Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while a feadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and afèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoimmeans “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.
The “Peat Glossary” set my head a-whirr with wonder-words. It ran to several pages and more than 120 terms – and as that modest “Some” in its title acknowledged, it was incomplete. “There’s so much language to be added to it,” one of its compilers, Anne Campbell, told me. “It represents only three villages’ worth of words. I have a friend from South Uist who said her grandmother would add dozens to it. Every village in the upper islands would have its different phrases to contribute.” I thought of Norman MacCaig’s great Hebridean poem “By the Graveyard, Luskentyre”, where he imagines creating a dictionary out of the language of Donnie, a lobster fisherman from the Isle of Harris. It would be an impossible book, MacCaig concluded:
A volume thick as the height of the Clisham,
A volume big as the whole of Harris,
A volume beyond the wit of scholars.
The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionarywas published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker,cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark,mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point,celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.
I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.
Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. I wanted to answer Norman MacCaig’s entreaty in his Luskentyre poem: “Scholars, I plead with you, / Where are your dictionaries of the wind … ?”
In the seven years after first reading the “Peat Glossary”, I sought out the users, keepers and makers of place words. In the Norfolk Fens – introduced by the photographer Justin Partyka – I met Eric Wortley, a 98-year-old farmer who had worked his family farm throughout his long life, who had been twice to the East Anglian coast, once to Norwich and never to London, and whose speech was thick with Fenland dialect terms. I came to know the cartographer, artist and writer Tim Robinson, who has spent 40 years documenting the terrain of the west of Ireland: a region where, as he puts it, “the landscape … speaks Irish”. Robinson’s belief in the importance of “the language we breathe” as part of “our frontage onto the natural world” has been inspiring to me, as has his commitment to recording subtleties of usage and history in Irish place names, before they are lost forever: Scrios Buaile na bhFeadog, “the open tract of the pasture of the lapwings”; Eiscir, “a ridge of glacial deposits marking the course of a river that flowed under the ice of the last glaciation”.
I turned also to the archive, seeking place words as they were preserved in glossaries and dictionaries, gathered on the web, or embedded in the literature of earlier decades and centuries. WS Graham wrote in a 1977 poem of “Floating across the frozen tundra / of the lexicon and the dictionary”, but I find lexicons to be more tropical jungle than tundra, gloriously ornate in their tendrilled outgrowths and complex root systems. I met, too, with great generosity from correspondents around the UK, who were ready to share “their” place words. Over the years, and especially over the last two years, thousands of place terms reached me. They came by letter, email and telephone, scribbled on postcards or yellowed prewar foolscap, transcribed from cassette recordings of Suffolk longshoremen made half a century ago, or taken from hand-sketched maps of Highland hill country and island coastlines. I began to comprehend something of the awesome range and vigour of place words as they have existed in the numerous languages and dialects of these islands.
Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”. Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.
I also relished synonyms – especially those that bring new energy to familiar entities. The variant English terms for icicle – aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell anddaggler (Hampshire), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham) andshuckle (Cumbria) – form a tinkling poem of their own. In Northamptonshire and East Anglia “to thaw” is to ungive. The beauty of this variant surely has to do with the paradox of thaw figured as restraint or retention, and the wintry notion that cold, frost and snow might themselves be a form of gift – an addition to the landscape that will in time be subtracted by warmth.
Many of the glossary words are, like ungive, memorably vivid. They function as topograms – tiny landscape poems, folded up inside verbs and nouns. I think of the Northamptonshire dialect verb to crizzle, for instance, a verb for the freezing of water that evokes the sound of a natural activity too slow for human hearing to detect (“And the white frost ’gins crizzle pond and brook”, wrote John Clare in 1821). When Gerard Manley Hopkins didn’t have a word for a natural phenomenon, he would simply – wonderfully – make one up: shivelight, for “the lances of sunshine that pierce the canopy of a wood”, or goldfoil for a sky lit by lightning in “zigzag dints and creasings”. Hopkins, like Clare, sought to forge a language that could register the participatory dramas of our relations with nature and landscape.
Not all place words are poetic or innocent, of course. Our familiar word forestdesignates not only a wooded region, but also an area of land set aside for hunting – as those who have walked through the treeless “forests” of Fisherfield and Corrour in Scotland will know. Forest – like many wood-words – is complicatedly tangled up in political histories of access and landownership. We inhabit a post-pastoral terrain, full of modification and compromise, and for this reason my glossaries began to fill up with “unnatural” language: terms from coastal sea defences (pillbox, bulwark, rock-armour), or soft estate, the Highways Agency term for those natural habitats that have developed along the verges of motorways and trunk roads.
