Ecolinguistics, or ecological linguistics, emerged in the 1990s as a new paradigm of linguistic research, widening sociolinguistics to take into account not only the social context in which language is embedded, but also the ecological context. The ecolinguistics considered language from the point of interaction: Just as in ecology, the interaction between organisms and between organisms and the environment is examined, the ecolinguistics explores the interaction between languages and between languages and their environment and the society in which they are used.
A pioneer of ecolinguistics (ecology of language) was the American linguist Einar Haugen, who in 1972 introduced the aspect of the interaction in sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics.
Another pioneer is Englishman Michael Halliday, now living in Australia, who introduced the subject of language and the environment to the discussion for the first time in 1990 during a lecture in Thessaloniki. His question was: To what extent are linguistic structures and peculiarities of texts involved in the environmental problems ? Can language help to mitigate environmental problems, for example by raising awareness of various anthropocentric terms?
Today, economic considerations are increasingly being included in eco-linguistics. Questions that are asked are u. a.: What costs linguistic diversity – and what does it bring to a state? How many jobs does she create? What can deliberate use of language contribute to resolving conflicts? How can the linguistic diversity of the world be preserved – and is there a connection between language diversity and peace?
Since Halliday’s initial comments, the field of ecolinguistics has developed in several directions, employing a wide range of linguistic frameworks and tools to investigate language in an ecological context. The International Ecolinguistics Association, characterizes ecolinguistics in these terms:
“Ecolinguistics explores the role of language in the life-sustaining interactions of humans, other species and the physical environment. The first aim is to develop linguistic theories which see humans not only as part of society, but also as part of the larger ecosystems that life depends on. The second aim is to show how linguistics can be used to address key ecological issues, from climate change and biodiversity loss to environmental justice.”
In this way, the ‘eco’ of ecolinguistics corresponds to ecology in its literal sense of the relationship of organisms (including humans) with other organisms and the physical environment. This is a sense shared with other ecological humanities disciplines such as ecocriticism and ecopsychology.
The term ‘ecolinguistics’ has also been used with a metaphorical sense of ‘ecology’, for example in ‘Linguistic ecology’, ‘communication ecology’ and ‘learning ecology’ in ways which do not include consideration of other species or the physical environment. This is becoming less prevalent now as ecolingusitics becomes increasingly understood as a form of ecological humanities/social science.
Another aspect of ecolinguistics is linguistic diversity and the embedding of traditional ecological knowledge in local languages. In 1996, David Abram’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, described how the wider ecology (or ‘the more than human world’) shapes language in oral cultures (Abram, 1996), helping people attune to their environment and live sustainably within it. On the other hand, writing has gradually alienated people in literate cultures from the natural world, to the extent that ‘our organic atonement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs’ (1996:267). As dominant languages such as English spread across the world, ecological knowledge embedded in local cultures is lost.
There are two main areas of interest for ecolinguistics. The first can be described as ‘The Ecological Analysis of Language’ and the second ‘Language Diversity’.
The main idea of Haugen is that languages, like various species of animals and plants, are in a state of equilibrium, compete with each other, and their very existence depends on each other, both within the state and other social groups, and in the human mind, owning several languages.
The subject of ecolinguistics
The subject of ecolinguistics is the interaction between language, a person as a linguistic person and his environment. At the same time, language is considered as an integral component of the chain of relationships between man, society and nature. The functioning and development of language is represented as an ecosystem, and the world around it as a language concept.
The ecological system of H. Haarmann
Harald Haarmann identifies 7 environmental variables that determine linguistic behavior:
According to his theory, these variables cannot be separated, they are closely related and interact with each other, thereby forming an “ecological system”. Thus, the ecological system is the interconnection of the seven environmental variables, which as a result form a single whole.
Alvin Fill was the first to develop clear terminology for different areas of ecolinguistics. In total, he identified three areas:
Ecolinguistics is a general term for all areas of research that combine ecology and linguistics;
Ecology of language – explores the interaction between languages in order to preserve linguistic diversity);
Environmental linguistics transfers the terms and principles of ecology into a language (for example, the concept of ecosystem);
Linguistic (linguistic) ecology studies the relationship between language and “environmental” issues.
Aspects of linguoecology
At the moment, three aspects of the ecology of the language are distinguished:
Intralingual (associated with the culture of speech, style, rhetoric and includes research on violations of correctness, clarity, logic, expressiveness and other communicative properties of speech).
Interlingual (associated with multilingualism as the habitat of a separate ethnic language and with the problem of the disappearance of languages, and therefore with a decrease in linguistic diversity on Earth).
