observation and/or interaction with the other party. “What’s that coming towards us? Oh, it’s just a dog”, “What’s that amazing sound? Oh, that’s just a buzzard”… etc – it dampens awareness, curiosity, responsivity, aliveness and boxes in the infinite possibilities with crude use of labels attached by the verb ‘to be’ (see: E-Prime, and don’t get me started!) But yes, there must be other ways of naming in a more respectful, affectionate way…

      Another part of this might involve an effort to decolonise the language we use, which in England would probably mean substituting words rooted in Latin or Norman French by older anglo-saxon ones (although the ‘true’ indigenous language of these islands might be more closely related to the Basque and old Irish tongues, which are totally separate from the Indo-European languages that took over the continent). Plants provide an obvious example: how well can you ever get to know a dandelion, say, if you insist on calling it ‘taraxacum officinale’? ;)

      Here’s an article I read recently which talks about decolonising our languages. It chimes into a lot of what Paul K was trying to do with ‘The Wake’, I think:

      http://rainshields.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/decolonising-the-english-language/

      cheers,
      I

      • Hi Ian – thank you for sharing that article – it’s fascinating and has prompted a lot of thoughts, particularly in my role as an English teacher in schools. I often have similar feelings over language diminishing or reducing things to ‘just’ a buzzard or an oak-tree. Exploring the idea of the 12 secret names I have found very moving and am studying more use of poetry and the use and impact of ‘kennings’ in storytelling rather than straightforward names. I have been working with norse myths over the last few years and have only scratched the surface of this! Thanks again for your comment and the article.

    • It is fascinating isn’t it – even just some words open up the imagination to the natural world. Sean Kane in Wisdom of the Mythtellers describes how the Inuit’s many names for snow is connected to the seeing of matter as process – they don’t have lots of names of static forms of snow, but rather they describe snow as being in relation and in a particular state that it is currently in. So some names translate closer to ‘crunches underfoot’ than a label like ‘sleet’ or ‘snow’. I plan to investigate this further! And I’ll definitely get a copy of Bringhurst. I’ve read around him, but haven’t dived in yet!

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