Ecolinguistics, or ecological linguistics, is the study of language and language differences in relation to ideologies and ways of life, in particular their ecological impacts. Ecolinguistics emerged in the 1990s as a new frame of study of linguistic research, widening sociolinguistics to take into account not only the social context in which language is embedded, but also the ecological context in which a society is embedded.
Michael Halliday's 1990 paper New ways of Meaning: the challenge to applied linguistics is often credited as a seminal work which provided the stimulus for linguists to consider the ecological context and consequences of language. Among other things, the challenge that Halliday put forward was to make linguistics relevant to the issues and concerns of the 21st century, particularly the widespread destruction of the ecosystems that life depends on. Halliday also points out that economic growth describes how "countless texts repeated daily all day around contain a simple message: growth is good. Many is better than few, more is better than less, big is better than small, grow is better than shrink", which leads to ecologically destructive consequences.
Since Halliday's initial comments, the field of ecolinguistics has developed in manifold directions, employing a wide range of linguistic frameworks and tools to investigate the linguistic factors at play in both unsustainable societies and genuinely sustaining cultures. The International Ecolinguistics Association, characterizes ecolinguistics in these terms:
"Ecolinguistics explores the role of language in the life-sustaining interactions of humans, other species and the physical environment. The first aim is to develop linguistic theories which see humans not only as part of society, but also as part of the larger ecosystems that life depends on. The second aim is to show how linguistics can be used to address key ecological issues, from climate change and biodiversity loss to environmental justice."
In this way, the 'eco' of ecolinguistics corresponds to ecology in its literal sense of the relationship of organisms (including humans) with other organisms and the physical environment. This is a sense shared with other ecological humanities disciplines such as ecocriticism and ecopsychology.
The term 'ecolinguistics' has also been used with a metaphorical sense of 'ecology', for example in 'Linguistic ecology', 'communication ecology' and 'learning ecology' in ways which do not include consideration of other species or the physical environment. This is becoming less prevalent now as ecolingusitics becomes increasingly understood as a form of ecological humanities/social science.
Another aspect of ecolinguistics is the influence of the natural world on language. In 1996, David Abram's book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, described how the wider ecology (or 'the more than human world') shapes language in oral cultures (Abram, 1996), helping people attune to their environment. On the other hand, writing has gradually alienated people in literate cultures from the natural world, to the extent that 'our organic atonement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs' (1996:267).
Overall there are three main areas of interest for ecolinguistics. The first can be described as 'The Ecological Analysis of Language', the second 'Language Diversity', and the third 'The Influence of Ecology on Language'.
The ecological analysis of language draws on a wide range of linguistic tools including critical discourse analysis, framing theory, cognitive linguistics, identity theory, rhetoric and systemic functional grammar to reveal underlying worldviews or the 'stories we live by'. The stories we live by are cognitive structures in the minds of individuals or across a society (social cognition) which influence how people treat each other, other animals, plants, forests, rivers and the physical environment. The stories are questioned from an ecological perspective with reference to an ecological framework (or ecosophy), and judged to be beneficial in encouraging people to protect the ecosystems that life depends on, or destructive in encouraging behavior which damages those ecosystems. Ecolinguistics attempts to make a practical difference in the world through resisting destructive stories and contributing to the search for new stories to live by (Stibbe 2015). Stories which have been exposed and resisted by ecolinguistics include consumerist stories, stories of unlimited economic growth, advertising stories, stories of intensive farming, and stories which represent nature as a machine or a resource. Using Positive Discourse Analysis, ecolinguistics has also searched for new stories to live by through exploring nature writing, poetry, environmental writing and traditional and indigenous forms of language around the world.
This form of analysis started with the application of critical discourse analysis to texts about the environment and environmentalism, in order to reveal hidden assumptions and messages and comment on the effectiveness of these in achieving environmental aims (e.g. Harré et al. 1999). It then developed to include analysis of any discourse which has potential consequences for the future of ecosystems, such as neoliberal economic discourse or discursive constructions of consumerism, gender, politics, agriculture and nature (e.g. Goatly 2000). The cognitive approach and the term 'stories we live by' was introduced in Stibbe (2015), which describes eight kinds of story: ideology, framing, metaphor, evaluation, identity, conviction, salience and erasure. Approaches such as environmental communication and ecocriticism have broadly similar aims and techniques to this form of ecolinguistics.
Language diversity is part of ecolinguistics because of the relationship between diversity of local languages and biodiversity. This relationship arises because of the ecological wisdom (or cultural adaptation to the environment) that is encoded in local languages. The forces of globalisation and linguistic imperialism are allowing dominant language to spread, and replace these local languages (Nettle and Romaine 2000). This leads to a loss of both sustainable local cultures and the important ecological knowledge contained within their languages. One of the goals of ecolinguistic research is to protect both cultural diversity and the linguistic diversity that supports it (Terralingua 2016, Nettle and Romaine 2000, Harmond 1996, Mühlhaüsler 1995). This research is in line with the United Nations Environment Program's position that:
"Biodiversity also incorporates human cultural diversity, which can be affected by the same drivers as biodiversity, and which has impacts on the diversity of genes, other species, and ecosystems. (UNEP 2007)"
Nettle and Romaine (2000:166) write that 'Delicate tropical environments in particular must be managed with care and skill. It is indigenous peoples who have the relevant practical knowledge, since they have been successfully making a living in them for hundreds of generations. Much of this detailed knowledge about local ecosystems is encoded in indigenous language and rapidly being lost'. Mühlhaüsler (2003:60) describes how 'The rapid decline in the world's linguistic diversity thus must be regarded with apprehension by those who perceive the interconnection between linguistic and biological diversity'.
Overall, language diversity is part of ecolinguistics because of the correlation between the diversity of language and biological diversity, with the ecological wisdom embedded in local cultures being the link between the two.
Abram's early chapter on "The Flesh of Language" examined the contribution of the sensate body—and of the body's ongoing interaction with the earthly terrain—in the emergence of meaningful speech. A longer chapter on "Animism and the Alphabet" carefully contrasted the discourse of indigenous, oral cultures with the discourse of literate cultures. For oral cultures, the coherence of spoken language is inseparable from the coherence of the surrounding ecology, from the expressive vitality of the more-than-human terrain. For these peoples "it is the animate earth that speaks; human speech is but a part of that vaster discourse." (p. 179) A subsequent chapter, entitled "In the Landscape of Language," drew examples from a range of divergent oral cultures to show some of the diverse ways that the local, more-than-human terrain informs and influences the discursive speech of oral cultures. Overall, Abram argues that ecology plays a key role in shaping human language in oral cultures, but with writing this role becomes less and less significant. This results in a situation where ‘our organic atonement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs’ (1996:267). He therefore argues for using language in ways which bring ecology (or the 'more-than-human-world') back into language:
"there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all of its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthy intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the things themselves - to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches." (Abram 1996:273)
The International Ecolinguistics Association is an international network of ecolinguists. The website includes a bibliography, online journal (Language & Ecology) and other resources.
The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics created by the University of Gloucestershire and the International Ecolinguistics Association.
The Ecolinguistics Website (http://www-gewi.kfunigraz.ac.at/ed/project/ecoling) is an archive website of early ecolinguistics.
Language & Ecology Research Forum (http://www.ecoling.net) is a network of ecolinguistics and online journals about the relationships between ecology and language.