Landspeak

For over a decade I have been collecting place-words: gleaned singly from conversations, correspondences, or books, and jotted down in journals or on slips of paper. Now and then I have hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular dictionaries or extraordinary people—troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages. One such trove turned up on the moors of the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis in 2007. There, I was shown a “Peat Glossary”: a word-list of the hundreds of Gaelic terms for the moorland that stretches over much of Lewis’s interior. Some of the language it recorded was still spoken—but much had fallen into disuse.

The same year I first saw the Peat Glossary, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. 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.

The substitutions made in the dictionary—the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual—are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live. Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for differ-ent trees and creatures. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place. As the writer Henry Porter observed, the OUP deletions removed the “euphonious vocabulary of the natural world—words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it.”

Consider ammil, a Devon term meaning “the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar-frost,” a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”; and another, klett, for “a low-lying earth-fast rock on the seashore.” On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight. Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now that I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.

The variant English terms for icicle—aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Wessex), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham), shuckle (Cumbria)—form a tinkling poem of their own. Blinter is a northern Scots word meaning “a cold dazzle,” connoting especially “the radiance of winter stars on a clear night,” or “ice-splinters catching low light.” Instantly the word opens prospects: walking sunwards through snow late on a midwinter day, with the wind shifting spindrift into the air such that the ice-dust acts as a prismatic mist, refracting sunshine into its pale and separate colors; or out on a crisp November night in a city garden, with the lit windows of houses and the orange glow of street light around, while the stars blinter above in the cold high air.

I would not have guessed at the existence of quite so many terms for animal dung, from crottle (a foresters’ term for hare excrement) to doofers (Scots for horse shit) to the expressive ujller (Shetlandic for the “unctuous filth that runs from a dunghill”) and turdstool (West Country for a very substantial cowpat). Nor did I know that a dialect name for the kestrel, alongside such felicities as windhover and bell-hawk, is wind-fucker. Once learnt, never forgotten—it is hard now not to see in the pose of the hovering kestrel a certain lustful quiver.

In The History of the Countryside, the great botanist Oliver Rackham describes four ways in which “landscape is lost”: through the loss of beauty, the loss of freedom, the loss of wildlife and vegetation, and the loss of meaning. I admire the way that aesthetics, human experience, ecology, and semantics are given parity in his list. Of these losses the last is hardest to measure.

I do not, of course, believe that such words will magically summon us into a pure realm of harmony and communion with nature. Rather that they might offer a vocabulary that is “convivial” as the philosopher Ivan Illich intended the word—meaning enriching of life, stimulating to the imagination, and “encouraging creative relations between people, and people and nature.” And, perhaps, that the vibrancy of perception evoked in these glossaries may irrigate the dry metalanguages of modern policymaking (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for instance, offers such tautological aridities as “Land use: the use to which a piece of land is put”). For there is no single mountain language, but a range of mountain languages; no one coastal language, but a fractal of coastal languages; no lone tree language, but a forest of tree languages.

As I have traveled, I have come to under­stand that although place-words are being lost, they are also being ­created. I met a painter in the Hebrides who used landskein to refer to the braid of blue horizon lines in hill country on a hazy day; and a five-year-old girl who concocted honeyfur to describe the soft seeds of grasses held in the fingers. John Constable invented the verb to sky, meaning “to lie on one’s back and study the clouds.” We have forgotten ten thousand words for our landscapes, but we will make ten thousand more, given time.

Of course there are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo—or to which silence is by far the best response. Nature does not name itself. Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say, “Wow.”

Robert Macfarlane lives in Cambridge and is author of The Wild Places and The Old Ways. The text that appears here is adapted from his book Landmarks, forthcoming from Trafalgar in June.

Comments

  1. The tongue-in-cheek piece I wrote in January, “Oxford Junior Silences Wind in the Willows, Strikes Fear in Piglet,” (All Things Literary:All Things Natural) barely does justice to the vital importance of the language of the land in the way that Macfarlane’s “Landspeak” does. I’m looking forward to his forthcoming book, Landmarks.

    Page Lambert
    Connecting People with Nature
    Connecting Writers with Words

  2. That is a quite interesting information. The difference between variants of English terms around whole country is impressive. I didn`t expect such distinction in the small UK.

