The climate crisis poses an existential threat to human society and the ecology of the planet. As glaciers disappear and ecosystems deteriorate, so too is our language shaped by the world’s greatest challenge.
Our language massively affects how we perceive fundamental concepts such as colour, direction or time. Linguist Michael Halliday goes further, believing that even our interactions with the natural world are rooted in grammar.
He claims that, in English, we unfailingly regard any ‘growth’ word as neutral within pairs of two contrasting words. ‘It is always: how fast is the car (not how slow), how high is the building (not how low), how big is her income (not how small).’ In response, Anglophone societies have created an economic model promoting relentless growth at any cost.
Moreover, the dehumanising third person pronoun ‘it’ others all non-human beings and supposes that human development and environmental protection are in opposition. As Albert Einstein put it: ‘The environment is everything that isn’t me.’
Realising the influence that language has on our perceptions, publications such as the Guardian have replaced ‘climate-sceptic’ with ‘climate-denier’, and use ‘climate emergency’ and ‘ecological breakdown’ in place of ‘change’. For its part, Extinction Rebellion has rebranded the Holocene extinction as an ‘extermination’.
Many activists also suffer from climate grief – a new form of clinical depression. Sufferers typically use more rhetorical devices, aggressive punctuation, and an increasingly bleak choice of vocabulary when describing the future. Concordance analyses show that, while the word ‘future’ was traditionally paired with hopeful descriptors, adjectives are now overwhelmingly negative and qualifiers more intense.
Apart from the use of emotive language, the ongoing emergency has forced us to develop an entirely new lexicon. The terms ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘greenhouse gases’ have become so omnipresent that we no longer recognise them as metaphors, while the more recent ‘climate warriors’ suggests we are fighting against a corrupt, planet-destroying elite.
In Sweden, Greta Thunberg’s actions alone have led to an explosion in environmental vocabulary. ‘Flygskam’ or ‘flight shame’ stems from her call to stop flying, while the accompanying ‘tågskryt’ or ‘train brag’ describes individuals who flaunt their environmental credentials by highlighting their sustainable travel on social media.
Meanwhile in Germany, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache made ‘Heißzeit’ its word of the year in 2018 describing the recent extreme heat of summers induced by global warming. The phonological similarity to ‘Eiszeit’ draws a parallel with the quaternary ice age highlighting that anthropogenic warming has created a new era in Earth’s climatic history.
Further afield, environmental degradation is one of the main drivers of language extinction. Vanuatu is home to over one hundred different languages, all at risk as rising sea levels create climate refugees. In Papua New Guinea, declines in biodiversity have resulted in similar declines in linguistic diversity. Although the relationship is not yet understood, both linguists and scientists predict distorted weather patterns and deforestation will see many of the remaining language go extinct within a generation.
As a species we are hitting our limits. We have developed a system that is not only destroying the planet, but also the way we communicate with one another and understand our culture. We are undermining our future capacity to sustain ourselves and a fundamental part of being human at the same time. Business-as-usual could lead to warming in excess of 6°C by the end of the century. Had our ancestors been born into such a world would we even have words for ice and snow?
MICHAEL HENDLE (LINGUISTICS EDITOR)