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Creative Multilingualism

Katrin Kohl
Rajinder Dudrah
Andrew Gosler
et al.

2. Creating a Meaningful World

Nature in Name, Metaphor and Myth

Karen Park, Felice S. Wyndham, Andrew Gosler et John Fanshawe

Texte intégral

1Whether it is a natural law or merely a productive analogy, we don’t yet know but we wish to assert the importance of the relationship between creativity in human languages and the creativity of a world that has not stopped diversifying since our ancestral life forms came into existence over three billion years ago.

2The authors of this chapter work in linguistics, anthropology, ornithology and conservation. Our research is grounded in place, where the themes that constitute the different areas of our particular expertise — language, people, birds and nature — are intrinsically linked. Our work proceeds from the following principles:

Creativity inherent in language is related to creativity in life forms.

All people are creative; all people are multilingual.

The natural world is inextricably intertwined with, and serves as an infinitely productive source for, the creation of meaning in lexicons, cognition, world views and praxis.

It is a fundamental human right to express creativity: in one’s languages, modes of production and relationships with other living beings and land/water-scapes.

While societies and their economies have relied upon drawing on the earth’s creative capital in the past with few checks, we are in a new era in which people must conscientiously safeguard remaining linguistic and biological diversity and the processes that generate them.

3We engage an association that has proved to be remarkably salient across two centuries and two separate scholarly narratives: there are parallels between the study of natural history and the study of languages. This association has its origins in synchronicities of linguistic and biological research of the nineteenth century exploring processes of evolution and change. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin described how he was using the same cognitive model for languages and species, noting that ‘the formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel’ (Darwin 1871: 58). Now, in the twenty-first century, the commonalities between the creativity of biological evolution and the creativity of language have progressed to incorporate our knowledge of biological and cultural diversity, and a world in which endangerment and extinction are prevalent.

Biocultural Diversity
It’s the true web of life: diversity in both nature and culture. It’s a living network made up of the millions of species of plants and animals that have evolved on Earth, and of the thousands of human cultures and languages that have developed over time. Languages, cultures, and ecosystems are interdependent. They’re bound together through the myriad of ways in which people have interacted with the natural environment. Through a diversity of cultural traditions and practices, in a great variety of natural environments, human communities have acquired invaluable knowledge of how to achieve harmony with nature. Biocultural diversity is both the source and the expression of all the beauty and potential of life on Earth.
Terralingua, ‘What Is Biocultural Diversity?’ (2017).

4Often the transformational ideas of a given era have a way of crossing disciplinary boundaries or, perhaps more accurately, bringing to light shared tendencies across diverse fields. In the mid-1990s scholars in linguistics, anthropology and biology observed correlations between linguistic diversity and biological diversity, uniting these observations under the umbrella term biocultural diversity. Broadly defined as an ‘interdependence between biological and cultural diversity’ (Maffi 2001: 11), biocultural diversity recognizes links amongst linguistic, cultural and biological variation (Stepp et al. 2002) and has led to scholarly and practical outputs that include mapping of language and species groups (Loh and Harmon 2005), investigation into the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous peoples (Singh et al. 2010) and correlations between linguistic and biological diversity (e.g. regions with high diversity of bird, plant and mammal species also tend to have high linguistic diversity) (Sutherland 2003).

Fig. 1 Francis (?) Darwin (c. 1858). Drawing on the back of the original manuscript for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) by one of Darwin’s children.

Reproduced by kind permission of William Darwin.

5There is, on one level, an intuitive logic to these observed correlations — namely, that both species and languages evolve in relation to place. Geographical, historical or other barriers that lead to speciation can also apply to linguistic diversification (Harmon 1996). A full description of the historical and evolutionary landscape of language change, however, is beyond the scope of this chapter. We focus here on a few select language-environment interactions to highlight the role of environments in linguistic creativity over time.

