The mnemonics of words
The secret luminous place

True names

Tilly on Nattadon

Continuing our discussion of the "language of place" with another passage from Robert Macfarlane's fine book Landmarks:

"The extraordinary language of the Outer Hebrides is currently being lost. Gaelic itself is in danger of withering on the tongue: the total number of those speaking or learning to speak Gaelic in Scotland is now around 58,000. Of those, many are understandably less interested in the intricacies of toponymy, or the exactitudes of what the language is capable of regarding landscape. Tim Robinson -- the great writer, mathematician and deep-mapper of the Irish Atlantic seaboard -- notes how with each generation in the west of Ireland 'some of the place-names are forgotten or becoming incomprehensible.' Often in the Outer Hebrides I have been told that younger generations are losing the literacy of the land....

Tilly and the pony

Dartmoor pony

"What is occurring in Gaelic is, broadly, occuring in English too -- and in scores of other languages and dialects. The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathay and urbanization. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units ('field,' 'hill,' valley,' 'wood'). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used the word in his 1903 essay 'The Metropolis and the Mental Life' -- meaning indifferent to the distinction between things.

"It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. The enthno-linguist K. David Harrison bleakly declares that language death means the loss of 'long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human-environment interaction for millennia...accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil. The loss [is] incalculable, the knowledge almost unrecoverable.' Or as Tim Dee neatly puts it, 'Without a name in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts."

Dartmoor ponies

One question I've been pondering lately is: How can fantasy writers use the metaphorical language of our form to strengthen our relationship to place, and to ameliorate the "language deficit that leads to attention deficit"? How do we re-enchant the land, in art and actuality?

I'm working on some answers to those questions; and when I'm ready, I'll post them here.


Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor dog

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Cloud Collector: Poems & Tale in Scots & English by Sheena Blackhall (Lochlands, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly encounters Dartmoor ponies on the hill behind our house.


"Without a name in our mouths an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts" I have difficulty with this; I may not know the name of a woodland or a valley; I may not recognise or understand an animal or some far-flung astronomical event that suddenly bursts in all its glory over the night sky, but I'm certain I would still find them beautiful. Are we not discussing here the poverty and death of our emotional response rather than the poverty of language, that some seem to believe we need to fully appreciate such phenomena?

Yes and no, I agree that you have the eyes and heart to see. But our facility to name and nuance is part of our ability to think. You see this very clearly in the language acquisition of children. The less children are spoken to the narrower their world becomes. As they become frustrated by not being able to name or express they tune out that part of their world. By the time spoken language is developing exposure and usage is incredibly important.

One of the most enjoyable parts of teaching is demonstrating to children the different ways we can say a similar thing, yet change the flavour of the words in our mouths. I love getting them to feel the way saying words feels, where the tongue is against the teeth. Get them to imagine the colour the word might be, what it makes you feel like when you say it. We act out what we want to say, change the tone and the pace of the sentences. Though the luxury of doing this is getting harder and harder to fit into curriculum.

I know that language has to / must change to continue; it is wrong to try and nail it down; in the way we are being asked to in current educational thought. I also think our children show inventiveness in language usage that we often underestimate. But they need access to all that can be available to them. Topology of language is a starting point, describing the world around you is your way of navigating and finding your place in the world. I think when we consider a thing important enough to name we endow it with meaning in relation to ourselves. When we share the name with others we build up the layers of meanings and the sharing of interpretations.

I think I am making sense here, but that is language for you.

I recommend Robert's book, Stuart. Get his argument in full, rather than my short excerpt here, and give him a shot a convincing you. He certainly convinced me.

Hi Charlotte, I can really share your enthusiasm for and joy in words and their use, but I still say that a full and deep appreciation of the world does not necessarily depend upon language. My own acquisition of language skills, both written and spoken, was slow; so slow in fact my parents took me to the family doctor to ask his advice. Yet I am certain the pure joy in the world around me was undiminished even though I may not have been able to name, describe and generally vocalise that joy. A rose by any other name certainly does smell as sweet, and that same flower will still fill the senses to the brim with its beauty even if you cannot name it at all.

I'll get a copy.

I agree and disagree. I don't know many official names for flowers or trees, but I love them and work on having a relationship with them, and so call them by a name which develops from that relationship. Just as I have private names for some places. For that reason I strongly disagree with the idea that we can't love a place without knowing it's "true" name. The fact is places and plants probably have their own names for themselves which we might learn if we quietened our own language and listened.

