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Languages change very slowly so studying historical linguistics forces us to examine our history using a condensed time scale, thinking ‘long-term’ and ‘large-scale’ with the global perspective that is so valuable for sustainability studies. Historical linguistics examines the paths of human migration, the relationship between languages, and the changes in language resulting from conquest and changing socio-political, economic, and environmental fortunes of different human groups.[26]

Language radiation & diversification

Languages evolve in an organic way, diversifying from simple origins (proto-languages) in a tree-like way that demonstrates descent with modification, much like evolving organisms.

The number of languages spoken today numbers 6000-7000, which is possibly quite close to the number of languages spoken during the Palaeolithic period at the time when the earth was peopled by about 15 million hunter-gatherers.[1]

When people live in small communities separated by large distances or geographical barriers then the resulting isolation and lack of contact results in unique languages. We see this in the hundreds of Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia where peoples are mostly separated by long distances, and in New Guinea where they are separated by mountains and impenetrable forest. More familiar examples of language ‘isolates’ would be Japanese in the east and, in the west the Basque language that is spoken in northern Spain and south-west France. The history of isolates is often difficult to trace but then even closely related languages may be difficult to track back in history. So, for example, semitic languages date back to at least 4000 BP and around 2000 BP they were spoken across a region extending from today’s southern Turkey to Ethiopia in Africa possibly as an ancient subgroup of the broader Afro-Asiatic family of languages.

Related languages may be widely geographically separated as is the case with the Austronesian group which occurs from Madagascar through Indonesia to New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island, a consequence of the extensive sea migrations of the seafaring Austronesian people. Another well-known example is the dispersed northern European Uralic languages like Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian: surrounded by Indo-European languages the historical reasons for their current locations, presumably ancient migrations, remains a mystery.[2]

Rate of change

About 10,000 years is sufficient time for all words in a language to be replaced or changed beyond recognition and this makes the interpretation of pre-history extremely difficult and it is clear that although widely-spoken languages often diverged to form new languages (as with the Germanic languages dispersed by agriculture) the reverse may also be true as languages like some of those in the Indo-European family, have coalesced.[3]

Most language groups are however geographically and historically coherent there being about 20 language groups that are widely spoken. Among the best known and most prominent of these are the Indo-European group along with the Sino-Tibetan across eastern Asia, and the Dravidian in southern India.

Evolutionary linguistics

In line with, or slightly later than, the development of evolutionary psychology, evolutionary linguistics was really only launched in the 1990s with a paper by Steven Pinker an Paul Bloom.[22] Piecing together to evolutiuon of language is such a difficult and, until recently, controversial topic that it has only moved forward since the 1990s. Its evidence comes from brain damage, the way that children speak, chimpanzee behaviour and the genes of mice.[23] Early debate has centred rund two assumptions. First, that language is uniquely human, separate from other cognitive abilities, probably with a dedicated region of the brain, and genes that encode grammar. It may have therefore arrived suddenly with a critical mutation. Second, Language is integrated with a nd dependent on other abilities and cognitive faculties. There is a connection to the skills and syntax used by chimps, even monkeys and parrots. It is a higher cognitive function arising from multiple sites and operations in the brain: it is not something we have but something we do and it is coordinated with many genetic settings. From the 1990s it has been the second view that has held sway.[24]

Why does language evolution matter and what is it doing here among plants and sustainability? ‘Because the story of language evolution underlies every other story that has ever existed and every story that ever will‘.[25]

Spoken language

Genetic clues about the past are transmitted by human reproduction, linguistic clues by cultural diffusion. Modern genetic anthropology (see Migration) is now revealing the ancient pehistoric paths of human migration, this evidence being combined with that of that of archaeology and comparative linguistics to recreate the past and trace linguistic lineages.

Today, of the approximately 230 languages in Europe only about 100 are widely-spoken, about half of these occurring in Western Europe. In contrast about 2,200 are spoken in Asia. One area of particularly high linguistic diversity is Papua-New Guinea, where there are an estimated 832 languages spoken by a population of around 3.9 million.

Once we go beyond the major languages of economic and political power, such as English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and a few more with millions of speakers each, everywhere we look in the world we find a vast number of others, belonging to many genetically distinct families.

Europe & the Indo-European language

European languages fall into three family groups: in the south and west are the Romance languages which developed from the Latin of the Roman Empire (essentially French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese); in the north, west and centre are the Germanic languages derived from Proto-Germanic (English, German, Swedish, and Dutch – Swedish is closely related to the other Nordic languages Icelandic, Danish and Norwegian); then in the east and south-east are the Slavic languages derived from Proto-Slavic (they include Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Belarus, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, and Bulgarian).

Similarities between these three and other groups suggest an earlier Indo-European language that gave rise to an extended group of languages including Germanic, Slavic, Italic (Latin, Romance and others) Celtic, Albanian, Iranian, Greek, Baltic, Sanskrit and Hindi (there are notable exceptions such as the isolates Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and Basque). This common origin and relationship is evident in the similarity of the words denoting numerals in the various languages:

Vedik Sanskritaikad(u)vautri

The various Indo-European languages are now thought to be derived, in turn, from the common ancestral language Proto-Indo-European spoken by a particular people, the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

So, linguists suggest that, with the certain exceptions, the peoples of Europe, including those of Mesopotamia and northern India, speak languages of the Indo-European linguistic group which had a common origin in Proto-Indo-European. Current linguistic analysis suggests that the Proto-Indo-European language arose in about 7,000 BCE, probably spreading across Europe with the Neolithic farmers (or possibly the horsemen trading across the European steppes) and undergoing a rapid development about 3,000-4,500 BCE in the Pontic steppes above the Black Sea in southern Russia. This is supported by similarities observed in Greek and Hindu culture – not only the languages themselves, but their law, religious beliefs, mythology, music, and caste system.[1]

Written language

Written language permits the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom as well as commercial transactions, laws and cultural tradition. Through most of history mastery of the written text has been a specialised skill held by few members of a society and requiring special training. It is the source of continuity and conservatism. The oldest preserved written literature in any Indo-European language are the sacred Vedas, the 2,500-year-old Rig-Veda and Atharvaveda of India written in Vedic Sanskrit.


It is likely that writing arose independently in Mesopotamia in about 3300 BCE (as cuneiform used successively by Sumerians, Akkadians, and Assyrians), in China c. 1500 BCE, and in Mesoamerica c. 400 BCE. Egyptian hieroglyphics first appear about 3000 BP persisting with the Egyptian state for a remarkable 2700 years, used mostly for commercial transactions and matters of state, before being replaced by the Greek after the conquest of Alexander in 332 BCE. This is probably the first a greatest example of the way a state and its language are mutually interdependent. Egyptologists believe that though the hieroglyphics underwent little change through this period the spoken language would have changed greatly. Writing and speech do not change with equal speed.[4]

The Chinese written language, though not so old ancient as hieroglyphics, has lasted as long. Dating originally to the king and court of the Shang period it was fully developed and might date back much earlier than this. Like the Egyptian and Sumerian scripts it arose in a strongly centralised agrarian society, which is also true of the powerful kings of the Mayan culture that cultivated maize. No doubt writing assisted the recording of commercial transactions, taxation, legislation and other important social contracts. Chinese characters, like hieroglyphics, started out as pictures or pictograms representing physical objects on the path to more stylised representations of concepts and ideas as ideograms. Ancient Chinese writing, more than the Egyptian script, contains history, poetry and political commentary.[11]

A cultural peak, as in the West, was reached a few hundred years BCE with Confucius, his follower Mencius, and Laozi, possible founder of Taoism. The successful Qin (pronounced ‘chin’, hence China) dynasty produced China’s first emperor in 221 BCE who employed a single written language and monetary system over an area covering the north-eastern part of today’s China. Like many other rulers from at least the time of the Egyptian Pharoahs, he was preoccupied with monumental buildings dedicated to the afterlife, constructing the now famous thousands of life-size terracotta warriors to guard his tomb. The Qin were followed for 400 years by the learned emperors and civil servants of the Han dynasty records being maintained on paper that was invented in the first century CE to replace the former bamboo and silk. Chinese administrators progressed through examinations based on classical texts, mostly the teachings and wisdom of former philosophers like Confucius.

