Consider The Clinkerbell, The Daggler, and The Shuckle
February 27, 2015 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Robert Macfarlane says we are losing the best descriptive words for our landscape. This matters, he says, "because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. To quote the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry – a man who in my experience speaks the crash-tested truth – “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.”"
posted by purplesludge (23 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
from 1919
posted by The Whelk at 8:18 AM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


His book, The Old Ways, is excellent, too.
posted by ikahime at 8:53 AM on February 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Kimmeridge-The light wind that blows through your armpit hair when sunbathing-Yo!

This took me out of this room and right to body memory!
posted by Oyéah at 8:55 AM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Fantastic. Thank you for this post.

I must immediately find someone to share it with.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:58 AM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh what utter tosh. Oxford choosing to prioritize words kids are likely to want to look up in a compact dictionary for children is just about the thinnest excuse for evidence of words disappearing from the language that you can imagine.

And the rest of the argument is some "Eskimo have 99 words for snow"-level bullshit.
posted by yoink at 9:16 AM on February 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


I rolled my eyes a bit at the 'everything is virtual now', but it doesn't destroy his larger argument. The words we use affect how we see the world, and having specific local words for phenomena found in those places gives a sense of belonging, of being a part of the landscape, not just happening to live in it.

Part and parcel with the disappearing landscape; losing dialect words is maybe not the tragedy of the ages, but it is a loss, and I'm glad to see that MacFarlane and others are at least trying to records the words, even if no one is using them anymore.

(I read The Old Ways and The Wild Places and theychanged how I read landscapes now, and immeasurably increased my love of British land.)
posted by kalimac at 9:33 AM on February 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.
posted by belarius at 9:38 AM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception.

I would buy that book in a heartbeat! I love those kinds of terms, they really do help a person develop a sense of place and appreciate the ecosystems around them. It's difficult to notice and understand all the fine differences between places if you have no vocabulary for those differences; what was previously just one big undifferentiated "forest" can become a lovely patchwork of interconnected different forested ecosystems, each of which has its own character if you know what to look for. Knowing these sorts of words and their definitions helps us know what to look for, and allows us to share those fine differences with others.

Loved this piece, thanks very much for posting.
posted by dialetheia at 9:41 AM on February 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


I for one dearly miss rambling through the hollers pelting my siblings with pignuts and trying to catch crawdads while the cottonmouths hid from all the splashing in their normally tranquil crick.
posted by congen at 9:53 AM on February 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


But you have to watch out for the jaggers and the stickums down in the jingweeds.
posted by tommyD at 9:57 AM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


A lady lecturing on the Irish language drew attention to the fact (I mentioned it myself as long ago as 1925) that while the average English speaker gets along with a mere 400 words, the Irish-speaking peasant uses 4,000. Considering what most English speakers can achieve with their tiny fund of noises, it is a nice speculation to what extremity one would be reduced if one were locked up for a day with an Irish-speaking bore and bereft of all means of committing murder or suicide.

My point, however, is this. The 400/4,000 ratio is fallacious; 400/400,000 would be more like it.

... [For example]

Your paltry English speaker apprehends sea-going craft through the infantile cognition which merely distinguishes the small from the big. If it's small, it's a boat, and if it's large, it's a ship. In his great book, An tOileánach, however, the uneducated Tomás Ó Criomhthain uses perhaps a dozen words to convey the concept of varying super-marinity -- áthrach long, soitheach, bád, namohóg, bád raice, galbhád, púcán and whatever your having yourself.

The plight of the English speaker with his wretched box of 400 vocal beads may be imagined when I say that a really good Irish speaker would blurt out the whole 400 in one cosmic grunt. In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time. Their life (not to say their language) becomes very complex at the century mark; but there you are.


The Best of Myles, Flann O'Brien, Dalkey Archive Press, 1999, pp. 278-279.
posted by maxsparber at 11:05 AM on February 27, 2015 [16 favorites]


Wendell Berry is an excellent author, a wise man and the greatest obstacle to MeFi's Own Wendell ever getting the #1 Google search result for "Wendell". Couldn't have lost to a better man. (And when Wendell [The Wire's Bunk] Pierce passed me I knew it was time to lose the web-alias.)

Anyway, the man really knows his shuckles.

And if it's true that "the average English speaker gets along with a mere 400 words", I blame Dr. Seuss and his Green Eggs and Ham.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:08 AM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


And if it's true that "the average English speaker gets along with a mere 400 words",

I think it's about 10,000-20,000, but it depends a lot on level of education and how you define "words." It also varies hugely if you mean "can actively produce" or "can recognize and understand."
posted by yoink at 11:28 AM on February 27, 2015


For context on Flann O'Brien.
posted by maxsparber at 11:35 AM on February 27, 2015


Oh what utter tosh. Oxford choosing to prioritize words kids are likely to want to look up in a compact dictionary for children is just about the thinnest excuse for evidence of words disappearing from the language that you can imagine.