  3. Very enjoyable. Can recommend Macfarlane’s books to Orion readers not yet familiar with this British author. “For there is no single mountain language, but a range of mountain languages; no one coastal language, but a fractal of coastal languages; no lone tree language, but a forest of tree languages.” Thought that was a particularly clever bit of writing there…

  4. I came across the word petrichor recently and love the sound as well as its meaning. It is a word used to describe the distinct smell of rain in the air. It’s the name of an oil that is released from the Earth into the air before rain begins to fall. The smell itself comes about when increased humidity fills the pores of stones, rocks and soil; even though this is just a tiny amount of water, it is enough to flush the oil from the stone and release petrichor into the air. Amazing word for an amazing process that I never thought about before now!
    BTW, the Hawaiian language is full of such descriptive words as you are talking about–including a name for every day’s phase of the moon as well as so many other things in nature–they were very observant of their environment.–the ocean as well as the sky and the earth.

  5. Thank you so much for this article. Check out a map of Aotearoa (as is known to Polynesian peoples) or New Zealand (as it is known to European peoples). It is covered with the names of British generals, battle scenes, Royalty and other reminders of British military might. Previously all these places had Maori names that described with exquisite poetry the landforms, waters and flora of this land. Often the Maori place names evoked legends expressing great connection with the skies, oceans and earth. Many of the Maori names are now just reminders of the unique great forests that resided here, the streams you could drink from and the abundant ocean that existed pre-British colonization.

    Perhaps being born in a land that is at the farthest corner of the Earth from “The Home Country” has enabled me a more dispassionate inquiry of the English language? What it reveals is that the excesses of the Combustion Revolution (known as the Industrial Revolution in Britain) have been accompanied by a complete transmutation of the English language since the 16th Century.
    In brief, the meaning of many of our prime symbols has been inverted and these words are now in profound denial of the great principles of physics that govern the universe. What is most interesting is that the leading generators of these changes were the Romantic Poets (e.g. Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and their modern successors – the Environmental Movement. Ancient Chinese psychology explains this phenomenon in that it articulates how the person who reacts against something perpetuates that which they react against.
    You may be interested to catch a glimpse of this transmutation at http://truehope.info/wordpress/quick-a-z-wise-word-use-guide
    Observe that all the words with unsustainable meanings are drawn from the language of our modern, most well-meaning “environmental educators”.

  6. A world without nectar– how could that be? Now this has me thinking about what words I’d trade out and what I’d keep. I had the pleasure of interviewing former US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur wrote a lovely book called The Disappearing Alphabet. Take heed, dictionary poobahs, as Richard Wilbur points out:
    “If the alphabet began to disappear,
    Some words would soon look raggedy and queer
    (Like QUIRREL, HIMPANZEE, AND CHOOCHOO-TRAI),
    While others would entirely fade away.
    And since it is by words that we construe
    The world, the world would start to vanish too . . .”

  7. Such delight and relief I experienced upon reading this essay by Robert Macfarlane! I’ve been waiting for what seems a very long time (probably months), since I read “Mountains of the Mind,” “The Old Ways,” and “The Wild Places.” His writing is simply wonderful, and “Landspeak” promises to be another fine — such an inadequate term! — book from this excellent writer and observer of our world.

  8. Thanks for such a delightful read of delicious words.

  9. I recently finished reading The Old Ways, my first encounter with Robert Macfarlane’s work. I read long passages of it aloud to my wife. We both loved the book. I am eager to read more of his work, including Landmarks. Writing from New York City…

  10. At loss for words, on glorious mountaintop or deep in unfathomable cave, Awen comes to mind. From Welch for Inspiration, awen also means life force–at least, to modern druids. Yet we modern re-constructors, though well intentioned and treading the word as best as we can along long faded ancient paths, are but kindergarteners to the old ones who invented such words as Ogham. Ogmah, the Gaelic God of poetry invented the Ogham alphabet/sign language. It is pronounced OAM, very similar to the Sanskrit Aum, which brings us back to the awe and the life force one feels at the mountaintop or in dark depths unknown. It would take many great books to describe, but to scratch the surface, as the old ones did on wood and stone, the ogham alphabet is based on tree letters. Every letter represents a specific tree. So, on top of symbolizing a phonetic sound, each letter represents a depth of meaning one could only understand who has studied each tree. The letter D for example, Duir, represents the oak. The oak was king of trees, itself representing the doorway between inner/underword and outer/above.