Much of European history over the last 2000 years has entailed three major languages – Greek, Latin, and Arabic.


Greek culture was based more on written text than any language that preceded it.[20] The categories of knowledge used in Greek culture and passed on in language have played a lasting role in the ordering of the Western world and its institutions. That does not mean, however, that language has control of our thought processes, we can always think what might be difficult to say.

Ancient Greek poet Homer, through his Iliad and Odyssey, written in about 700 BCE (and probably influenced in turn on the great written sagas produced by the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations) has had a lasting influence on the literature of subsequent generations. These two epic poems were written in a Greek alphabet derived from Semitic scripts and its modification would in turn give rise to Latin. The poems of Homer helped create a powerful shared culture, language, and national identity to the Greeks who called themselves Hellenes.

The great significance of an alphabet which, like Arabic, was derived from the Phoenician alphabet, is that, in addition to conveying meaning (like hieroglyphics) it also conveyed an impression of pronunciation. However, where an alphabet follows pronunciation then dialects (Attic was the dialect of the region around Athens while an Aeolic dialect was spoken on the island of Lesbos) will be written differently unless there are accepted conventions on writing and spelling.

Around 330 BCE Greece was overrun by Macedonians from the north who created an empire that extended from Egypt, across the Near East to the borders of India. Although this bloc would later fragment into three administrative blocs Greek, as koine (the common language) remained the official language of administration.[12]

Disagreements had been festering for some time between the eastern and western churches but the matter was brought to a head in 1054 when the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius closed all Latin churches in the city as a response to the closure by Pope Leo of Greek churches in southern Italy refusing the Latin liturgy. Pope and Patriarch effectively excommunicated one-another confirming a deep division of the church based on differences in theology, language, and geography.


The Great Schism

The Great Schism of 1054
Europe is divided by language, theology and geography into Eastern Greek Orthodox & Western Roman Catholic Latin empires in 1054
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Spiridon Ion Cepleanu Accessed 13 October 2015


When the Roman empire was subsequently established across Europe Latin was spoken in the west but Greek retained in the east. With the decline of the Roman empire and rise of Christianity we are inclined to think of the retention of Latin in the Roman Catholic church but many of the early texts were written in Greek and when in 395 CE the empire divided into two it was Greek that was used as the written language in the eastern Byzantine empire administered from Constantinople, as equal to Rome, by the Greek orthodox church. This Greek portion of the empire would remain until taken by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Greek had been the major language of the eastern Mediterranean for over 1000 years.


An epic account of the past provides people with a common identity, culture, even a code of behaviour, and this is reinforced by the shared language of the narrative. The most powerful accounts of this kind are religious, that of Christianity expressed in both Greek and Latin, Judaism in Hebrew (also important to Christian and Muslims), Hinduism in Sanskrit, Buddhism in Sanskrit and Pali. But there is not always this religious connection. Among the many secular examples, apart from Homer’s works are the Viking sagas and English tales of King Arthur. For the ancient Romans it was probably the Latin Aeneid of Virgil.

The Latin language and alphabet of the Romans first appears in inscriptions dating to about 600 BCE probably derived from the Etruscans who dominated much of Italy until about 500 BCE and who had, themselves, modified the Greek alphabet.[21] Unlike the Greek, written Roman Latin did not have local dialectical variations; Rome was a more hierarchical and administratively centred, and learning and influence was the privilege of a marked upper class. By 100 CE the various Italian languages had been subsumed by Latin and as the Roman Empire spread so Latin took the place of indigenous languages as occurred in France, Spain and Portugal. Few escaped although we know of the Basque language on the border of today’s Spain and France while Breton of Brittany probably arrived from Celtic Britain. The word ‘Latin’ is derived from the Roman word ‘Latium’ which was a district south of the Tiber River in Italy where ancient Rome was situated and Latin was spoken.

About 60% of the English words we use today are derived from the Latin used by ancient Romans. How did that happen? When the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, overran England conquered England their language of Norman-French, based on Latin, became the official language of politics, economics, religion, and the law usurping the Anglo-Saxon of the general population. Its Roman origin is revealed in the names ‘Romance language’ and ‘Romanian’. Many have been introduced by early scholars who used Latin as their first language or via the various Romance languages. A rough estimate is that of the 20,000 English words in relatively common usage about 10,400 are Latin, 5,400 Anglo-Saxon, and 2,200 from Greek. Latin is embedded in English in three forms: in their original form (e.g. per capita, vice versa, terra firma), absorbed into the language and taking English plurals (actor, impetus, error), or derived from Latin but with their own form and meaning (accommodation, efficient, available). Latin-derived words then spread across the world through the English-speaking colonies of the British Empire.

Rome derived much of its power from the administrative genius that controlled armies, surveyors, engineers, tax collectors, lawyers and all the other means of acquiring social power. Schooling was all in Latin and in order to advance socially Latin had to be learned. When a great fire broke out in Rome in 64 CE Nero had blamed and punished the Christians but within a few centuries Latin was the universal language of the Catholic church across western Europe.

The Roman advance across western Europe had been largely confined to a region to the south of the Rhine and in the fifth century CE the northern Germanic peoples (mostly Ostragoths, Visigoths, Sueves, Vandals, Burgundians and Franks) launched successful attacks, the last Western emperor being deposed in 476 BCE.[6]

Romance languages of Western Europe

For a more in-depth discussion of Latin see the article Why Latin?

Latin had, however, left its mark. The Latin spoken in the south, especially in France, Spain and Portugal took on separate forms as the Romance languages. With Latin established as an international language of learning we see major scientific and literary works all in Latin including the works of Newton and Descartes, the terminology of medicine and biology, perhaps most obvious in the Latin of plant names. Much of the impetus for this had come from the Latin of the church and its schools that had persisted through the Middle Ages when English was of little consequence.

After the collapse of Rome, Latin remained the written language of scholars and clerics in Western Europe (in the eastern Byzantine Empire it was Greek) especially those educated in the monastery schools. The first major change occurred after Charlemagne (c.742-814) when in the early 11th century a language called Franҫois appears as the rudimentary French language we know today. Economic conditions in Europe improved and by the 11th century there were scholars outside the church, living as wealthy noblemen in castles and manors. Around this time then the first two Romance languages appeared: French in northern France and Provenҫal in the south. The 13th century saw the birth of Italian – at first in the poetry of the Sicilian court of Frederick II but later made popular through the famous poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), author of The Divine Comedy and a masterful wordsmith in both Italian and Latin. The Romance languages arose, it seems, because of the inspired work of educated men of the royal courts who were seeking new forms of written expression, so it was not necessarily due to changes in the spoken language. This was also a way of expressing local pride and avoiding the linguistic domination of the church. Over time these linguistic changes became a rallying point for political regionalism since languages only seemed to achieve acceptance when associated with a particular region, political faction, and literary tradition. Italiano was probably not fully entrenched until the mid 14th century.

As many as 25 (Roman)ce languages have been recognised in all, but only six are generally familiar: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, (Roman)ian, and Catalan.


Arabic is a semitic language of the Afro-asiatic group and closely related to Aramaic, Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Phoenician, the latter being the source of the written alphabet. Spoken today in Western Asia, Northern and southern Africa it can be traced to nomads and herders on the Arabian peninsula of the seventh century CE before the formation of Islam.

The Islamic faith of Muslims follows the teachings of the prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632 CE). The official or literary form of the language, based on that of the Qur’an, is called Modern Standard Arabic or Literary Arabic which is for any formal communication.

In 711 Muslim rulers conquered much of the land formerly held by Greece and Rome extending from Spain trough northern Africa and the Near East as far as Pakistan all united for several centuries under a single caliph but without strong central control. Though the political regions and the Arabic language have waxed and waned the religious belief has remained and spread in more recent times to Bangladesh, Indonesia, and southern Africa. During the Middle Ages much of the written classical learning once centred in the Mediterranean became focused in the Muslim world in Iraq’s Baghdad, Spain’s Cordoba and Toledo, Byzantium being a centre for the former ancient Greek philosophy. There was a lively intellectual exchange in the Muslim world between educated Jews, Persians, and Indian scholars.