Yes and no. Abridgers gonna abridge, but, like, compare the removed words to the added ones:
The same summer I was on Lewis, 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 taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.
A few of those removed words (dandelion, mistletoe, hazel, cygnet) are tricky for kids to spell, and certainly likely to come up. Two of the added "words" (MP3 player, cut-and-paste) pretty much have no reason to be in any dictionary let alone a heavily abridged one, and a lot of those hyphenations seem mightily dubious. (I'm no lexicographer, but surely block graph, voicemail, and bullet point are the preferred forms?)
posted by Sys Rq at 11:43 AM on February 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


It's also the case that total vocabulary size doesn't vary all that much across cultures/languages (holding such things as education level etc. constant). Which also means that the Romantic notion that we're "losing" an ability to richly describe our worlds which we once had back in the day are a great steaming pile of bollocks. We need the words we use to negotiate the worlds we live in. We have to know all the computer and internet words that this author finds so lacking in Romantic appeal because those worlds are a large part of the environments we have to navigate.

And in a hundred years someone will be writing an article about how tragic it is that no one uses a whole bunch of words from the early internet age anymore ("Does anyone even know what a 'cellphone' is any more? A single tear stole down my cheek as the thought struck me that the old man before me might be the last person alive to fully understand how to create a doge image macro.")
posted by yoink at 11:50 AM on February 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


And in a hundred years someone will be writing an article about how tragic it is that no one uses a whole bunch of words from the early internet age anymore

Does anyone still say "chatroom"? Seriously asking.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:55 AM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


wait this article isn't about pokemon
posted by murphy slaw at 11:58 AM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


And in a hundred years someone will be writing an article about how tragic it is that no one uses a whole bunch of words from the early internet age anymore ("Does anyone even know what a 'cellphone' is any more?

No, this argument fails because 'cellphones' or 'chat rooms' may cease to exist in the future as we imagine them now, but 'creeks' and 'acorns' and 'dandelions' will likely still persist on the landscape (at least I sure hope so). It's not like the real-world referents for these terms have totally disappeared just because most of us live in cities now.
posted by dialetheia at 12:04 PM on February 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


kalimac: "The words we use affect how we see the world, and having specific local words for phenomena found in those places gives a sense of belonging, of being a part of the landscape, not just happening to live in it."

Linguistic Relativity is not as strong as you describe.
posted by rhizome at 12:34 PM on February 27, 2015


I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head...

But seriously I'm calling Wildlife resources about putting white quartz rocks in streams to guide salmon, what a thing!
posted by Oyéah at 12:54 PM on February 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Two of the added "words" (MP3 player, cut-and-paste) pretty much have no reason to be in any dictionary let alone a heavily abridged one,

Not that I disagree that MP3 player seems like a weird choice for a small abridged dictionary, but...what's wrong with having them in a dictionary to explain their pragmatics and origin? For instance, the OED notes that the term was first applied to software for desktop computers, not portable devices (appearing for the former in 1996 and the latter in 2000), as well as noting its common use for devices and software that play other formats.

And in any case, spelling isn't the be-all-end-all of a dictionary; in fact a dictionary is a pretty poor choice to look up spellings in; however, if the primary way you're using a dictionary is to ensure you understand the definition and connotation of words, then most of the ones added strike me as perfectly useful.

and a lot of those hyphenations seem mightily dubious. (I'm no lexicographer, but surely block graph, voicemail, and bullet point are the preferred forms?)

The OED gives "voicemail" and "bullet point", and lacks an entry for anything like "block graph", so that does strike me as an odd choice.
posted by thegears at 1:10 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

This reminds me of some of what Suzette Haden Elgin used to write about. From her novel Native Tongue:
Then consider this, please: to make something "appear" is called magic, is it not? Well… when you look at another person, what do you see? Two arms, two legs, one face, an assortment of parts. Am I right? Now, there is a continuous surface of the body, a space that begins with the inside surface of the fingers and continues over the palm of the hand and up the inner side of the arm to the bend of the elbow. Everyone has that surface; in fact, everyone has two of them.

I will name that the "athad" of the person. Imagine the athad, please. See it clearly in your mind—perceive, here are my own two athads, the left one and the right one. And there are both of your athads, very nice ones.

Where there was no athad before, there will be one now, because you will perceive the athad of every person you look at, as you perceive their nose and their hair. From now on. And I have made that athad appear… now it exists.

Magic, you perceive, is not something mysterious, not something for witches and sorcerers… magic is quite ordinary and simple. It is simply language.

And I look at you now, and I can say, as I could not say three minutes ago—"What lovely athads you have, grandmother!"
posted by Lexica at 5:03 PM on February 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


« Older Back to the Future 2 is real   |   Music For Cats Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments