Losing our language

This news has been wending its way through the blogosphere for a few months now, with predictable hand-wringing and defense, but Robert MacFarlane reports in Orion that the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary replaces a number of words from nature with terms for technology.

Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.

Oxford clearly thought the technical terms more relevant to children’s lives than those they replaced, and that, sadly, is probably true. MacFarlane observes, correctly, that “The substitutions made in the dictionary—the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual—are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live.” But it’s his notes about the colorful variety of traditional terms for natural phenomena in the British Isles that intrigue me:

Consider ammil, a Devon term meaning “the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar-frost,” a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”; and another, klett, for “a low-lying earth-fast rock on the seashore.” On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight. Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now that I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.

What’s wonderful about these words is not only that they’re colorful and descriptive but that they arose from folk usage. They’re highly local; they’re rooted in a particular place and culture. The terms Oxford removed from its children’s dictionary didn’t display that color or variety, nor were they local in origin — but note how many of the new ones were imposed from above. They tell you what to do (attachment, cut-and-paste), they serve as advertising for services (broadband), they use inscrutable abbreviations (MP3 player), or they just feel forceful (bullet-point). The nearest to a folk term is blog, which seems like a common-sense contraction of web log, but it’s hard to separate the early common, bottom-up use of the term from the popularity it gained when the Blogger platform was released. Even those technology terms that begin in common, informal usage are almost immediately co-opted by one or more businesses for marketing. They don’t spread because they’re useful as much as because that’s what we’re told to call things, by someone with something to sell us.

The changes in the Oxford Junior Dictionary show us just how much power we’ve lost over our language — and therefore over our communication and, indeed, our own thoughts. Of course, the fact that people are buying and selling dictionaries in the first place tells us pretty much the same thing. Just not as vividly.

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