“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
I remember as a child, and as a young budding naturalist, spending all my time observing and testing the world around me—moving pieces, altering the flow of things, and documenting ways the world responded to me. Now, as an adult and a professional naturalist, I’ve approached language in the same way, not from an academic point of view but as a curious child still building little mud dams in creeks and chasing after frogs. So this book 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 language.
This 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 I hope are meaningful and legitimate (or even illegitimate). This book is about peeling back layers in search of the language-making energy of the human spirit. It is about the gaps in meaning that we urgently need to notice and name—the places where our dreams and ideals are no longer fulfilled by a society that has become fast-paced and hyper-commercialized.
Language is meant to be 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 English.
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—something which 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. This book 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 discovered 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 little book, 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 nearly 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 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, so 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.
What you hold here is the result of my investigation: 76 sections that explore some of the many pieces and processes that have gone into shaping the English language as we use it today. As I researched and wrote each section of this book 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. This book emerges 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 world with curiosity and wonder. It feels artificial to offer a table of contents or an index for a journey like this so this book might seem a little confusing at first, but I trust and hope that this apparent lack of structure invites you to discover something new and unexpected each time you step into the book (just as you would experience on a nature walk).
This book is full of ideas that many people will find strange and complex, so wherever possible I offer examples of each creative process at work. Some of my examples look downright silly, even to me, and I apologize for that. But it’s the spirit of the creative process to get the ball rolling by brainstorming and expressing ideas without passing 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 in this book 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 meaningful stories, then your culture might adopt your words and mold them into shapes that will endure over time even if your initial contributions seem 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 600 years—and that’s exactly what might happen to your words, so you can trust this process.
My hope is that this 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 always 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 1100 new words to the English language while “inventing” English poetry; consider Shakespeare and his astoundingly influential body of work; or look at Lewis and Clark, who added 1500 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 sparkles, when it has the freedom to express new values and new ideals. But these moments of freedom are also deeply unsettling for many people so things eventually get closed 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 I feel that we live in one of those times when language is closed and guarded by gatekeepers. I read Thoreau’s Walden and realize that the language we use to speak of the natural world, and of our relationship with the natural world, has changed very little in 150 years. And if the language we use to speak of the natural world is not innovative and engaging then 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 as we begin to speak confidently about the future we want. But this can only happen when we create new words that will 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 amazing 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 we started by experimenting with one field of language. I propose that our language of nature is the perfect place to begin. 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 still 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. Someone who follows the rules contributes rigor and consistency, but the rulebreaker is more likely to make unexpected contributions and leaps of the imagination. It will be up to you which path you want to take, and neither choice is right or wrong.
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.
“While she herself, as grain, brings up mankind on what is dry.”
--Erupides, The Bacchae
Let us serve the Muses while the meadows are still untouched.
--modified from Choerilus, 5th century B.C. poet
VOICES AND GODS
Imagine you are casually walking in the woods one day and you suddenly become conscious of your thoughts. What is the first thing you notice? Most likely, you become aware of “voices” in your head.
To the ancient Greeks these voices were the voices of the gods speaking to humans, and to pre-literate cultures for which we have no records these could have been the voices of nature itself.
So, what if those voices were the spirits of the natural world speaking to you, instead of (or in addition to) being your own private thoughts? What would it be like to begin naming the voices you hear in your head and giving them the personalities of plants, animals, and places that are welcoming and including you in their world?
If this sounds a bit crazy, keep in mind that this kind of awareness was a vital component of ancient Greek literature, poetry, and mythology which is the foundation of our modern culture. Maybe it’s not so crazy after all; maybe it’s one way that culture can be created.
Laurens Van der Post writing about Bushmen of the Kalahari:
“wherever they went, they felt they were known”
I began thinking about the dimensionality of words after reading a haunting passage in David Abram’s book Becoming Animal, in which he describes watching Tibetan monks stamping carved wood-block prayers onto the surface of a flowing river so that the ephemeral imprints of their prayers could be carried to the ocean. This image has continued to resonate for me: the idea that flowing water could activate and lift the meaning of words from their printed representations as readily as the human mind “lifts” words from the page when we read a book.
We usually think of words as flat and passive two-dimensional symbols on a printed page, while missing the fact that printed words are a relatively modern development that radically alters our sense of what is real and important. Abram rightly cautions that we have become so accustomed to staring at flat representations (billboards, televisions, computer screens, printed pages) that we have become thoroughly trained to look at the surface of, rather than into the depths of, the living world around us.