As a consequence of the Crusades large areas of the Middle East were captured by Christians but in the thirteenth century Turkish Muslims regained much of this land together with that of the Mongols and former Arab lands, giving rise to the Turkish-speaking Muslim Ottoman Empire. What remained of the Byzantine Empire was also taken and the lands occupied until after WWI.


The written Chinese script changed little over 2000 years, its effectiveness as a tool of communication being reduced by the difficult characters, old-fashioned literary words, and many different modes of pronunciation. All of these problems were addressed in the twentieth century. In 1919 it was decided to replace the ancient and difficult literary language of Wenyan with the more accessible Baihua which was easier to learn, so it is the classical texts that now require special learning. To overcome the problem of diverse pronunciations the mode of speech used in Beijing and Taiwan called Putongua ‘The CommonTongue’ was adopted. Then the system of traditional characters was simplified (in China but not Taiwan) again making learning more straightforward.

The common spoken language of Putonghua is now taught in all schools and it is closely related in vocabulary and style to the simplified script of the written language.(p.236) There remain a few languages still spoken by minorities such as Tibetan, Mongolian and the Turkic language Uigur. The culture and language of minorities is generally supported provided the national language is also learned.

There is now a nationwide entrance examination, Gaokao, for universities and institutions of higher learning consistingof Chinese, mathematics, and a foreign language, usually English. In general China has been influenced far more by the West than vice-versa.

The future of language

In 1800 all countries of the world had a majority of illiterate citizens. The possession of reading and writing skills, a good education, and the accent of a ‘gentlemen’ was sufficient to establish a place of respect in society. Languages rise and fall with political fortune. In the period from 1945 to 1990 in a world dominated by the superpowers America and Russia, Russian was widely spoken being the language of choice in many countries that were under the Russian umbrella. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 Russian international standing quickly declined, no longer taught so widely and associated with a parallel decline in science, technology, and even athletics as demonstrated by its proportion of Olympic medals in recent times.

Today the CIA Factbook rates of world literacy at about 84%. Written languages are learned in school and used on a day-to-day basis with the choice of language being made almost invariably by government.[5] We can expect this figure to rise towards about 95% and remain there. In language as in other spheres of life the world is becoming more democratic and the use of a global language, like a global currency, would undoubtedly facilitate communication by easing the stress of travel, facilitating commerce, aiding scientific communication and scholarship generally, helping to overcome misunderstandings and prejudices. Such advantages have not been sufficient to bring about rapid change. Between 1880 and 1907 fifty-three universal languages were proposed and in th 1890s one of these was the well-known Esperanto but it seems unlikely that an artificial language will assume dominance.[15]

About 100 languages are used by countries for both education and administration(in 2015 there were 196 countries in the world). The five languages spoken by the greatest number of people are Mandarin (14.4%), Spanish (6.2%), English (5.4%), Hindi (4.7%), and Arabic (4.4%) and these are the ones most widely taught in schools.



World languages today – by percentage of speakers
Mandarin is spoken by the greatest number of people. The number of Spanish speakers exceeds English speakers but English is the accepted language for academia, politics, and commerce
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Jroehl, accessed 13 Oct 2015


Urban living encourages common forms of communication. In 1950 29% of the world population lived in cities, in 2015 it was 50%, and in 2050 UN Population Division estimates that this number will have risen to 70%. As the world becomes more interdependent and interconnected it will be those languages taught in schools and which play a global role in commerce that will prevail while isolated languages and rural dialects will lose their number of speakers and influence, thus facing extinction. At present there seems a general trend towards global administration in many areas including law and this parallels the old idea of a universal language or lingua franca and the old ideal of Esperanto as well as the idea of a universal humanity and morality that does not serve a particular group or universally unacceptable ideology. It is likely that over the next 200 years the number of cosmopolitan languages will reduce in number with most people being bi-lingual.

At present the most likely international language(s) of the future appear to be Mandarin and English but such matters rest on future political and economic power distribution. Western culture has dominated in science and this is indicated, for example, by recent moves to allow the description of new biological species to be in English rather than the traditional Latin, a near-cosmopolitan Anglo-American culture, and the favoured use of English in universities and by multinational companies across the world. In any case after about 200 years today’s 6,000 different languages may number closer to 1,000.

On the other hand there is strong support for the preservation of local languages and cultures. Interest groups of many kinds strive to establish their individual identity by devising their own communication systems. Even so societies that do not have a deep motivation to conserve their language seem doomed to extinction and that would appear to be the case for many of the native Australian languages.

If society were to be fractured by some kind of financial or environmental catastrophe that reduced electronic and other communication and organised schooling then more languages would probably appear – not unlike the way the mutually unintelligible Romance languages arose from Latin in Europe after the isolation of countries following the disintegration of the Roman Empire.

At present we have two general theses about language in the future. Firstly, though the languages we speak may be very different, the way we structure these languages lie in innate mechanisms that are likely to hold into the future. Secondly, we know that there is steady change in any language such that in 2000 years no language would look like those we speak today. The kind of change we will see probably relate to a decreased concern with grammar and formal structure and an increased attention to rapid and efficient communication of ideas.


40,000-8000 – Linguistic and pictorial representation well-established
3000 – First writing: Sumerian cuneiform, passing to Akkadia and the Assyrians
2900 – Egyptian hieroglyphics
1350 – Chinese pictograms
1000 – Celtic Goedelic (Gaelic) languages spread to Western Britain from Spain and Portugal
800-700 – Origin of the Greek alphabet; Homer writes the Greek epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey which become a national narrative
600 – Latin alphabet
449 – Germanic Angles and Saxons arrive in eastern Britain diplacing native Goedelic with Germanic Brythonic
323 – Greek koine used as language of administration in E Mediterranean
300 – Latin spreads from Italy to SW Europe
220 – Standardisation of written Chinese
100 – Standardisation of Latin
29 to 19 – Poet Virgil writes the Latin Aeneid which becomes a Roman national narrative

550 – Arabic alphabet
597 – Roman prelate Augustine arrives in Britain bringing from Pope Gregory the Christian faith and Latin (ignored after the departure of Roman soldiers) becomes first Archbishop of Canterbury
603-616 – Law of Ethelbert, the first Engish text written in the Latin alphabet
700 – Latin the administrative language in western Europe; Greek in the east
800 – Charlemagne (c.742-814) forms western empire uniting most of France, Germany and neighbouring countries and introduces education for the clergy based on classical Latin. He was king of the Franks and first Holy Roman Emperor uniting much of Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire
871 – King Alfred the Great begins the process of translating important Latin texts into English
879 – Standard written English based on West Saxon dialect
1000 – Japanese with Chinese kanji characters & syllabic scripts katakana and hiragana
1066 – Norman invasion of Britain with replacement of English for legal an administrative purposes by French and Latin
1350 – Italian written language. Nôm script in Vietnam
1390 – Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales launches an English literary tradition
1417 – Henry V changes from French to English in his correspondence
1450 – Korean hangul syllabic script
1476 – William Caxton’s printing office opens in London facilitating the transition from written dialect to standard English
1500-1700 – Gradual replacement of Latin as the official written language of international political relations. Rise of the nation-state, national languages and cultural traditions, periods of regional linguistic dominance in economics and politics as with French in the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715)
1604 – Publication of the first English dictionary
1652 – Arrival of Dutch in Cape Town and initiation of Afrikaans
1815-1945 – British Empire establishes English in colonies across the world
1990 -> – English the leading international language following British Empire at its height in the early 20th century, and American political, economic, and cultural influence

Key points

Though old words disappear from language as new ones appear, language is nevertheless cumulative. New interests and academic disciplines bring with them their own technical terminology. The number of plant words available to a physician of the 17th century would be far fewer than today. We now have a vast shared technical terminology related to individual plant structures – from anatomy, to pollen structure, all aspects of the plant reproductive process, not to mention the proliferation of words describing plant chemistry, biochemistry, evolution, physiology, development and much more. This is one major reason why it is no longer possible to be a complete polymath – someone who is fully conversant with all academic disciplines: teh range and depth of knowledge is simply much greater than ever before.

