Lingua Franca: The Importance of Language

Third year Philosophy student Euan McGinty discusses the importance of language, and how we should consider how our attitudes are connected to the meaning of words.

Nervous System Image: Max Pixel

Language can be thought of as the single most important tool created by humanity. A conventional structure of sounds and symbols, allowing for expression as well as a complex internal organization of thoughts and intentions. The variety of existing languages makes for differences in the way in which these thoughts and intentions are communicated. An example of this can be seen in Sam Griswold’s recent article for The Guardian. In it he conveys his dissatisfaction in English speaking commentary coverage of Italian football league matches, describing the words as inadequate for the way in which the game is played there. As opposed to the more pragmatic and banal words used to describe football in English, Italians tend to employ more theatrical terminology to the game. Instead of a goal being scored it is ‘authored’ (l’autore del gol), players don’t have positions on the pitch, but rather, ‘roles’ (ruolo). As Griswold conveys in his article language differences as well as differences in individual words have the capability to paint the same object in different lights. However, there have been much more insidious and far-reaching ways beyond the football field in which language has done this.

One such example of this can be illustrated in a paper published by environmental philosopher John Callicott. The intention of the paper is to examine the historical baggage associated with the term wilderness, and how he believes it has contributed to what is known as the ‘received wilderness idea’. The paper frames the concept of wilderness as we know it to be an ethnocentric construct, viewing land we deem to be ‘wild’ for inappropriate uses and abuses. This wilderness concept can, for Callicott, be seen to be the root of the ‘biodiversity crisis’ we find ourselves in today.

A legal definition of the wilderness is seen to encapsulate what is known as the received wilderness idea. The wilderness act of 1964 interprets wilderness as a contrasting area to where man and his own works dominate the landscape. In areas designated as wilderness: ‘man himself is a visitor who doesn’t remain’. Although this quote from the act appears to have the intent of preserving wild spaces, the results are the opposite. By instructing man to ‘remain a visitor’ in locations deemed by the government to be ‘wild’, is to disregard the fact that people have lived there for thousands of year before the descendants of the lawmakers set foot in America. Also, legally distinguishing ‘wild’ land from ‘civilised’ land further cements a pre-Darwinian mindset of humans and nature as being separate.

The origins of the concept can reach as far back as the first English translations of The Bible, which used the term ‘wilderness’ to describe the desert in which the temptation of Christ occurred. The Puritans who were among the first Western Europeans to settle in North America took this concept with them. Their view, largely based on scripture, held wholly negative connotations. The prior inhabitants of the Americas found the wilderness concept applied to their homeland and they themselves were considered as part of the wild. Their foreign customs coupled with their ‘savage’ image established the acceptance of centuries of systematic genocide.

Wilderness, Image: Steve Dunleavy

This idea of the Americas as being discovered in a state of wilderness was a point of view only held by the new settlers to the continent. Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota people writes:

‘We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as “wild.” Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.

English speaking philosophers also ran into trouble with the term when lecturing in other countries. In Callicott’s essay Holmes Rolston recalls a Japanese translator unable to come up with an equivalent word for wilderness. Roger T. Ames an interpreter of Chinese philosophy also notes that, in Mandarin there exists only terms for instances of wild things (wild man, wild woods etc.) but no term denoting a whole area of ‘wild-ness’ as in English. Following further research into the matter, it was found that even for most Europeans wilderness is a foreign concept. Similar perceptions of land have only been found in Norwegian and other Scandinavian languages, in which the northern part of their countries are made up of an Arctic frontier inhabited by the indigenous Sámi peoples.

The consequences of this concept were not only disastrous for the native peoples living in the newly settled regions of America and Australia, but also for the land itself. The wilderness concept helped to propagate an attitude of ownership over the land. On this ideological basis European settlers built cities, railroads and engaged in agriculture and deforestation on an industrial scale.

It was not until the wave of settlement had reached the Pacific coast that the desire to protect wilderness was established. Conservation projects such national parks aimed to preserve areas for the sake of their beauty and for recreational purposes. Today however, the intent to preserve biodiversity is more broadly shared.

In the conclusion of his essay, Callicott proposes changing the name of wilderness areas to ‘biodiversity reserves’. In doing so, he believes that the previously held conception of wild land will begin to transition into a more scientific and environmentally oriented one. My intention in writing this article however is not to advocate his proposition to rename wilderness areas. It is instead to emphasize the importance of language, and how deeply it is connected to our attitudes. Callicott highlights a very overlooked aspect of the way semantic features of language permeate into social norms. The applications of which can also be seen in discourse relating to race and gender. Placed in the context of linguistic constructs, perspectives which have been seen to be integral to our cultural values appear more relative and capable of being progressed beyond.


Euan McGinty is a third year philosophy student.

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