Poetry in a time of data: protecting acorns, adders, catkins and herons from language loss
We have a sixth layer of consciousness to assimilate all the “data” we receive from the five senses. In order to differentiate a strawberry from the white, china bowl on which it sits, or the table that supports the bowl, we can access this realm of the mind. But when we wish to describe what we see and more importantly, to make textual art out of an emotional response, we have only language available to us. Isn’t language vast and generous? All encompassing? Is it not the soil out of which civilisation grows? Well, vast and generous maybe, all encompassing, no; and like the soil, language is subject to erosion, both natural and unnatural. It is true that words do 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 the natural world.
In his superb book Landmarks, 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 voicemail.
When Vineeta Gupta, then head of children’s dictionaries at Oxford University Press, 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".
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 the DNA of pre-teens. 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. 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? And how will tomorrow’s environmentalists - those concerned with loss of species and habitat destruction - manage to recognise such losses without terminology for the natural world.
We need language for the existence of things, in order to recognise loss. It is impossible 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 - 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. I don’t suppose any well-meaning politicians want the planet to disintegrate as they will naturally be taken along with it. Politicians are just human beings and the pressures of offce must be huge. But young people are feeling alienated from the existing systems of representation in place - we have the Russell Brand factor to prove that.
Worryingly, 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, we seem to understand less and less.
Writers are needed more than ever to keep the natural world in focus for potential readers. Poets and prose writers must try 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, 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 alone cannot save the human habitat. Only humans can do this, and in this, poets have a vital role.