Language and Nature

Wednesday 21 September 2016

I had an uncanny experience. It is many years since – this was the late 1990s – and the detail has become a little muddled. The essence of the story is this: I was sitting at home alone early on a Friday evening and I was reading – rereading, actually – Sebastian Faulks’ novel, Birdsong. There is a bit in the novel, or so I remember it, where a British soldier, on the front lines in Amiens, is tunneling towards the German trenches. It is perilous work, although whether given the circumstances it is better to be above ground or below ground remains hard to know. The tunnel suddenly collapses, trapping the soldier. You don’t have to suffer from claustrophobia to feel a sense of crushing terror. And, at this point, I had to draw breath. I probably gulped at my beer, and I turned on the radio. Tuned into the news, I found myself, there and then, listening to a story of a British bomb disposal expert (non-experts are never used for these tasks) who, some 80 years after World War 1, was tunneling to find and make safe unexploded munitions. Do I have to tell you that the tunnel collapsed and killed him?

So I remember it. But you too will have experienced your moments of coincidence, if this is in fact what you choose to call it.

I’m caused to recollect this anecdote by a coincidence of sorts that I experienced last week, albeit – and fortunately – a more pedestrian concurrence of events. It started over breakfast, going through my email and munching my maize. Amongst my correspondence was an attachment sent from a friend, an IB Language and Literature colleague of mine from Argentina. Connie had sent an article from the Washington Post written by a young tennis player who had been censured for speaking her first language, Spanish, whilst playing a match in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I don’t know about you, but this kind of xenophobia, even when apparently reasoned, really grinds me down.

My mood was lightened by turning to The Guardian and reading, I suppose, a good news language story concerning the 1200 neologisms being included in the 2016 OED. I was pleased in particular by the inclusion of yolo – you only live once. Here, I saw the possibility that if I could convey to my 15-year-old son that yolo had moved, by the act of codification, from the linguistic hinterland of teenage edginess to vanilla mainstream, he might find a different, better apothegm. I learned too that there is a word called squee – an expression of delight, apparently. And it does, of course, delight me to retort with a squee for every adolescent yolo.

But the day was not yet over, and the bad news language story, good news language story seesaw of the early morning was set to take another swing. In the evening, I started to read perhaps my favourite contemporary writer, Robert Macfarlane, and his 2015 book, Landmarks. Opening the book, I didn’t know that its focus would shift slightly from Macfarlane’s primary concern for nature to an extended discussion of the interdependence of language and nature, and the sense that both work – and must continue to work – symbiotically in a self-sustaining way.

Which brings me back to lexicography, the labour of the harmless drudge. Macfarlane, early in his book, discusses changes to the 2007 Oxford Junior Dictionary. Neologisms flourished that year, and included blog, broadband, celebrity, bullet-point, and cut-and-paste. To make way for these more commonplace, contemporary words, adder, heather, bluebell, buttercup, pasture, willow, and mistletoe amongst others were expunged. When asked about the changes, OUP responded by saying that the dictionary needed to ‘reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood’. In the substitution of blackberry for BlackBerry the fault is not of course that of the descriptively inclined, corpus-guided lexicographer. But the shift in ‘consensus experience’ is surely troubling. In a recently published report in England, for example, serious concern was raised about the decline in wildlife and the natural environment. On a global environmental scale, no one seriously believes that England is an aberration; on the contrary.

Macfarlane offers some hope, however – for language, for the natural world and, by corollary, for our future. He reveals in Landmarks examples of how attempts to reinvigorate language and narrative about nature can limit and sometimes reverse environmental decline. By turn, saving nature can and does revitalize language. They are not separate. They are part of the same thing.

In his poem ‘By the Graveyard, Luskentyre’ the Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig asks ‘where are your dictionaries of the wind, of the grasses?’ To which I would respond, in the writing of Robert Macfarlane and a few others like him. Whilst I remain unconvinced that we are working towards an ecologically bright future, it gives me pleasure to think that language may be playing a role in sustainability. And, of course, reading Robert Macfarlane always gives cause for a wee squee!



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