    It is tragic to see what Oxford is doing or allowing. A counter-conspiracy is nigh in order. I, for my wee part, will study MacFarlane’s work and work to weave these old gems into new stories and every day conversations with young people. I’ll also research the intriguing links and works of some of the commenters above. Clearly, the natural linguistic counter culture is strong!

    May the forest be with us!

  11. When land/nature words are lost so are neural pathways that would have been formed.

    Ironic in an era science is discovering new facts about the different bacteria in our brain, gut, heart….without which we die.

    More, too many problems with childhood health now go back to not living with nature, no exposure to beneficial interior & skin biomes keeping us healthy. How can children know they need nature when their parents & grandparents do not know nature?

    Nature is treated as amusement by most, a commodity to business, stewardship has been lost.

    Have designed landscapes for 3 decades. Few clients have a vocabulary to describe what they want for/from their landscape. Most of my clients are 50+. A sadness for 1/2 century of life, and most USA adults have no nature vocabulary. Worse, the words they do use for their landscape are incorrectly used.

    You are singing to the choir with me, my hope is you sing to as many as possible with zero nature vocabulary, and they get the epiphany.

    Began Lunch Ministry a few years ago. Whenever I meet a non-gardener, but they seem inclined, I invite them to lunch, in my garden, in the Conservatory of course. Amazing how often it is a young woman, and the most common reaction is TEARS. They cry. Their soul knows, yes?

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  12. Internet searches indicate words are being repurposed hiding all but the most active marketing uses. A search for ‘James Bay’ could easily have one knowing it is the name of a British singer and has nothing to do with a body of water or a northern community. Vast quantities of information combined with little experience is leaving us in the interesting state of knowing too much to learn anything. Studies and statistics chosen for suitability are quoted with the same enthusiasm as chapter and verse but with no concern for source or original intention. They are correct because we want them to be.

  13. I am reminded of one of the phrase ‘Nothing can happen nowhere’ in one of the essays in ‘Out of the Earth: Ecocritical Readings of Irish Texts: “‘Nothing can happen nowhere’: Elizabeth Bowen’s figures in landscape” by Joanna Tapp Pierce.

    And of this: “These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedge, such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep-bladed grass today might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and grass of far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love.” George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss)

  14. “Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot/ name them.” Dana Gioia’s poem comes to mind.

    Words

    The world does not need words. It articulates itself
    in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
    are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
    The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
    The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.

    And one word transforms it into something less or other–
    illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
    Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
    glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
    arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

    Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
    name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
    To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper–
    metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
    carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.

    The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rain clouds,
    painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
    each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
    The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always–
    greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

    –Dana Gioia

  15. Which Philistine at OUP decides which words to elide? Is there no review or discussion of the words that are to be considered for Orwellisation? Why are we in the thrall of editorial assistants?

    John Hanley

  16. As someone who read fervently as a child but is now having to grow up in this perversely ‘technological’ society, this article rekindled lost memories from childhood. Indeed, we do lose something as a society when we stop using words that denote our relationships with the mystery and wonder of the living world we inhabit. The new Oxford definitions are appalling in comparison, and an indication of the distortion of our society’s priorities.

  17. The Kiowa didn’t “carve” arrowheads. They knapped them.

    The Germans have a beautiful word for the path that moonlight seems to make on water at night–Mondstrasse.

  18. Thank you for your article, and for drawing my attention to so many lovely nature words. Readers may enjoy Mark Forsyth’s Horologicon for words which have fallen from use as our technologies have evolved.

    I am appalled by OUP’s decision to deprive children of the words associated with natural phenomena, in favor of soon-to-be moribund technological words. Our young increasingly resemble the chained denizens of Plato’s cave, staring at the artificial ‘shadows’ of a reality which they will never experience.

  19. No need to give children abridged dictionaries in the first place. Give them the dictionary, not a selection. We don’t limit their colors. They won’t be overwhelmed, they’ll be dazzled.

