In a column titled ‘NatureSpeak’, it feels apt to consider the impact of how some fifteen years ago the Oxford Junior Dictionary began to strip itself of ‘nature words,’ replacing them, instead, with technological terms and those deemed more socially-relevant. Celebrity, blog, broadband, vandalism and conflict took the place of raven, heron, fern, fungus, dandelion and heather. Today, English-speaking children are being – either knowingly or unknowingly – raised in a culture where the ‘authority’ on the English language has denied and robbed them of a form of ecological knowledge. With almost repentant irony, one of the words added to the dictionary was ‘endangered’.
The loss – and addition – of words for things can alter our perceptions of the world around us. Words retained and those demoted, reflect shifting values. What is foregrounded when words such as otter and oyster, pasture and porcupine, lavender and lark, beaver and blackberry are replaced with cautionary tale and voicemail; compulsory and cope; block graph, bullet point and cut and paste? Almost sardonically, what the dictionary did paste into the emptiness left from what it cut out, was ‘interdependent.’
Poring over The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane – an ode to the victims of these linguistic deletions – I have asked youth: Can the ‘simple’ loss of a name for an animal or plant facilitate its erasure, as we eliminate it from our general awareness?
Consideration of word loss necessarily confronts us with the fact that English naming has been – and continues to be – problematic in unceded Territories where English was settler-imposed. In Canada, English is a colonial language – where forced re-namings of people and places; flora, fauna and geographic features have acted as proprietary and dominating acts. English words have imposed erasure. Locally, both the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations have active language revitalization programs in response to both languages being endangered.
English words have also served to articulate reverence and respect and appreciations for beauty, learnings and longings. They have helped facilitate reparations – this same language helping negotiate varied relationships to our interdependent situatedness and engagements with reconciliation. It’s complicated and complex terrain, yet as a poet and writer of predominantly settler-descent who has the privilege of living and working on the shared Territories of the Lil’wat and Squamish Peoples, I humbly place myself here – in this place of constructive, linguistic possibilities; of engaged hope. On the one hand I bemoan the removal of raven from the Oxford English Dictionary for young people, while at the same time I recognize my own gaps in local language knowledge. Wanting to know the word for raven in Ucwalmícwts, the Language of the Lil’wat People and in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim, the Language of the Squamish People, I turned to the local dictionaries and online language resources. In Ucwalmícwts, I found clao7, cweláo7 and Yecwléao7 and in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim, I learned the word skewk’.
Dictionaries – whether hardcopy or web-based – are vital repositories of knowledge and meaning that serve as living tools – active resources – that ideally reflect our multi-dimensional, arguably technologically and ecologically interdependent, world. Languages change, words are not static … but in the spaces revealed by these shifts, we can bring new awarenesses, ask questions, revisit priorities. I view this terrain as an invitation for languaging and wording wonder. An invitation to listen more deeply, to hear more widely; to read and write between the lines; breathing life back into the many languages this land holds, the many words this area whispers…
Written by: Bronwyn Preece
Bronwyn Preece, PhD is the author of the forthcoming ‘Sea to Sky Alphabet (Simply Read Books) – being released in June. Bronwyn worked with both the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations to incorporate words from both languages into the book. She facilitates weekly online ’Writing Wildly’ workshops and will be facilitating an in-person writing event at Art Pop in Creekside, on the evening of April 27, 2023. For more information please email email@example.com.