View from the Street: The Lost Words

@DavidGaffney78

View from the Street: The Lost Words

Have you experienced ammil during the recent cold snap?
 
In case you’re frowning at the screen and concluding I’ve written this after a long Christmas lunch, ammil is a Devon term meaning ‘the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar-frost’.
 
OK, I don’t expect any of us will have an urgent need to use it in conversation any time soon, but I love the fact that a word exists to describe so precisely such a specific natural phenomenon.
 
Anyone seen any good memes this week?
 
Now you know what I’m on about, don’t you? Despite having only entered common parlance in the last few years – to describe amusing or interesting items spread widely online, especially through social media – the word ‘meme’ has become part of our daily discourse. And we’re all much more likely to encounter it in a conversation, and to be expected to know what it means, than we are ammil.
 
You don’t have to be an etymologist or linguistics scholar (or even a communications consultant) to believe wholeheartedly that language matters. Language also evolves, and the purpose here is not to suggest that old words are better than modern words, or that words about nature are intrinsically more valuable than technological words.
 
The point is simply to highlight that words are kept alive only through regular use, and that children learning to read and write today will draw from a markedly different pool of commonly used words than previous generations did when learning the same fundamental skills.
 
We simply don’t have the same need today for the peculiar terms used by fishermen, farmers, sailors, crofters, miners, shepherds, and others for whom our landscape was a place of work and who therefore benefited from exacting definitions of phenomena most of us would never experience or witness.
 
Junior dictionaries have been relegating words associated with the natural world for years now, replacing them with terms more closely associated with the increasingly solitary and technology-dependent childhoods of the 21stcentury. And they’re not what you’d consider to be obscure regional terms describing rare occurrences.
 
Thus acorn, buttercup and conker are displaced by attachment, blog, and chatroom in recent editions of dictionaries, as their curators seek to acknowledge and include those words most commonly deployed in an age in which three-quarters of UK children reportedly spend less time outdoors than inmates in our prisons.
 
Indeed, a study by two Cambridge zoologists found that children aged eight and over were substantially better at identifying Pokemon “species” than “organisms such as oak trees or badgers”, with accuracy rates of around 80% for Pokemon, but less than 50% for real species. And that was in 2002, long before the launch of Pokemon Go.
 
Which brings me to The Lost Words, one of our favourite books of 2017 here at Charlotte Street Partners, and the writer Robert Macfarlane’s latest act of devotion to the language of nature and the nature of language. Conceived by Macfarlane and beautifully illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Lost Words is a stunning (and big) book with a commendable purpose: to conjure back some of the words that are beginning to vanish from the language of children.
 
Macfarlane is a naturalist and wilderness enthusiast, who is also the author of Landmarks (my source of the word ‘ammil’), in which he sought to restore the literacy of the land by gathering an archive of terms from dozens of languages and dialects of Britain and Ireland.
 
It was Macfarlane’s determination to “summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye” that led to the creation of The Lost Words, a collection of acrostic spells which champion and celebrate words most of us will never have considered special or indeed threatened, such as adder, bramble, fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren.
 
Winner of the Hay Festival book of the year and shortlisted for several other awards, a crowdfunding campaign to have copies of the book delivered to every school in Scotland was launched this week, which strikes me as an admirable venture given the modern-day experience of urban childhood.
 
The fact that a proportion of the royalties from each copy of The Lost Words is also being donated to Action for Conservation, a charity dedicated to inspiring young people to take action for the natural world, is an added bonus.
 
So, if you’re desperately trying to think of a Christmas present for a loved one – and you want to help breathe life into what the writer Henry Porter describes as “the euphonious vocabulary of the natural world” – there’s a good chance that The Lost Words will fit the bill, if not the Christmas stocking, for curious children and adults alike.