Brains are amazing things. Far more so than we can yet fathom or understand. In Buddhist theory, the sixth layer of consciousness assimilates all the ‘data’ we receive from the five senses. Thus, for example, in order to differentiate a strawberry from the white, china bowl on which it sits, or the table that supports the bowl etc we can access this realm of the mind which ‘understands’ the difference. But when we wish to describe what we see – to make textual art out of an emotional response – we have only language available to us. Language, words, pictures, images.
Language vast and generous, all encompassing. Is it not the soil out of which civilisation grows? Perhaps. But like the soil, language is subject to erosion, both natural and unnatural. Words fall out of use or morph into new words all the time and in itself this is normal and not particularly sinister. However, it becomes sinister when this form of ‘language creep’ is extreme in sidelining an entire and vital aspect of human existence – in this case I am talking of the natural world.
In his superb book _Landmarks_(Penguin, 2016) (p3) naturalist Robert Macfarlane relates the following story:
“A sharp eyed reader of the new edition to the Oxford Junior Dictionary noted that a considerable number of words used to describe the natural world had been deleted. The deletions included: _acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, mp3 player and voice-mail.
> When Vineeta Gupta, then head of children’s dictionaries at OUP was asked why the decision had been taken to delete those words, she explained that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood.”
How tragic this is. That contemporary children have no experience of acorns and buttercups so no point in using the words. This seems to be extraordinary back to front thinking. It is most likely that children will learn the substituted computer-style words by the daily dose of internet to which life is now exposed but if acorn, adder and ash are rarer commodities and not to be found so much in inner cities, it seems to me that is not a reason to delete the words but rather twice the reason to incorporate the words in the dictionary.
Chatrooms and cut-and-paste are now in our DNA. Sadly the OJD Editor was confusing the information function of language with the emotional engagement function of language, with its qualities of poetic inheritance, its assimilation of history.
Certainly there are aspects of human experience that defy articulation whether the vision of a sunrise across wheat fields language is not the be all and end all of communication but a poet will certainly struggle without it! If children are being deprived of language to describe the natural world they will in turn have no terms of reference to become nature poets.
This decision was apparently not taken on the basis that such phenomena have physically disappeared from the environments – which thankfully they have not (yet) – but based on the fact that many children today live in urban environments which means they are no longer likely to come into contact with cygnet, beech or kingfisher and so don’t need to know about them!
How will tomorrow’s poets describe the natural environment if they have no language to do so? Tomorrow’s environmentalists are todays children – those very ones who the OUP editors don’t feel need to recognize beech, alder and adder. The question of how those concerned with loss of species and habitat destruction will recognise such losses without terminology for the natural world. We need language for the existence of things, in order to recognise loss. It is not possible to save a buttercup if, linguistically, the little yellow meadow flower no longer exists.
Joni Mitchell famously sang ‘they took all the trees, put ‘em in a tree museum’… . Museum pieces can be overlooked, irrelevant things – perhaps less so post Neil McGregor – but still many are just things until they have a narrative attached to them. For this we need language, history, cultural references, comparative functions, analytical resources.
We hope neither the natural world nor the language we use to describe it will be relegated to the status of museum piece. No-one will knowingly pass a law putting trees in a museum, but the sidelining of the natural world is coming anyway; by urbanisation, by obsession with economic models of society, by addictions to technology, and by ‘language creep’. Or perhaps ‘language loss’ creep. Did you notice how many hours of airtime, rhetoric, baby-bouncing-on-knee time were given over to discussion of climate change during the recent election campaign?
I believe the problem is not one of political will. Does any well meaning politician actually want the planet to disintegrate? Most will work out that they will naturally vanish along with the rest of us. But politicians are just human beings and the pressures of office must be huge. It is always tempting to think that someone else will deal with it, or somehow the problem will go away.
Young people feel alienated from the existing systems of representation and who can blame them since those systems of representation seem bent on excluding whole groups of our society, especially the young. It is these younger generations that are those most at risk of ‘language loss creep’. In a time of mass ‘data’ and ‘communications’, in a time of NSA surveillance and Edward Snowden when we all suffer from information overload, we actually seem to understand less and less.
The point is that writers are needed more than ever to keep the natural world in focus for potential readers. Prose writers yes, but I believe it will fall to the poets to guard the language of the natural world that is needed to give voice to the history of and need for continued work on preservation, and to fight, if necessary short-termism and vested interests. This is not just complaint about red, blue, yellow or green! It is about a universal spirit. If none of the parties are voting for the planet, the planet will not vote for the parties. It is left to poets to do so.
What other language is being or already has been lost through this form of abandonment? This is not a simple question when the term ‘language’ has many meanings? Even computer code is a magical language. It makes things happen.
But computers cannot save the human habitat. Only humans can do that and in this poets have a vital role.
I posted this yesterday and this morning awoke to a review of a new book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris called The Lost Words on this very topic. It seems the author agrees with me on the poetry aspect, as this is a book for young readers with poems and beautiful illustrations. Although Mr. Macfarlane says they are not poems, they are spells:
When wren whirrs from stone to furze the air around her
Mmm! Sounds like poetry to me. Ok, spells then.
The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton on Thursday, 5th October 2017.