Today WIZ launches a project to advocate for the bettering of the environment in a new and perhaps radical way. Rather than revisit the usual topics in ecology, WIZ is stepping up as a paladin for a neglected yet overarching environmental concern. We’re launching a campaign to seek recognition of another influential system that has come to affect the condition of many if not all species and habitats the world over: the expanding environment of human expression. Specifically, we intend to turn attention to the state of human language, whose own environs affect the quality of community dialogues about the As to Zs of environmental issues, from household utilities use to global climate change.
In its increasing capacity to alter other environments–including the bioregion of the human brain–human language has reached a stage of development where it exerts as powerful an influence on the earth as does any other natural system or force of nature. Over millennia, it has emerged to wield potency to be reckoned with, surpassing in effectuality its probable original use as a practical tool for survival. It’s high time that language be recognized to be as much an environment as (and perhaps an extension of) the native world that sustains us with the vitality of its currents, the fertility of its ground, the quality of its light and air, and its wilderness of teeming potentialities. Human language is as energetic and rich-veined as all that, and we’re freebooting in its vital and sensitive systems like we did in natural spaces fifty to a hundred-and-fifty years ago. It’s time to begin the work of altering our behavior in the logosphere, which looks to have become wired more directly into the biosphere than we might have supposed. In other words, WIZ is advocating for people going green in their language.
What does it mean to go green in language? We aim to start the work of finding out. This is a new concept, wide open for exploration. As with all frontiers, the matter is in need of pioneering. So beginning this month and continuing over the next year, WIZ will present its case that human language is an environment worthy of the same consideration that the natural environment is due. To this end, I’ll review Derek Bickerton’s book, Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, and argue how his point that the language-human relationship is a case of biological niche construction can be extended to establish human language as an environment in its own right. We’ll propose that like the extensive water system we depend upon to sustain our lives, human expression is a similarly powerful current. Like any other flowing, life-giving current it functions on a downstream principle. We’ll explore how we might be in need of developing and, in some cases, restoring sustainable practices in the ways we act in language, what sustainability in language might entail, and how rhetorical sustainability–including the practice of applying sweet reason–is a subset of green language, one of the most potent forces on Earth. To borrow from Scott Momaday, who calls the higher, more imaginative ranges of language generally “the realm of infinite possibility,” green language has energetic elements that can help us open up new terrain. Unlike sustainable practices in agriculture, which at best only preserve existent acreage while increasing yields and thus a crop’s profitability, green language can actually create new ground. For everyone. For free.
We’ll talk about the practice of what I call “storying others”: ways we arrange other people and species–rhetorically, ideologically, morally, etc.–in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, because in environmental discourse (and other rhetorical wordscapes) many storytellers ply words to conveniently position the other side to their liking. This is a common form of objectification–rendering another person, species, landscape, narrative take–into an object with no meaning other than that which supports the underlying rhetorical feng shui of the storyteller’s mental interior designs. As far as the environment is concerned, storying others is not sustainable behavior. How might the practice of storying others trickle down to wild spaces when we talk about the environment? Perhaps sizing others to fit our narratives about the environment suggests that we’re similarly arranging the environment to suit unfitting narrative takes.
We’ll explore some of the implications of Steven Pinker’s theory that the human brain has become wired to acquire language as one of its core functions. We’ll wonder over the questions of whether our language limits us and whether meaning can be controlled, as the cattle barons in days of yore controlled water and land access. We’ll examine implications of terminator gene technology in agriculture for human language’s rhetorical yields. We’ll touch on the importance of maintaining freedom of speech, not just as an issue of human rights but as a critical concern for human evolution. Also, we’ll play with the idea, ala Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, that language exhibits recombinant qualities that place it in the same category as the genetic code of DNA: Both are “discrete combinatorial systems.” In fact, according to Pinker, these two systems appear to be the only discrete combinatorial systems in the natural world. What does that imply about the nature of human social intercourse as it manifests in the intertwinings of words we exchange with one another? We know that language groups exhibit relationships, but can a individual’s language pick up coding from another’s speech or writing to develop linguistic kinships? We expect to have fun teasing out possible answers to these and related questions.
Also, where possible, we’ll conduct interviews with and invite responses to our project from experts in the fields of environmental studies and, we hope, language evolution.
Woven throughout this journey will be business as usual at WIZ: displays of readers’ prowess with poetry and prose, photographic skills, MP3 performances, visual artistic renderings, etc. Formerly, we framed all these with our previous tagline: “A Mormon literary backcountry where words and place come together.” Our purpose was to establish and promote nature writing and other artistic, nature-related ventures in the Mormon community. We think it’s time to broaden the vision, so: Wilderness Interface Zone: providing grounds for the greening of human language.
Patricia Karamesines lives with her family in the Four Corners region of the southwestern U.S. She has won many awards for her poetry, essays, and fiction. She is the author of The Pictograph Murders, a mystery set in the area where she lives. An adjunct English professor for Utah State University-Eastern, she teaches English composition and also works as a tutor for English. She is founding editor of Wilderness Interface Zone and a passionate advocate for the environment of human expression.