Rewilding the language of landscape

A dreich day on the Dingle PeninsulaA dreich day on the Dingle Peninsula

The most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary excludes a large number of words that are no longer considered to be relevant to today’s children – such words as acorn, bluebell, buttercup, conker, catkin, cygnet, dandelion, fern, ivy, kingfisher, mistletoe and pasture.  It says it all that a selection of the words that take their place include celebrity, broadband, chatroom, blog and voice-mail.

I find this depressing and worrying.  We name things that we think are important – the act of naming gives significance to a thing, says it’s worth paying attention to.  It seems to me that our current obsession with saving the planet and being eco-friendly means absolutely nothing if we’re not even interested in knowing the names of the things we say we want to save.

We’re all aware of that old classic that Eskimos have umpteen words for snow. If you click through the link to the article, you’ll see that this is slightly misleading, but it is true that language reflects distinctions that are important to us.  It’s not just the Inuits who make linguistic distinctions of natural features – every culture does or has done at some point.  A little bit of research into my own Scottish heritage threw up the fact that there are over 70 Gaelic words for hills and mountains – we have a lot of those in Scotland and it makes a difference whether it’s a small, flattish hill or a steep one with a ridge.

However, as we become more and more disconnected from the natural world, this area of language is rapidly falling into disuse.  Robert Macfarlane, in his new book ‘Landmarks‘, has catalogued as many of these words as he’s been able to discover.  There are some wonderful words here:

outshifts – the fringes and boundaries of a town (Cambridgeshire)

snow-bones – long thin patches of snow still lying after a thaw, often in dips or stream-cuts (Yorkshire)

muxy – sticky, miry, muddy ground (Exmoor)

smoored – smothered in snow (Scots)

grimlins – the night hours around midsummer when dusk blends into dawn (Orkney)

roarie-bummlers – fast-moving storm clouds (Scots)

Mud pattern 1Muxy – sticky, miry, muddy ground

I searched my memory for Scottish landscape words that I commonly heard used when growing up there.  Many of them are alternatives to already existing words – eg, glen (valley), loch (lake), burn (stream), gloaming (twilight), and bramble (blackberry) but there are some words that have no equivalent in ‘ordinary’ English and describe something quite specific:

lochan – a very small loch

dreich – wet, grey miserable, dull weather

corrie – a bowl-shaped hollow in a hillside

strath – a wide, flat glen

skerry – a small rocky island, too small for habitation

(My spell checker is going mad right now!)

The question is – if we lose these words, do we lose our awareness of what they describe?  We certainly lose a richness of vocabulary and that’s a sadness in itself, but does it affect us on a deeper level than this?  Is the loss of these words simply a reflection of our disconnection with nature (sobering enough), or does the loss of these words actually contribute to our disconnection with nature?  Or is it a bit of both?

The feminist movement has always believed that the language we use helps form our thoughts and attitudes.  They got a lot of flak for this, and often it was taken too far, but the point remains and has validity.  I’m not a linguist or a researcher, and I can’t answer these questions on anything other than a gut level, but I do find it very disturbing to think that dictionary compilers no longer think that children want or need words that identify a bluebell or an acorn.  That’s not a world I care to live in.  But now, over to you – what do you think?


Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks

Article by Robert Macfarlane, From Aquabob to Zawn, The Guardian, 28th February 2015