6We work with the hypothesis that linguistic richness plays an important role in protecting and sustaining biodiversity through human-environment relations and, on a practical level, we explore mutual benefits of coordinating linguistic and biological conservation efforts. Integration of local language diversity and cultural knowledge systems with biological conservation practice is key to political engagement and decolonization, particularly within locally managed conservation frameworks. A more culturally rooted approach to biological conservation directly relates local land and resource rights with ontologies and creative lifeworlds, history, storytelling and poetics, in addition to the promise of increased effectiveness of conservation objectives on a local level.

To You They Are Birds, To Me They Are Voices in the Forest
I soon discovered that collecting and organizing information this way indicated basic weaknesses in my conception of how culture interprets nature. The fault was never better realized than by Jubi, who expressed it in a remark one afternoon. After months of constant work on bird taxonomy and identification, carried out observationally in the forest and more experimentally in the village, we came to an impasse trying to specify the zoological content of closely related Kaluli taxa. With characteristic patience, Jubi was imitating calls, behavior, and nesting. Suddenly something snapped; I asked a question and Jubi blurted back, ‘Listen — to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest.’ I was startled by this, not because it was so direct (Kaluli tend to be very direct, even confrontative, in face-to-face interaction) but because it so thoroughly expressed the necessity of approaching Kaluli natural history as part of a cultural system.
Steven Feld,
Sound and Sentiment (1990: 45).

What’s in a Name?

7Languages are infinitely creative systems. They provide frameworks for encoding human knowledge and experience, partitioning continua of sensory perception into a myriad of meaningful units. In a world with over seven thousand languages, each with its own geographic, social and cultural context, the creative flexibility of the linguistic system permits a vastly diverse and beautifully nuanced realization of human experience. The names of things are the currency of every language.

8So what exactly are names, and how does one begin to study them? In the late fifth century BCE, Plato addressed this question with reference to the naming of things in his dialogue Cratylus. Socrates is called upon to settle a debate between Hermogenes, a conventionalist who argues that naming is simply a practice of social convention and custom, and Cratylus, a naturalist who asserts that names carry an intrinsic relation to the things they signify.

The Naming of Things
‘But if the primary names are to be representations of any things, can you suggest any better way of making them representations than by making them as much as possible like the things which they are to represent? Or do you prefer the theory advanced by Hermogenes and many others, who claim that names are conventional and represent things to those who established the convention and knew the things beforehand, and that convention is the sole principle of correctness in names, and it makes no difference whether we accept the existing convention or adopt an opposite one according to which small would be called great and great small? Which of these two theories do you prefer?’
Socrates to Cratylus, in Plato,
Cratylus (1926: 169).

9Over two thousand years later, Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist working at the turn of the twentieth century, established a basis from which modern linguists have tackled Plato’s riddle. In his Cours de linguistique générale, Saussure introduced a number of principles that were designed to underpin a ‘scientific’ and structural approach to language study. Most relevant to the dialogue in Cratylus is his first principle of language — ‘the linguistic sign is arbitrary’ (Saussure 1983: 67).

First Principle: The Sign is Arbitrary
he link between signal and signification is arbitrary. Since we are treating a ign as the combination in which a signal is associated with a signification, e can express this more simply as:
the linguistic sign is arbitrary.
There is no internal connection, for example, between the idea ‘sister’ nd the French sequence of sounds
s-ö-r which acts as its signal.
Ferdinand de Saussure,
Course in General Linguistics (1983: 67).

10There is a great deal of explanatory power in Saussure’s argument for the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign. At a conceptual level, words are simply a combination of meaning and the sounds (or, in the case of the roughly two hundred known signed languages, movements) used to express meaning. Independent of language, meaning exists on a continuum. The naming of things partitions this meaning continuum into individual units. As a result, the meaningful content of these units can vary across different languages. Take, for instance, Saussure’s example of the word for sister. French and English are similar in that both languages have one word to refer to female siblings, sœur and sister respectively. Chinese, on the other hand, has two words, jiějie (姐 姐) for older sisters and mèimei (妹 妹) for younger sisters. Chinese, French and English parcel out the continuum of meaning differently. Whereas French and English note only the sibling relationship and the gender, Chinese includes the element of birth order. Equally arbitrary are the sounds we use to relay this meaning. Neither mèimei nor jiějie share sound patterns with the English word sister yet all of these combinations of sound are used to reference a similar meaning. French, sœur, and English, sister, on the other hand, do have an aural resemblance, but this is not proof of Cratylus’s argument for naturalness in naming. Rather, the similarities between the French and English systems stem from the fact that the two words share a common ancestor. Arbitrariness in language thus offers linguists tremendous explanatory power in understanding the creative power of language, as well as how languages interrelate and change. The languages we speak may categorize our shared experiences of the world in different ways. In a further association between biological evolution and the development of language, the debate over the arbitrariness of the sign in linguistics resonates with a long-standing debate over the reality of species in biology and thence also whether a biological reality exists that can be expressed through taxonomy and nomenclature (Gosler 2017).

