Establishing Relations Between Nature And Language English Language Essay

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The field of ecolinguistics has attracted scientific attention quite recently and is still being under constant scholarly scrutiny. This paper examines the emergence of ecolinguistics as a science, development of the concept of language ecology and its relation to the dominance of English in a globalized world.

To understand what language ecology is and how it applies to the issue of global English it is necessary to identify where its niche is in the whole ecolinguistics framework. Hence this paper will be structured in the way that first we will give a general overview of the ecolinguistics as a modern science. We will also look at its origin and present-day applications. In the second section of the paper, the issue of language ecology will be addressed. We will deal with its coming into being, definition and status in the process of globalization. Finally, we will try and critically approach the issue of dominance of English as a global language from the ecolinguistic perspective.

This paper offers a very compact introduction to the field of ecolinguistics and language ecology in particular and can therefore function as a quick reference for those who are interested in getting acquainted with this new scientific approach.

1. Ecolinguistics - a further scientific approach to language

This part of the paper is in the first place concerned with the description of the development of this field of study from the beginning of the twentieth century till the present day. Furthermore, this section looks at the present-day situation in the ecolinguistic studies, namely, at its main issues and possible applications.

Rise of ecolinguistics

In 1912 American Anthropologist published an article called "Language and Environment" written by Edward Sapir. This article became the first step to the development of a complex ecolinguistics approach to language. Though the term 'environment' did not have its modern meaning with respect to ecolinguistics it was the first uttered endeavour "to establish a relation between 'Nature' and language" (Fill & Mühlhäusler 2001: 2)

For Sapir the term 'environment' is shaped by both physical and social factors. The former are represented by the topography of the country and its climate as well as animals, plants and minerals resources of the region. In turn, the social factors are characterized by religion, ethical standards, political organization and arts (Sapir 2001: 14). The social factors are considered to be the primary ones as for the representatives of the physical environment (i.e. a wild animal or bird) to exist at all there should be general knowledge of the people about them and unanimous acceptance of these species as an essential part of the human life. In other words, Sapir admits that despite the differentiation of the factors which shape the environment "all environmental analysis reduces at last analysis to the influence of the social environment" (Sapir 2001: 14).

Establishing further relations between language and environment Sapir looks at the sections of language which might reflect these relations or at least indicate them. The lexicon of the language is thus seen as the mirror of the physical as well as social environment of its speakers and, to exemplify this statement, Sapir mentions some coastal tribes, which due to their location at water have a palette of terms for sea animals. Respectively, the word stock of tribes living in the mountain regions will expose a large amount of topographical terms which altogether reflect their surrounding world (Sapir 2001: 14-15).

Furthermore, Sapir notes that the degree of transparency of such vocabularies can give us an idea of the degree of familiarity of the language users with their environment (Sapir 2001: 16). He also stresses the fact, that physical environment, in contrast to the social one, is to a large extent universally spread throughout time and space. Thus, there are "natural limits" (Sapir 2001: 17) to the variability of the concepts of physical world. As opposed to the physical world, a culture, as Sapir legitimately states, exhibits much more complexity and development. This contrast is again displayed not in the grammatical, phonetic or syntactical language layers, but in its vocabulary, which is constantly changing and extending, just as the culture is. Therefore, every change of culture will consequently cause a change in language fabric (Sapir 2001: 23).

Present-day ecolinguistic issues & applications

According to Alwin Fill, University of Graz, Austria, it was Einar Haugen who in 1970 initiated the ecolinguistic debate and used ecology metaphor to speak about the interaction of a language with its environment (Fill 2001: 43). However, already Sapir used metaphor to explain a reciprocal relation of environment and language (Sapir 2001: 23):

We have no time at our disposal to go more fully into this purely hypothetical explanation of our failure to bring environment and language into causal relations, but a metaphor may help us to grasp it. Two men start on a journey on condition that each shift for himself, depending on his own resources, yet traveling in the same general directions. […] The actual course traveled by each in reference to the other and to the course originally planned will diverge more and more, while the absolute distance between the two will also tend to become greater and greater.

