Language Making Tools: Some Notes on Affixation

Affixation is one of the most powerful tools for creating new words that we have available to us in the English language. In its simplest forms, affixation is a language-making process that even elementary school students can understand and in English there are only a few hundred commonly used prefixes and suffixes that are familiar and easily memorized. But the deep treasures of affixation lie hidden behind these common forms and that's where I get most excited.

There are, for instance, large numbers of old forgotten prefixes and suffixes that could be recovered and used again; and there are large numbers of prefixes and suffixes in the parent languages that shaped English that have never been brought into English and could be. And then there are hidden prefixes and suffixes that have become invisibly woven into our words and point to ways that we could create other new prefixes and suffixes.

Here are two examples that I've been researching today:

In English we have an odd set of words beginning with the prefix "with" (withdraw, withhold, withstand), and in this same model English once had another very large set of words (over 200!) that began with "to". But these words, and this way of making words, have been lost. Gone are words like TOCOMING 'an arrival' and TODASH 'to smash to pieces.' It may or may not make sense to bring back this word-making process, but it would be a shame if we didn't at least try playing with these forms and see if anything interesting takes shape. This is a TOCHALLENGE.

And, I just ran across an old note in my papers about the evolution of the past tense suffix "-ed" that I find deeply intriguing and I've been researching it all day trying to determine if this evolutionary lineage is valid or not. What I have written down is that "-ed" derives from the formerly independent Old English word DON 'do'--or more properly, that "-ed" comes from "-de" which itself derives from "dyde" (the past tense of DON). Thus, as a past tense suffix "-ed" is the equivalent of "did" and therefore HE LOVED is a modern abbreviated form of HE LOVE-DID (i.e. HE DID LOVE). This process that gives us a hidden suffix (-ed or -d) in words like SAID, HEARD, and PLAYED is magic in my mind, and makes me wonder how other new suffixes could be built on this same model.

These two examples take affixation beyond what we learned in elementary school and start pointing to some other ways that we might play with prefixes and suffixes. As I said many times in my book, we're not necessarily trying to create perfect forms of new words, we're just having fun playing with language and seeing what happens.

Translating Natural History

This week I am preparing materials for a new workshop that I'm excited to begin offering. The workshop is called "Translating Natural History for the Humanities" and my idea is to help people working in non-science fields use natural history observations and insights in whatever field they work in.

This is a new idea for me but over the winter I've found myself increasingly looking at patterns in nature and realizing that these patterns can inspire new ways of thinking. For instance, if we're watching an egret spear a fish out of the water we might use this as a model for "piercing the surface veil of reality and pulling subterranean ideas into the open." This idea of stabbing into the unconscious and pulling forth jewels could be a model for a dance piece, for a narrative thread in a play or story, or for an analysis of philosophical insights.

Obviously the pattern of an egret hunting for fish has nothing to do with dance, with a theater production, or with the history of philosophical ideas, but patterns lead us to metaphor-making, and metaphor-making is an extremely rich source of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us.

Likewise, if I look at photosynthesis I'm not just thinking about leaves and sunshine, I'm looking for deeper models. For example, if photosynthesis is the chemical equation of 6 carbon dioxide molecules combining with 6 water molecules to form one giant glucose molecule and 6 molecules of oxygen, then I might use this pattern 6+6=1+6 (equal+equal=large+equal) to inspire a pattern for a dance or poetic meter. And at the same time the very process of photosynthesis could be alternately viewed as a model of conversion, of pumping, of feeding, of flowing; or maybe we can view photosynthesis as an economy or as an organism.

I'm responding to my sense that people shy away from natural history because it seems like a rather stodgy pursuit focused on field guides, identifications, museums, and musty collections. Instead, I want artists, musicians, playwrights, writers, anthropologists, philosophers, and others to feel free to translate their observations of nature into unique insights. And the training is that we're not just observing physical "things" in the world but also processes, insights, and conceptual jumps that can make our imagination soar!

And the fun part is that new ways of looking at and translating patterns into concepts will need to be named...

The Power of Naming

Over the past six months I have had some fascinating conversations about Language Making Nature that offer a glimpse into the power and importance of naming. As a writer, I primarily think of word-making as a tool for writers but it turns out that naming is of value in many other fields as well.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was being contacted and interviewed by Timothy Beatley for a professional journal of urban planners. Tim suggested that urban planners would be hungry for a dictionary of new terms for urban planning and design, and this is especially true for an innovative project like the Biophilic Cities movement.

My good friend, the bestselling author Jordan Fisher Smith, who I didn’t know had a degree in planning until this conversation, agreed and suggested that a commonplace term like “park” could carry connotations of homeless encampments or nighttime drug use. Jordan explained that a planner with a vision for changing our sense of place might want to come up with a new ways of naming this urban space.