11Yet, in our understanding of language and its creativity, there is room also for Cratylus and his naturalist perspective. The linguistic sign may be arbitrary, but the act of naming is not necessarily random. The study of neologisms finds that root creations — new words with no contextual or referential basis — are rare. More frequently new vocabulary enters a language with a pre-established context. Words are born of personal names (eponyms) or place names (toponyms) (Thornton 2012). They can be compounds of words already present within the language or portmanteaus, blends of sounds and meanings from other words. Our environments and senses can give us words in the form of onomatopoeia, sound symbolism and other forms of iconicity (Berlin 2006).

12The naming of birds across unrelated languages gives us examples of iconicity in naming. It may seem arbitrary whether a bird is named after its voice, appearance, behaviour or the context in which it is encountered, but these at least in part result from the bird’s salience within a particular community and, inasmuch as that might direct its naming, it will not be random (Hunn 1999, Gosler 2017). Furthermore, creative processes in language change are often reflected in bird names. These may specifically reflect what is culturally salient to a people at a particular place and time. For example, there are sixty-nine recorded English folk names for the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), a small passerine bird strongly associated with heathland and gorse or furze (plants in the genus Ulex) in Britain. Whilst fifty-seven of these names are habitat-related, typically indicating where the bird is found, e.g. furze-chuck, furze-jack, furze-cheqer, furze-chucker, furze-chick, furze-chatterer etc. (Desfayes 1998), a further seven local names refer to horses: horse-snatcher, horse-matcher, horse-masher, horse-smatch, horsematch, horse-smitch and horse-mate (some of this variation is ideolectical). The association between this bird and horses may have arisen because the Stonechat’s call, which recalls the sound of two stones struck together, also resembles the tongue-click commonly made to encourage a horse to walk on. Indeed, this is how one would imitate the bird’s call (Gosler 2019). This is a good example of how local cultural practices can lead to name changes over time or in different places.

Fig. 2 Akkadian cuneiform on the wings of a stone bas-relief eagle-headed genie from Nimrud, Assyria. This giant figure was meant to magically protect a doorway. Held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (exhibit); photograph by Felice S. Wyndham (2014).

13The names of birds cue ecological and cultural information. Cross-cultural comparative research within Europe (Desfayes 1998; Gosler and Jackson-Houlston 2012) and worldwide (Wyndham and Park 2018) gives insight into linguistic and cultural understandings of local environments. When names are mapped across countries, counties and even towns, patterns of use that reflect historical patterns of settlement and resettlement of the land emerge. For example, the English common name for Turdus torquatus, Ring Ouzel, makes a clear reference to an old name for the Blackbird (Turdus merula), the Ouzel, which appears to have been in use mainly in the north of England and Scotland. Where did ‘Ouzel’ come from? Among European names it resonates most closely with Germanic names such as Amsel. Does this imply an Anglo-Saxon origin in England or does its geographic distribution in fact indicate something else?

Language Ecologies: Naming the Local in Languages

14Most cultures include in their mythologies and legends tales of the first language, exploring themes of origin and diversification. Frequently these myths locate the language’s genesis within a greater natural ecology. Over four millennia ago in China, Cangjie (倉頡), a historian for the Yellow Emperor, founded the Chinese writing system through a close study of nature; in the Abrahamic tradition the first man Adam was tasked by God with naming every living creature; and once upon a time in Mexico, a dove taught language to the children Coxcox and Xochiquetzal, the only Mexica to have survived a great flood (Zhang 2005; Turner and Russell-Coulter 2001).

