The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 6
While (as a trained linguist) I bristle a bit whenever anyone talks about a language being diminished in the ways you do here, research is on your side. Studies like this one (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0160289618302198?via%3Dihub) show that Americans' vocabularies have been shrinking for some time (despite huge increases in educational attainment over all). Studies that examine (weird and interesting) statistical laws that govern word birth, death and frequency have also shown this contraction (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep00313#Sec2).
Of course, the one area where the language has grown much richer is in online and texting discourse, but it is worth thinking about the limits of the arena. These new words, emojis and images don't frequently make their way into real-world interactions and typically have a short shelf-life. And as anyone who tries can tell you, it requires a good deal of energy and nimble-mindedness to keep up with the ever-rotating and evolving terms driven by technological innovation and use. So perhaps its not that our linguistics prowess is diminishing, but rather that we're just putting all of it to work in one limited sphere - the place where most of our attention is focused, after all.
One more point to affirm what you're saying here, since you are using the Merlin app and attending to "the birds, our teachers." As I've gotten into birding over the past 18 months, I realized first that I was accessing a well-established system of knowledge. I have relished learning all the bird names and their songs and learning to identify dozens of species on sight. BUT, what I've recently realized is that a lot of this is just, as you say, using language for labelling. To really know these birds is something else - it is to be able to accurately and precisely describe them. Experienced birders do this easily and as I've tried to mimic them in my ebird checklists, I've found it impossible. It requires intimate knowledge of parts of a bird's anatomy, terms that describe subtle color differentiations, ways of describing flight and foraging patterns, etc., etc., etc. You don't just have to know terms, you have to really, truly understand birds and all of their birdness. And you only get that understanding from long, sustained periods of attention and interaction. I suspect I'm at least four or five attentive years away from doing it well.
With respect to number 4, where you (correctly) lament the "diminishing lexicon of names for natural phenomena", I am reminded of the wonderful work of writer Robert Macfarlane on exactly this troubling trend which bespeaks our accelerating alienation from both direct experience of and close attention to the particularities and nuanced, multifarious marvels of the nonhuman world (both, in turn, worsened by the accelerating pace of destruction of the same, further materially removing even the possibility of such deep attention and encounter from ever more people and from future generations) and the urgent need to 'rewild' our language vis-a-vis the nonhuman world (itself predicated on saving what remains). His book Landmarks (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/536563/landmarks-by-robert-macfarlane/) is all about this, as is his later book The Lost Words (which in turn led to the exquisite Spell Songs album). Some years ago he explored this issue in these pieces among others:
In the latter, he quotes from a Cambridge study:
"Young children clearly have tremendous capacity for learning about creatures (whether natural or manmade),” they wrote, but they are presently “more inspired by synthetic subjects” than by “living creatures”. They pointed to evidence linking “loss of knowledge about the natural world to growing isolation from it”. We need, the paper concluded, “to re-establish children’s links with nature if we are to win over the hearts and minds of the next generation”, for “we love what we know … What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren”?
He has hope in children's innate capacity to connect to and resonate with nature and to re-enchant it as it were, but he also contends that "names matter, and that the ways we address the natural world can actively form our imaginative and ethical relations with it."
This post also brought to mind a beautiful essay by Thoreau biographer Laura Dassow Walls called 'Articulating a Huckleberry Cosmos: Thoreau's Moral Ecology of Knowledge' (in the volume, Thoreau's Importance for Philosophy) which explores the tension many of us feel between gaining (scientific) knowledge of and naming constituents of the natural world versus leaving her mysterious, un-studied and un-named, and whether the former approach diminishes, or enhances and deepens, a sense of awe, wonder, reverence, appreciation etc. She writes: "[Thoreau] was ever alive to the way a scientific term might reveal an overlooked fact, like the rush he had passed for twenty years but never quite seen until he had the scientific name for it. "With the knowledge of the name comes a distincter recognition and knowledge of the thing. That shore is now more describable, and poetic even." As he added elsewhere after a similar moment of illumination, "Science suggests the value of mutual intelligence." But other languages were also important.... he celebrated the languages of Indians, with their "more practical and vital science." How much more "conversant" are their languages with wild animal or plant, as if their knowledge, instead of being dry and arranged like our science, were still in "conversation" with its object, proliferating with multiple names for "moose, or birch bark, and the like!...It was a new light when my guide gave me Indian names for things for which I had only scientific ones before. In proportion as I understood the language, I saw them from a new point of view."
