LINGUIST List 15.1867

Sat Jun 19 2004

Review: Socioling/Anthro Ling: M�hlh�usler (2003)

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  1. Steve Grimes, Language of Environment / Environment of Language

Message 1: Language of Environment / Environment of Language

Date: Sat, 19 Jun 2004 15:01:59 -0400 (EDT)
From: Steve Grimes <>
Subject: Language of Environment / Environment of Language

AUTHOR: M�hlh�usler, Peter
TITLE: Language of Environment: Environment of Language
SUBTITLE: A Course in Ecolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Battlebridge Publications
YEAR: 2003
Announced at

Stephen Grimes, Indiana University


This book is intended as an introduction to studies involving
language, ecology, and the environment. If there is indeed a
recognized branch of linguistics known as ecolinguistics, then this
purpose of this volume is to expound upon it and argue for its
necessity. The author intends that this book be readable for both
linguists and ecologists alike, although those who will profit most
from this offering will have an interest in both areas. It is also
designed for use as a textbook, with a set of questions at the end of
each chapter.


While the book contains twelve chapters, many of them overlap in
content to some degree. In Chapter 1, M�hlh�usler sets out to define
ecolinguistics, which is a definition some readers might struggle with
throughout the entire book. Just as with sociolinguistics, all of the
traditional fields of linguistics (phonology, morphology, syntax,
etc.) can be studied from an ecological or ecolinguistic perspective.
While sociolinguistics promotes the study of language by recognizing
connections between language and the social domain, ecolinguistics
attempts to connect the study of language with all aspects of the
outside world, emphasizing the functional nature of language. While
the definition of ecolinguistics is refined later in the book, it
appears that any study involving both language and ecology may be
admitted into ecolinguistics, as the defining characteristics of
ecolinguistics are still up for grabs.

While Chapter 2 is intended as an introduction to linguistics for the
ecologically-oriented reader, experienced linguists should not
immediately elect to skip this chapter, as this section further
illustrates how traditional linguistics differs from a study of
language from an ecological perspective. ''Standard linguistics'' and
''anthropocentric linguistics'' are critiqued for viewing the language
faculty as discrete and detached from the body and world. The author
discusses the genetic model for historical linguistics and argues
contact linguistics to be more insightful and relevant. Other topics
from standard linguistics discussed and critiqued in this chapter
include assumptions about iconicity and arbitrariness and the
relationships between meaning, grammar, and sound.

The third chapter gives a history of ecolinguistics, which the author
claims was united as a subdiscipline of linguistics in the early 1990s
but admits that it is hard to establish a common denominator amongst
the many perspectives in ecolinguistics. Ultimately four ideas
proposed as common to the study of ecolinguistics are (1) linguistic
knowledge should be a means for dealing with the environmental crisis,
(2) language practices of Western societies lie at the root of the
environmental predicament, (3) ecolinguistics promotes holistic
thinking about language and ecology, favoring dependencies over
distinctions and (4) there is a correlation between the well-being of
cultural and linguistic diversity and the well-being of the planet.

Chapter 4, 'The linguistic construction of environmental
perspectives', serves as an introduction to Chapters 5-7. These
chapters will in turn address lexicon, grammar, and discourse to
illustrate how the use and manipulation of language influences
environmental perspectives. In one example foreshadowing future
discussions, the author details three separate possessive
constructions from the Barai language of Papua New Guinea. Which of
the three possessive suffixes used in a given utterance is determined
by the degree to which the two entities are autonomous. Because
English has only one possessive construction, the example is meant to
illustrate that how humans view their relationship, ownership, and
entitlement to the natural world can be affected by the grammar of
their language.