Map showing the geographic distribution of the major language families
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
PiMaster3 Accessed 13 October 2015


The way we derive meaning from symbols as lines, squiggles, and dots on a piece of paper or computer screen is one of the most remarkable defining features of the human species. Like so many familiar aspects of our daily lives writing evolved slowly and painfully, over millennia, to become the masterpiece of communication and repository of learning that it is today.

We can trace writing back to at least three independent centres of civilization: in the Near East (Fertile Crescent), China, and Mexico. In Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, early writing served mostly as a record of business contracts and commercial transactions: in China it was used for divination. In the ancient civilizations of the South American Andes and West Africa there was no writing.

Hieroglyphics & cuneiform

Much of what we achieve as human communities depends on our social organization and social organization depends, in turn, on how efficiently we can transfer not only goods and services but also ideas – the communication of information.

We store and transmit information using a variety of media – like painting or the spoken word. When writing began it was convenient to fragment the world into simple units like table, bird, or cow and representing these units with symbols.

In ancient Egypt the system of symbols (each symbol usually a simple picture of what it represented) was known as hieroglyphics mostly used to communicate about matters of trade, government, and religion. The control and use of these symbols was the preserve of a priestly class and their scribes (writers) because the symbols could not be understood by most of the people.

At first the symbols were of two kinds inscribed on rock, those representing objects and those representing sounds and there were over 1500 (only 140 were sound signs and of these just 33 represented consonants). Later strips of reed stems, Cyperus papyrus, were woven together to form paper used for writing using inks. Now there was a portable source of information available to a wider range of people. To facilitate writing the symbols were simplified and more flowing, creating a cursive script known as hieratic as seen on the Ebers Papyrus, the oldest medicinal text dated to about 1600 BCE. By this time the number of symbols had reduced to about 700 and by about 650 BCE the simplification had continued, resulting in a script now known as demotic which contained a greatly increased number of sound symbols but decrease in number overall making written language much more easyto learn and therefore accessible to a broader sector of society.

In Mesopotamian Sumer the system of writing known as cuneiform, developed between 3500 and 3100 BCE, consisted of wedge-shaped symbols impressed on soft clay tablets that were baked hard if the record was to be kept. As in Egypt cuneiform was first used as a form of contract, recording commercial transactions. About 2000 symbols were used, also divided into word signs and sound signs. Akkadian replaced Sumerian as the spoken language and as early as 2300 BCE there were dictionaries comparing the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, the Akkadians reducing the number of symbols to about 600 achieved by increasing the number of sound signs.

The Sinai inscriptions, dated to about 1700 BCE, are important in the history of writing because they consist entirely of consonant signs. When spoken correctly these symbols would produce words in ancient Semitic. This was a revolution since it created meaning by using only sound signs.

Between 1200 and 1150, within a single generation, civilizations of eastern Europe – Egypt, the Hittites occupying the region of Anatolia, and the palace civilization of Mycenae that occupied Greece and Crete were all had cities raised. This period of civilization disintegration is known as the Bronze Age Collapse. Trade broke down, pottery assumed an earlier simple form, there was no construction of stone buildings and literacy was all but lost. A collapse would also occur in Assyria to the east but 100 years later.

Wandering semitic tribes so much a part of Egyptian civilization built cities in the eastern Mediterranean (the Levant) and when Assyrian civilization collapsed it was these people, known as the Phoenicians that, using papyrus, revived the lost written language, developed a new alphabet, and re-built trade routes

In this way, over several millennia, language evolved into a powerful method for transmitting and storing information. Over time humanity has, perhaps unconsciously, looked for ever more efficient ways of communicating information over ever-wider spaces.
Cuneiform evolved from Sumerian pictograms, the oldest tablets being recovered from the city of Uruk.

The origin of the English alphabet and letters

The shapes of the English letters (as an alphabet) that you see associated into words and sentences have a long and fascinating history. Most of them are clearly recognizable in early Italian printed books of the 15th century. These in turn emulate the finest manuscripts of the 12th and 11th centuries which copied the Carolingian (Emperor Charlemagne who adopted Roman customs, art and government during what we know as the Carolingian Renaissance) in the 9th century, his finest manuscripts produced by the monks of St Martin’s at Tours in France. These monks created small letters from the former capitals with rounded edges that simplified writing (semi-uncials). These, of course were the capital letters used in the writing of the Roman Empire. The use of lower case letters during the Carolingian and Byzantine Empires was a major change affecting today’s writing.

Though we often associate the Roman alphabet with that of the ancient Greeks, the Romans learned their writing skills from the Etruscans, who had themselves learned to write from Greek colonists who had settled near Naples during the 8th century BCE. So, we may view the Roman alphabet as just one form of the Greek alphabet except that the Greeks had adopted a semitic alphabet used by the Phoenicians whose inspiration, it seems, was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Following the Bronze Age Collapse, wandering semitic tribes from Egypt had created a kingdom in the Levant as part of a Mediterranean-wide maritime trading empire. These people, named ‘Phoenicians’ by the ancient Greeks, developed the first consonantal alphabet of 22 letters or symbols as much-reduced and stylized former pictures. By 1000 BCE the Phoenician alphabet, though semitic[1] in origin could be fitted to the different languages of Europe, India and SE Asia, spreading literacy around the world and the source of the Greek and Roman alphabets that we know today. Its development, the Greek alphabet, added vowels thus giving us the word ‘alphabet’ (A + B = alpha + beta = alphabet).

From calligraphy to computers

The word ‘calligraphy’ is derived from the Greek meaning beautiful writing and is epitomised by the formality and elegance of copper plate writing with its thick and thin strokes although more precisely applied to the range of styles used for copper plate engraving by English round hand, an open flowing style with contrast of thick and thin strokes dating to the 1660s and derived from the use of metal pointed nibs in the 16th century. Artistic effects could be achieved using black and white, colour, heavy and light, thick and thin, as patterns and shapes in space – to produce stylised scripts known as ‘Carolingian’, ‘Gothic’, and ‘Italian’.

With the Industrial Revolution in England Birmingham of the 1830s became the international source of long-lasting steel nibs of every kind and shape. The use of steel needed inks that would not corrode the steel, which would flow easily, and which would not fade. These arrived in the 1850s.

Ideally pen and ink also needed to be portable – and ink was messy. In about 1900 the fountain pen was invented with the ink stored in a barrel. Ink could be sucked up from an ink well. Later, ink was bought in disposable cartridges. Pens could now indicate social status being made of silver and gold, designed and ornamented in various ways. In the 20th century the ball-point pen emerged: it was all-purpose and disposable. There followed various elaborations like fibre tips.

Writing with machines

Machines were introduced that would speed up the process of writing. Typewriters, seen in most offices by the 1880s, used letter keys to punch out words on paper using a fabric ribbon impregnated with ink. But later the physical effort was reduced by using electronic machines and various iterations of ribbons and modes of punching out letters.

Dedicated word processors with screens appeared in the 1960s to be replaced by desk-top computers that are now virtually universal in the developed world.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

The significance of writing and literacy for sustainability lie in its connections with social organization because, historically, it is those societies and civilizations with the most efficient communication systems that have exerted the greatest political and economic influence on the world.

It is hardly surprising that one major function of early writing systems was to record economic transactions and contracts of various kinds related to governance. Orderly trade and effective communication between peoples meant access to the resources needed for societies to flourish and increase in complexity by developing new technologies. Population growth facilitated the specialized division of labour and the possibilities of adopting new scales of production as small boats were transformed into ocean-going vessels, raiding bands became huge well-equipped armies, and vast stone buildings and monuments could be constructed.

Above all, the transition from spoken to written word allowed critical examination and correction, and the possibility of improvement and progress. Although there was also the capacity for inflexibilty and stagnation as social customs and traditions became ‘set in stone’. Writing was still a social activity dominated by small numbers of highly respected individuals who controlled the written symbols or words, and if ‘The Word’ came from God then there was nothing further to be said.

