Keep Regional Language Alive! Importance of Local Vocabulary; 'Landmarks' by Robert Macfarlane; Passing on the Heritage
Where are the 'natural' words?!
What is going on?
Since when can someone tell us when certain words are not relevant to us, let alone tell us they’re not relevant to our children?
This is exactly what happened in 2007 when those compiling the Oxford Junior Dictionary (aimed at 7-9 year olds) removed some words from the new edition and substituted more ‘modern’, or what they considered more ‘relevant’ words.
The troubling part of this for me is that I’ve only just found out about it! I’m a member of the National Trust, a charity dedicated to preserving buildings, gardens and other sites they deem important to our history and heritage. I happened to be reading an article, in the Autumn 2015 edition of their magazine, by Robert Macfarlane who wrote a book called ‘Landmarks’.
I’ll let him explain why he wrote that book:
‘It seemed to me….. we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its specificities - terms used by fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, crofters, mountaineers, soldiers, shepherds, walkers and unrecorded ordinary others for whom specialised ways of indicating aspects of place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worthwhile assembling some of this fine-grained and fabulously diverse vocabulary, and releasing its poetry back into imaginative circulation.’
I am responsible for highlighting the two sections in bold; they are phrases that say a lot to me. The ‘unrecorded ordinary others’ are the common folk who use general but special terminology as a way of life and those terms do have ‘poetry’ and they need to go back into circulation and be used imaginatively; in other words by those who have the imagination to bring these words back to life, not to preserve them but to regenerate their active rôle, to give them impact.
The Rôle of Writers
This is where our responsibility as writers steps in. I feel that responsibility in my core, in my heart, in my soul. How can we let rich, traditional, valuable words disappear into limbo? English is supposed to be the most versatile language in the world. We have words for the smallest nuances of emotions, colours, smells, sights and sounds. How can we let those slip away without some effort to haul them back to the here and now?
Are these Irrelevant?
Omissions & Additions
Mr Macfarlane’s article was entitled ‘A word to the wild’. The words removed from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary included:
- acorn, adder, ash,
- beech, bluebell, buttercup,
- conker, cowslip, crocus, cygnet,
- hazel, heather, heron, horse chestnut,
- pasture, poppy,
- starling, sycamore,
- wren, willow
Don’t forget that these are words deemed not to be relevant to children these days! I was shocked and saddened. So many of these surround us in our rich, verdant countryside. They are not obscure birds, flowers, creatures, trees or fish. They are a part of our lives! How do you feel about their omission?
Can you guess which words take their place?
- block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point,
- celebrity, chatroom, committee, compulsory, cut-and-paste,
- MP3 player,
and many more.
I’m not saying these modern words are not important. I am saying they are not more important than the words omitted. Why can’t we have both, or a separate dictionary for modern, technical terms?
A new Book of 'Place-words'
Because of this, Mr Macfarlane is now in the process of compiling a book of what he calls ‘place-words’. He has collected terms ‘for particular features of terrain, elements, weather and creaturely life’, stressing the relationship ‘between language and landscape’.
Here are some examples, many of which are onomatopoeic, to evoke scenes in your imagination:
- smeuse - a Sussex word for ‘the gap in the base of a hedgerow made by the regular passage of a small animal’ (my favourite because Sussex is my birth place!)
- crizzle - a verb from Northamptonshire - ‘the freezing of open water’
- zawn - used in Cornwall - ‘a wave-smashed chasm in a sea-cliff’
- ammil - Devon - ‘the gleaming film of ice that cases twigs and grass-blades when a freeze follows a thaw’
- rionnach maoim - a Hebridean Gaelic phrase - ‘the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day’ (good job it’s shorter!)
