Feature - Issue #7
How our use of language can define our relationship with the natural world
How do we speak with plants? How do we talk of animals? How do we encounter nonhuman lives through our words? The language we use to talk about our ecosystems is both symptomatic of and contributes to how we perceive the more-than-human world.
The English language could be characterised by its ungenerosity towards nonhuman lives; a belief in the supremacy of the human is written into our grammar, inscribed on our tongues. English shuts out the agency of animals and plants, attributing personhood almost exclusively to human beings.
The difficulty lies primarily in the pronouns. In primatologist Jane Goodall’s first scientific paper, she referred to individual chimpanzees as “he” or “she” and used the relative pronoun “who”. Her editor sent it back to her after changing every “he” or “she” to “it” and every “who” to “which”. Goodall pushed back and, perhaps surprisingly, her original pronouns were allowed to stand. The anecdote nevertheless points to a widely held belief that using so-called “anthropomorphic” language about animals or plants is unscientific, imprecise, and even dangerous. The notion of “anthropomorphism” in language is in itself complex. Although some would disagree, it is arguably deeply arrogant to imply that animacy, gender, and consciousness are uniquely human traits; perhaps our experience of these things is a mere shadow of something practiced every day in the multiplicitous lives of plants and animals.
In English, a being must be designated “he”, “she”, or “it”. In English, “it” can be applied equally to a dog, a laptop, a mountain, a house, or a plastic bottle. “It” implies objecthood rather than personhood; to call another human being “it” would be dehumanising, unthinkable. Goodall’s writing challenged this species divide by attributing grammatical personhood to the chimpanzees who would become her life’s study and companions.
But switching to “he/him” and “she/her” to refer to nonhumans isn’t a simple solution to challenging the divide erected by humans between themselves and their surroundings. The gendering of animals and plants is usually inappropriate and often nonsensical. Moreover, this system reinforces problematic gender binaries and the damaging dichotomies that come with them; relying on gendered pronouns arguably only strengthens the patriarchal values and dualistic thinking that uphold the human-nonhuman divide.
Relative pronouns are also controversial. Although in everyday speech people often use “who” to refer to animals, such generosity is designated incorrect by the gatekeepers of grammar: dictionaries, newspaper and magazine style guides, and academic style manuals. Most of these insist “which/that” is used to refer to animals, although some grudgingly allow the use of “who” if the animal is named or gendered, or has a particular intimacy with humans, such as a pet.
Our grammar is tied up with a tendency and indeed an attempt to separate the human from what we designate “nature”. It is also perhaps part of the invisible system through which we permit ourselves to exploit and utilise nonhuman lives; by designating another being an “it”, the psychological leap from empathy to indifference is almost entirely erased.
But, by the same token, if language is both cause and effect of our relationship with our ecosystems, perhaps we can use language to break down that false division between human and environment. The grammar of life is not a closed book; other languages are more generous towards nonhumans. In particular, the vocabulary and syntax of many Indigenous languages suggest equality between all living beings. For example, botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer, points out that rather than dividing entities into “he/she/it”, the Potawatomi language uses “animate” and “inanimate” as its main linguistic categories. Through this way of perceiving the world, animacy also has a much broader definition than English speakers are used to; rivers, mountains, trees, and landmarks are all ascribed personhood alongside human beings and animals.
Similarly, in Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch’s recent novel The Yield, a narrative that grapples with Indigenous identity and heritage in contemporary Australia is interwoven with a dictionary of Wiradjuri words. The beautifully open-ended definitions make clear the inextricable symbiotic relationship between people and the land. The novel’s title is taken from the word baayanha, which means “yield, bend the feet”. The dictionary’s definition explains that the primary meaning we give to the word “yield” is indicative of our culture; in the English language, the land “yields” a crop to human farmers, while in Wiradjuri, it is the people who “yield” to and with the land, bending their feet and bodies to its paths.
One way of changing our language could be through listening to the nonhuman world and incorporating nonhuman voices and perspectives into our vocabulary. The artist Marcus Coates’ 2007 work Dawn Chorus uses the human voice to replicate the voices of birds. To create the work, recordings of birdsong were slowed down and reproduced by experienced human singers. Their voices were then sped up again and combined to create a soundscape almost indistinguishable from a real dawn chorus. The project uses song to emphasise points of similarity and connection across species, suggesting a form of multispecies literacy that might otherwise feel inaccessible.