There is a legendary story about the famous Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz asking a prospective student to describe a fish. Agassiz placed the dead fish in front of the student and left the room with the command that the student should jot down everything he could about the fish. After ten minutes the student had a list of features that described the fish, perhaps something along the lines of “it is a scaly, laterally compressed, aquatic animal”. But the professor was nowhere to be found so the bored student was forced to sit with the fish for several more hours until Agassiz finally returned and asked the student what he had observed. The student reported what he had learned about the fish but Agassiz told him his observations were not good enough and that the student needed to look at the fish again. After three exhausting days of staring at the fish, Agassiz was finally satisfied that the student had learned how to see the “fish” within the fish; then promptly gave the student a new fish to observe, and then another, and another for eight months straight.
Abram offers another telling example of our tendency to focus on the flat representation of a thing while entirely missing its depth. He points out that we think of shadows as flattened outlines on the ground while overlooking the obvious truth that shadows occupy three-dimensional space. In fact, all you have to do is extend your hand into a projected shadow to verify that it occupies space and that the outline on the ground is merely the barest portion of the shadow’s entire volume.
So too with words. In the same way we see only a shadow’s outline, or neglect to investigate “fishness”, we overlook or miss the depth of words. No word is passive; every single word has an influence on us, and this influence extends far beyond the mere outline of a shape on a flat page.
What would happen, for instance, if we traced with our fingers a single word in the snow or in the mud, or wrote a word on a leaf, and then returned hour after hour, day after day, to witness the word over time. Not that there is any special significance in the decaying word itself, but the devoted apprenticeship to the word might open up space for a shift from “looking at” to “looking into”. And once learned with one word, these observation skills could be practiced with another word and then another word.
There are so many ways to think about the depth, or dimensionality, of words that an entire book could be written on the subject. There are dimensions such as time and emotional content and meaning and history, not to mention the physical lifting of the word into the world as practiced by Tibetan monks. Early Greeks had the magical idea that every word had a unique existence and essence each time it was used. Language was a living force for these ancient peoples because they had an active and dynamic relationship with each word every time they used it. This is the kind of intimacy we might re-discover by reaching once again into the shadows to investigate the depth and dimensionality of words.
Words are not merely flat objects on a page but multi-dimensional objects that are malleable and “out there” in space; we can hold words in our hands or in our minds as we shape, view, and experience them. The oral tradition seems to come closest to this idea but with practice maybe we could preserve this awareness even with words on a printed page. All we need to do is to keep shaping words with the consciousness that they have depth and layers of meaning beyond their superficial outlines.
“Words that lean on the mind are no good. They must dent it.”
--Whitaker and Baker (America’s first political consultants)
What if the boundaries of your kingdom were ethical rather than physical?
Humans love to put boundaries around things because boundaries help us make sense of our lives. But boundaries have a way of becoming hard edges, and over time they make us lose sight of the fact that all things are porous and interconnected. For instance, the word lake might be a convenient label when you point to the middle of a large body of water, but how do you define a lake’s boundaries where its waves lap ephemerally against the shoreline, or when its shoreline is a marsh, or when the streams flowing into or out of the lake belong to the same body of water? As soon as you try to map precise boundaries in the real world you discover that an idealized thing like a lake has no easily defined edges.
Boundaries are lines we think exist but which dissolve upon inspection, and this realization leads to some important questions: How and why do we make boundaries? And what happens if we venture beyond the boundaries we draw around things?
These questions are equally relevant in languages because there is more fuzziness than we like to admit in the lines we draw around words and meanings. The word lake for example has had many different shapes in English including lac, laca, lace, lack, lacke, lacku, lacu, laik and leke, yet modern English-speakers hold onto lake as if this single spelling had a fence around it. And if you try to apply meaning to the word lake how small can you go before you are talking about a pond, or how fast can the water flow before it is a river?
In terms of language this raises vital questions, such as how many letters can be changed before a word is no longer the same word, or how far can you stretch a definition without losing its meaning? Is there a limit to how far you can take these changes, and what happens as you approach or cross over that line?
The liminal space where you cross out of the known and into the unknown is where language opens up. Consider, for example, that uncertain edge where a meadow blends into a forest. What happens in the real world, in your definitions of words, and in the linguistic forms you use as you cross from this thing called a meadow into this thing called a forest? Is there a point where a meadow is no longer a meadow but is not yet a forest, and how do you define those spaces where there are no convenient pegs to hang words and meanings on? If your society tries to convince you that things and words and meanings such as lake or meadow or forest are clearly bounded then maybe it is time to start investigating those boundaries because on the other side there are going to be new words, new spellings, and new meanings.
The mountains take their pencil to my spirit as I sleep, sketching in lines of
memory and long canyons waiting to draw me in upon rising.