I'm sure that's how original names were developed, but are people listening thus to the land now ... whose name may have changed as for example names changed in le guin's Always Coming Home as experiences reshaped them ... or are they holding on to their own culture, perhaps from grief? Sadly though I don't see young punks of the hedgerows demanding on new names, new songs.

The original names for certain landscapes and areas in my neighbourhood would definitely have been meaningful and important to the Maori who first lived in them, or even the settlers who cultivated them, but that meaning is lost to me, because the land has been so altered, and so I consider my own names for those places, to find my own meaning and experience in them. For example, there is a place I go to frequently. I know the story behind its Maori name, but still my present experience offers a more true name for now, for me. And because Maori no longer dwell there or, as far as I can see, even visit there to communicate with the place, I don't feel guilty using my name. It makes me believe that the place "belongs" to me as much as to anyone.

But of course I almost never communicate my names to my community - few of whom seem interested in nature anyway. And the medicine I get from my relationships with flowers is only psychological, for I don't know the actual medicinal abilities of plants without their official names. So yes, I'm missing a lot. That's why I both agree and disagree.

I think the heart of the issue may be not the language but the fact that people no longer listen to the land or talk to each other about it.

Sorry for such a long comment.

i think it is perfectly possible to love a creature or land feature without knowing their names and terminology...but i do think there is a deep impoverishment that occurs when terms and names for specific features of an environment are lost. we lose the language to describe things we no longer do. then we lose ways of seeing and interacting with the land because of that loss of parents' generation might not have been---any longer---farming in the old ways, or spinning and weaving, or wandering the land knowing each animal and plant for their uses and behaviors and appearances, but they did still have the words to describe such things and a memory of their importance and kinship. my generation largely have neither the memories nor the words to evoke them, and most seem to think of "the land" or "wildlife" as something other, out there, amorphous and not compelling. many people younger than i have even lost all sense of where their food and clothing comes from, and children are unable to identify basic farm animals or wildlife, and cannot tell you how milk is obtained, or what a valley is, or how a bog differs from a field...i feel that preserving the folk ways and names connected to the land is a way to lead people back to the land, and to their own human souls as part of it.

I think you have put this so beautifully, Charlotte, and I agree emphatically. I do believe that losing the ability to describe something somehow blinds us to it and makes it more difficult to form a relationship with it. And in turn, that makes it far too easy to exploit and destroy, which is probably one reason why we're not encouraged to build that relationship nowadays. People who care about the land do 'annoying' things like chaining themselves to bulldozers or climbing trees and refusing to come down or standing in the way of pipelines, and we can't have that sort of thing going on, not when there's big money to be made (by someone!) in digging up, cutting down, desecrating and destroying.

I see it here particularly, where the dominant colonial culture does not have a language to describe this land that is deep and specific. We've only been here a bit over two hundred years, and we haven't had time to develop that kind of language, and probably never will given the way our culture has developed, only seeing the land as something to be used and abused. I see it happening here as remote aboriginal communities are closed down, because living on your ancestral land is apparently a 'lifestyle choice' that the government of Australia refuses to 'subsidise'. And as more and more aboriginal sacred sites are deregistered, de-sacralized, in what is clearly an unapologetic policy to remove any kind of opposition to mining interests.

Stuart, this doesn't mean I think we as individuals don't feel this at a deeply visceral level even if we can't put it into words, because I believe we do, but I think the ability to communicate it, the ability to discuss with others who share a language that can describe it and celebrate it, strengthens the bond with both the land and with each other. A common language creates a community that includes the land itself, and it makes it much harder to turn it into an anonymous commodity if every part of the land has a name and a story, and everyone knows and shares it.

Wonderful post, Terri, about things close to my heart. I think in someways we all agree. It's not necessarily about finding the 'true' or indigenous name of a place (because often, as with where I live, they have been lost), but rather about speaking a name, sharing a name, building a relationship by noticing, seeing, greeting, sharing. And if you can't use the name a place might once have had, then create a new one for yourself, but make it about the place, not, as so many place names around where I live are, a name about the white man who 'discovered' it!