It can go in either direction - with a Thoreavian disposition that has an ethical, awestruck, humble starting point, knowledge and naming (within and embracing of limits, to be sure) can and does arguably enhance a sense of enchantment and respect; with a Promethean, Baconian, domineering point of departure, of course, we get knowledge and naming as reductionism and power over - the ominous declaration of the Judge in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: "Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent."
For me personally, it has been a mixed experience: sometimes, new scientific knowledge (even the humanly-given names of things) about the natural world (basically, natural history) deepens and widens my sense of awe and wonder. Scientific knowledge about the miraculous animal migrations criss-crossing the planet as chronicled in the book Supernavigators, for example, or the myriad wonders revealed in Ed Yong's recent book, An Immense World. A few years ago I had the privilege of witnessing the monarch butterflies in the mountains of south-central Mexico massing in preparation for their multi-generational migration, and I must say, learning some of the scientific details about it made it seem all the more miraculous and, well, sacred. (Nevertheless, while science has figured out a lot of the 'how's' of this epi-phenomenon, I hope/trust the totality of it will forever elude the "naughty thumb of science" prodding the earth's beauty (as ee cummings put it so well)).
As a colleague of mine wrote me, "Where is the line between curiosity about how the world works, and the desire to know how the world works in order to manipulate and control it? It’s likely that there always have been and always will be individuals driven by dreams of control. But it was the marriage of science with the market that rewarded those (possibly) outliers and sent the whole process into hyperdrive."
I think this question, about the dangers of even the most innocent, nature-admiring science/knowledge/naming to get appropriated for commercial ends, is an important one. No doubt there is in the reigning capitalist political-economy an institutional bias towards commercialization. Can knowledge ever be made safe from instrumentalization and commerce?
Briefly, when I saw that quote from Orwell, which describes preferring candles to electric light as a "sentimental archaism," I thought immediately of Bachelard's psychoanalytic-phenomenological work on the elements, especially his little book "The Flame of a Candle." He richly documents the field of meaning that can be experienced in reverie before a lit candle. Even leaving aside the documented effects of artificial lighting on health, one wonders if a natural preference for fire and natural light might be more than sentimental.
Longtime reader, commenting for the first time only to say that the Sound ID feature of the Merlin app is wonderful. I often say, half-seriously, that it's the only reason I still have a smart phone. It definitely changes the experience of being outdoors, some positive, some negative (the biggest immediate risk is that by having my phone out at all, I'm more prone to distraction), but it has, on occasion, helped me reach highly attentive flow-states in certain locations at certain times of the year. Just today I used it to identify a fairly rare bird for the area that I wouldn't have been able to identify on my own, which not only enriched my day and knowledge of local wildlife, but drew me back, for a time, into a more attentive state as I worked to hear who else was out there. The Seek app, by the California Academy of Sciences, is great, too.
Michael begins, "the possibility that having built our political structures on the assumption that human experience and human society can be ordered by human language and speech." I would propose that the only grounds for this is because the reason (logic) communicated in these words by itself compels. The reason may be faulty or ingenuous. This is where we could always examine the language and decide if we are to be compelled.
Now jumping to the end, the path Michael takes near his house discloses many things to his attention. In our modern, technological world objects no longer disclose themselves. Can anyone tell me how my iPhone works? We might even ask what it does as the phone and apps are a small part of its workings, the part it is designed to show me.
In brief, as the world makes less and less sense to us, we trust descriptions of it less and less. Analogies, metaphors and even adjectives all seem idiosyncratic and rarely make matters more clear. They die on the vine as abstractions.
