Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 29, 2008

natural signs

In an earlier post I linked to this excerpt from Albert Borgmann’s extraordinary book Holding On To Reality, and I want to invoke Borgmann again now. One of the key concerns of that book is to separate and classify the kinds of . . . well, reading is what I would say — the kinds of reading we do. But Borgmann would probably say that he wants to understand the various kinds of signs we confront and the various ways we interpret them. Borgmann is especially concerned with our diminishing ability to read what he calls natural signs:

Information about reality exhibits its pristine form in a natural setting. An expanse of smooth gravel is a sign that you are close to a river. Cottonwoods tell you where the river bank is. An assembly of twigs in a tree points to osprey. The presence of osprey shows that there are trout in the river. In the original economy of signs, one thing refers to another in a settled order of reference and presence. A gravel bar seen from a distance refers you to the river. It is a sign. When you have reached and begun to walk on the smooth and colored stones, the gravel has become present in its own right. It is a thing. And so with the trees, the nest, the raptor, and the fish.

Borgmann teaches at the University of Montana and it’s clear from his books that he spends a lot of time outdoors; in one sense you could say that his major works are attempts to forge a meaningful connection between the experience of doing philosophy and the experience of walking through the Montana landscapes.

I have been thinking a lot about this emphasis in Borgmann’s work lately, and it affected the way I read this story about changes in the new version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

It is difficult to read the list of words excluded from the new Oxford Junior Dictionary without a sharp sense of regret. Here are some of the words that have been culled: catkin, brook, minnow, acorn, buttercup, heron, almond, marzipan, ash, beetroot, bray, bridle, porpoise, gooseberry, raven, carnation, blackberry, tulip, catkin, porridge and conker.

But you are likely to be overwhelmed by a greater sadness when you see the words that have elbowed them out. They include celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro, square number, block graph, attachment, database and analogue.

Unlike Henry Porter, I am not “overwhelmed by sadness” when I note the new words that are included; but I am dismayed to see the ones cast off, because those castoffs are largely words that describe the natural world — words that enable an understanding of “natural signs,” words that embody “information about reality.” As Porter rightly says, “what we are witnessing is a gradual triumph of abstract words over objects that can be seen and experienced.”

Porter has other complaints about the changes as well — the new dictionary’s “war on Anglo-Saxon simplicity,” its exclusion of religious and historical references — but this is the one that strikes me, at the moment, as especially significant. As our world becomes more complex, our children’s dictionaries (and adult ones too, for that matter) may just have to get bigger. But if hard choices have to be made, I’d rather start them off learning about brooks, acorns, and ravens; there will be plenty of time for databases and celebrities later.