To Name is to Create
Naming is also an act of creation. For example, the Yavapai culture heroes Widapokwi and Amchitapuka name the months and constellations. The Alsea black bear Suku names the rivers. The Kutenai figure Nalmuqtse is depicted as crawling about naming things. Of related interest are the Navajo figures Long Life Boy and Happiness Girl, who personify speech and thought.
Sam Gill and Irene Sullivan,
Dictionary of Native American Mythology (1992: 208).

The Language of the Toltecs and the Aztecs
Coxcox [and] his wife Xochiquetzal alone escaped the deluge. They took refuge in the hollow trunk of a cypress (
ahuehuete), which floated upon the water, and stopped at last on top of a mountain of Culhuacan. They had many children, but all of them were dumb. The great spirit took pity on them, and sent a dove, who hastened to teach them to speak. Fifteen of the children succeeded in grasping the power of speech, and from these the Toltecs and Aztecs are descended.
Susan Hale,
Mexico (1891: 23).

15Language exists in the mind as an infinitely creative cognitive system. It exists in human communities, inextricably intertwined with cultural and personal identities, places and times (Garner 2004). And it exists in the ideas and experiences that are relevant to our generation and the environments in which we live. The concept of language ecology, championed by linguist Einar Haugen in the mid-twentieth century (Haugen 1972), adopts the metaphor of an ecosystem in order to locate language within the context of its larger geographic, social and cultural environment:

Language ecology may be defined as the study of interactions between any given language and its environment […] The true environment of a language is the society that uses it as one of its codes. Language exists only in the minds of its users, and it only functions in relating those users to one another and to nature, i.e. their social and natural environment. (Haugen 1972: 57)

16Though the analogy implies a linguistic context that is systemic with inputs and outputs, its realization is more broadly interpreted as a framework for understanding how human languages relate to changing geographic and social contexts in which they are used.

17Our lexicons reflect these changes. Many young people today struggle to readily name birds, trees, butterflies and flowers (for Britain, see Gosler 2018). In 2007 a hubbub erupted around the fact that the Oxford Junior Dictionary replaced a number of words for the natural world, including acorn, bluebell, wren and pasture, with words such as blog, chatroom and database, reflecting a rise in electronic interfaces in contemporary culture. On one level this is par for the course as languages change over time. Speakers of English now rarely use words such as timwhisky, jinker and cariole because automobiles have replaced horse-drawn carriages as a major means of transportation. Equally, effects of language contact and natural sound change have contributed to the fact that we no longer sound like Shakespeare, Chaucer or Æthelweard. But there is a reciprocal relationship in the process of language evolution as it relates to changing social contexts. Names, metaphors and stories give us a framework for conscious awareness of our surroundings. The backlash to the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s edits has led to a widespread conversation about the state of British nature knowledge, its vocabularies and its relevance to ecological challenges in the future. One particularly compelling and beautiful response has been the children’s book The Lost Words, written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris, which invokes several words for flora and fauna cut from the dictionary in a series of word poems and lush watercolour images.

Fig. 3 Children’s mural depicting a kingfisher, leaves and river names, West Oxford Community Centre.

Photograph by kind permission of Felice S. Wyndham (2019).

Reconnecting Kids with Nature is Vital, and Needs Cultural Leadership
We the undersigned are profoundly alarmed to learn that the
Oxford Junior Dictionary has systematically been stripped of many words associated with nature and the countryside. We write to plead that the next edition sees the reinstatement of words cut since 2007.
We base this plea on two considerations. Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture and the natural environment.
Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.
In all, the names for thirty species of common or important British plants and animals have been removed — such as acorn and bluebell — along with many words connected with farming and food. Many are highly symbolic of our cultural ties with the land, its wildlife and produce.
This is what the National Trust says in their Natural Childhood campaign:
Every child should have the right to connect with nature.
Margaret Atwood et al., Letter to the Oxford University Press (2015).