- aftermath - ‘the first fresh growth of grass after a meadow has been cut’
- zwer - Exmoor - ‘the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight’
There are many, many more but ‘Robert’s top discoveries’ are:
- Roak (East Yorkshire): a sea mist that rolls into shore
- Snow-Scarfs (Border Scots): the long thin patches of snow that still lie in stream-cuts and lee hollows after a thaw (another personal favourite)
- Rhiw (Welsh): a footpath on the steeply rising slope of a hill (roll the ‘r’ and breath out to express the ‘h’ - like ‘r/h oo’)
- Dimmity, dimpsey (Devon): twilight
- Wicker (Cheshire): a goldfinch
- Burra (Oxfordshire): a sheltered spot, tucked away out of the wind, where certain flowers are able to grow
- Kesh (Northern Ireland): a makeshift ramp or bridge over a stream or marsh
- Hazeling (Hertfordshire): of a spring morning, warm and damp and good for sowing seed
Poppies & Willows
Rich, Relevant Words
What wonderful sounds we get from rolling these words round our tongue, what awesome images enter our mind’s eye! Go back through the list and try saying a few out loud! Don’t they feel good? As a lover of words, I am passionate about this sort of thing. Why remove everyday words which, to my mind, are relevant now more than ever? Consider these:
- An acorn, from which might oaks grow;
- bluebells, carpets of which provide a paintbrush splurge of subtlety on the forest floor, a flash of pure soft blue as you glimpse through the trees;
- heron, a patient statue fishing by the river;
- poppy, that vibrant growth through the mud on Flanders’ fields;
- willow, gently bending to the water, the wood from which canes, garden trugs and cricket bats are made (a trug is a basket to hold garden tools, a few weeds, etc.)
If children are not as aware as they used to be of these stunning flora and fauna, then isn’t it imperative to make sure they get to know the wonders of the world around them rather than wipe them from the page? Children are our future. They would be sadly lacking if such things were not a part of their lives.
Do you have local vocabulary for your surroundings?
The National Trust article invited us to submit our own words regarding our countryside. Sussex is my home county, so I know a few from there:
- ‘twitten’: a worn track or passage providing a short cut from one area to another, be it road to road or field to field or just from one defined space to another. They are by nature narrow, often between walls or high trees, foot-worn and free from man-made surfaces. They can be grassed or just worn soil.
- ‘a withy’ - flexible branch of a willow tree (also in Somerset, where I now live)
- ‘a rife’ - small river flowing across the coastal plain
I would like to use these words in my writing but few people would understand them. It’s my aim to make them more widely understood and therefore more accepted. I must stress that they are not archaic, old-fashioned words but terms currently in use.
There are such terms in every language, more or less. Do you have local nouns, adjectives, verbs that people use with reference to the countryside or to particular jobs or pastimes? Please share them here. I’d love to hear them. I suspect some of the words above might have been taken to America many moons ago and perhaps survived in certain areas; let me know!
Let’s keep our language alive and not submit to the total take-over of modern jargon to the detriment of our beautiful, rich - and still useful - vocabulary!
Copyright annart/AFC 2015 (text & own photos)
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‘Landmarks’ by Robert Macfarlane: More information
- Published by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd. (Hamish Hamilton, 2015)
- ISBN 978-0-241-14653-8
A review on the cover states, ’He has a poet’s eye and a prose style that would make many a novelist burn with envy’ (John Banville).
I couldn’t agree more; his style is as wonderful as his subject matter. If you can get hold of this book, I urge you to read it. It’s about ‘the power of language… to shape our sense of space’. You will be inspired by a master in his field, an outstanding writer and a man passionate about the richness of his language. The new book is due to be published in May 2016.
National TrustClick thumbnail to view full-size
The National Trust can be found at www.nationaltrust.org.uk
They provide free entry to many sites, cheaper entrance to others and all sorts of extras such as regular magazines, local groups, emails announcing local events, children’s activities, and car stickers. Annual membership cards must be produced on entry to any of their sites. It only takes a few visits to cover the membership fee, which can be individual, for a couple or for a family.
There are hundreds of sites around England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The National Trust for Scotland has reciprocal membership deals as does the USA, where the organisation is known as the ‘Royal Oak Foundation’.
It's an ideal way to get the family together, learning about heritage, nature and the outdoors.