Mind Your Words

WORDS BY WILLOW DEFEBAUGH

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

PHOTOGRAPH BY EMMA HICKERSON / NOAA
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“Humanity is now faced with a stark choice… If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged, we will always end up re-creating the same world, the same evils, the same dysfunction.”

Eckhart Tolle

In 2019, I realized that I was nonbinary and decided I would start using they/them pronouns. In the years since, I have received feedback from multiple friends and family members that they have felt their brains being “rewired.” Their eyes have opened to how deeply gendered every aspect of our world is, starting with language. Many of those same people have remarked that they now find themselves challenging binaries everywhere—all because of a pronoun change.

 

A review of over 180 studies published in Behavioral and Brain Functions found that language—including how many languages we learn—impacts the development and neural architecture of our brains. Multilingual brains in particular have been found to have delayed dementia, increased sensory perception, and enhanced cognitive abilities. More than a mode of communication, language helps shape who we are and how we see the world.

 

“The beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and how flexible the human mind is. Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000,” said cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky in a recent TED Talk. Of those 7,000 languages, half may be lost by the end of the century. And none are in need of protection more than Indigenous languages, which hold world-altering wisdom. Take the Kuuk Thaayorre people of Australia, who do not have words for left and right; instead, they use cardinal directions. Imagine how that might change your outlook, if everything is oriented by its association with the land.

 

In October 2018, The Guardian published a list of changes to the language it would be using when covering climate. Included among them were the shifts from: “climate change” to “climate crisis,” “climate skeptic” to “climate science denier,” and “global warming” to “global heating.” These seemingly small changes spread like wildfire in the media—and you can understand why. Being a skeptic can be a good thing; a science denier is another story. As the crisis evolves, so must our language; just look to Miami-Dade county, which just got its first “chief heat officer.”

 

A question that frequently emerges in this movement is: What is the new word for sustainability? Greenwashing aside, it fails to capture the scale of change required, nor does it address which systems it suggests sustaining. So what about regenerative? Holistic? Ecologically equitable? And what of the words we use to talk about the Earth itself? Does “the environment” not sound like something that surrounds rather than embraces us—is us? If language does shape our minds, have we not divorced ourselves by the very definition of the word “nature”?

 

If we are to rewrite the story of the climate crisis, we need a new vocabulary. Even the term “climate crisis” is one I wrestle with; it places the situation somewhere outside us, on the horizon. It might be tempting to say the “human crisis,” but that’s not quite right either. It’s not all humans—and I’m not sure that calling our whole species a crisis is conducive to change. I often come back to “crisis of consciousness,” because that’s what’s at the heart of every crisis we currently face, what really needs to shift. And consciousness arises out of language.

 

That’s where you come in, dear reader. What is the language of the future? What new words can you imagine? What new definitions can you divine? Which ones are worth remembering? Kotodama is a Japanese term that refers to the spiritual power of words. According to the Bible, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In India, mantras are phrases used to transcend the mind and reach higher states of consciousness. Indeed, there is a truth that spans civilizations, eras and idioms: Words shape worlds.

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