We see talking heads telling us things that we either accept hook, line and sinker, or we remain unmoved by. In this mix reason doesn't stand a chance. I'm sure most can see the application of this mini-analysis to our politics. But another casualty of our inability to understand the world and each other is trust. This takes us back to the very top of my message where we are building our society from language. To accomplish this ordering we presume a sense of trust. Trust that we will mean what we say and I, the listener, will know what you mean. We have neighborly work to do before we have any such intense conversations (though not here thank goodness). The work of trust enables our endeavors: our language, business, science, families. It is not technology itself, but the way we live with it that is making things unintelligible and thus untrustworthy.
Over the last century the analysis of language has been, arguably, the foundation of philosophy. Stacks and stacks of nearly surgical analyses of the sentences or words we use to talk about some thing in order to “determine” our understanding of the thing. That the logical structure of language will give us comprehensive understanding of our mental states.
However, I’m much more convinced that what’s important about understanding language is in how it establishes ways of being in the world. I appreciate your project for this reason, among others, because the standard philosophy is too instrumental of a way to think about language. Language is not just a tool for communication and thought, but is also that which opens access to meanings, or, can be thought of as the condition of the human world being uncovered, defining the space that we share. Language is a crucial condition of being that goes beyond the instrumental use of our consciousness.
The way I understand your piece, you do question how our hyperreality has changed the way language should disclose our worlds. I interpret that as your way of pointing out an anomaly related to our current conditions. I’m sure there’s much more to say on how these micro-worlds are disclosed in ever more distinctive ways that create walls between man. Thank you for getting it started here for so many.
I am so glad that you are being attentive to the land around you! I’ve been a birder for a while and nothing has brought so much clarity and peace into my life, to watch the same plots of land unfold with the seasons and get to know the little fellows that share the space, whether they stay year-round or only stay for a short time.
One of my favorite families of birds are the sparrows, who are actually so interesting but often overlooked because they are (generally speaking) small, brown, and with a reputation of not mattering too much. But once you learn to distinguish them and know their names, you will be able to see so much more of them, how striking each of them is, whether it’s a field sparrow, lark sparrow, dark-eyed junco, towhee, chipping sparrow, Savannah sparrow, and the many, many others that grace our hemisphere. But you need to train your eyes to see them and your ears to hear them. I had a lovely experience once with a Savannah sparrow that I’ll never forget, when (with a beak full of green worms) she chirped at me to request that I please step away from her nest. I politely acquiesced and for a few minutes we both sat still in the field together, with the sun sinking and the sky all orange. I had the very strong sense that she, who was probably born in that very field per the customs of her species, was enjoying the sunset, and of being alive, too.
If you or anyone else here would like to get more into birding, let me spread the good bird (as it were) here and recommend David Sibley’s field guides--they are amazing and you will learn so much from them. Also, binoculars are essential tools to help you see so much more with your eyes. I believe the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently put out a gear guide for the best binoculars per price point. Also get to know your local birders--they’ll be afoot especially in the spring and you can learn a lot from them.
I would just like to add as a caveat: be very, very careful with Merlin Sound ID. Birders who have been at this for a long time know that the Sound ID is not perfect and it will tell you there is a rare or uncommon bird when it is actually a local and either your mic isn’t picking it up well or something else is afoot. The phone can’t be present in the way that you can. Personally I err on the side of “trust but verify” and never log a bird based on Sound ID alone, only using Sound ID for confirmation rather than as a main identification.
I’m challenged as I try to learn the Linnaean nomenclature for flora and fauna. Still, like you, there is a path I walk often. Yesterday the kinglets joined the chickadees in song (thank you, Merlin) as I wandered that cedar lined space. To describe those moments in words -- well, language is merely words when maples are budding and the sky is blue.
Hey Mr. Sacasas! Thanks for your deeply sensible set of thoughts. Your thinking reminds me of Alan Watts’ reminder, “We’re like people eating menus and not dinners.” What I’m wondering now is whether words are our tools or our equals, whether language is technology or subjectivity, or both. How are you understanding the capacity of language to reach ‘beneath’ momentary presence and grasp enduring reality? Is this capability really somehow in the words?
Thanks for posting this. I noted several sentences and will continue to think about them. The only words I’ll add here is a link to one of my favorite poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Words Under The Words https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48596/the-words-under-the-words