In 2017 I bought the beautiful ‘Lost Words’ by nature writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. Each page is a visual hymn to the beauty of nature nouns. Macfarlane’s conjuring poems and Morris’s glowing watercolours summon lost words back:
“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly at first almost no one noticed – fading away like water on stone: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker – gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren…all gone!”
A campaign back in 2007 called for the reinstatement of more than fifty wildlife nouns axed from the children’s Oxford English Dictionary. They’d been replaced with words like chat room, voicemail, therapy and of course celebrity. Imagine making that call. So a group of authors organised a petition to get the publishers to restore them. They failed.
Nouns connect us to place. Verbs describe our actions and feelings and thoughts. Only with place and people together can we catch up what it is to be alive, to be fully human. Virtual reality has meant children are dislocated from the the verbs which make school such a special and valuable place. But they have also, just maybe, been closer to nature.
But children today leafing through a dictionary for ‘heather’, ‘magpie’ and ‘lark,’ won’t find them. I think of the childhood stories, TV programmes, or music which sharpened my senses and helped me place these names in the landscape. The hazy purple shade of heather against a moor, the bullying of a nest-takeover or the loud, liquid ululation of a tiny bird climbing into the deep blue sky.
Yesterday morning, children around the country listened to Macfarlane reading his Lost Words on Pie Corbett’s excellent radioblogging. One wrote in telling how he’d read this poem aloud next to a river:
“This shape-shifter’s a sheer breath-taker, a
sure heart-stopper – but you’ll only ever spot
a shadow-flutter, bubble-skein, and never
(almost never) actual otter”
only to see the creature flash by. Now there’s a spell in action:
Nature is magical, especially when you can name it. Lose the words, and we are that bit closer to losing the things and what they mean to us. During lockdown the outside world has been rationed and made a scarce resource. This increased value means that children may have experienced nature in new and deeper ways. But I wonder whether children in a field or park or garden could attach names to what they picked or held in their hand or to what flew past them.
I suspect a few more names will be lost from the children’s dictionary this year. A kind of extinction.
I wonder what will be added. Maybe ‘Covid’, ‘randomised’ or ‘lockdown’? Our children have seen the birth of ‘new’ words. And a few awkwardly shoe-horned together: ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’ and ‘flattening the curve’.
I wonder what they’ll remember, when they look back.
Some words stick. Vocabulary development is an external measure of the the things kids know. Building a child’s word bank changes their life. It helps them find enjoyment in subjects, fly in exams, maybe reach university and secure a great jobs.
But some words don’t get heard enough. Children from poorer homes are exposed to less parent talk and a reduced vocabulary. This is the essence and daily experience of being disadvantaged. Schools have worked incredibly hard to ensure that children doubly disadvantaged by poverty and the time gap out of school will know more of the right words in 2020.
But there’s also a triple disadvantage effect: missing out on nature.
Poorer children are missing out on nature more than ever before. 95% of outdoor education centres (who for years helped poor children from cities to experience their only annual trip to the countryside), have had their entire LA budget cut. And most of the unowned area in which children used to freely roam without adults has gone. Housing estates built on this rough ground. As a little kid I used to catch newts and frogs in ponds, canals and quarries where I grew up in the Midlands. Almost all those ‘wild’ spots are now concreted over, and fenced off.
“Childhood,” George Monbiot says, “is losing it’s commons.”
From the close dialogue schools have been having with parents over this period, it’s clear parents have valued their child embracing their outside time. Now is the perfect time to harness this appetite, and for schools to allocate time for children to be outside and more physically active. It’s an opportunity to look creatively at timetables.
Nouns stand for things we can touch. An otter, a heron, or a school building – it is just such a noun – a set of boxes in which we put certain numbers of the right year group of children. Carefully spaced. Heads have had to run schools as abstract nouns. Virtual schools, questions online, emailed feedback.
But nouns are useless by themselves. Otters swim, shift and shimmer. Herons ‘haul themselves’ into flight. Put nouns next to verbs and the sentence comes alive.
From the morning bell, school embodies the verbs, bringing children to life: Learning, drawing, calculating, playing, talking, whispering, acting, teaching, explaining, coaching, training. A melting pot of the fears and joys, the loves and hates, the hopes we are missing. It’s the nouns and the verbs together when we catch up what it is to be alive, to be human.
Over the last two weeks there’s been a frustrating national exchange of words about schools and a misunderstanding of the words ‘open’ and ‘closed.’ But together, as a profession, we know the spells which need to be spoken, the words summoned to return our schools to normal.
And by discovering that, we’ll have found more than we’ve lost.