In 1990 at the International Association of Applied Linguistics conference, which took place in Thessaloniki, Michael Halliday looked at the relation of language and its environment from the ecological perspective in quite a different way than Haugen did. In contrast to Haugen, who compared interrelations of language and environment those of organisms with their biological environment, Halliday concentrated on the role of the language in the ecological issues and problems, in other words, how language affects us via the texts about environmental problems and how the language system itself is ideological [1] . Since then there have been dominating approaches to language from the ecological point of view, such as the ecology of language (Haugen's concept of the ecology of language will be considered in more detail in the following section of this paper), ecological and non-ecological features of a language system, ecological discourse analysis.

As Fill (Fill 1993: 7) precisely points out, there is no homogeneity about the science of ecolinguistics as it intertwines with such natural sciences as, for instance, biology and anthropology. With regards to this fact, he suggests the following classification of the branches of ecolinguistics (Fill 1993: 7-9):

Ecology of language(s), which examines interrelations between languages and their users in the linguistic community.

Ethnolinguistics, which, as its name reveals, connects ethnology and language study with respect to the role of the language in the process of conservation of communities.

Language and conflict. This branch deals with the role of the language in peace and conflict research

Language in group communication focuses primarily on the language interaction among groups of people where language is used as a tool to exert power.

Language, human beings, animals and plants. This formula by itself conveys the role of the language in the co-existence with human being, fauna and flora.

Summing up this section it is necessary to mention the application fields (Fill 2001: 61) of ecolinguistics which are prominent in the present-day ecolinguistic research. From the theoretical perspective, ecolinguistics deals with origins, features, and effects of the linguistic diversity in the world, aims at establishing relations between biological and linguistic as well as cultural diversity and, finally, creating and maintaining theoretical background for language based principles of ecology. From the viewpoint on the practical research value ecolinguistics finds its application in the recording and preserving of the endangered languages (sustaining language resources) on the one hand and facilitating ecoliteracy and ecological thinking on the other.

2. Language ecology

The notion of the ecology of language was created by Einar Haugen in 1970. He came up with the idea to transfer concepts from ecology in the biological sense to the study of language. Thus it became possible to speak about 'language environment', 'language conservation' and 'language world system' (Fill 2001: 44)

2.1. Origin and definition

Probably it would be legitimate to say that language ecology represents one of the most important and central branches of ecolinguistics because its main focus is on the linguistic diversity, which in the progressing globalization process seems to be as seriously endangered as certain species are. Environmental crisis today strongly affects both the natural environment and culture (Mühlhäusler 2000: 89). Therefore, it is utterly important that there is a discipline whose main goal is to help linguistic "species" survive.

In his article The Ecology of Language, Haugen defined language ecology as "a study of interactions between any given language and its environment [2] " (Haugen 2001: 57), the latter being understood in terms of the society using the language. According to Haugen language ecology comprises two basic components: psychological and sociological. The former refers to the interactive functioning of the language in its users' minds, the latter means interaction of the language with its users among which it serves as a medium of communication (ibid.).

As Haugen initially himself used 'ecology' as a metaphor for speaking about the language and its environment he tries to justify the use of this kind of approach. For that purpose he looks back at the different metaphorical interpretations of the language, such as biological metaphor (language = living organism), instrumental metaphor (language = tool) and structural metaphor (language = fully organized structure), and he refutes them as in each case there are obviously criteria which the language does not fulfil to be considered an organism, a tool or a structure (Haugen 2001: 58). However, he admits the usefulness of metaphorical reference due to the partial analogy that can be drawn between the mentioned concepts and language. Indeed, it is much easier to speak about the ecology of language because we usually tend to have better understanding of biological processes and the significance of surviving of species due to the fact that human beings are as equal to nature as bugs and butterflies are and thus indispensable to each other.

Furthermore, Haugen emphasized relations of the ecology of language with other linguistic disciplines (Haugen 2001: 65). The spectrum of the disciplines may be illustrated as follows:

To understand how these disciplines contribute to the notion of language ecology on can try and create an 'ecological profile' of a language. For this purpose it is necessary to analyze [3] the latter from the following positions (ibid.):

What type of language is it?

Who are its users?

What are its usage domains?

What are its concurrent languages?

What are its varieties?

What are its written traditions?

How much is it standardized?

How much institutional support does it have?

What is users' attitude towards it?

What is its status in comparison with the rest languages of the world?