The poem in the images is also gorgeous, almost like an invocation/re-enchanting of the land. If anyone is interested, you can find the book that inspired Sheena Blackhall's lovely poem, the "Gaelic Topography of Balquhidder Parish" online here:

Yes, this is just so :-)

Learning the Words

". . . I have been told that younger
generations are losing the literacy
of the land."--Tim Robinson

As if our tongues--once fluent
in the thrust of tree, backbone of ridge,
heap of mountain, meander of river,
now speaks in glosses.

We advertise but do not know
the deep roots of any place.
We adjectize in colorful brochures,
but our hands are never deep in the soil.

If you lose the language of place,
you cut connection.
Your feet may leave prints
but they do not mark the heart.

You pick leaf, bud, flower,
never knowing their names.
Each bog and fen are one to you.
All bark seems the same.

It is as if you are at a party,
waving your invitation.
You eat all the crudites,
drink all the proffered wine.

Once safely home again,
you find you've no address
where you can send your thank you.
Indeed, you've never learned the words.

©2017 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I agree, Ann.

It so refreshing to have a proper debate and yes Christina I think you're right, in some ways we do all agree, if not precisely in all ways. I love what you say about making our own name for a place; this is precisely the living dynamic of language! A place is not impoverished because a former name is forgotten or by having no known name at all. But perhaps it could be argued that a place is enhanced by having more than one name in more than one language, even if that language is only understood by the person who made the name.

But having said all of that I still think that beauty is integral in and of itself and doesn't need language of any sort to allow its existence or appreciation.

Beautifully expressed, Christina.

Hmm, I don't read the text above as stating that you can't love a place without knowing it's true name. Of course you can.

In my reading of it, Robert is talking about the ways our culture has becoming disengaged with the land compared to past generations -- and how the loss of words that hold the history of our relationship with a place, built up over many generations, adds to that cultural disengagement. This isn't about each of us as individuals (with our wide range of relationships to landscape), but a broader argument about modern culture in large (not all) swathes of the West. As a writer, and particularly as a mythic fiction writer, I believe in the power of words, so this is an idea that chimes with me.

Thank you for bringing Le Guin's "Always Coming Home" into the conversation. I'd forgotten about the very interesting way she uses language in that book. And I love the fact that you've intuited your own way into having a medicine relationship with the land and plants. That is a gift.


I think you'd like his book "The Old Ways" too.

I agree entirely that it's much harder to make a place anonymous if we name it and talk about it. There needs to be a community of language that can bring about a sense of solidarity in the fight to protect the beautiful and sacred. But quite apart from the political/moral questions about the saving of sacred sites, this was not the original point of the debate. Put simply I have to say again that beauty remains beauty whether we name it as such or not.

I love creating my own names for places! But what I personally like about also learning the older names, lore, and history of the places I live or roam is the way it connects me to past generations...and, if I pass them on, to generations of the future.

This is precisely why I write fiction steeped in myth and folklore, to be part of that generations-long chain.

Three of my favorite quotes:

"For most of human history, 'literature,' both fiction and poetry, has been narrated, not written - heard, not read. So fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labor created our world." - Angela Carter

"There were always tales passed from mother to daughter, father to son. Down through the generations they came, so that we would never forget that place, that magic, that elemental and awesome power that abided in our forbears. In each generation the power of the tales rests with us, the storytellers." - Evangeline Walton

"I think every work of art is an act of faith, or we wouldn't bother to do it. It is a message in a bottle, a shout in the dark. It's saying, 'I'm here and I believe that you are somewhere and that you will answer if necessary across time, not necessarily in my lifetime." -Jeanette Winterson

You're making perfect and eloquent sense to me, Charlotte.

Oh my. You get right to the heart of the matter; and that last verse packs a punch.

"But having said all of that I still think that beauty is integral in and of itself and doesn't need language of any sort to allow its existence or appreciation."

I certainly don't disagree with that.

Thanks, Terri. Alas, I am as incapable as the next in the language
of land I all myself a floral dyslexic. But every day I walk between 1-4 miles and try to at least feel praise songs to the landscape rising up inside.


It is that loss that I think Robert has identified. I teach bright and enquiring children who often do not have the words for things I take for granted. But what they do have is an insatiable appetite to know. I do not agree with nailing ourselves to an unchanging landscape of words, particularly as our landscapes change rapidly for many, many reasons. But I think naming things roots us, gives us the base from which we grow. Being able to name my world, link my names to older ones and pass on my naming to the next group is a core need.

