English vs. the Planet – Deconstructing How Language Harms the World

Transform our words to support growth!
Transform our words to support growth!

In the early 1930’s, two men, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, posited that language was so powerful it had the ability to alter people’s reality just based on its vocabulary, structure, morphology and syntax.  This theory later became known as “linguistic relativity” and while their “strong” version has been largely disproven with linguistic and cultural research, a weaker version of this theory–suggesting that language still has powerful influence–still stands.  One of the strongest modern cases for linguistic relativity comes from Dale Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes which is a wonderful book examining language and culture in the Amazonian rainforest. In this book, we see how the Pirahas’ limited vocabulary (specifically, having a number system of one-two-many) influenced the Pirahas’ ability to quantify, to engage in trade, and so forth. A second area that shapes our thought concerning language is the art of rhetoric. This describes how language is constructed in ways to be persuasive; the ancient art goes the whole way back to Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Cicero, and is still studied today. The use of language persuades us to act, to think, and to believe certain things or disbelieve others. Of course, those working in the Western magical tradition don’t need academic theories to attest to the magical power of words.

These two concepts provide us insight into how language shapes our reality, how we use language to alter our reality, and how we are, in turn, shaped by said language. This means that the way we frame things in our language–the terms we use, the way we frame what we say–has a substantial impact on our own culture and how we approach new situations.  The reason I bring this up is because linguistic relativity, and specifically, how we use language to construct discussions about the planet has a substantial impact on the shape of those discussions.

One of the things I think we really need to do to help transition to a better world is to shift our uses of language so that they are more representative of actual reality on the finite limits of our plant, on the necessity of recognizing the value and rights of non-human life, and on recognizing our part in shaping the unfolding disaster of environmental collapse.

To demonstrate this in action, let’s talk a look at some of the worst offenders in the English language.  There are a lot more than these, but I think these six terms will illustrate what I’m arguing here:

#1: Development.  Webster’s defines this word as follows: “1) The process of developing or being developed; 2) A specified state of growth or advancement.” So we have new developments, housing developments, land developers, and so on.  As humans we attach all sorts of positive images to the word development, but my question is–what is being developed, and what is lost in the process?

#2. Global Warming / Climate Change. The problem with these terms is what rhetoricians would call a lack of agency; that is, they don’t attribute causality to any particular group.  Climate change is happening, but who is causing that change? In this linguistic construction, grammatically, it kinda seems like the climate is just changing.  This is the same problem with the term global warming; the globe is warming, which is true, but its not attributing agency to the true case: humanity (which now has an overwhelming scientific consensus).

#3: Growth.  The definition of growth is, “1) The process of increasing in physical size; The process of developing or maturing physically, mentally, or spiritually.”  Of course, those aren’t the only definitions we attach to the term growth.  Growth is tied to humanity’s overriding success narrative; the idea that growth is central for corporate, economic, and international success.  But with growth comes the depletion of resources, the destruction of wild places, and the general killing off of other, non-human species.  And, as the Limits of Growth describes, we are quickly reaching those limits; if the world consumed at the rate of modern-day America, it would take 5 earths to supply all that Americans consumed.

#4 Overgrown.  In fact, when something that was tamed by humanity reverts to its more natural state of development, that is, it grows again we call it “overgrown.” Overgrown?  Shouldn’t it just be grown? And we attach a negative connotation to it, like we let nature get out of control or something.

#5: Weed.  Then there is the poor weed, the plant that is nature’s way of healing something that is far from its natural state (by breaking up soil, by preventing erosion, by fixing nitrogen in the soil, etc).  We see these beneficials as “weeds” and then dump chemicals on them to eradicate them.  What they are is nature’s way of balancing an unbalanced system (such as the lawn, which is as far from a natural state as a piece of land can typically be).  We’ve declared war on these weeds (and pests) and this way of thinking is harmful (as I’ve blogged about before).

#6: Must haves / needs Everything in our culture is a must have. New “must haves” for the Christmas season, new must haves in technology, etc.  The truth is, there is little that we “must have” that we think we do.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a helpful thing to consider here; Maslow posits that people need, at their base level, physiological comforts (air, food, sleep, etc.); safety (employment, property, resources, health, etc.), Love/belonging (family, sexual intimacy, friendship), esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement); and finally, self-actualization (morality, creativity, acceptance, etc.) While we see “resources” show up under the 2nd level, safety, this does not refer to the senseless accumulation of stuff.  It refers to the ability of people to feel safe and secure in their environment: e.g. having the resources to acquire or produce food, shelter, etc.  It does not refer to the latest consumer goods.

In sum, we need to rethink our vocabulary when dealing with our relationship to the natural world.  We know from theories of linguistic relativity and rhetoric that language helps shape thought–and so we should be aware of how language used to describe our relationship with nature is used and abused.  We need to come up with new terms, terms that accurately represent what is happening in our world and use terms that shape negative activity as negative and positive activity as positive.  We need to empower ourselves through our communication so that we can act and build a better world.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. Greetings, Dana! Your talents are wide-ranging indeed – including painting, if I’m not mistaken. Am I right in surmising that your family originally hailed from southern Ireland? The noble Ó hEidirsceoil clan, perchance?