18Ecolinguistics has emerged as a framework for engaging with the interplay between language and environmental sustainability. It opens up a space for exploring the relationship between cultural change, language change and the natural world, for example through discourse analysis (Stibbe 2015). In addition to increased awareness and understanding, the framework has a practical motivation:

Ecolinguistics explores the role of language in the life-sustaining interactions of humans, other species and the physical environment. The first aim is to develop linguistic theories which see humans not only as part of society, but also as part of the larger ecosystems that life depends on. The second aim is to show how linguistics can be used to address key ecological issues, from climate change and biodiversity loss to environmental justice. (The International Ecolinguistics Association)

19Practical approaches to the ecological consequences of our language systems, however, do face translation challenges. Human engagement with the environment is not simply embedded in our systems of naming, it is present in how we talk about, classify and understand the world, a fact that can lead to translation conundrums at a cultural level. Whereas many urbanized cultures tend to interpret biological diversity and robustness of knowledge through the application of the scientific method and quantifiable results, many other cultures transmit this knowledge through everyday practices, stories, song and other varied arts.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge
A substantial part of any language is devoted to the description of biological phenomena, so that we cannot give a complete account of how any language functions without examining how it represents these in its vocabulary, grammar and phraseology. And, in an era when there is increasing appreciation of how much small-scale speech communities know about the natural world that have yet to be ‘discovered’ by mainstream biology, the study of little-documented languages is a natural key to unlocking the full dimensions of Traditional Ecological Knowledge.
Nicholas Evans and Nicholas Thieberger, ‘The Web of Words and the Web of Life’ (2013).

20It is no accident that Indigenous languages are often targeted first in programmes of national assimilation. Language engenders creativity, and creative flourishing threatens nationalizing and colonizing processes. Loss of language can sever continuity in the transmission of local ecological knowledge systems and, over generations, change peoples’ relationships with environments and means of independent subsistence (Wyndham 2010). At the same time, by dispossessing peoples of land, colonizing systems rupture the environmental immersions and relationships that keep alive specialist vocabulary and social practices that communicate subtle ecological processes (Wyndham 2009). From a human rights perspective, scientists and scholars have an obligation and opportunity to work with local peoples as equals, to support initiatives to revitalize multilingual knowledge systems in parallel with the revitalization of rights to land, water and other resources.

From Local to Global: Creating a World that Values Biocultural Diversity

21In 1988, a diverse community of scholars, practitioners and representatives from Indigenous and local communities gathered in Belém, Brazil for the First International Congress of Ethnobiology. An influential outcome of this gathering was the Declaration of Belém, which outlines eight steps towards integrating the needs, knowledges and contributions of Indigenous and local communities in global planning. In addition to providing an inclusive plan of action, the declaration clearly notes that ‘native peoples have been stewards of 99 percent of the world’s genetic resources; and that there is an inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity’ (International Society of Ethnobiology 1988).

22However, more often than not, the native peoples who do the day-to-day work of biocultural stewardship are minority groups in the larger national or global context. Achieving a precise count of the world’s languages is challenging due to the difficulty involved in organizing a global framework for identifying speakers of unknown or less commonly known languages, regularly collecting information about languages on a global scale and even determining what exactly constitutes a language. To the best of our knowledge there are approximately 7,000 living languages in the world — of these, only 23 are spoken by more than half of the world’s population and 40 % are threatened or endangered (Endangered Languages Project; Ethnologue). The human rights contexts of these languages vary greatly, but many speakers of threatened languages face significant pressure to adopt a national language and/or abandon a native language. Some nations demand that individuals living within their boundaries speak a ‘national’ language and take extreme measures to prohibit the use of local languages. Equally, many speakers of minority languages see educating their children in a dominant language as a path to greater economic, intellectual or social influence and freedom. Dominant languages often spread at the expense of local languages, resulting in a loss of both sustainable local cultures and the important ecological knowledge contained within a language and a culture (Nettle and Romaine 2000).

