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.
The Grammar of Being