I later mentioned this idea of a dictionary of terms to several other people, including a food expert and a doctor, and each person immediately proposed writing a dictionary for their own field, leading me to wonder if every field of study is hungry for a dictionary or handbook that outlines ways to create new words for their field. For instance, Kathryn Lukas at Farmhouse Culture mentioned the need to describe tastes and smells with words that don’t exist yet.

I’ve also had conversations with design and marketing experts because it makes sense that they constantly need new words. One marketing director told me that her firm has to generate lists of words almost daily and they often run dry of ideas. I loved the recent article in the New York Times that described the techniques of naming expert Anthony Shore and how he generates lists of hundreds and hundreds of words to come up with a single new brand name.

But I got a sense of how far our need for naming goes in a conversation with my friend Nick Salafsky, who I worked with in Borneo and now runs an adaptive management company called Foundations for Success. Nick is working on a long-term project to create a taxonomic classification of conservation threats and actions so that all the conservation organizations in the world can use the same words to describe a diverse range of threats and he describes this project as a linguistic challenge because they’re trying to name conservation actions in new ways.

I’m sure that I’ll keep having more of these conversations and learn about other fields where people are hungry for new words. This seems to be a common theme so please drop me a line or post a comment if you can think of other fields where words might be needed.

Nature Observation and Journaling

     In an age where we are losing the art of the long observation it's refreshing to see hints of this deep old flame coming back to life. And one of the leading practitioners of this craft is the naturalist-artist John Muir Laws, whose most recent book The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling is a stunning compilation of nature observation and illustration techniques and insights.
     You might think that observing nature is simply a matter of looking around but there's more to this than meets the eye. As Jack says, "intentional curiosity" is a skill that must be nurtured and carefully cultivated. Long observation asks you to be curious and to embrace mystery; to slow down long enough to ask questions, look for patterns, and ponder possible explanations.
     I have had the honor of spending many hours in the field with Jack, teaching classes together and exploring natural landscapes while musing about the role of the naturalist. His infectious exuberance and sense of wonder is the perfect model. Every little detail leads to questions, which lead to more questions, until gradually we begin to see underlying patterns and the hints of possible explanations.
     Jack follows a three-part process of asking questions with every observation: I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of. Noticing means that you start by saying out loud every detail you can observe. Wondering means asking questions out loud. Reminding means that you weave in any kind of assocation that comes to mind without filtering or judging these connections. And at the same time Jack will probably be sketching the observation in his notebook and jotting down notes as this conversation unfolds.
     Several important things arise out of this process: One is the discovery of patterns and explanations that would otherwise be missed (why are all these ducks facing the same way on the water? who made all these holes in this leaf?). Another is that slowing down and taking a few minutes, or even a few seconds, to ask questions means that observations shift out of short-term memory and become embedded in long-term memory. Another is that observations begin to filter into a deeper kind of wisdom about the world around you. And finally, the entire process begins to change who you are as a person as you slow down and start paying attention to things.
     While the bulk of Jack's new book focuses on nature illustration techniques, his careful explanation of observation skills is worth the price of the book alone. And it may not be obvious at first, but these skills also lie at the core of word making. More than anything else, word making is about naming that which has not been spoken of before, and discovering these vital gaps requires looking at the world around you with compassion, care, and a capacity to see things that everyone else has missed.
     In writing my book Language Making Nature, I have been deeply inspired by Jack's sketchbook techniques, how he sketches quickly, constantly, and combines images and words to reflect the moment at hand. Jack isn't worrying about creating perfect art or perfect reflections, the focus is on fluid, fun, and fast. I'm no artist but spending time with Jack made me realize that "word making artists" could just as easily "sketch" with words and word fragments and new ways of putting words together in their own notebooks.

For more information on Jack's work and books visit his website ( where he also offers a wealth of other resources, including videos of his techniques and presentations.

Rewording the Anthropocene

I just read two articles about the Anthropocene and was intrigued to see how many new words the authors coined to express important ideas. By way of explanation the Anthropocene is the proposed name for the geologic epoch we now live in, an era in which humans have begun leaving a permanent imprint in the geologic record.

Even the name Anthropocene is a clever new word, and like all important new words it has done its work well, it has sparked a vibrant conversation about the extent of human impacts on Planet Earth. The scale of these human impacts are unprecedented and stretch the imagination to its limits and this is the terrain where new words can help us comprehend and speak about the incomprehensible.

One article by Robert Macfarlane adds new words like steig, apex-guilt, shadowtime, plasticene, ecosystemic, hyperobject, blaec, capitalocene, anthrobcene, anthropomeme, and stuplimity. And another article by Glenn Albrecht speaks of symbiocene, solastalgia, corruptalism, symbiomimicry, wood-wide-web, sumbiocracy, and sumbiophilia.

