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Review of  Language of Environment

Reviewer: Stephen Grimes
Book Title: Language of Environment
Book Author: Peter Mühlhäusler
Publisher: Battlebridge Publications
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.1867

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Date: Fri, 18 Jun 2004 06:18:34 -0500
From: Steve Grimes
Subject: Language of Environment / Environment of Language

AUTHOR: Mühlhäusler, Peter
TITLE: Language of Environment: Environment of Language
SUBTITLE: A Course in Ecolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Battlebridge Publications
YEAR: 2003

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,
Mühlhäusler 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

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. Mühlhäusler 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

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 philosophies.

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 textbook.

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 Mühlhäusler,
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

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

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.