So, the development of written language was one major component of the mix of factors that make up what we now call civilization. In the West writing, arose in the great Bronze Age civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3000 to 2000 BCE gradually changing from pictorial symbols to sound symbols before writing and literacy were virtually lost around 1200 BCE at the time of the Late Bronze Age collapse, the unaccountable devastation of the great Mycenean, Hittite, Syrian and Egyptian empires, to create an ancient Dark Age .

The centre of civilization then moved to the eastern Mediterranean (Levant) and the cities of Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon from which seafaring traders known as the Phoenicians set up a coastal trading empire around the Mediterranean from the island of Crete to Carthage in North Africa opposite Sicily to its north, and westward as far as todays straits of Gibraltar at Tingis (Tangiers). It was these people who gave us the phonetic alphabet consisting of 22 consonant sounds that could be transposed into any language.

Up to the mid- 19th to 20th centuries it was possible for a well-educated and widely read individual to survey the landscape of human knowledge. After this time the depth and detail of cumulative knowledge made this impossible as academics withdrew, even struggling to keep in touch with their own specializations.

With access to the synthesised information now available on the internet it is once again possible to view the big picture. Big History has provided a modern framework for human existence and the world’s greatest academics can now be read and viewed as they synthesize the current state of knowledge and controversies in their various disciplines. Today it is possible to access the cutting edge of any subject at the touch of a few buttons.

Clay tablets preserved records better than papyri.


What is a word? How can meaning reside in a sound … and how can strings of sounds or marks on a page or screen, as words, be combined in a way that we can all understand?

I’ll repeat this question because it encompasses a miraculous characteristic of human existence that is either quickly passed over or ignored. Please think about this. What role do words play in the act of communication? In a materialistic world we must acknowledge speaking as the generation of sounds, and writing as the arrangement of molecules of carbon or ink on paper, or pixels on a screen. But that does not explain how I can transfer complicated representations and abstract ideas rapidly from my brain to yours. What exactly is the relationship between a word and the object or idea it purports to express? Just by saying or writing ‘Milky Way galaxy’ I can conjure up images and associations in your mind. But what exactly is it that passes from my brain to the spoken and written word to your brain such that there is understanding? How do sounds get converted to information that generates representations and meaning? What, in scientific terms, is information: how can one configuration of matter be ‘about’ another? The relationship between language and fact became a preoccupation of the twentieth century known as the ‘linguistic turn’ and we are still working through its many philosophical an linguistic ramifications.

For me, one valuable nugget of knowledge addressing this tricky question comes from Steven Pinker who offers us the expression ‘the web, the string, and the tree‘.[16] Thoughts, images, ideas, and feelings are all connected in our minds through a web of association. Somehow we express such things through a linear sequence or string of sounds or written words. To convey meaning by communicating with someone else there must be some generally-understood rules for the way words and sounds are combined. Firstly there are rules for the way words can be formed and, secondly there are rules for the way these words can be combined (syntax), this being a hierarchical or tree-like structure (words into phrases, phrases into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and so on). Together the rules of word formation and word combination are known as ‘grammar’. Syntax uses a tree of phrases to translate a web of thoughts into a string of words. This gets us going, even though it does not satisfy the need for a clarification of the notion of information.

So, by means of a small number of discrete units – letters and sounds – language allows us, through speech and the written word, to convey an infinity of meanings. Using vocalisations we are able to convey to other people all kinds of ideas and information with extraordinary expressive power. Written language then permits the accumulation of knowledge, including abstract imaginative ideas.

Language was not discovered by one group and then passed on to others like writing or the alphabet and for that reason we can regard it as an innate adaptive trait … more a matter of biology than culture. Children have what appears to be an instinctive or innate ability to absorb and recreate language without the effort of learning that is required to develop the cultural skills of reading or writing. Speaking English is a consequence of culture: speaking at all is a consequence of biology.


Language Courtesy Wimimedia Commons

Spoken language is rapidly acquired by children unlike written language and reading which require special training. Language is different from thought and meaning
Here are examples of several written languages
Courtesy Wimimedia Commons


Language consists of three major components: firstly, words or vocabulary, stored in the mental lexicon or dictionary; secondly, rules for assembling words, the syntax or rules that enable us to assemble words into phrases and sentences, morphology, the assembly of bits of words like prefixes and suffixes into complex words, phonology the study of the sound patterns of language combination of vowels and consonants into the smallest words; and thirdly, interfacing, the way these factors relate to communication about the world and with other people. Finally there is semantics: the study of meaning in language. We can hold in memory and comprehend a sentence of about 50 words beyond which we begin to struggle.

This article is an adaptation and extension of the Youtube lecture Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain by Steven Pinker.[6]

Evolution of language

Today we believe it likely that language evolved in the last 60,000 years. Using language as a means of facilitating social communication has obvious survival value and can therefore be regarded as an adaptation evolving from initial grunts and vocalisations. Also it is possible that the one-time use of a complex sign language is echoed today in the expressive use of hands during conversation.

An alternative theory is that language is a spandrel or exaptation. For example, just as it is possible that bird feathers evolved as an adaptation for warmth with flying a side-effect so language may have evolved as a side-effect of brain evolution as our brains became larger and our cognitive functions increased. Not everything arises as an adaptation: it might simply be coopted for useful purposes.

In linguistics as in other aspects of our biology we must assume that complexity has simple origins and this is one topic of special concern in biolinguistics.

From the 1950s it has become increasingly clear that from elemental sounds and linguistic building blocks it is possible to express an infinity of ideas meaning – that language demonstrates an extraordinary degree of computational efficiency.

Did it evolve from gestures, auditory signals, and emulation of sounds in the environment (bow-wow theory), rhythmic grunts and chanting (yo-he-ho), or cries of emotion (pooh-pooh or ouch), copying sounds in the environment (ding-dong), sounds associated with love, play and emotion (la-la). Language arose a relatively short time ago, perhaps as late as 30,000 years ago (C. p. 356) leaving a gap of 20,000 years before the arrival of unequivocal written language and a vast gap between human language and that of other primates.

There seems no correlation between language and minimal effort in articulation.

Answers to the following questions remain controversial: are humans unique in their linguistic abailities; is there a unique language aspect to the brain o is language part of generalised cognition; what aspects of language are derived by natural selectio and what as spandrels?

Language & thought

It is sometimes said that language structures the way we understand the world – that words determine thoughts. Certainly language can influence our perceptions of reality, our thought patterns, and worldviews (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) but language is not thought itself – we do not think in language. Human babies and animals respond to the world with understanding – they have cognition, visual imagery, and understand the intentions of others – all without language. Our creation of new words reflects the desire to express currently unexpressed thoughts and concepts: that is, we are not constrained by our thought but by our language.

Our use of metaphor is especially interesting here, and no doubt concerns like these are at least part of the reason for political correctness as we steadily expurgate sexist, racist, and ageist words from everyday conversation.

However, we do not think in words: we think in concepts and we clothe these concepts with language which is at the tip of the iceberg of our consciousness. That we cannot think without language is clearly incorrect since we learn it as children; language evolves; it is extremely ambiguous in meaning. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker suggests we think in what might be called ‘Mentalese’ which is, on the one hand, much richer than language through its network of associated concepts but, on the other hand, much simpler because it does not need the words, word-constructions, and pronunciation that makes language possible. Speaking is like translating Mentalese into language.

Communicating the ideas and concepts in our minds has resulted in vastly different languages – and yet it may well be that Mentalese is universal.

The left cerebral hemisphere is dominant for language in most right-handed people (>95%) but most linguists believe that many sites are involved in language, that the idea of there being specific isolated parts of the brain for particular linguistic purposes is unlikely.

Language & meaning

Just as thought is not the same as language, so meaning (language content or semantics) is also not the same as words. When we recall a conversation long after it has happened, it is not the actual words that are retained by our long-term memory but the meaning conveyed by the overall interaction.

Spoken language appears to have a strong instinctive component while written language has only arisen a few times in history and is only perpetuated through a process of learning. Alphabetic writing, with symbols denoting vowels and consonants, appears to have arisen only once.