In Chapter 5, 'The lexicon', the author develops the idea that labels
(words referring to objects in the world) are now regarded my most
linguists as culture-specific, accidental conventions, not necessarily
linguistic analogues of natural classes. Languages that have many
labels for related concepts (dense semantic fields) are more adept at
discussing those concepts and reflect the cultural context in which
they are found. Three critiques of the lexicon as it relates to the
environmental debate are that words can be semantically vague, they
may underdifferentiate related concepts, or they might give a
misleading encoding, such as a pest in Australia called a 'cherry
slug' which is actually a flying insect. This chapter also reviews
processes of word formation (lexical phrases, derivation, acronyms,
borrowing, blends, toponyms). Concerning the lexicon and the
environment, the author discusses positive and negative names for
environmentalists, the language of the permaculture movement, and the
tendency for animal names to be use a pejorative labels in western
European languages.

Chapter 6 on grammar borrows heavily ideas from sociolinguistics and
discourse studies when discussing pronouns, reference, and gender
selection. For instance, the author notes that masculine or neuter
pronouns are unmarked anaphora used when referring to animals when the
gender is unknown, while the feminine gender represents a marked
contrast. In a later example, the chapter discusses the choice of
active or passive voice constructions in English and notes that this
choice affects the centrality of the actor in an event; similarly,
languages with ergative morphology may downplay human agency in the
minds of the speakers. That grammars which have the ability to detach
a human agent from an ecologically destructive act may potentially
give rise to a society that is more callous in its respect for nature
is interesting. Unfortunately, however, no solid research evidence is
brought to bear on this question, and the notion that grammar can
affect attitudes towards nature remains somewhat speculative.

Chapter 7, 'Narratives and discourses about the environment',
discusses macrostories and microstories that environmental struggles
and discourses tend to follow. The author includes his own case study
of Environmental Impact Assessments, following Hymes' (1974)
ethnography of communication guidelines. The author then makes an
interesting proposal that there should be Linguistic Impact
Assessments to gauge the potential impact development and
modernization would have on languages and linguistic communities.
Just as development drives the loss of biodiversity, modernization
also impacts linguistic diversity. The author could have chosen here
to include links between ecolinguistics and linguistic human rights
issues (cf. Kontra et al., 1999), as issues involving language and
public policy are often parallel, whether the policy issues are the
environment or human rights.

Chapter 8 deals with environmental metaphor, and the author takes the
approach that all language use involves metaphor. This point of view
follows Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and asserts that the metaphors which
are used to discuss nature will frame and form opinions about nature.
Because different languages use different metaphors, a diversity of
languages and metaphors yields the best chance at environmental
protection. The actual chapter on metaphor is unusually short, but
this is in part due to the fact that metaphor as a lens for
understanding the world is a central concept of the book and is
discussed adequately throughout.

Chapter 9, 'Environmental discourse of others', discusses the
different ways the environmental debate plays out in Western
societies, non-Western societies, and amongst the two types of
societies. The chapter addresses whether it is realistic for
westerners to try to stop pollution in developing countries when their
pollution is four times as great. M�hlh�usler also details some words
and metaphors use by languages in developing countries to talk about
environment and conservation, and he discusses how these metaphors
differ from those in typical Western languages.

Chapter 10, 'Environmental Advertising', is in many ways an
application of the theories developed earlier in the book. The author
discusses linguistic strategies used by corporations to influence
and/or deceive the public about their environmental records and

Chapter 11, 'Environmental message and media', seems to actually have
little to do with linguistics, in that it discusses how the
environment is portrayed in various print and broadcast media. It
does discuss, however, how metonymy and metaphor are used to represent
and portray nature in these media.

In the final chapter of the book the author honestly reflects upon the
purpose and worth of his efforts. He admits his research in
ecolinguistics was driven in part by frustrations with the limited
scope of inquiry of modern linguistics and the insistence of the
linguistics establishment to view language as a self-contained system.
He also grants that his discussion of language ecology focused mainly
on environmental matters, while a truly thorough approach to studying
language ecology would encapsulate connections with language to many
other domains in the world.