Another influential aspect of Haugen's approach to language was his drawing attention to the issue of rivalling languages and those ones that suffer from this rivalry. In the article he asks questions which at the end of the 20th century will contribute to the great shift of the ecology of language to the preservation and protection of the linguistic diversity and language rights (Haugen 2001: 60):

What will be, or should be, for example, the role of 'small' languages; and how can they or any other language be made 'better', 'richer', and more 'fruitful' for mankind?

2.2. Language ecology in the globalization process

Every 14 days a language dies. (National Geographic)

(Harrison 2007: 7)

The issue of language ecology was inevitably to come into the foreground with the problem of environmental crisis and collapse of eco-systems coming closer to its zenith. There are certain factors, which lead to it and some of which are seen by non-linguists as positive as they indicate the progress in the development of human civilization: modern communication and technology, economy and migration, as well as population growth. They all made the planet shrink in the undiscoverability of its hidden species and peoples. Growth of contact between cultures due to these processes leads to the domination of "monster" languages over the small fishes. There is no possibility to stop these processes as they are essential part of the evolution. The paradox is that having been discovered a language is immediately in danger (Doug Whalen, New York Times). Thus, aiming at exploration of the linguistic diversity for the purpose of saving dying-out languages we contribute to their extinction - it cuts both ways.

This state of affairs does not mean, however, there is no way to postpone some changes or maybe let them flow in a more beneficial way. There are organizations that made preservation of language ecology their main objective. Thus, the Endangered Language Fund, for instance, has designed education and outreach program to educate students about the scope, diversity, and future of the world's languages. They organize school presentations where they together with the students explore why some languages are spoken by millions of people and some are so small that they have no chance to exist at all. Furthermore, they try and examine what happens when a language disappears and what its consequences are [4] .

Terralingua has made its main goals protection, maintenance and restoration of the biocultural diversity of life. The recognition of the fact that we need a shift in our value system with respect to the surrounding world can make it possible to take both individual and collective action to prevent environmental degradation. The organisation is not only responsible for books publications and fieldwork, but they also take an active part in public education, policy development, and creating a membership base [5] .

It would certainly take much space to describe here goals and strategies of all the organizations and funds that deal with the issue of preservation of biocultural diversity. Therefore, we just list the most prominent of them:



SIL International:

The Endangered Language Fund:

The Foundation for Endangered Languages:

The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project:

Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages:

Having all these associations fighting against language 'death' there is by all means a great achievement of the present-day ecolinguistic science. However, particular organizations as well as individual scientists are faced with quite a number of problems meddling with their good intentions. One but very serious problem is money. These organizations are non-profit. They are dependent on donations and membership fee. Donations from individuals (unless they are billionaires) are of little help. Industrial groups and corporations do not seem to be interested in preserving linguistic diversity all over the world; otherwise we would have been much more successful in this issue today. It is quite comprehensible, though some might think today: what do we need language diversity for if we all speak English?! Another aspect of the unwillingness to invest in these projects is the fact that they take very much time and even much more money to be processed at all and the results are too far from being immediate.

The second problem is our knowledge or, to put it in a more appropriate way, its lack. We are not even aware of how many languages [and cultures] there are on the planet! Many of them die before having been discovered at all. Cultural assimilation and domination of the strongest are the reasons to be considered in this context. All in all, the future does not look bright (National Geographic):

By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth-many of them not yet recorded-may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.

Finally, there is the English language with its hazardous spread all over the world, being very passionately discussed, for example, by Robert Phillipson (Phillipson 2003, 2009). The third section of this paper will briefly consider the effect of the English language on the language ecology of the world.

3. Language ecology and global English: what's the fuss all about?

"In the spirit of the critical citizen" Richard J. Alexander (Alexander 2007: 42) in his article Parallels and Paradoxes in the Englishized 'Construction' of Contemporary Globalizing Environmental Discourse (Alexander 2007: 29-45) is very enthusiastic about his contribution to the growing concern about englishization of the world. He exemplarily shows how globalization, environmental degradation and the spread of English over the globe ("three world processes" (Alexander 2007: 30)) cohere. In fact, what he writes about this cohesion is not a discovery. There is a politically, economically and culturally dominating power in the world whose language most people learn as their second one because nowadays it is a must and everyone is supposed to speak it otherwise a person would be considered inferior because she or he does not know the Language of the world. All this has been pointed at in detail and with a vengeance by Phillipson [6] in his books we quoted above.

