Language Making Nature

2,396 total words    

10 minutes of reading

Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline.

—Noah Webster, 1789

The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and the transfer of old words to new objects.

—Thomas Jefferson, August 16, 1813

Judicious neology can alone give strength and copiousness to language, and enable it to be the vehicle of new ideas.

—Thomas Jefferson, January 27, 1821

My book, Language Making Nature, is an odd thing; it is a naturalist’s walk through the language-making landscape of the English language, and following in the naturalist’s tradition it combines observation, experimentation, speculation, and documentation—activities we don’t normally associate with the words we use.

As a young budding naturalist I remember not only observing the world, but being in the world: moving pieces around, altering the flow of things, and testing how the world responded to me. I’ve approached language in the same way, not as an academic but as a curious child who is still building little mud dams in creeks and chasing after frogs.

So my book is about testing, experimenting, and playing with language. It is a handbook of tools and techniques for taking words apart and putting them back together again in ways that are meaningful and legitimate (and sometimes illegitimate). It is about peeling back layers in search of the language-making energy of the human spirit. It is about gaps in meaning that we need to start noticing and naming—the places where our dreams and ideals are no longer being fulfilled by our fast-paced, hyper-commercialized lives.

Language is a playful, ever-shifting creation, but we have been taught, and most of us continue to believe, that language must obediently follow precisely prescribed rules that govern clear sentence structures, specific word orders, correct spellings, and proper pronunciations. If you make a mistake or step out of bounds there are countless, self-appointed language experts who will promptly push you back into safe terrain and scold you for your errors. And in case you need reminding, there are hundreds of dictionaries and grammar books to ensure that you remember the “right” way to use the English language.

With this backdrop and training in mind it might come as a bit of a shock to discover that this “ideology of language,” with its preening emphasis on “correctness, authority, prestige, and legitimacy,” represents only one small blip in the long and rich history of the English language. And, for better or worse, we live in a moment in history when a tightly controlled language, economy, and political system work together to create a culture of lies that best serves a powerful elite, allowing them to continue funneling power and money (i.e., influence) to themselves at great cost to human communities and natural ecosystems.

In its heart and soul, language can also be a revolutionary force and it can be used to call forth lies, but you cannot have a revolution if you use the language of the conquerors. So one goal of this book is to awaken language and explore the capacity that all of us possess to be alive in our language. Being awake and being alive is in itself a revolutionary act—and this is something that Noah Webster, Thomas Jefferson, and many other important early American thinkers were keenly aware of.

In our busy modern lives we have largely forgotten that language is meant to be inventive and playful, that hidden beneath the veneer of modernity the English language is potent with ancient magic-making power. Throughout this book I will refer repeatedly to “play,” but I’m not speaking about play as something trivial, I’m speaking of play as something profoundly creative and freeing. And underneath everything, this playful exploration of language is about dissent, about rising up and crying out in support of that which is alive and vital. It is about imagination, about truth-telling and contemplation; it is an undertaking that is fierce, creative, and honest.

My own journey toward language was sparked in 1996 when I read Keith Basso’s astonishing book Wisdom Sits in Places. Writing about the unique place-making language of the Western Apache, Basso described language in a way that I’d never considered before, as roots and fragments strung together to sing of the land. This idea intrigued me so much that I began carrying Donald Borror’s classic booklet, the Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms, with me on all my hikes (a practice which I’ve continued on a daily basis for twenty years and on thousands of miles of trails) in order to learn the meaning and origin of word elements at the moment they occurred to me while walking in wild landscapes.

For many years this seemed little more than a quirky hobby, with no real intent or direction, but then a friend introduced me to Calvert Watkins’s magisterial survey of Indo-European poetics, How to Kill a Dragon. In a flash I suddenly realized that there might be untapped ways for the English language to speak of the magic of the land and the depths of the human spirit, and I began a four-year quest to read every book I could find on the history, formation, and word-making processes of the English language.

I explored some of the many pieces and processes that have gone into shaping the English language as we use it today, and as I researched this material I carried these ideas with me on long hikes in wild places and held them up against the natural world to see which ideas resonated and which ideas took on a life of their own. My writing emerged from, and reflects, these hikes; and because I also lead walks as a naturalist in my professional life this book is modeled on the metaphysic that I know best—the flow of ideas and observations that arise spontaneously when humans encounter the natural world with curiosity and wonder. It feels artificial to offer a table of contents or an index for a journey like this, so I trust and hope that you will discover something new and unexpected each time you step into this book (just as you would on a nature walk).

 My book is full of what many people will find to be strange and complex ideas, so wherever possible I have tried to offer examples of each creative process at work. Some of my examples are downright silly, even to me, and I apologize for that. But it’s the spirit of any creative process to get the ball rolling by brainstorming and throwing out ideas without worrying about judgment, and I felt that that playful openness and willingness to take chances was more important than self-consciously editing my own examples (as if I knew what the ideal models should look like).

Language experts and linguists might take exception to a few of my descriptions and conclusions, and some of their complaints may be valid, but keep in mind that this book is not about technically perfect processes or perfectly-formed words, this book is about the wild, creative energy that generates language. Ultimately, this language-making energy is democratic and freely available to all of us no matter what the experts tell you.