Some of the words I collected are ripely rude. These islands, I now know, have scores of terms for animal dung, most of which double up nicely as insults, fromcrottle (a foresters’ term for “hare excrement”) to doofers (Scots for “horse shit”), to the expressive ujller (Shetlandic for the “unctuous filth that runs from a dunghill”) and turdstool (West Country for “a very substantial cowpat”). A dialect name for the kestrel – alongside such felicities as windhover and bell-hawk – iswind-fucker. Once learned, never forgotten; it is hard now not to see in the pose of the hovering kestrel a certain lustful quiver. I’ve often been reminded ofDouglas Adams and John Lloyd’s genius catalogue of nonce words, The Meaning of Liff (1983), in which British place names are used as nouns for the “hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognise, but for which no words exist”. Thus “Kimmeridge (n): The light breeze which blows through your armpit hair when you are stretched out sunbathing”; or “Glassel (n): A seaside pebble which was shiny and interesting when wet, and which is now a lump of rock, but which children nevertheless insist on filling their suitcases with after a holiday”. When I mentioned to my young son that there was no word for the shining hump of water that rises above a submerged boulder in a stream, he suggested currentbum. Well, yes.
I organised my growing word-hoard into nine glossaries, divided according to terrain-type: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands. The words came from dozens of languages, dialects, sub-dialects and specialist vocabularies: from Unst to the Lizard, from Pembrokeshire to Norfolk; from Norn and Old English, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Orcadian, Shetlandic and Doric, and numerous regional versions of English, through to Jérriais, the dialect of Norman still spoken on the island of Jersey.
I quickly realised that they couldn’t and shouldn’t aspire to completion. They contained only a debatable fraction of an impossible whole. There is no single mountain language, but a range of mountain languages; no one coastal language, but a fractal of coastal languages; no lone tree language, but a forest of tree languages. So I decided to imagine them not as archives but as wunderkammers, celebrating the visions these words opened in the mind, and their tastes on the tongue.
I am wary of the dangers of fetishising dialect and archaism – all that mollockingand sukebinding Stella Gibbons spoofed so brilliantly in Cold Comfort Farm(1932). Wary, too, of advocating a tyranny of the nominal – a taxonomic need to point and name, with the intent of citing and owning – when in fact I perceive no opposition between precision and mystery, or between naming and not knowing. There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo. Nature will not name itself. Granite doesn’t self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. When I see a moon-bow or a sundog, I usually just say “Wow!” or “Hey!” Sometimes on a mountain, I look out across scree and corrie, srón andlairig – and say nothing at all. But we are and always have been name-callers, christeners. Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes grained into our words.
Yet it is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining. Nuance is evaporating from everyday usage, burned off by capital and apathy. The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary– the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.
This impoverishment has occurred even in languages that have historically paid close attention to place, such as Irish or Gaelic. Even the landscape lexis of the Outer Hebrides is currently being lost. Gaelic itself is slowly withering: the number of native speakers in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd is now around 58,000. Of those who do still speak Gaelic, many are understandably less interested in the intricacies of toponymy. In Ireland, a similar situation exists: Tim Robinson notes how with each generation, more “of the place names are forgotten or becoming incomprehensible”.
Why should this loss matter? You can’t even use crizzle as a Scrabble word: there aren’t two “z”s in the bag (unless, of course, you use a blank). It matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. To quote the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry – a man who in my experience speaks the crash-tested truth – “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” Or as Cocker punchily puts it, “If acorn goes from the lexicon, the game is up for nature in England.”
There is, suddenly, a surging sense of the importance of preserving and plenishing a diverse language for landscape. In January, a campaign for OUP to reinstate the culled “nature words” was launched, drawing support from Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo: OUP has responded positively and thoughtfully. Robinson has written recently of the need for what he calls “geophany”, meaning a language “fit for the secular celebration of place”. This spring the photographer Dominick Tyler is publishing Uncommon Ground, which pairs 100 place words with 100 photographs of the phenomena to which the words refer, from arête (“a sharp-edged mountain ridge, often between two glacier-carved corries”) to zawn (a Cornish term for a “wave-smashed chasm in a cliff”). Mabey’s forthcoming The Cabaret of Plants argues for “a new language” with which to accommodate the “selfhood” of plants: “metaphor and analogy may be the best we can do, but they will have to be toughened by an acceptance that the plant world is a parallel life system to our own, intimately connected with it, but still existentially different”. George Monbiot is launching a project seeking new framings for the protection of the nature, “prompted by the miserable, uninspiring state of the language of conservation” and policy-making: “‘Environment’ is a term that creates no pictures in the mind, which is why I have begun to use ‘natural world’ or ‘living planet’ instead.”
Landmarks, the book that has arisen from my own years of word work, is a celebration and defence of land language. Its fascination is with the mutual relations of place, word and spirit: how we landmark, and how we are landmarked in turn. Each of the nine glossaries is matched with a chapter exploring the work of those writers who have used words exactly and exactingly when describing specific places. “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” observed JA Baker inThe Peregrine (1967), a book that brilliantly shows how such seeing might occur in language, written as it is in prose that has “the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree”. The terrain about which Baker wrote with such committing force was the coastal Essex of saltings, spinneys, sea walls and mudflats. Compelled by the high gold horizons of this old countryside, even as it was undergoing the assault of big-field farming in the 1950s and 1960s, Baker developed a new style with which to evoke its odd magnificence. His sentences are full of neologisms: the adjectives he torqued into verbs (“The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedgerows”), and the verbs he incites to misbehaviour (“Four short-eared owls soothed out of the gorse”).
