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Environmental Linguistics

Environmental Linguistics

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I was pleasantly surprised when I opened up The Origin and History of the English Language at random and my eyes fell on upon a most fascinating note on lexicography in accord with one of my pet peeves, provoked by spell-check and grammar-check programs, that technological thinking is grinding our organic language and its living meaning into sand and embalming it into rigid formulas in stone.
I was pleasantly surprised when I opened up The Origin and History of the English Language at random and my eyes fell on upon a most fascinating note on lexicography in accord with one of my pet peeves, provoked by spell-check and grammar-check programs, that technological thinking is grinding our organic language and its living meaning into sand and embalming it into rigid formulas in stone.

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Published by: David Arthur Walters on Apr 12, 2014
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07/07/2014

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NOBLE NOTES 
 
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ENVIRONMENTAL LINQUISTICS
On Old Books and High Technology
By Noble M. Notas
i
 I am fond of old books not because I collect antiques but because I find more wisdom in old books than in new ones. I love to browse the aisles of libraries just to see what dilapidated cover I might espy in order to examine its musty contents. I have found treasures in public libraries, amazing volumes whose pages have never been cut! Take, for example, the first edition of
William Pitt's Speeches.
I had to cut the pages myself to read his speech on the Slave Trade, peruse his views concerning the French Revolution, and learn what he had to say about Richard Price's Inalienable Sinking Fund. What a glorious experience for a bookworm! Moreover, sometimes I enjoy thumbing through old dictionaries and encyclopedias for curious words and ideas. And I am entertained by histories of the English language with their charming accounts of the development of the alphabet and the appearance of dictionaries and encyclopedias. As serendipity would have it a few months ago, I stumbled across the 1885 edition of George P. Marsh's brilliant book,
The Origin and History of the English Language.
 George Perkins Marsh
ii
 was America's first environmentalist. In his ground-breaking  book,
 Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action
, he was one of the first to take up the environmentalist's fundamental concern with the destructive impact of human activities on the environment - most geographers of his day believed Earth was the consequence of natural phenomena. Marsh the environmentalist was not a conservationist or a primitivist who advocated leaving pristine nature untouched. Rather, he admired the wilderness while believing it could be tamed without destroying it. He lived during the merging of the "industrial" revolution of iron and coal with the "scientific" revolution of steel, oil, chemicals and
 
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 electricity. The industrial revolution held fast and crept forward while the scientific revolution between 1870 and 1900 advanced in leaps and bounds to radically change life into the mode we are now most familiar with. He believed, for example, that the advantages of the Suez Canal (1869) would far outweigh the problems that might be caused by its damage to the environment. Marsh would probably sympathize with the view today that oil production in wilderness areas can proceed by means of innovative technology with minimal damage to the environment and with great benefit to society; we can only suppose how he would react to the current information on the pollution of our environment by fossil fuels. I was unaware of the linguist's corresponding fame as America's first environmentalist when I encountered his marvelous book. I suppose my find was no accident despite my ignorance; after all, everything is connected: our language is, before all, a natural emergence, is it not? So it is hardly surprising to find an environmentalist linguist, especially in those days (1801-1882) when it was still possible to be a Renaissance man. I was pleasantly surprised when I opened up
The Origin
 
and History of the English  Language
 at random and my eyes fell on upon a most fascinating note on lexicography in accord with one of my pet peeves, provoked by spell-check and grammar-check  programs, that technological thinking is grinding our organic language and its living meaning into sand and embalming it into rigid formulas in stone. That stone is becoming civilization's tombstone as our lives fall flat and the headstone is laid flat as a marker to accommodate the cemetery lawnmowers. Indeed, we are over awed by computer technology. Impressed by our creation, many of us have come to respect the computer far more than its creator. Of course, technological thinking proceeded long before personal computers appeared on the scene. George Marsh, caught up as he was in the industrial-scientific revolution, was aware of the damaging effects of rigid thinking on human life and language. And today even more than his day, the scientific method used to control nature is being employed to control man's behavior. Ideally, each man is to be programmed as simple, well-behaved machine, a sort of integrated circuit in a functionally rational economy: he understands very little other than his rationalized duty to produce and to consume. All cultural differences, all values, all  personal integrity succumbs to the new one-god, the new psychic unity of humankind which only appears to be dualistic: the yes/no or 0/1 binary system symbolized by twin towers, both of whose occupants are devoted to the same god, the two-faced god of consumption. So far the programmers of people as well as of machines have been quite successful, and this is necessarily reflected by language. The English language has become more  practical or functional, more transparent, more concrete, more "objective." It has become largely a commercial for the production and consumption of products and services: that is, words and phrases have become identified with the producing and consuming
 
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 function. We are being programmed to run alike in a vicious circuit, replicating our  program by means of hackneyed phrases - we are "in the loop." A rapidly growing proportion of the population is literally illiterate. It is wrongly supposed that an illiberal technical training instead of a liberating liberal education will suffice to liberate man from his ignorance, wherefore we have programmers who think they know everything because they can write code. The English language is being literally deadened by the "high-technology" low-morality mode of thinking. Being "literate" has come to mean being "functional" in the sense of being exploited or "making a contribution to society", to the surplus of valuables hoarded by the power elite while the masses are distracted by mountains of real and virtual trash, junk and garbage. Functionally literate products of the education factories tend to think of language as merely a technical device for making a profit. They tend to rely on technical handbooks of grammar, word-processing programs and dictionaries for their verbal formulas instead of resorting to creative thinking and its living language, the inexhaustible fountain of all wealth.  Now pernickety pedants existed long before the meeting of the industrial and scientific revolutions during George Marsh's life. However, the mass culture produced by those revolutions has served to realize their dream of controlling language and debasing it into
“plain” language
. It is in that context that I find George Marsh's nineteenth-century note about lexicographers illuminating: "Lexicographers are under a constant temptation to save themselves labour by building on the foundation of their predecessors, and to study dictionaries, not literature. They thus acquire the habit of regarding words as completely significant individuals, and they are  prone to multiply descriptions, to make distinctions where no difference exists, and especially to ascribe to single vocables meanings which belong, either to entire  phraseological combinations, grammatical agglutinations, so to speak, or to a different member of a phrase from that to which they assign them. Hence their definitions are too diffuse, and often so much embarrassed by conditions and qualifications to smother the radical idea of the word altogether, or to confine it to a special sense which it only accidentally possesses, instead of giving it a general expression, which admits of the  protean variety of shade and extension, that, in cultivated languages, belongs to almost all words, except names of visible objects, and mere terms of art whose signification is not organically developed from the root, but arbitrarily and conventionally imposed on it... "It is futile to attempt to make that absolute which is, in its nature, relative and conditional, to formulate that which in itself does not constitute an individual and complete idea, to make technical definition a mouthpiece for words which ought to be allowed to speak for themselves by exemplification, and to petrify them into a rigidity of form irreconcilable with that play of feature which is so essential to life-like expressiveness. Dictionary-definitions, considered as a means of philological instruction, are as inferior to miscellaneous reading as a horisiccus to a botanical garden. Words...exert their living powers, and give utterance to sentiment and meaning, only in

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