One just has to appeal to her or his basic knowledge of the history of mankind, and she or he will fail to oversee that, in the world, there have always been kings, rulers, realms and kingdoms. The one who had more power would also force their order and language onto other nations. The others either had to adopt them or die. But it does not only refer to languages. No matter what sphere of life we take - we are to adapt to the new conditions. When computer technology came all people learned to operate computers. It was necessary for the further development of industry and technology. The same process can be observed with languages whose importance for the global well-being should by no means be underestimated.

If it had not been initially Britain then America who imposed their language on other peoples, it would have been another country whose language would be now 'reigning' over the world. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as equality on earth. It is therefore of little use to write about Americanization and McDonaldization and globalization (the term "designed by the powerful [read, the United States] for their interest" (Chomsky, quoted in Alexander 2007: 33)) over and over again. It is a fact of reality, just as the fact that ca. 1 500 million of the world population are speakers of English. As David Chrystal writes, "approximately one in four of the world's population are now capable of communicating to a useful level in English (Crystal 2003: 69)".

If anyone, for some reasons, is at odds with English she or he may choose another language to learn, we still have approximately 6500 to 10000 oral languages at our disposal (Skutnabb-Kagas & Phillipson). Nobody is forced to learn English. However, the circumstances are that to the present moment English has been everlasting and penetrating and it has become NORM among language learners. Therefore those who do not speak it are at a disadvantage as they do not have access to the world community. Today one can legitimately state that English has developed into a lingua franca. It is no longer seen as part of American or British culture - it is now perceived as a language of global communication process and understanding; living in a global world one must have a command of the global language. The research focus has shifted from how English natives use English to those who learned it as a second or foreign language. It is "an inexorable trend in the use of global English […] that fewer interactions now involve a native-speaker" (Graddol 2006: 87).

With respect to the language ecologies, however, English is undoubtedly seen as a threat. In this context it can be compared with locusts invasions, which, if not prevented, are irreversible but whose consequences are dire because such invasions corrupt the environment and destroy. One could, perhaps, imagine the following process behavior: there is a country N with a native Language N and Britain (or America - it does not make much difference for the illustration) with English as mother tongue. Country N has species N that does not exist in Britain. Language N has terms for these species and therefore makes them existent for its people. But if language N is first influenced, then suppressed and finally erased by English then, with a very high percentage probability, species N will cease to exist (or will remain undiscovered) as there are no concepts for them in English. Moreover, technology and economy coming with the language will alter social as well as natural environment, too, so that the species themselves will die out both naturally and conceptually.

There is no equality on earth and has never been any, but there is compromise. So, why not stop blaming English for being the world language and mobilize and widen the knowledge of it to inform others that there are diverse languages in need in the world and they wait for us to take action?! Why not look at the whole issue from a different perspective, a gentle rather than a radical and even aggressive one?!

In this connection we find David Crystal's attitude worth adopting (Crystal 2003: xiii):

I believe in the fundamental value of multilingualism, as an amazing world resource which presents us with different perspectives and insights, and thus enables us to reach a more profound understanding of the nature of the human mind and spirit.


I believe in the fundamental value of a common language, as an amazing world resource which presents us with unprecedented possibilities for mutual understanding, and thus enables us to find fresh opportunities for international cooperation.


Ecolinguistics has cast a new light on the language in terms of its interrelation with the environment. In the present paper we, first of all, have attempted to draw an outline of its basics by highlighting its beginnings, development and present-day applications.

In the second section we have given a description of the main branch of ecolinguistics - language ecology. Here we sought to characterize the origin of the term, the development of the concept and its status in the globalization process. We also drew readers' attention to the world organizations aiming at the preservation of the linguistic diversity on the planet which is the stem of the linguo-ecological approach.

The issue of global English with respect to the ecology of language has intentionally been assigned a separate section because, in contrast to the previous chapters, we addressed this matter in a critical rather than descriptive way.

We hope that the brief introduction we offered to the field of ecolinguistics and language ecology will approve itself a useful guide to the basics of the approach and, perhaps, arouse some reader's interest in exploring this field more thoroughly.