 At multiple points I invite you to experiment with language and not worry about making mistakes because “culture” will always come along to prune your contributions. What I mean by this is that if you make up intriguing new words, and if you use them in the telling of a meaningful story, then your culture might adopt your words and mold them into shapes that will endure over time even if your initial contributions were awkwardly formed or silly looking at first.

If this doesn’t make sense, consider a word like ravisshe, which Chaucer invented in 1374 in the sense “to seize” (from the old French word ravir). Chaucer’s word almost certainly looked ridiculous and out of place when he first introduced it, but in its subsequently pruned form, ravish, it has endured for over six hundred years—and that’s exactly what might happen to your words so you can trust this process.

My hope is that my book helps you, or inspires you, to create new words that are sensuous and meaningful in their contours, words that work to express your own deeply felt experiences in the world. The challenge—your challenge—is to open up language and experiment fearlessly because other people will come along after you to close language back up again.

This concept of opening up language will be unfamiliar to most people so it might help to realize that the cycle of opening and closing lies at the very heart of this dynamic, flexible language we call English. Over and over again revolutions and seismic shifts have come along to break down rigid conventions and open up language, then prescriptivists have stepped in with rules that re-establish order and close things back up again. Think of Chaucer, who is said to have added 1,100 new words to the English language while “inventing” English poetry; think of Shakespeare and his astoundingly influential body of work; or think of Lewis and Clark, who added over 1,000 words to the English language while attempting to describe a continent that no European had written about before.

Each of these writers, and many others beside them, came along at a moment when nothing was cut and dry, when nothing was worn out. These are the moments when language shines, when it has the freedom to express new values and new ideals; then things close up again, and anyone who steps out of line will be corrected and edited—both literally and figuratively.

I look around at my culture, at the ways that people treat each other and at the ways that people treat the land, and feel that we live in one of those moments when language is closed and guarded by gatekeepers. I read Thoreau’s Walden and see that the language we use to speak of the natural world, and of our relationship to the natural world, has changed very little in 150 years (if not declined). And if the language we use to speak of the natural world is not innovative and engaging is it any wonder that few young people get excited about nature?

I feel that the time has come for language to shine again, to bloom like a flower and lead the way by speaking confidently of the future we want. But this will only happen when we create new words that can serve as vessels for new ideas and new dreams. Long-stable systems and stale old conventions are already breaking down before our eyes, and in the midst of this teetering balance we have an opportunity to rebuild our culture and our relationship with the natural world through language.

 It’s clear that experimenting with and reshaping an entire language would lead to chaos, and that’s not the intent of this book, but it would be okay if experimentation was limited to one field of language. I propose that our language of nature is the perfect place for us to experiment and create new words. It’s the one domain where language should be wild and trailless and prickly anyway, so why can’t it lead the way?

But isn’t it a mistake to make words harder to understand and use? Don’t we want to make it easier to read about the natural world so that people feel welcome, rather than making the path more complicated? Paradoxically, psychologists have discovered that people are much better learners when words are hard to understand because it creates what psychologists called desirable difficulties. In fact, our brains are wired to grapple with difficulties, and it turns out that we almost instantly forget or dismiss things that are easily understood. Studies have found, for instance, that students remember more and have better learning comprehension when they are given materials that are written in ugly or difficult-to-read lettering because these “desirable difficulties” lead to productive frustration. Frustration sounds like a bad thing, but it slows us down, increases our engagement, awakens our curiosity, and creates mysteries that our brains love to solve. Doesn’t it make sense then that strange, oddly formed, or broken words—all described in this book—would have the same effect?

From my study of the long trajectory of the English language I believe that it is absolutely vital that we keep shapeshifting our words. Once locked in place, everything contained within the vessel of a word (its spelling, meaning, connotation, sound, etc.) becomes mundane and familiar. A word soon loses its magic-making power, as well as its connection to something vibrant and alive “out there” in the world—and this process can only diminish our deep bond with the natural world as it speaks to us through words. It is essential for our survival that we continue to create innovative new words that require and reward our attention, and that we engage in this process so we stay awake and alive.

Purists will argue that new words need to follow well-established rules. And yes, it’s true that you can study and familiarize yourself with these rules; but in all human endeavors there are people who follow rules and those who ignore or break them. So it’s up to you which path you want to take, and neither choice is right or wrong. Someone who doesn’t follow rules may not be technically perfect in their work, but is more likely to make unexpected contributions or leaps of the imagination; while someone who follows rules contributes rigor and consistency, and has a better chance of being accepted.

Either way, the intent of this language-making task should always be towards the refinement of language for the sake of an entire community, rather than on an individual showing off and confusing readers with odd or overly-elaborated words. Strive for simplicity, clarity, and beauty in the sound and shape of each word you create, and remember that little of this book will be meaningful unless these language-making processes and new words are used in the telling of great stories. This is the task of our time.

This article is excerpted from the first chapter of Language Making Nature, which was published by Lukas Guides in 2015, available at 

  • David Lukas

    David Lukas is the author of six books. He has written a weekly column in the Los Angeles Times and a monthly column in Sunset magazine, and he has taught at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers for more than twenty years.

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