Not all these new words are elegant but they perfectly capture how important word-making skills become when we're exploring ideas at the limits of our knowledge, vocabulary, and imagination. Michelle Nijhuis echoed this same idea in her review of Language Making Nature a couple months ago. As we forge into the unknown we need to keep pushing language in new directions, we need to keep speaking of what's in front of us and not worry if some of the words look silly and fall by the wayside.

Creating a Word-making Sketchbook

Language Making Nature is a toolkit, much like a set of paints is for an artist, and like all tools it takes a lot of work to master to master these tools. No one should expect to sit down and start creating beautiful and useful words, nor would you give a set of paints to a beginning artist and expect them to paint a masterpiece.

I have to admit that before I wrote this book I didn't see any reason to experiment with words, but after researching and writing this book I've come to realize that playing and experimenting with pieces of words is the word-generating energy behind language. Language is vibrant and expressive to the extent that people play with new possibilities and make lots of mistakes.

My hope is that people will use Language Making Nature as inspiration for playing with pieces of words to create new ways of thinking about language. And the best way to experiment and play is to carry a small notebook, like an artist's sketchbook, as you practice and respond to the world around you. A sketchbook is a place where you practice in private, where you have no fear of being judged or of seeming silly. A sketchbook is not a place where you create great "art," it's a place for little sketches, for fragments of ideas, for doodling idly.

In my own notebooks I make lists of nonsensical word elements, I try describing colors and textures with new approaches, I assemble fragments into meaningless sequences--all with the intent of just feeling loose and playful with language so these skills because fluid and easy-going means of expression that might eventually work their way into my thinking and writing.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of things I put in my notebooks:

                                                    se for she/he; sie, s-e

                                                    - el - on   the land

                                                    - on - on   the slope

                                                   - on - el   the peak

                                                   ta-bi-bi bird

                                                   treil (trill) conifer trees, treow (trow) deciduous trees

                                                   salmon, samlon-li, samlon-lingering

                                                   I as other, cl - utter - ose

                                                   river, rive-cutting, riven-rusher

                                                   en-him, en-you, en-me

It is only by making thousands of these little word "sketches" that the first inklings of new ideas and new words can begin to arise. The gems that might linger and change culture will arise unexpectedly and unlooked for out of the many experiments you capture in your notebooks, so practice and practice and find as many ways as you can to be silly and creative. Have a ton of fun,, because the goal is not to create "great words," it's to learn how to play with language and see your world with greater clarity and care.




Language Making in Action

I was planning to have my first blog posting provide more background on the book. But over the past week I've been posting a "Nature word of the day" on my Facebook page and today there was an event that was such a perfect example of language making at work that I have to share it instead.

Today's nature word was ASTRIFUGUS, a Medieval Latin word meaning "putting the stars to flight." Now, I love this definition but I don't have a clue what it means so I asked people on Facebook what they thought.

I was seeing the word as meaning that something was acting on the stars so I thought the word might refer to sunrise and the way the rising sun puts stars "to flight." And the first person to respond to my post thought the same thing. Then another person pointed out that "astrifugal phenomena" refers to comets and shooting stars, which flipped the idea around because now it seemed like the stars were the ones doing the acting (taking "flight"). Then someone else looked up a formal dictionary definition ("the star expelling") and contributed that.

So those were all perfect responses to a question about a word's meaning, but then things got really interesting because we were all thinking about this word's meaning and getting more curious. We had a suggestion that "astrifugus" might remind us of fireworks or sparks from a fire. Someone else riffed on the idea that a flight of starlings (the birds) could be an astrifugal phenomena. And someone else suggested that the idea reminded them of blowing on a dandelion seed head, which led us of the word "aster" (the flower) and then to the idea that dandelions and asters might be given the new name "astrifuges" or even "asterfuges."

So here, in a few hours, a community of people spontaneously riffing together went from an obscure medieval word through a series of increasingly poetic associations to a potential new word for a common flower. This might have been nothing more than a playful experiment at word-making, or it might have created a word that a handful of people start using and then more people start using.

THIS IS LANGUAGE MAKING AT WORK!!! This is where it gets exciting and playful and fun; and where writers, artists, and thinkers will get great new material--which is exactly why I wrote this book!!!

Welcome and Introduction!

I am excited to welcome you to the world of language making!

"Language making" will probably be a new concept for many readers, so this blog is a place where we can explore this idea together. I will examine aspects of language making and look at the history of how language making processes have shaped the English language.  I look forward to presenting a wide range of topics in this blog, and in conversations with folks who begin using my book Language Making Nature as a tool. The book is filled with many examples of language making processes at work, but I want to keep finding more examples and posting them here where they can be viewed and discussed by a larger audience. I will also explore other ideas about language, as well as posting reviews of books and updates from the world of language making.

Follow along and see where the conversation goes!

(P.S. I tried setting up an RSS feed so you can get blog postings straight into your inbox. Please let me know if that works or not.)