Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, March 09, 2015

Wilding

Photograph of bluebells courtesy of sxc.hu and John Evans of Winchester, UK

Love the sound and flavor of words, love wandering in the wild? If so, then I'm suggesting an online read, lovely and long for an online piece (hat tip #PrufrockNews): "The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape." 

Macfarlane's praise for the fine discrimination in words about nature is wonderful, and reminds me of a book that has influenced me when I have written about the western North Carolina mountains, where I went to high school (Cullowhee) and where I return several times each year: Smoky Mountain Voices: A Lexicon of Southern Appalachian Speech Based on the Research of Horace Kephart. (Jacket copy: A stingy man "won't drink branch water till there's a flood," and it is "a mighty triflin' sort o' man'd let either his dog or his woman starve." Some places are "so crowded you couldn't cuss a cat without gettin' fur in your mouth." For almost thirty years Horace Kephart collected sayings like these from his neighbors and friends in the area around Bryson City, North Carolina.) The Kephart-based dictionary was created by two professors at Western Carolina University, Hal Farwell and Karl Nicholas. I've also been inspired at other times by regional dictionaries and grammars (as in Catherwood.)

Here's a taste of why you might want to read Macfarlane:
Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while a feadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

In a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary there has been “a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail…
And now, back to galleys and my own playing with words--I'm on my second read of Maze of Blood. One more, and back it goes. It'll be out  exactly a year after Glimmerglass...

12 comments:

  1. Wonderful, those old colloquial phrases!

    But how shocking the loss of common names for trees, plants, birds, animals! What would replace them, now words at all? Will nature disappear? Ok, it's happening in places, but still. Unbelievable for Oxford. Hang onto your old dictionaries and childrens' books! Teach your children the old words!

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    1. It is sad for the world to become less precise--as if the thing no longer exists because the name is gone.

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    2. That's horrifying! Who are they to declare "newt" "heather," "buttercup" and all the rest defunct?
      It was one thing to include new slang terms, but if they are replacing the names of things, they have gone altogether too far!

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    3. You tell 'em, Robbi! Kick 'em in the shins!

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  2. Sometimes I go through books and underline all the wonderful words. I had such fun reading Faulkner for the rich language, for he writes like people talk at times. Even today. But even Welty knew how words could dance.

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    1. I was a mad Faulkner nut in high school, and I loved Welty's stories.

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  3. The Oxford omissions remind me of a poem by W.S. Merwin:

    http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2007/10/16

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    1. Oh, that is close, isn't it?

      "many of the things the words were about / no longer exist // the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree"

      Thanks, Dave!

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  4. Lately I've been trying to learn the names for all the individual species of trees in the Pacific Northwest, because I think it's important to know that a ponderosa pine is not a lodgepole pine is not a silver birch is not a beech is not a western cedar; "tree" as a catch-all name for all of them only makes the world smaller and flatter, just as a kentucky warbler is not a yellow-throated warbler, though they are both "birds." More words means more ways of thinking, of being aware of the world, of being alive. We can have--can't we?--both "chatroom" and "catkin."

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    1. I've regretted how much I have forgotten--my mother taught me the names of wildflowers and birds and trees when I was little, and I have lost so many of them. It's definitely more fun to have them inhabiting the mind than to have to look them up.

      That's a good project! It's such a primal thing, naming the world. And to know the name of a thing was long thought to have power.

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  5. There's a wry little poem to be wrought from the notion of a dictionary for children containing only words they already know.

    Taking up gardening in my thirties gave me one of the biggest conceptual expansions of my adult life (so far): New names, new concepts, new connections. Every walk through the woods is now an infinitely complex Hopkins poem—and humbling.

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    1. Yes, Jeff, that sounds like one you should write!

      As a child, I remember how much it meant to me to see wildflowers and name them--so satisfying, and the world accrued meaning from the act. That's a lovely description. Hopkins would be touched (or maybe abashed!)

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.