Artist and composer Hanna Tuulikki’s 2010-2015 project, Air falbh leis na h-eòin - away with the birds, similarly draws out song as a space where species meet. The project explores the mimesis of bird sounds in Gaelic song, coming together in an experimental score for female voices weaving together fragments of these traditional songs to create a birdlike soundscape that responds to its environment.
Communication between species through song, meditation, and dreaming is an accepted part of many cultures. Among Arctic peoples, the Iñupiat believe that humans and whales share a reciprocal relationship based on a shared language. Many hunters believe that whales listen to their conversations and won’t present themselves to those who are disrespectful. There are also a number of Iñupiat stories in which the voices of whales have been heard by hunters in dreams, asking them not to hunt whales in particular places or seasons.
Language is often cited as something that makes human beings unique, a keystone in the pillars supporting the notion of human exceptionalism. But various studies of the animal world suggest that this impression does not stand up to scrutiny. Groups of genetically identical killer whales with overlapping territories will greet each other with different sounds. Prairie dogs have an identifiable range of sounds with distinct meanings; in other words, a vocabulary.
As scientists Suzanne Simard and Monica Gagliano have suggested, plants can communicate with each other through chemical signals, the mycorrhizal network of fungi under the forest floor, and even through sound. Gagliano points out that shamans in Indigenous South American communities claim they learn wisdom by listening to plants. Gagliano wonders if this ability to hear the language of plants is something most of us have lost, but which we might be able to reclaim through science and an open-minded exploration of non-western forms of knowledge.
What if we reformulated the communication barrier between human beings and other species? Together with the writer Prudence Gibson, Gagliano has suggested that we reframe the language gap between ourselves and plants as a human lack of ability to communicate via volatile organic compounds or the mycorrhizal network, rather than as plants’ lack of ability to speak a language comprehensible by humans.
Gagliano and Gibson also argue that although we don’t have the vocabulary to speak with plants, we can still use words and writing as tools for paying greater attention to nonhuman lives, increasing our appreciation and care. Although the English language makes it easy for us to erase the agency of nonhuman beings, it can also be used with intention to practice reciprocity and respect. Part of this could be learning the names of the birds, insects, plants, and mammals we encounter every day; not just the Latin names used to sort nonhumans into categories, but the Indigenous, folkloric, regional, and other so-called “common” names. Poetry, song, nature writing, fiction, storytelling, and journaling can also be used to speak to, with, and about more-than-human lives. We can cultivate voices that speak up for those that go unheard, as well as voices that know when to be silent and when to listen.
Darren Appiagyei’s work as a wood turner is about embracing the material, understanding its qualities and enhancing the wood’s intrinsic beauty. Here he holds one of his banksia nut vessels.
We could start by recognising the essential role played by other species in the development of human communication; from wax tablets to papyrus to vellum to paper, almost every page of text ever written and every symbol ever drawn has relied on the gifts of insects, animals, and plants. Pencils too rely on wood, while until recently most pens would have been dipped into ink extracted from oak galls - the protective growth produced by the oak tree when gall wasp larva hatch in their leaf buds.
Wood turner Darren Appiagyei often crafts bowls and vessels from similar burrs and tumorous growths in the tree, only working with wood that has fallen naturally or that has been discarded by tree surgeons. Rather than imposing
preconceived ideas on what each vessel will look like, he sees his role as revealing the shapes inherent in the wood. He also works with pyrography or “fire writing” to inscribe the wood with tiny burnt flecks that bring out the natural grain. Through this technique, the surface of the wood becomes a meeting place for a visual language that belongs to both human and tree.
Darren Appiagyei uses the technique of pyrography, a mark burning method, to bring out different tones in the grain of the wood.
There is much in the English language that hints at a semi-forgotten intimacy with the more-than-human world. We talk about language itself using imagery drawn from the plant world; we discuss a word’s “root” without considering that this is a vegetal metaphor. Many of those “roots” are themselves derived from words for plants or animals. The word “book”, for example, comes directly from the Old English boc, meaning both “book” and “beech tree”. The pages of a book are called “leaves”. The imagery unfolds and flourishes into a plant-like profusion once you start to look.
Perhaps by reclaiming the interspecies intimacy at the roots of our language, by rewilding our words, we can cultivate a better way of talking about nonhuman lives that recognises their beauty, power, and agency. In her book, Gathering Moss, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.” Language and perception are intimately linked; by learning to speak, write, sing, inscribe, and listen in the spaces where species meet, we can teach ourselves to perceive our ecosystems in new ways and to see ourselves as part of them.
The Grammar of Being