  20. Funny how each generation mourns the loss of subsequent ones (linguistically or otherwise.). The indigenous languages which have been vanishing for centuries form the earth now seem a greater loss than single words of antiquity to me. Especially considering the ethno-botanical knowledge as well as the awareness of the connection of humans and our prey and natural advisories. Patrick Orosco Ohlone elder/ author of the Native American/American Indian title the “Ohlone Way” once told me on a hike that the Ohlone word (of which only a handful of people still speak) for squirrel was “Eh!” He joked about making that vocalization when the furry rodent would steal acorns from a tightly woven basket.

  21. It’s for poets, not dictionaries, to pass on a language to the next generation that’s fresh and deep to their imagination.

  22. What a wonderful piece of reminding humanity of its finite being in the vast cosmos of infinite existence. I guess Heidegger was right after all, enslaved by technology can only depart us from an innate disposition to understand our place in the universe. I am not a luddite, nor shall I focus on the Liberal-Marxist dichotomy of global capitalism versus human being’s quest for efficiency through over coming nature. Despite all of it, there has to be something greater when our finest intellect is incapable of dealing with negative externalities.

  23. I loved the essay and the comments, which I consider an exchange on values. Might I recommend environmental artist Marlene Creates’ Brickle, Nish, and Knobbly: A Newfoundland Treasury of Terms for Ice and Snow. You will find that Wessex’s ‘clinkerbells’ have survived on this side of the Atlantic. A visual artist and a poet, Creates has researched the historic regional dialect and then documented examples of the phenomena identified — a stunning and moving body of work.

  24. I am particularly grateful today for “petichor” and to the commenter who taught it to me. I know that stones would exist no matter what, but naming them is access to their wonder. The same with all sorts of things – birds, flowers, and so forth. What would it be like if each of us were permanently nameless?

  25. It is a sad day when the most discriptive terms of nature and land are lost to time. As I read this peice, I recognized some of the same rumblings that I felt after reading Ishi: Last of his tribe. Far too many words have been lost to technology, and most dealt with the natural world. I guess it is up to the folks that still travel there , to resupply the rich wildwood vocabulary. We only create language to describe what we need and use, thus the many Inuit terms to describe snow and ice. If, and when humans relearn how to return to the outdoors, the development of beautiful and defining descriptive terms will likely return. Until then, we will just have to just listen to the wind passing through the collective ears of the electronic age.

  26. I am shocked and angered that the Oxford Junior Dictionary would exclude common and simple words like ‘acorn’. I grew up in another language but know and use and have used all of these words. Including the technology words of the day is probably fine (even if we ignore the fact that some of them, like ‘MP3 player’, have already become obsolete!), but removing such common words connected with nature and literature is inconceivable. The young people hoping to find answers to their questions in the Oxford Junior dictionary will be robbed of so much! What OUP has done is utter and assanine nonsense and a disservice to humanity and their mission, if not worse.

  27. Yes, the things of nature continue to exist even if we don’t know the words for them; but words give us a means of naming, remembering, sharing. Words fall out of use when the things they name cease to exist for us–who living today uses a hansom cab, for example? But things emerge into our awareness when we encounter the words that name them. What is so disturbing about a dictionary deleting words for the things of nature is that it removes a means of access to them. And by replacing these words with words for the technological gadgets that young people encounter on their own merely reinforces the alienation from nature that young people already suffer (but which they suffer unknowingly). Good thing Oxford doesn’t have a monopoloy on dictionaries!

  28. The Oxford folks have a responsibility. It is not to diminish our world and thought, it is to provoke and expand our world and thought. Especially amongst the young. They should be ajudicated by their peers, for Treason to the World/Word.

  29. If the OUP dictionary is anything like our textbooks here in the United States, they do have A review committee, singular, based on and populated by people who continue to perpetuate outdated (and proven to be so since their publication dates), partisan, or just plain wrong information throughout our elementary and secondary school texts, since they DO have a monopoly on saying what’s allowed to be published for such here. Considering how often children access “dead-tree” dictionaries in the first place nowadays, but are exposed to textbooks all the time, that’s pretty scary, too.

  30. A great article. It reminds me that I should work on my vocabulary and make sure I teach my kids to appreciate the outdoors. That is why we are going fishing tomorrow night! And to the mountains on Sunday.

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