    Your linguistic material will doubtless prove thought-provoking, if, that is, I have time to read it in full, and provided that my ageing brain (72 years of age on Saturday) will be able to grasp it. Decades of speaking a variety of Oriental languages, mostly to numberless small, often abused and abandoned, orphan girls, have have had the effect of making my greatly altered original languages (Dutch and English) seem quite alien to me now. So, prithee forgive the prolixity and stilted nature of what I write!

    Being relatively new to the Internet, I’m not sure about the rules of etiquette concerning its use. I liked some of your wonderfully clear photos of trees and snow scenes so much that I made bold to copy them and transfer them to Picasa. If you object, please let me know, and I’ll delete them. The girls are interested in seeing what far-flung places look like, on the sporadic occasions when the electricity works in this remote spot. Snow, as you’ll appreciate, is a real novelty where a chilly winter’s day in the deep south may fall to 28°. (Oh, if you still use the Fahrenheit scale, that’s 82°, and a guarantee that a chorus of shrill little voices will protest, “Too cold, uncle, too cold!”)

    May you be in good health and spirits. Deepak.

    1. Greetings Deepak–thanks for the comment! I do, in fact, come from the noble O’Driscoll/Drisceoil clan of Southern Ireland; I’m very proud of that heritage! And yes, I paint pretty often (the painting in this blog post was a commission I did a few years ago; you can see http://www.tarotoftrees.com for my tree-themed tarot deck. I have a few others on this blog: http://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/awen-and-the-spark-of-creativity-the-value-of-creative-people/ or this one: http://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/the-druids-peace-prayer-stagdeer-and-awen-painting/).

      By all means, save photos and share them–just link back to my blog, please :). I’m happy to share more photos of snow if we get more (which we should, since January and February are our coldest months.) Global warming is taking its toll on our winter months, unfortunately, and the snow we used to get (like when I was growing up) no longer occurs. Our winter months are more barren then white, and its one of the great tragedies of our time.

      If its cold at 82 (yes, still Fahrenheit in the states) I’d hate to think of what it is when its hot down there! Where exactly are you located? And I would love to hear more about your work with the orphans. The exposure to different languages allows for new ways of thinking and seeing the world–there is some absolutely fascinating work on bilingualism that suggests that while it takes bilingual children longer to acquire language initially, once they do they can out-perform mono-lingual children in a variety of ways. Fascinating stuff.

      1. Hello once more, Dana. The fitful electricity supply has been even more troublesome than usual – two hours a day, if they are lucky in the nearby village – and often in short bursts of just a few minutes! In my shack outside the tiny settlement, there’s no electricity or running water. This, of course, is great – nothing to go wrong!

        My dear, wee dryad, regarding your photos, I have no idea at all how to “link back to your blog”! All four pictures are in my Picasa online photo album, and are shown to the girls so as to let them see how distant places and peoples look. Perhaps they could be regarded as informal teaching aids. We all like the one with you behind the cairn, which reminds me of a large, less elegant kind of observation platform I made from the rough, black lava rocks that I dug out of my garden in Hawai’i. You seem to be totally at one with the surroundings. That’s why I think of you as a dryad. Strange to say, even eight-year-old little Purnima, after cogitating for a minute or so, asked if you were a real person, and if you lived under the stones or in the fallen tree!

        Regarding temperatures, the daily maxima in the “coolest” month are about 86-87°, but the minima are a positively freezing 68-69° on average! In the warm season, the range is approximately 77-98°. Also, it’s always very humid!

        As for my location, I regret to say that since we are living in such evil days, when pedophiles, people traffickers and other criminals are, they say, scouring the Net for information they can use for their own devious aims, those of us who are trying to help the abused and vulnerable have taken enormous trouble to cover our tracks thoroughly (as though we were criminals). Consequently, my emails are sent to trusted third parties quite remote from my location for forwarding elsewhere. All I can tell you is that if you imagine an east-west line drawn through the city of Madurai (level with the top of Sri Lankā), then we lie somewhere to the south of that line.

        I send you my kindest regards, and hope that all is well. Later, if you’re interested, I have a few words to say about Appalachia, and my hitch-hiking trip from the outskirts of Philadelphia to south of Miami. So long!

        1. You seem to live a simple life, my friend. I long for such simplicity here, and maybe someday, I will wander into the forest and never come out. That is a very tempting proposition, to say the least. I am torn, because on one hand I spent 10 years of my life pursuing advanced degrees, and now that I have them and people call me “doctor” and “professor” and I have everything I worked for….I long for things that no amount of education or professional success can give me; namely, the tranquility of nature.

          Take any of the photos that you like, of course! The stone cairn is from the forest to which I belong, located in the Appalachian mountains in Western PA. I tend to build them wherever I go, and then leave them to honor the forest. That one is still standing!

  2. You may find this following article on how ancient Hebrew dealt with language based on concrete rather than abstract words, how this impacts world view.


    1. This is awesome, Alex! Thanks for sharing. I teach a course in Global Rhetoric–this is actually a wonderful resource for that course :). Thank you!

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