A Delicate Balance
Delicate tropical environments in particular must be managed with care and skill. It is indigenous peoples who have the relevant practical knowledge, since they have been successfully making a living in them for hundreds of generations. Much of this detailed knowledge about local ecosystems is encoded in indigenous language and rapidly being lost.
Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine,
Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages (2000: 166).

Language Loss
Obviously we must do some serious rethinking of our priorities, lest linguistics go down in history as the only science that presided obliviously over the disappearance of the very field to which it is dedicated.
Michael Krauss, ‘The World’s Languages in Crisis’ (1992: 10).

23Local stewardship of natural resources is also frequently challenged by a certain philosophy, particularly prevalent within the British and American conservation movements of the nineteenth century, that still permeates much of conservation practice to this day — the myth that our nature is a pristine wilderness untouched by human influence.

24Most of what the West has labelled ‘pristine wilderness’ has, at some point in time, been named and shaped by people (Boivin et al. 2016). For example, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Amazon rainforest is home to ‘over three thousand indigenous territories’ as well as ‘over 10 % of the planet’s known biodiversity’ (WWF). The establishment of the great American National Parks in the nineteenth century came at a tremendous cost to the Indigenous peoples who once lived in, and were systematically removed from, these lands — a heritage still preserved in names like Yosemite (Yohhe’meti, Southern Miwok or Yos s e’meti, Central Miwok), Appalachia (possibly abalahci, Apalachee or apalwahči, Muskogean) and Mississippi (Misiziibi, Ojibwe). As noted by Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the practice of removing local peoples from their native lands in the name of conservation continues to this day:

The establishment of national parks and conservation areas has resulted in serious and systemic violations of Indigenous peoples’ rights through expropriation of their traditional lands and territories, forced displacement and killings of their community members, non-recognition of their authorities, denial of access to livelihood activities and spiritual sites and subsequent loss of their culture. (Tauli-Corpuz 2016)

25Just as a number of linguists and anthropologists are working towards a more biologically nuanced approach to language and culture, conservation initiatives have recognized for decades the core need to work closely with local peoples. BirdLife International, an integral collaborator in our work, is one such organization. Taking a local-to-global approach to bird conservation, BirdLife is renowned for its path-breaking governance system of bottom-up streaming of local bird conservation priorities into a global Partnership and Secretariat, which, in turn, lobby on behalf of local voices. Likewise, the 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is the first global assessment ever to systematically include Indigenous and local knowledge, issues and priorities.

There are People in the Park
Traditional Indigenous territories encompass around 22 per cent of the world’s land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity. There is increasing recognition that the ancestral ands of Indigenous peoples contain the most intact ecosystems and provide the most effective and sustainable form of conservation.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, ‘Statement of Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ (2016).

Fig. 4 Abel Rodríguez, Ciclo anual del bosque de la vega (2009–2010). Details of ecological relations with land animals and fish, drawn from memory by Abel Rodríguez, Nonuya Indigenous man from the Middle Caquetá River. He is a great authority on the world of plants and forests, and considered a leading light for the exchange of knowledge with the academy and the art world, based on his interaction of more than three decades with researchers in the tropical forest. Reproduced by kind permission of Abel Rodríguez.

26In the hundred and fifty years since Darwin wrote of the ‘curious parallels’ between species and languages, his observation has expanded to encompass our understanding of biodiversity, linguistic diversity, endangerment and revitalization. Through scholarship and practice oriented towards biocultural diversity and recognition of the rich systems of knowledge and stewardship often maintained by local peoples, practice in conservation and scholarship is taking a more nuanced approach to our complex social and natural ecologies. However, at the global level much of this work remains compartmentalized within the spheres of expertise of different disciplines and practices.

27Our work brings together local knowledge holders, anthropologists, biologists, linguists and conservationists to craft a more comprehensive approach to engaging biocultural diversity in practice. We are pursuing both on-the-ground local networks and providing accessible digital tools geared towards citizen science through the Ethno-ornithology World Atlas (EWA), public awareness and the local-to-global sharing of knowledge and expertise (Wyndham et al. 2016).

28Working together across disciplines in recognition of the interrelatedness of people, language and place, we have the potential to develop global networks that can lead to better systems of language documentation and a more nuanced understanding of local knowledge in conservation practice, as well as provide a global platform from which local communities can actively engage in dialogue around their cultures and environments.