Storytelling is a good example of how this works. Think about the range of stories that turn up in different forms across the world. Each one has common linkages (the skeleton story) yet each of them is different and changing. We filter our world through our words but we can also magnify and pinpoint things that matter, share them and pass them around. Build a picture for one who has never seen but can imagine. Pictorial languages do that, in the way Gaelic does, others do it through idiom. This is where I think I diverge from Stuart slightly. I agree totally that we can appreciate and immerse ourselves in the beauty of the world with our senses. However, to be able to share it effectively we need names.

Lively discussion, and debate.Truly an uncommon exchange on the internet, or in person for that matter. Thank you for the space, Terri.

I am a hybrid woman, indigenous to Earth because my mother's people, my father's people have seeded my DNA with the gene of survival. In spite of the thousands upon thousands of tons of concrete and towers of high-rising people enclosures the literacy of land, sea, and heavens survives on the occupied island nation. Hawaiian, 'Olelo 'oiwi, language of the bones was kept alive -- underground/in the bones, hidden long enough to build momentum during my lifetime.

I am a hybrid woman, indigenous but separated from Home Place because at this point, I am Environmentally Ill. A diagnosis I paid for years ago now when my life with ALL and ANY made no sense. Could I be sick of the world, the environment? Over the decade since that 'medical' diagnosis I have found the way through by making up the language to redefine that diagnosis. Learning my native language resets the context of illness and at its core I find the loss of TRUE NAMES as major issue.

It matters so to create language and names through the writing of myth. Inseparable in the writing with the intent to truly connect is the Visitation; Ancestors and those indigenous to the place where I create come. My blood Ancestors come to press at places in me where the concrete and high rising mentality has led me astray. An older word, a truer perspective is fed me. I chew. I notice. I shift.

Appreciating is only the first step in finding the true name of a place, a plant, a wind. From there you must makawalu ... translation: use many eyes, analyze, apply, be the APP.

I moved to the woods about 8 years ago and felt a strong tug to learn the names of the plants and animals here and this kind of explains it:

“When we know the name of something, it brings us closer to the ground. It takes the blur out of our mind; it connects us to the earth. If I walk down the street and see “dogwood,” and “forsythia,” I feel more friendly toward the environment. I am noticing what is around me and can name it. It makes me more awake.” Natalie Goldberg from Writing Down the Bones

But also, we charted new paths through 40 acres of woodland, landmarks that no one had named, perhaps no one had visited in decades, on private land. We named these for an actual need for the language - Oh, I forgot the camera at the bunker - which is a rock formation that makes a natural bunker. Most names are just prosaic and useful but my how they have sunk into my heart, leaving an imprint in the soft matter of my soul. Anyone who has visited our home, what we now call Crescentwood, knows these places by the names we coined, and this too has a whiskey warming affect on the heart.

From the small scale to the global scale, the names give us tools for dialogue and a hook by which a mountain, a fog, a tree can tug at our souls.

Yes, Jane every good host welcomes a true thank you. Beautiful poetry this one!

And I thank you--

I love learning the old names of places, the ways the early people to experience places chose to describe them. I've lived in a few places where the old names were still used or were at least remembered, and I found learning the old names connected me to them more deeply.

It isn't just the specific names we risk losing. With languages dying and trending to the generic, we lose "kind of place" names. How many Americans really know what a moor or a fen or a tor is, not to mention a beck? And those are in our own language.

How long until nobody understands the meaning of "Under Ben Bulben" or "The Dry Salvages"?

Well made points, Melissa. I am living on an island and in a place on this island whose old name means "where the gooseberry grow." A few years ago when I went searching for that old name those who know the name waited for weeks to answer me. A protocol of deliberation. Waiting was the test. In time I would need to go to the source to confirm the pronunciation of the name by listening to it said. I took gifts of appreciation for permission to use those names. Slowly, I developed a relationship with those people. To keep it going I have to appreciate there are no gooseberry here anymore.

I do not understand either meaning of "Under Ben Bulben" or "The Dry Salvages."

Yes. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on how to address this. ❤️

I often wonder if more modern heath problems than we realize (and I include my own here) are rooted in environmental distress -- not just in the obvious way of the body reacting to exposure to toxins, but also in mythic and metaphoric ways: the places where the human story, and our personal stories, shape our response to the world around us. Certainly many traditional ways of healing focused on these stories as much as on the physical symptoms of an illness or imbalance.

They're coming!

I appreciate your wonder. It is an act of kindness:)

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