Units of meaning

What do we call a unit of meaning? We are inclined to think that this is a word, since we talk about ‘the meaning of words’ but: words with similar meaning have different forms (walk, walks, walking), they do not account for idiom (‘walk the talk’), and they are already treated as the units of grammar within syntax and morphology. If we call the unit of meaning a lexeme then it is OK for the word ‘walk’ to exist in several forms and to be used in idioms.

How does the number of words in language correspond to the number of meanings? David Crystal claims that there are about 20,000 words in Shakespeare and about 30,000 lexemes.

Isolating units of meaning from language is not straightforward. For example, it seems reasonable to claim that the meaning of the word/lexeme ‘man’ has three sub-components of meaning adult + human + male.

Lexemes are not isolated units but are related to one-another to greater or lesser degree. There two major relations, firstly the tendency for a particular lexeme to occur in association with others (known as collocation) as when we say ‘It was a very auspicious ….’ Which has few resolving possibilities. Collocation is not the same as the association of ideas. Secondly lexemes may be related to a greater or lesser degree in terms of their particular sense or meaning and among the different kinds of sense-relation are: synonymy (a car is the same as an auto); inclusion (‘X is a kind of Y’, as in a potato is a vegetable) the including item is the hyponym (the vegetable) and the included item is the hypernym (potato); antonyms (opposites) which may grade (as in ‘large’ and ‘small’), not grade (as in ‘married’ and ‘single’), or be converses (as in ‘buy’ and ‘sell’); incompatibles (as below the superordinate category or hyponym ‘vegetable’, the hypernym ‘carrot’ cannot be a ‘potato’. Slightly different part-whole relations exist as in leg and body which is different from inclusion.

The accumulation and refinement of lexemes

Lexemes – as units of meaning, understanding, or concepts – segregate the mass of interrelated sensory inputs and ideas into meaningful and managable units. These units of understanding become much more powerful when they are hared as common knowledge using either the spoken word or writing. Much more can be achieved when you know what someone else is thinking. Common knowledge can be passed on by oral tradition but writing can give knowledge a permanence and reliability that is not guaranteed through speech. Though items of common knowledge can be lost, overall the tendency will have been for knowledge to accumulate, and this would have surged on four occasions with the development of spoken language (maybe as recently as 30,000 years ago), the development of written language (about 5,500 years ago), the development of printing (about 550 years ago), and the development of the internet (about 10-20 years ago to the present). Shared concepts would be largely confined to language groups. With the advent of a universal written language the number of concepts that could be retained as common knowledge would be vastly increased and by translating other languages many more new concepts would be added. Some indication of the rate of inflow of new concepts comes to us from the rate of proliferation of new technical terms, areas of expertise, and academic disciplines needed to deal with the myriad new categories that are being invented. Certainly there was a strong surge of new disciplines in the nineteenth century. Creating order out of the world is achieved through both conscious and unconscious filtering of information. Much of our sensory information, like the constant shifting of our visual field, is unconsciously processed. But we can also mentally discriminate preferred options, as when we decide to have coffee or tea with our breakfast.

Shared knowledge could not have started out as as a finished product, it would have been slowly built up brick by brick like a building. Perhaps it began as the accumulation of a few commonly-understood sounds, signals and gestures. The development of a formal structured language and words would have opened the gates to a flood of new categories. With the numerical increase in these concepts came the need to associate, group, and organise – to classify these new bricks into meaningful units of the overall linguistic building. Just as bricks outline windows, doorways and roofs, so lexemes can denote different clusters of meaning. Lexemes, then, are not only units of meaning or concepts, they are also units of classification or taxa. A more user-friendly word would be ‘category’.

Progressive classification

Much of the selection and classification of mental categories that goes on all the time has no lasting effect since it is not common knowledge. What time I get up, which socks I wear, and what I eat for breakfast, all entail discriminating between and prioritizing categories of thought. Sometimes these categories of thought relate to physical objects in the world and sometimes they are purely an internal matter as when I imagine I am on a desert island. Many common knowledge classifications are capable of improvement in the sense that they can be reorganized in a way that helps us understand and manage the world more effectively. Clearly over time we have divided the physical world into ever more categories and, like the improvement of our scientific classification of animals and plants, this is a continuing process. In a practical sense it is clear that some classifications are more effective than others and in thi sense our powers of discrimination and precision are constantly improving. Some categories of knowledge would have been discarded in favour of those that seemed better.


Learning vocabulary means making the best lexical choice for the circumstances, other things being equal, the greater the vocabulary the greater choice and precision of expression. We have to memorize the link between sounds, words, and meaning: there are no short cuts. Children gradually improve in both comprehension and use of words. At eighteen months most children can speak about 50 words and understand about 200-250. By the age of two vocabulary generally exceeds 200 words but older than this it is difficult to devise parameters. By the age of 8 or 9 simple word definitions can be offered but only teenagers can provide acceptable critical definitions. Ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, and China and later the Indian and Arab worlds all produced at least rudimentary dictionaries these were given a major boost with the advent of printing.

Vocabulary grows by: borrowing from other languages (chic); changing structures (scare-crow to scarecrow, Eurodollar, technophobia); adding prefixes and suffixes (kitchenette); changing meaning (gay). This is the study of word origins known as etymology. There are whole lexical fields of technical terms associated with academic disciplines and technologies, from the car mechanic to the biochemist, geologist to botanist, psychologist to the administrator. We need help to become familiar with these terms and they can create barriers to communication.

We structure language hierarchically with sentences containing substructures-within-other-substructures in a boxes within boxes way.

Names are interesting as being either proper nouns as names referring to specific individuals mostly in the ‘real’ physical world – like everest, or common nouns as names referring to universals classes of objects in general as objects of thought – like mountain.

A 1999 survey showed 96% of the world’s languages were spoken by only 4% of the people.(C p. 336)

Contact languages are known as pidgin which are creative adaptations with rules of their own while a creole language is a pidgin language that has become the mother tongue of a community. There are over 650 languages spoken in New Guinea (C. p. 394). There is no known connection between Aboriginal and other world languages.

Language connects through tourism, commerce, policing, newscasts, political communication, administration.

Language and reason

How do we connect one idea to another in a train of spoken or written language? Associated ideas in a flow of language may be implicit but they may also be made explicit using words like ‘therefore’, ‘because’, ‘so’ etc. Although the web of associated ideas in our brains seems infinite the kinds of connections we form can be locked into just a few simple categories: resemblance (similarity and difference); contiguity (before and after in time or space); cause and effect. These categories may be subdivided as has been done by linguists analysing the connections between one statement and another.


Linguistics is the study of language and it includes grammar (the structure of words, phrases, and sentences), phonology (the study of sound), semantics (the meaning of words), pragmatics (the use of language in conversation).

Specialist studies explore: how language is processed by the brain in real time (psycholinguistics); how children acquire language (language acquisition); and how language is processed by the brain (neurolinguistics).

Words Words do not relate to the objects they describe and therefore need to be committed to memory as the word itself, its sound and some specification of its meaning. A moderately educated person has a vocabulary of about 60,000 words (one new word every two hours from the age of one). Since words are arbitrary, like phone numbers or historical dates, we have a great natural ability for word retention.


The energy of the sounds we produce create pressure waves in the air. Our vocal organs are clearly adapted to speech production while the hairs and delicate bone structures of the auditiry system are equally well adapted for sound reception, especially that of speech. A young adult hears within a wave frequency range of 20-20,000 Hz although speech is mostly confined to the range 100 to 400 Hz. The male mean is about 120 Hz and that of the female about 220 Hz. Middle C on a piano is 264 Hz and an orchestra is tuned to 440 Hz.


Linguist Noam Chomsky is well-known for his postulation of a ‘universal grammar’ as a set of metal rules that can generate the syntax of every human language. Thus he proposed innate generative rules for syntactic structures. Language depended in part on where you were born (whether you speak Chinese or English) but also on structures imposed from within the mind.

Grammar and meaning are important for the discrimination of linguistic units. Familiarity means that we interpret and anticipate sounds, even when they are not there since speech perception is not a matter of passive input but active participation.