As this book is intended for use in the college classroom, each
chapter finishes with a set of questions. In general, these questions
are not fact-based review questions, but they rather ask the reader to
put considerable thought into extending ideas from the chapter by
observing how language figures in to environmental discourse and
thought. These questions also give the author a chance to include
material from the language and ecology literature that was omitted
from the book. Although the author is a linguist, this book grew out
of a class taught in an environmental studies department and the
nature of the questions reflect this. In the back of the book a
glossary of linguistic and ecological terms facilitate the use of the
book by people without backgrounds in both fields. An extensive index
is also included.


First and foremost, the author has synthesized and compiled a vast
body of research and a myriad of writings into this volume, and it is
difficult to reflect this in the above summary. The reader comes to
understand what ecolinguistics is not necessarily by reading the
definition but by being acquainted with many of the major ideas. The
book succeeds in being accessible to many audiences because the
examples and anecdotes illustrate the concepts discussed so that
readers are not bogged down in technical jargon. To a large extent,
however, I felt that the examples actually drove the course of the
discussion, and I would like to have seen more structure in the

The author does a good job keeping to a few key messages, and one
important theme throughout this book is the connection between
biological diversity and linguistic diversity. While this
relationship is often recognized, the reasons for its existence are
not universally agreed upon. This book gives linguists interested in
language preservation added ammunition. According to M�hlh�usler,
western languages, or what he often refers to (following Whorf) as
'Standard Average European', lack linguistic diversity. The claim he
develops is that languages adapt to and evolve with their environments
over time and that the languages of indigenous cultures often encode
relationships between humans and nature that might be observed by
western cultures but not appreciated by them adequately.

Nonetheless, a central issue that the book could have done more to
clarify is actually what constitutes ecolinguistics. This is
difficult to ascertain because the book draws so heavily from examples
concerning nature, pollution, animals, or global warming. In my
understanding, an ecology of language would contain these concepts but
also connections to innumerable other ideas not at all related to
environmentalism. Because this book is about the language of ecology
(as well as the ecology of language), we find in the section
introducing morphology that 'ecobabble' and 'greenwash' are
morphologically complex words, and we learn that 'the destruction of
the forest by humans' is a noun phrase, but these examples do not mean
we are learning about ecolinguistics. The issue in defining
ecolinguistics is more confused because the words 'ecology' and
'environment' have many different senses. The reader needs to wade
through several red herrings to get to the core of what ecolinguistics
is. The author needs to state more clearly how ecolinguistics is
really different from work in sociolinguistics, cognitive science,
embodied linguistics, or integrative linguistics. This work also
raises the question of to what extent the author's work has been
driven and influenced by ideology.

There are several idiosyncrasies in this book that distract slightly
from an overall thorough effort. The page margins are quite wide
(perhaps to save paper?), words are misspelled as other words, and the
text font size is not always consistent. These faults in no way
detract from the value of this scholarly work, but rather for use in a
classroom environment slightly less viable. Depending on the type of
course that this book would be intended for, the readings would likely
need to be supplemented by other papers or textbooks to be used in a
semester-long course; this is primarily because many of the chapters
discuss common themes (like metaphor) and each chapter does not always
contain a wealth of new ideas, even if each chapter does have several
interesting examples.

As evidenced by the existence of organizations such as the Center for
Language and Ecology and Terralingua, there is a growing desire to
link the studies of language and ecology. Overall, this book is an
important step towards advancing that discourse, and I expect that the
ideas gathered in this volume will stimulate further research between
these two academic fields.


Kontra, M., T. Skutnabb-Kangas, R. Phillipson and T. Varady,
eds. (1999) Language: A right and a resource. Budapest: Central
European University Press.

Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1980) Metaphors we live by. Chicago:
Chicago University Press.

Hymes, D. (1974) Foundations in sociolinguistics -- an ethnographic
approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Stephen Grimes is a graduate student in linguistics at Indiana
University. He is currently studying Hungarian language and
computational linguistics as part of an exchange program with the
University of Debrecen in Hungary. He is also an activist and
organizer for environmental causes.
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