Translingual (associated with the use of units, means, realities of one language, one culture in the context and means of another language belonging to another culture in fiction, folklore, journalism).
The echo-critical analysis of speech
The eco-critical analysis of the discourse includes – but is not limited to – the application of critical analysis of the discourse to texts concerning the environment and environmentalism, in order to reveal the underlying ideologies (eg, Harré et al 1999, Stibbe 2006, 2005a, 2005b).
In its fullest manifestation, it includes the analysis of any discourse that has potential consequences for the future of ecosystems, as in the case of neo-liberal economic discourse and the discursive construction of consumerism, gender issues, politics, the agriculture and nature (ex.: Goatly 2000, Stibbe 2004). The eco-critical analysis of the discourse is not limited to focusing on the exposition of potentially harmful ideologies, but also seeks discursive representations that can contribute to an ecologically sustainable society.
Ecological analysis of language
The ecological analysis of language draws on a wide range of linguistic tools including critical discourse analysis, framing theory, cognitive linguistics, identity theory, rhetoric and systemic functional grammar to reveal underlying worldviews or the ‘stories we live by’. The stories we live by are cognitive structures in the minds of individuals or across a society (social cognition) which influence how people treat each other, other animals, plants, forests, rivers and the physical environment. The stories are questioned from an ecological perspective with reference to an ecological framework (or ecosophy), and judged to be beneficial in encouraging people to protect the ecosystems that life depends on, or destructive in encouraging behavior which damages those ecosystems. Ecolinguistics attempts to make a practical difference in the world through resisting destructive stories and contributing to the search for new stories to live by (Stibbe 2015). Stories which have been exposed and resisted by ecolinguistics include consumerist stories, stories of unlimited economic growth, advertising stories, stories of intensive farming, and stories which represent nature as a machine or a resource. Using Positive Discourse Analysis, ecolinguistics has also searched for new stories to live by through exploring nature writing, poetry, environmental writing and traditional and indigenous forms of language around the world.
This form of analysis started with the application of critical discourse analysis to texts about the environment and environmentalism, in order to reveal hidden assumptions and messages and comment on the effectiveness of these in achieving environmental aims (e.g. Harré et al. 1999). It then developed to include analysis of any discourse which has potential consequences for the future of ecosystems, such as neoliberal economic discourse or discursive constructions of consumerism, gender, politics, agriculture and nature (e.g. Goatly 2000). The cognitive approach and the term ‘stories we live by’ was introduced in Stibbe (2015), which describes eight kinds of story: ideology, framing, metaphor, evaluation, identity, conviction, salience and erasure. Approaches such as environmental communication and ecocriticism have broadly similar aims and techniques to this form of ecolinguistics.
Language diversity is part of ecolinguistics because of the relationship between diversity of local languages and biodiversity. This relationship arises because of the ecological wisdom (or cultural adaptation to the environment) that is encoded in local languages. The forces of globalisation and linguistic imperialism are allowing dominant languages (such as English) to spread, and replace these local languages (Nettle and Romaine 2000). This leads to a loss of both sustainable local cultures and the important ecological knowledge contained within their languages. One of the goals of ecolinguistic research is to protect both cultural diversity and the linguistic diversity that supports it (Terralingua 2016, Nettle and Romaine 2000, Harmond 1996, Mühlhaüsler 1995). This research is in line with the United Nations Environment Program’s position that:
Biodiversity also incorporates human cultural diversity, which can be affected by the same drivers as biodiversity, and which has impacts on the diversity of genes, other species, and ecosystems. (UNEP 2007)
Nettle and Romaine (2000:166) write that ‘Delicate tropical environments in particular must be managed with care and skill. It is indigenous peoples who have the relevant practical knowledge, since they have been successfully making a living in them for hundreds of generations. Much of this detailed knowledge about local ecosystems is encoded in indigenous language and rapidly being lost’. Mühlhaüsler (2003:60) describes how ‘The rapid decline in the world’s linguistic diversity thus must be regarded with apprehension by those who perceive the interconnection between linguistic and biological diversity’.
Overall, language diversity is part of ecolinguistics because of the correlation between the diversity of language and biological diversity, with the ecological wisdom embedded in local cultures being the link between the two.
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The International Ecolinguistics Association is an international network of ecolinguists. The website includes a bibliography, online journal (Language & Ecology) and other resources.
The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics created by the University of Gloucestershire and the International Ecolinguistics Association.
The Ecolinguistics Website (http://www-gewi.kfunigraz.ac.at/ed/project/ecoling) is an archive website of early ecolinguistics.