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Carving a path for our children through written & oral landscapes

Illustration by Thomas James

Words are like water. They ebb and flow, transforming as the years pass to camouflage themselves in their surroundings. Language shapes and moulds our identities, providing a emotional anchor for our pasts and a compass for our presents. Unsurprisingly, our written and oral landscape has altered significantly over the past decades. Those separated by two generations speak to one another with increasing disunion between words spoken and understanding rendered.

Yet nowhere has language changed so considerably than in our natural and technological environments. As species of plants, animals, trees and birds go into decline and even teeter precariously on the brink of extinction, and two year old children become conversant  in the terminology of hand held devices, new generations part with the written and oral landscape of their predecessors, carving paths through shiny, new worlds.

When a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published in 2007, it was decided that, amongst many others, the following words should be removed:

acorn

bluebell

buttercup

conker

cygnet

dandelion

kingfisher

mistletoe

otter

pasture

willow

Illustration by Roger Hall

The above words were no longer deemed relevant to modern childhoods. In turn, the following words were added to the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

attachment

blog

broadband

celebrity

chatroom

cut-and-paste

MP3

voicemail *

Our job is not to judge, but to observe. Yet we would be wise to ask ourselves what this loss of language means for our future generations. It is important, of course, that we view what surrounds our children with realism. But we also have a choice. The question is a simple one: whether we as parents, grandparents, educators, aunties etc want the children in our lives to exist without knowing that if you place a buttercup beneath your chins, you can see how much you love butter or that you can steal a kiss beneath a sprig of mistletoe at Christmas time; that kingfisher’s are the most extraordinarily beautiful little birds with sharp pointed pills adapted to their environments, and that walking through a wood filled with bluebells offers up one of nature’s most magical experiences imaginable.

Of course we don’t ignore attachments, blogs and MP3’s – that would be pointless. But we make an active choice whether or not we want to keep the dialogue of a rapidly changing natural world alive for our children through poetry, through song, through stories, but most importantly of all, through visceral, tactile experience. The aforementioned words may be extinct in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, but in the world we inhabit they still live, breathe and very often thrive. In celebration of the natural world we have a choice to still embrace, I’m including a lovely poem. Enjoy 🙂

The Poem That Got Away
By Elisa Maria Argiro

Somewhere between the dream of what it could be
and what it wanted to be, this poem hightailed it
out of town. Down the road it went, careening into
hedgerows, jostling small birds from their resting
time. Running for all it’s worth, out to the sea cliffs
then arrested, stock still, before all that immensity.
Chagrined by such a rash attempt at escape, even
blushing a bit, it wondered about strange things:
What would it be like to be a badger? To always be
dressed in all those lovely stripes? Never have bad
wardrobe days…. Or what about an otter, with such
strong muscles, and an utter delight for swimming?
To never really feel the cold? These are the things a
poem can wonder about, when it isn’t quite sure, just
right then, in the present moment, how to be a poem.

Illustration by Emma Cowley

*My thanks to Natasha Breed for providing me with the relevant information from Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Landmarks

3 replies
  1. Helen Pollard
    Helen Pollard says:

    Oh, Rebecca – I nearly cried when I read those two lists! I agree we can’t ignore the second list, but for children to lose those words from the first? So depressing. And a lovely poem to illustrate the point.

    Reply
  2. Rebecca Stonehill
    Rebecca Stonehill says:

    Hi Karen, I know, it’s pretty depressing isn’t it? But I really wanted to view it from as much of a positive angle as possible, so celebrating what still really exists and encouraging parents / teachers etc to keep these words alive for children, not just consigning them to the words-of-the-past bin!

    Reply

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