Fig. 5 Logo of the 2019 symposium Intersections of Language and Nature, organized by Karen Park, Felice S. Wyndham, John Fanshawe and Andrew Gosler. It brought together scholars from Indigenous communities, conservation practice, the arts, and academia to address the parallel and intersecting threats facing linguistic and biological diversity (

Reproduced by kind permission from Karen Park.


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Stibbe, Arran. 2015. Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By (Abingdon: Routledge).

Sutherland, William J. 2003. ‘Parallel Extinction Risk and Global Distribution of Languages and Species’, Nature, 423 (6937): 276–79,

Tauli-Corpuz, Victoria. 2016. ‘Statement of Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, at the 71st session of the General Assembly’, 17 October, New York,

Terralingua. 2017. ‘What Is Biocultural Diversity?’,

Thornton, Thomas F. (ed.). 2012. Haa Leelk’w Has Aani Saax’u / Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land (Seattle: University of Washington Press).

Turner, Patricia, and Charles Russell-Coulter. 2001. Dictionary of Ancient Deities (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

WWF, ‘Protected Areas and Indigenous Territories’,

Wyndham, Felice S. 2010. ‘Environments of Learning: Rarámuri Children’s Plant Knowledge & Experience of Schooling, Family, and Landscapes in the Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico’, Human Ecology, 38 (1): 87–99,

Wyndham, Felice S. 2009. ‘Spheres of Relations, Lines of Interaction: Subtle Ecologies of the Rarámuri Landscape in Northern Mexico’, Journal of Ethnobiology, 29 (2): 271–95,

Wyndham, Felice S., Ada M. Grabowska-Zhang, Andrew G. Gosler, Karen E. Park, John Fanshawe, David Nathan, Heidi Fletcher and Josep del Hoyo. 2016. ‘The Ethno-ornithology World Archive (EWA): An Open Science Archive for Biocultural Conservation’, Revista Chilena de Ornitología, 22: 141–46.

Wyndham, Felice S., and Karen Park. 2018. ‘ “Listen Carefully to the Voices of the Birds”: A Comparative Review of Birds as Signs’, Journal of Ethnobiology, 38 (4): 533–49,

Zhang, Shudong. 2005. 中华印刷通史 (A General History of Chinese Printing) (Taipei: XingCai Literary Foundation).

Find Out More

Ethno-ornithology World Atlas. 2020,
EWA is an online space that promotes nature and language conservation: a place where communities can record and share their knowledge, language traditions and understandings of nature. EWA is about building relationships between Indigenous and local communities, conservationists, academics and their institutions, to promote bird and language conservation through the engagement with, respect for and celebration of diverse cultural traditions of knowledge.

Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell).
Nicholas Evans writes with eloquence and insight on language diversity, bringing into stark focus what we stand to lose in a time of massive language extinction.

Gosler, Andrew, Karen Park and Felice S. Wyndham. 2020. ‘Creating a Meaningful World: Nature in Name, Metaphor and Myth’, Research Strand 2 of Creative Multilingualism,
Research project on naming conducted as part of the Creative Multilingualism programme between 2016 and 2020. This chapter draws on that research.

Loh, Jonathan, and David Harmon. 2014. Biocultural Diversity: Threatened Species, Endangered Languages (Zeist: WWF-Netherlands).
A clear and concise overview of biocultural diversity, engaging with the topic on the themes of evolution, decline and status.

Macfarlane, Robert, and Jackie Morris. 2017. The Lost Words (London: Hamish Hamilton).
In response to the 2007 decision by the editorial team of the
Oxford Junior Dictionary to replace several words for the natural world with words for the Internet age, author Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris created The Lost Words. The book is both a work of art and a compelling reminder of the magic and power of language.

Maffi, Luisa (ed.). 2001. On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language Knowledge and the Environment (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press).
This compilation of papers from an interdisciplinary group of leaders working in academia, advocacy and Indigenous communities provides a compelling discussion of connections across biological, linguistic and cultural diversity.