I have long been drawn to the work of writers who – in Emerson’s phrase – seek to “pierce rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things”. Baker is one such writer, Robinson another, Nan Shepherd a third. Shepherd was a word-hoarder, and her slim masterpiece The Living Mountain carries a long glossary of Scots terms, which abounds with walking words (spangin’, for “walking vigorously”) and weather words: smoored, for “smothered in snow”, and the unforgettableroarie bummlers, meaning “fast-moving storm clouds”. Roger Deakin, while writing his modern classics Waterlog and Wildwood, gathered wood words and water words. John Muir relished the technical language of botany (bract, bole,pistillate) but also delighted in his own coinages.
For all of these writers, to use language well is to use it particularly: precision of utterance as both a form of lyricism and a species of attention. “I want my writing to bring people not just to think of ‘trees’ as they mostly do now,” wrote Deakin in a notebook, “but of each individual tree, and each kind of tree”. Muir, spending his first summer working as a shepherd among the pines of the Sierra Nevada in California, reflected in his journal that “Every tree calls for special admiration. I have been making many sketches and regret that I cannot draw every needle.”
Strange events occurred in the course of the years and journeys I spent writingLandmarks – convergences that pressed at the limits of coincidence, and tended to the eerie. They included the discovery of a “tunnel of swords and axes” in Cumbria, guided by a Finnish folk tale; an encounter with a peregrine in south Cambridge on the day I went to look through Baker’s telescopes and binoculars; the experience of walking into the pages of Shepherd’s The Living Mountain in the Cairngorms; and the widening ripples of a forgotten place word, found in a folder in Suffolk, left behind by a man who had died. Strangest of all these strangenesses, though, was the revelation in the week I finished the book, that its originating dream of a glossary of landscape-language so vast it might encompass the world had, almost, come true.
That revelation came as a letter sent by a scholar of languages living in Qatar, and reading the letter made me feel as if I had stepped into a story by Borges or Calvino. For the last 15 years, he explained, he had been working on a global glossary of landscape terms. His name was Abdal Hamid Fitzwilliam-Hall, he had been born in Cyrenaica, now eastern Libya, had grown up among the kopjes and veldt of what was then Southern Rhodesia, and it was while studying Arabic, and walking the black lava fields (harrah) and granite domes (hadbah) of the Hejaz mountains in western Saudia Arabia, that he decided to begin gathering place words from the Arabic dialects, before they were swept away forever. But his task soon began to grip him with the force of an obsession, and he moved into neighbouring Semitic and African-Eurasian languages, then to the Romance, Celtic, Germanic, Nordic and Slavic language families, and then backwards in time to the first Sumerian cuneiform records of c3100 BCE.
The entries for individual words grew, some to several pages in length, as a meshwork of cross-reference thrived between languages and usages. Topographically, he ranged from mountain tops to city forms. Linguistically, he worked through more than 140 languages, from Afrikaans to Zande. His hope, he said, was to show “that the land is layered in language as surely as the rocks are layered beneath its surface”. The work had become, he told me, so complex in its structures and so infinitely extendable in its concerns that he did not envisage completing it, only bringing it to a point of abandonment that might also be a point of publication. “The project has,” he said almost embarrassedly, “something of the fabulous about it.”
Later, he emailed me as an attachment the section of the glossary covering those words beginning with the letter “b”. “I hope the file size can be accommodated,” he wrote. I double-clicked it. The document opened in Word, and I watched the page count tick up as my computer ascertained the extent of the text. The count hit 100 pages, then 200, then 300 … it settled at last on 343 pages. All those pages in 11-point font, just for “b”. Then I read the note preceding the first entry (“bā (Akkadian, jungbabylonisch lex.): water”): “This glossary is a work in progress. At the present time … it is some 3,500 pages long and contains around 50,000 separate terms or headwords.” I sat back in my seat, amazed and haunted by this extraordinary scholar, out there in the desert, gathering and patterning a work of words that might keep us from slipping off into abstract space.
So Landmarks began with the “Peat Glossary”, and it ended with Abdal’s world-spanning magnum opus. In between, I have realised that although place words are being lost, they are also being created. As I travelled I met new terms as well as salvaging old ones: a painter in the Western Isles who used landskein to refer to the braid of blue horizon lines on a hazy day; a five-year-old girl who concocted honeyfur to describe the soft seeds of grasses pinched between fingertips. We have forgotten 10,000 words for our landscapes, but we will make 10,000 more, given time and inclination. This is why Landmarks moves over its course from the peat-deep word-hoard of Hebridean Gaelic, through to the fresh-minted terms and stories of young children at play on the outskirts of a Cambridgeshire town. And this is why I decided to leave blank the final glossary of the book – there to hold the place-words that have yet to be coined.
• Landmarks is published by Hamish Hamilton on 5 March.