Words are combined into phrases and sentences and this field of linguistics has been strongly influenced by philosopher-linguist Noam Chomsky who noted the extreme creativity (productivity) we employ in constructing sentences which involves a high degree of novelty. How do we do this – because it cannot be done by brute memory of lists of sentences – we must have some recipe or intuited method for combining word elements into meaningful sentences?

This characteristic is a matter of psychology since it must relate to operations going on in the mind and linguists working on this universal underlying generative grammar study both the universal rules governing all languages as well as those relating to particular languages.

It is also important to distinguish between prescriptive grammar (so-called correct sentence construction) as opposed to descriptive grammar, how it actually is spoken.

Independent of meaning

Languages also have a syntax which cannot be identified with their meaning. We recognise accepted syntax even though the meaning of the words is not evident. ‘Colourlesss green ideas sleep furiously’ would be a novel sentence with little meaning but a recognisable syntax unlike ‘Furiously sleep ideas green colourless’ which is incoherent.

Also syntax doesn’t consist of word-by-word linear association (Chomsky, 1956) ‘Colourlesss green ideas sleep furiously’ has virtually zero transition dependencies. Language contains long-distance dependencies and too many of these can complicate communication as with the use of ‘either’ and ‘or’ or ‘if’ and ‘then’.

Hierarchical structure

Sentences are not assembled in word-by-word association but as a nested hierarchy of elements like an inverted tree. So, for example, a sentence like ‘I told him that it was sunny outside’ can be divided into two parts, a noun phrase (the subject) consisting of the noun ‘I’, and a verb phrase (the predicate)- further divided into a verb ‘told’, a noun phrase ‘him’, and a sentence ‘that it was sunny outside’.

So language is composed from phrase-structure rules which allow us to express unfamiliar meanings by assembling familiar words into new combinations – in fact giving us effectively infinite combinatorial power.

The geometry of branches in phrase structure within sentences is critical to the understanding of the overall meaning.

Language acquisition in children through universal grammar

Children do not memorise sentences but they abstract the rules of sentence-construction, using these rules effortlessly as they learn to speak suggesting that these rules are part of the inherited endowment of every normal child. At 18 months they use two-word sentences – like ‘more outside’, not memorised but assembled or ‘all gone sticky’ both newly constructed also errors in using the past tense to irregular verbs like ’I go’ed’ (English has about 165 irregular verbs). Chomsky claimed that children are hard-wired with this ‘universal grammar’ an intuitive sense of what the rules for any language must be. Children follow structure-dependent rules not word-by-word rules.

Critics question whether this mental structuring or universal grammar is language-specific or part of the general way in which the human mind works as also for, say, vision, motion and memory; it has also not been shown to be true for all languages; or that more general-purpose neural network models are can explain specific ‘grammar’ intuitions.


How does the brain convert what is the almost continuous flow of sound during conversation into meaningful units? The miracle of this conversion becomes apparent when we compare our total incomprehension when we listen to a totally unfamiliar foreign language and when we completely comprehend our own. We cannot force ourselves to hear our own language as simply changes in sound patterns

Language consists of a limited set sounds or phonemes (individually meaningless elements) that combine hierarchically and recursively into larger units or words. The words are then combined in a completely independent way into phrases and sentences.

Phonology studies sound patterns as the vowels, consonants, and diacritics (stress syllables) that constitute the minimal units of word construction. It consists of formation rules that capture a word in terms of its sounds and how these sounds may adjust according to their position in a sentence and usage the use as well as the use of accents and other devices that are added deliberately.

The typical language has 30-40 speech sounds used to construct about 60,000 meaningful words which can be combined to form an unlimited number of sentences. The African Khoisan language, which uses a large number of consonants and a variety of clicks, uses more than 100 sounds. In contrast most Aboriginal languages have fewer than 20 speech sounds, the least of any known language but word inflections (capacity to express different grammatical categories such as tense, mood, voice, aspect, person, number, gender and case) are extremely complex.[7]


Phonetics is more strictly associated with the physical aspects of language production, how speech sounds are made, transmitted, and received. There are about 20-200 building blocks of sound (phonemes designated using phonetic symbols) as vowels and consonants that are built into words. The number of sound units varies between languages: the Pacific island Rotokas uses 11, English has 44. In English there are more sounds than letters and these are all listed in an International Phonetic Alphabet. Vowels do not impede the airstream, consonants (of which there are always more), do.

For consonants sound is either labial (lip) as in ’p’, alveolar (front palette) ‘t’, velar (back palette) ‘k’. Airstream is ‘stopped’ with ‘p’ and ’k’ or ‘fricative’ as in ‘s’ or ‘f’, ‘nasal’ as in ‘m’, ‘sonorant’ as in ’l’ is unimpeded airstream. Voicing is use of vocal cords as in ‘b’. Vowels, in general, are used more for expression and consonants for meaning.

Syllables are difficult because they often comprise more than one phoneme but do not make up a word.

Language interface

Language production studies sound production in the larynx and voice box with cartilaginous flaps, the vocal cords and a series of cavities that allow different resonances, harmonics and stops and adjustments with tongue and lips etc. The larynx has descended in the course of evolution.

From the world to brain comprehension of sound is the extremely complex process of speech recognition, the phonemes being co-articulated often produce different sounds as in the ‘k’ of Cape Cod. Sounds do not split into words but speaking is continuous sound; it is our mental lexicon that creates the apparent divisions between words that do not exist in reality. Some of this complexity is illustrated in the childrens’ rhyme ‘Lambs eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy; I’ll eat ivy too wouldn’t you?’ Computers struggle to make the interpretations we achieve effortlessly apart from misinterpretations of meaning. A Russian computer translation of ’The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ came back ‘The vodka is agreeable but the meat is rotten’.


This places language in context using our understanding of the world and expectations about how others speakers communicate. We assume that communicators are trying to get across a message truthfully and politely. ‘Give me a hand’, ‘I’m Harry and I’m leaving’ and other potentially confusing constructions relating to various life-situations and all needing to be computed.

Language is a miracle because it permits us to communicate an infinite set of ideas using the combination of a limited set of tools consisting of a large lexicon of memorised words and a powerful mental combinatorial grammar.

The challenging questions that remain include the unlimited creativity of language, the abstract mental structures that relate words to one-another and how these are acquired in childhood, the properties that are universal across languages and how any universality relates to the mind. It relates strongly to human biology, evolution and sociality as a window into human nature.

Meaning – Semantics

Meaning is a complex many-faceted concept (see Meaning) but we can make a distinction between semantic or literal meaning and pragmatic meaning or what is to be achieved by a statement.

Linguists are currently researching the controversial connection between language, thought, and meaning – the degree to which does language structures the way we perceive and understand the world. For example, languages divides the world using different categories. Though the colour spectrum is a continuum different languages tend to recognise red, green, yellow and blue suggesting that these may be universal categories that are a consequence of our biology. How then do language and culture structure the world?

Sense refers to the meaning of a word inside a language, while reference is what the word refers to outside language, in the ‘real world’. This becomes important when language makes divisions that are not found in reality as in the distinction between stream and river.

English consists of about 40 sounds, a few hundred syllables, about 3000 grammatical constructions but hundreds of thousands of units of vocabulary. But it is the interaction of words within the structure of a sentence that conveys ‘sense’, where words ‘make sense’.

The word ‘meaning’ is polysemic, it has at least 20 meanings. Many scientific words are monosemic – like sodium, and semiconductor. Many everyday words have a dozen or more meanings: the word ‘take’ has 50 or more. The basic units of semantics are sometimes called lexemes.

Historical and cultural significance

Apart from archaeology our two major portals into the distant pre-literate past are genetics and linguistics.

Except when one group of people is suddenly totally absorbed by another language changes very slowly as dialects emerge along with new words and linguistic conventions. Using a similar method of analysis to that used by biologists in evolutionary analysis, a kind of ‘descent with modification’ (phylogenetic linguistic analysis) linguists can speculate about both the historical linguistic changes and the dates when these occurred.

The combination of linguistics, archaeology and DNA analysis is a powerful tool used to investigate the historical migration of peoples round the globe.