Saussure, Fernand de. 1983. Course in General Linguistics, ed. by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. and annotated by Roy Harris (London: Duckworth).
Cours de linguistique générale (1916) was foundational to modern linguistic theory, introducing a ‘scientific’ approach to language study and establishing both the study of semiotics and structural linguistics. Though introduced over a hundred years ago, Saussure’s general principles remain widely accepted as fundamental to linguistic research, including naming.


Permission to include their contribution was kindly granted by the following:

The Ashmolean Museum (exhibit) and Felice S. Wyndham (photograph) for the Akkadian cuneiform on the wings of a stone bas-relief eagle-headed genie from Nimrud, Assyria (Fig. 2).

William Darwin for the drawing by Francis Darwin (?) (c. 1858), drawn on the back of the original manuscript for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) by one of Darwin’s children (Fig. 1).

Karen Park for the logo of the 2019 symposium Intersections of Language and Nature, organized by Karen Park, Felice S. Wyndham, John Fanshawe and Andrew Gosler (Fig. 5).

Abel Rodríguez and Tropenbos, Colombia for his drawing Ciclo anual del bosque de la vega, 2009–2010 (Fig. 4).

Felice S. Wyndham for the photograph of the children’s mural depicting a kingfisher, leaves and river names, West Oxford Community Centre, 2019 (Fig. 3).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1 Francis (?) Darwin (c. 1858). Drawing on the back of the original manuscript for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) by one of Darwin’s children.
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Légende Fig. 2 Akkadian cuneiform on the wings of a stone bas-relief eagle-headed genie from Nimrud, Assyria. This giant figure was meant to magically protect a doorway. Held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Crédits Reproduced by kind permission of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (exhibit); photograph by Felice S. Wyndham (2014).
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Légende Fig. 3 Children’s mural depicting a kingfisher, leaves and river names, West Oxford Community Centre.
Crédits Photograph by kind permission of Felice S. Wyndham (2019).
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Légende Fig. 4 Abel Rodríguez, Ciclo anual del bosque de la vega (2009–2010). Details of ecological relations with land animals and fish, drawn from memory by Abel Rodríguez, Nonuya Indigenous man from the Middle Caquetá River. He is a great authority on the world of plants and forests, and considered a leading light for the exchange of knowledge with the academy and the art world, based on his interaction of more than three decades with researchers in the tropical forest. Reproduced by kind permission of Abel Rodríguez.
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Légende Fig. 5 Logo of the 2019 symposium Intersections of Language and Nature, organized by Karen Park, Felice S. Wyndham, John Fanshawe and Andrew Gosler. It brought together scholars from Indigenous communities, conservation practice, the arts, and academia to address the parallel and intersecting threats facing linguistic and biological diversity (
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Is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests include language change, documentation and maintenance, generative syntax, Austronesian languages, ethno-ornithology, and biocultural diversity and conservation. She was the Principal Organizer of the 2019 Intersections of Language and Nature Symposium ( at the University of Pittsburgh, which encouraged collaboration between language documentation and conservation.

Is research interest is ecological knowledge conservation in the service of Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ resource and land rights. Her recent writings are on narratives of deep historical ecologies in the Americas. As Principal Investigator of a 2017–2019 British Academy-funded project, she developed participatory ethno-ecology work with Ayoreo, Yshir and other communities in Paraguay and Mexico. For more on her work see

Is based at the University of Oxford, where he holds a position between the Department of Zoology and School of Anthropology as Associate Professor in Applied Ethnobiology and Conservation. He was Principal Investigator on an AHRC-funded project to develop the Ethno-ornithology World Atlas in 2013. An experienced teacher of field ornithology, his recent research focuses on the growing disconnection of people from nature and their declining knowledge of natural history. See also

Is a Senior Strategy Adviser at BirdLife International. Before taking up that role in 2005, he was Head of Policy and Advocacy at BirdLife in 1998–2003, and Head of Development Programmes in 1993–1995. As a Senior Strategy Advisor, he is coordinating a programme on birds, culture and conservation, including a series of collaborations with authors, artists and musicians. See also


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