Outcry as dictionary ditches nature for tech

The new ABC: Is the drab language of technology deleting the language of the natural world?

The Oxford Junior Dictionary is dropping earthy words like 'heather' and 'acorn' for more technical vocabulary like ‘analogue' and 'cut and paste’. Are we losing touch with nature?

‘From its perch on a willow branch, the lark could spy oxen in the pasture, a stoat in the heather and the heron patiently scanning the brook for minnows.’

For generations, the Oxford Junior Dictionary included every noun in this sentence among its compilation of 10,000 essential words for seven-year-olds. But that is about to change. The dictionary’s publishers are cutting 50 more nature-associated words from the list and replacing them with words from the world of technology. Words like acorn, herring, kingfisher and leopard will have to step aside to make way for cut and paste, broadband and analogue.

The decision has caused dismay from many lovers of language. A 28-strong group of authors including novelist Margaret Atwood and poet Andrew Motion have said in a letter that they are ‘profoundly alarmed’ that the language of nature is losing out to words ‘associated with the increasingly interior, solitary childhoods of today’. They argue that if children lose their connection with the natural world, this could deeply harm their well-being.

Many psychologists believe that green environments can boost our mental health. But children are increasingly shying away from them. A National Trust survey found that only 10% of today’s children ever play in wild places, and 40% never play outdoors at all. Another study found that three times as many children visit hospital after falling out of bed than do from falling from trees.

Linguists also say that our access to language shapes the way we see the world. For example, the Amazonian Pirahã tribe has no words for numbers, so it would not count four or eighteen people, but only many. Speakers of languages that have gendered nouns like French or Spanish have been found to see the world in contrasting ways.

If children lose the language to talk about wildlife, they may lose their capacity to appreciate the natural world.

Natural selection

Dictionaries should teach us how to make sense of the world, some say. By cutting words about nature, the Oxford Junior Dictionary is narrowing children’s imaginative horizons. Not only does nature bring us happiness: we are are part of it. Breaking our linguistic link with nature will deny us a vital part of what it is to be human.

Yet the dictionary’s compilers reply that their aim is to reflect language as it is used, not enforce it. Language itself evolves like a creature, and adapts to our needs. We have little need to distinguish starlings from wrens, but the language of technology affects us every day. Rather than decrying the loss of redundant words, we should celebrate how new concepts like downloading and crowd-sourcing are reinventing and enriching self-expression.

You Decide

  1. Will young people be any worse off for not knowing the language of nature?
  2. ‘Dictionaries should describe language as people use it, not tell people what words they should be using’. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. In groups, list as many as you can of new words associated with computers and the internet that would not have existed 30 years ago. Have they changed the way we think about the world?
  2. Write a story about a person who finds him or her -self in a wild place but does not know any words for natural life, like plants and animals. Try to imagine how he or she would make sense of nature.

Some People Say...

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would I need to know language to do with nature?
Being able to identify different trees and animals can help us to appreciate the diversity of life on our planet. Psychologists think that natural environments improve our happiness and well-being, but with 54% of Earth’s population now living in urban environments, it is more important than ever that we do not lose our connection with nature.
Is natural language more important than technological language?
No, both are vital for helping us to think about the world. Countless writers and poets like Wordsworth have used the natural world to talk about societal problems, but countless others, such as Thomas Hardy, have also used mechanical descriptions to describe the natural world. Both provide different and interesting ways to view life.

Word Watch

Margaret Atwood
The Canadian writer is best known for her novel The Handmaids Tale, which explores the subjugation of women in a dystopian vision of the future.
Andrew Motion
The English poet held the prestigious position of national poet laureate from 1999 to 2009. He is the president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England group.
Survey
This is in contrast to older Britons, 40% of whom played in wild places when they were young.
Pirahã
This hunter-gatherer tribe record no history beyond living memory. They can communicate their language through whistling, which is useful for hunting. Tribe members rarely sleep through the night, and instead sleep for two hour periods throughout the day.
Gendered
In both languages, certain words are given a grammatical gender. In Spanish, ‘fork’ is masculine, ‘el tenedor’, while in French it is feminine, ‘la fourchette’. Researchers asked speakers of both languages to decide what voice an animated fork should have. French speakers said it should be feminine, whereas Spaniards said it should be male and gravelly.

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