Landscape Words that Speak to Us

"We have forgotten 10,000 words for our landscapes, but we will make 10,000 more, given time and inclination." This statement was made by Robert Macfarlane, a  leading nature writer who has been collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena. The extraordinary richness of the forgotten words from the English language is a clear indicator of our culture's disregard for the non-built environment, and the bankruptcy of the spiritual depths and sensual pleasures these words once afforded. They once belonged to the language of ordinary life experience. By contrast, the expansive poetry inferred by single words reveals the uninspiring banality of contemporary modes of speech.

Here are some examples:

Caochan is a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation

Feadan is a small stream running from a moorland lake

Fèith is a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat that is often dry in the summer

Rionnach maoim refers to the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day

èit refers to the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”

Eiscir is a ridge of glacial deposits marking the course of a river that flowed under the ice of the last glaciation.

Smeuse means the gap in the base of a hedge made by the passage of a small animal.

Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter.

As I reported in a previous blog entry, the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary excised out words that refer to natural systems, such as acorn, buttercup, dandelion, fern, heron, ivy, lark, nectar, otter, and pasture. Presumably, the editors determined that these words were irrelevant to the lives of contemporary children. These omissions were replaced with blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

I do not know if human sensibilities shape language, or if language shapes human sensibilities, but it seems unlikely that without a word for ‘a fine vein-like watercourse’, or ‘shadows cast by clouds on a moor’, or ‘quartz stones in streams’, that we will take note of such opportunities for wonder. By evoking such vivid images of scenes and settings, each serves as a complete single-word poem. As Macfarlane notes with regret, “… it is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining. Nuance is evaporating from everyday usage, burned off by capital and apathy.” As human langauge is depleted, so is the human competence in perceptions of subtle aspects of our environments. Humans are unlikely to cherish, preserve, and nurture what does not register in our consciousness.

These explorations are presented in an orderly fashion in Macfarlane’s new book, Landmarks, published by Hamish Hamilton on 5 March.