Land Language

I’m a big Annie Proulx fan, and especially her Wyoming writing.  So I have to plug her article in the New York Times, “My Own Private Wyoming.”  Amazing images through her spare writing.

Which reminds me also to recommend Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. One of the real challenges of my work is talking about human-nature relationships in the English language.  In so many cases we just don’t have the words to describe what it feels like to be embedded in a place for thousands of years.  I’m not a linguist but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the older English words that are directly connected to the land have fallen out of use, given the last few hundred years of Anglo-American history.  So Home Ground is exciting in part because it offers a lot of land-based language that can be brought back into modern English in people speaking and writing about their local landscapes.  For more on the eco-linguistics topic read this book.

It’s also important to realize that language repression was (and in many places still is) a central strategy of colonization on this continent, and language loss is a major piece of many native peoples’ historical trauma that’s still playing out in a variety of ways in the present day.  Here’s Winona LaDuke on decolonization, reclaiming traditional language, and a lot more – watch or read the whole talk!

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2 Responses to Land Language

  1. Rafe Rosen says:

    I’m intrigued by the idea of finding new (and old) words to talk about land and nature. How about an example, Connor?

  2. grousedrum says:

    sure. an old-word example, in English, might be the first 19 lines of the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. those lines are a poem about the coming of spring and what it stirs in people.


    Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
    The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
    And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
    Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

    Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
    The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
    Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
    And smale foweles maken melodye,
    That slepen al the nyght with open eye-

    So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
    Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
    And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
    To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
    And specially, from every shires ende

    Of Engelond, to Caunturbury they wende,
    The hooly blisful martir for the seke
    That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

    I sort of think that all the new words are just going to be using old words again, feeling them in our mouths and hearing them in sentences. That’s why I think Home Ground is so rad – it has all those landscape-describing words, with their context and meaning and place. Each place has its own eco-linguistic history – like, it’s hard to use a Hawai’ian word for the river’s mouth where it meets the sea, in western New England.

    Speaking of, here’s a non-English example:

    Listen to the Hawai’ian words in the chorus. “Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, i ka pono”. I’ve heard this translated as, “for all time, the health of the land is reflective of the balance of the people.” “Pono,” I learned from Aunty Mahealani – – is the balance of the people; right place, right time, right being. Pono is also translated as “righteousness” which is interesting. But listen to the song, its land imagery and descriptions of historical trauma, and then that chorus. Which happens to be the state motto of Hawai’i. Gives me the shivers.

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