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Rewilding our Language

Rewilding our Language

20th-century ecology thinker Aldo Leopold wrote in his novel A Sand County Almanac, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
If we want to effect this kind of transformation and tell a story that establishes nature as a community to which we belong, a family of which we are a mere part, I believe that the change has to begin with the language we use.

Language plays an instrumental role in shaping our relationship with nature. The ‘Human vs Nature’ narrative is reinforced by the grammar of English language which uses ‘it’ for the natural world, thereby rendering nature inanimate and lifeless. Furthermore, words such as ‘natural resources’, ‘fish stocks’ (instead of ‘fish populations’), and the logging industry’s description of old growth forests as “decadent” or “over-mature” in spite of their crucial role in maintaining biodiversity further reaffirm humanity’s dominance over nature and reduce nature to a mere resource to exploit and plunder for human profit making activities. The story of whales’ names can highlight the role language can play in shaping and challenging worldviews. Matt Sowerby writes in this article (
The right whale gained its name because it was the ‘right’ kind of whale to be harpooned. Its name marked it as a target, and it was almost hunted to extinction before international whaling laws were brought into place (National Geographic 2021). Other whales such as the Minke whale and the Bryde whale were named after prominent whalers, which again reflects and perhaps contributed to the instrumentalist attitude humans have historically taken towards these species… Global attitudes towards whaling shifted dramatically after the release of the album Song of the Humpback Whale in 1970, which arguably spawned the ‘Save The Whales’ movement. It enabled humans to stop seeing whales as distant natural resources but instead as beautiful, intelligent creatures capable of culture.
Nature writer Robert Macfarlane wrote “as a species, we will not save what we do not love, and we rarely love what we cannot name”: I would argue here that yes, names are essential, but what is even more important is for us to use the right names, the right language to describe the natural world. By using words that acknowledge and affirm the animacy (alive-ness) of nature, we will begin to appreciate that we are an inextricable thread in nature’s web of life. In addition to this, it is also vital to use words that accurately capture the scale of today’s ecological crisis (for example, using climate crisis or breakdown instead of climate change).
Furthermore, Wordsworth wrote in the preface to Lyrical Ballads that poetic diction should not consist of over-embellished and superfluous words; instead, it should be the “language of common men. It is not the language of the poet as a class but the language of mankind. It is the simple expression of pure passions by men living close to nature.” ( Such diction will break down barriers between people and emphasise our connection with the Earth.
The Grammar of Animacy
Take a look at this extract from the poem ‘When Earth Becomes an It’ by the Native American author and educator Marilou Awiakta: (
When Earth Becomes An "It"
BY Marilou Awiakta
When the people call Earth "Mother,"
they take with love
and with love give back
so that all may live.
When the people call Earth "it,"
they use her
consume her strength.
Then the people die.
and at this quote from acclaimed nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wonderful essay ‘Learning the Grammar of Animacy’:
“Doesn’t this mean that speaking English, thinking in English, somehow gives us permission to disrespect nature? By denying everyone else the right to be persons? Wouldn’t things be different if nothing was an it?"
In the essay, ‘Learning the Grammar of Animacy’, Kimmerer writes that unlike English, in which we use inanimate pronouns ( ‘it’) to refer to nature, “in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” Potawatomi does not use ‘it’ for the natural world, because the word ‘it’ it robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing.’ Potawatomi’s grammar of animacy reminds its speakers of their kinship with nature.
Kimmerer has proposed a new pronoun to refer to the members of the animate world: the word ki (pronounced ‘kee’). This is the singular pronoun. Its plural form is kin, a word that already exists in the English language.* For example, to refer to a bird, you could say, ‘Ki is making a nest.’ To refer to a flock of birds in the sky, you could say, ‘Kin are flying in the sky.’ I think that this is an absolutely beautiful idea. When we use words that suggest the sentience and alive-ness of the animate world, something magical happens. The artificial barrier that we have put up between ourselves and nature breaks down. We begin to see the wilderness as a being which is not ‘out there’, but within us. The grammar of animacy is also the grammar of intimacy.
*Some suggest sticking to the word ‘they’ while describing the animate world. Whichever pronoun you decide to use, I encourage you to use words that look at nature with a sense of love, wonder, kinship, and respect for its alive-ness.
Literary Defamiliarization
As writers, our task is clear: to use language in a way that ‘defamilarises’ or detaches readers from their previous way of looking at nature, in a way that makes their previous conception of nature unfamiliar to them. By presenting nature in a new way, we can engage readers’ imaginations and shift their perception of the animate world and their role in it.
Literary Defamiliarization is a term that was coined by Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky in the early 20th century. According to Wikipedia, it is an ‘artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way so they could gain new perspectives and see the world differently.’ Defamiliarisation can help us to challenge what readers have taken for granted and can spur in a new way of looking at and engaging with the world.
How can you incorporate elements of defamiliarization in your work? Here are some ideas:
Perspective: Shift perspectives between multiple characters or write from the perspective of an element of nature (a pebble near a flodding river? a withering flower? a felled tree?) like Virginia Woolf writes from the perspective of the house in The Lighthouse
Non-conventional Syntax: Can you bend or twist the rules of syntax to create particular effects and images? Stream of consciousness? Fragmented prose?Punctuation?
Go inside: instead of focussing merely on external appearances, delve into the internal world of people and places. what does a rainforest feel about the lack of rain?
Play with language: vivid writing plays on all the senses, rhyme, diction (for an example, I highly recommend Lanny by Michael Porter!)
figures of speech: metaphor, simile, symbolism, repetition
Play with time and space: Blend imagination and reality, include time travel and alternate realities and universes, non-linear narrative techniques
Rewilding our Language
I come here to listen, to nestle in the curve of the roots in a soft hollow of pine needles, to lean my bones against the column of white pine, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside it: the shhh of wind in needles, water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear, and something more—something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother’s heart, this was my first language.
‘All over the country, there are words disappearing from children's lives. These are the words of the natural world; Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn, all gone. A wild landscape of imagination and play is rapidly fading from our children's minds’: The Lost Words (Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris)
Kesebir and Kesebir analysed the frequency with which common nature-related words appeared in English-language movies, songs, and books produced between 1900 and today. They found a decline in the use of such words.


As wild spaces disappear from our lives, so do the wild, weedy, wonderful words we use to describe them. This loss of words further splinters our relationship with the natural world: a vicious cycle.
Recently, I’ve also been thinking about the limits of human language and how human language may fail when applied to the mysterious forces of nature. Scientific terminology, with all its rigidity and precision, can provide us with a valuable tool and language to understand the living world, but, as Kimmerer puts it, ‘beneath the richness of its vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around you and in you when you listen to the world.’ How, then, as writers, do we go about the task of writing about nature?
As writers, we must make use of words that look at nature with a sense of love, wonder, kinship, and respect for its alive-ness. Wild words that capture the untamed, unrestrained life that nature thrums with. Whenever we can, we must complement poetry and metaphor and unconventional diction and syntax with scientific vocabulary. And when words aren’t enough, when language fails, I encourage you to simply put your ear near the bark of the tree and listen to the song of life, to the unending melody of consciousness, to the hymn of silence.

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