Linguists purport that all Eurasian languages are derived from a single foundation language ‘Indo-European’ but the geographic location of the homeland for this Indo-European language is disputed: it is generally placed in either the steppes north of the Black Sea and west of the Urals, or south of the Black Sea in Asia Minor (Anatolia).


Graphetics is human mark-making (cf. phonetics as sound-making) and graphology the diferent forms in different languages, letters, symbols, punctuation marks etc. (cf. phonology). There are three general forms of written word: handwriting (calligraphy), printing (typography), and electronic representation. The combination of capital and small letters is called Carolingian script, named after Charlemagne (742-814). Movable type was used in China from the 7th century, inked wooden blocks being used for The Diamond Sutra of 868, but first used in Europe in the mid fifteent hcentury, attributed to Johannes Gutenberg (1390-1468) and becoming mechanised in the nineteenth century along with the arrival of typewriters. Photocomposition started in the 1950s, and computerized typesetting in the 1960s followed shortly by computerized word processors.


Language is a combinatorial system in which a finite number of discrete elements (words) that can be associated into larger structures (sentences) with properties distinct from those of the elements – to produce an infinite number of combinations with an infinite range of meanings.[5]

Language has many interesting properties including: recursion (nesting) – a linguistic rule can be applied to the result of the application of the same rule; displacement – it allows speakers to stand back from themselves to discuss situations, emotions, past and future etc.; meta-communication – it can discuss itself; prosidy – it is often associated with the additional communication of tone, hand and body language, accents, speed; motherse – slow, deliberate simplification is used in all languages in speaking to the young.

Language is uniquely human, an essential human endowment at the core of human nature: the source of creativity, originality, and our unique way of planning.

With English as a probable global lingua franca it is interesting to know about its origins, especially as this provides us with a window into the ancient history of the British people (see Language – English).


Of all the world’s languages it is Mandarin that is spoken by most people (14.5%) followed by Spanish (6.1%) and English (5.4%). However, it is now in English that the world communicates about matters of sport, culture, politics, economics, and science. English is the preferred language of the United Nations, the European Parliament, OPEC, NATO and many other international organisations and at least a third of the world’s population has at least a passing knowledge of the English language.[1] In short, English is the language of globalisation.

How did this come to be?

This article examines the origins, cultural history, and rise to world prominence of a Bronze Age Germanic dialect of Western Europe.

History of the English language
This BBC documentary presented by Melvyn Bragg lasts for four hours so you will need to watch it in several sittings.
However, it is the definitive account and well worth the time.

The Anglosphere
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Sulez raz – Accessed 8 February 2018
rt click to enlarge

Celtic beginnings (4000-2000 BCE)

The Celtic linguistic sub-group and its many dialects was derived from the founding Indo-European (see Language – history) and were for many years spoken over the greater part of Western Europe, eventually retreating from the advance of Italic and Germanic languages to be confined to peripheral regions of Britain and France.

Oxford University archaeologist Professor Barry Cunliffe suggests that the path of linguistic migration to Britain started in Anatolia in about 7,000 BCE moving west across the Mediterranean, reaching Greece in about 6,000 BCE, evolving into Celto-Italic in about 5,500-5,000 BCE with the Celtic language emerging along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, Brittany in France then to Ireland and West Britain in 4,000-3,000 BCE and only later spreading to Central Europe in about 2,000 BCE. Support for this path of migration comes from genetic anthropology (see Migration) and the present-day distribution of Celtic place names, the accounts of the Celts and their language as described by classical authors, and the likely trade blocs that were operating at these times.[13] The final move into Central Europe could have been a phase in the distribution of the Western European ‘Beaker’ culture (2800 – 1800 BCE) overland and along Europe’s major rivers and associated with linguistic convergence.

This modern interpretation of events contrasts with the former view that warlike Celts arrived in Britain from the East, crossing the English Channel, a theory more in tune with the biblical idea of a Middle-Eastern people, after Noah’s flood, spreading westwards from Asia Minor, Greece and the Balkans, through Central Europe, along the Italian Peninsula, Po Valley, and Danube. On this view Celtic art of the central European Late Iron Age archaeological La Tene period (from 450 BCE to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE) found in Britain and Ireland and emerging from the early Iron Age Hallstadt culture (c. 800-500 BCE) was taken as evidence of a Celtic origin in Gaul c. 450-350 BCE. Linguistic scholars believe that the early Celtic dialect or Proto-Celtic began to segregate from the Indo-European parent language in about 2,000 BCE and may have been spoken by the central European Urnfield culture of the Late Bronze Age c. 1300–750 BCE but by the time of the early Iron Age Hallstadt culture (c. 800-500 BCE) it was fully Celtic.[3]

As noted previously there is a surprisingly close similarity between the native Celtic of the Irish and Vedic Sanskrit. Though existing far apart these two cultures show similarities in law, social custom, mythology, folk values, and traditional musical form indicating a likely common origin. Surviving Irish myths and some of the Welsh myths also show remarkable resemblances to the themes, stories and even the names that appear in the Indian Vedas thus demonstrating the conservatism of cultural tradition.[2]

Brythonic & Goidelic languages (c. 1000 BCE)

In about 1,000 BCE the Celtic language divided into two. The original form was Goidelic (Gaelic) which, as we have seen, had spread to Britain from Spain and Portugal while, at about the same time, the continental Celts developed their own form of Celtic called Brythonic. It was this Brythonic or Germanic language that entered eastern Britain from the continent, gradually restricting the Goidelic Celtic language of the native Britons to peripheral geographic regions as the dialects of Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (spoken in Brittany, France).

Celtic Goidelic is currently spoken as a mother tongue by about two million people in north-west Europe. The Manx and Scottish Gaelic traditions did not diverge from the ancient Irish parent language until about the fifth and sixth centuries which was about the same time as Welsh, Cornish and Breton were diverging from the early British Celtic language. Native Cornish died out in about 1800.

Old English (450-1066)

The recorded history of Britain and its languages begins with the Roman occupation.


Though Latin-speaking Roman garrisons occupied Britain for more than 300 years their language was not adopted by the native Celtic Britons as had occurred in France, Spain and Portugal.

At the time of European occupation by the Romans there were several independent Germanic tribes living to the north of the Rhine in today’s Germany, Netherlands and southern Scandinavia. They had remained rebellious and avoided Roman control while the subjugated tribes to the south of the Rhine had adopted the Latin that later became the Romance languages. Roman historian Tacitus in 98 CE notes that the Germanic tribes had little in common but the cult of Mother Earth. Nevertheless, the dialects of the different tribes were probably mutually understandable and derived from a Proto-Germanic.

With the Britons weakened by the Roman departure in the fifth century CE these Germanic peoples seized the opportunity to invade the vacated island and Angles and Saxons crossed the North Sea. North of the rivers Forth and Clyde were tribes of Picts who spoke a Celtic language akin to the Old Brythonic of the Britons to their south, Pictish being later replaced by Gaelic. The history of the Picts is uncertain but they probably arrived in Britain in the Late Iron Age.

From the sixth century the major invading tribes were the Saxons who settled the south-east in the regions of Essex, Sussex and Wessex, while the Angles prevailed in the more northern East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria up to the Firth of Forth beyond which was the land of the Picts. Other lesser invasions came from the Jutes who occupied Kent and the Isle of Wight and the Frisians from just across the North Sea in today’s Holland. Language does not appear to have been a barrier between the Germanic groups but it certainly was with the remaining Brythonic-speaking tribes.

The language that today most closely resembles the Germanic English of 1500 years ago is considered to be that spoken in the lowlands of Dutch Friesland. During this period language preserved its full inflections of nouns, adjectives and verbs.[2]

By 600 Germanic language had achieved what Latin had failed to do, Germanic tribes occupied about half of the country and their many dialects are thought to have contained a vocabulary of about 25,000 words. From the Angles[14] is derived the word ‘English’ which was referred to as a separate written language long before the recognition of French and Italian. As a Germanic language English is grouped with German, Flemish, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.


Acceptance of a particular language is one of the strongest means of establishing a group identity but this can take a long time and has generally been underpinned by the creation of a written language. In Britain we see two distinct written traditions – runes and Latin script.[7]


Codex Runicus
The Scanian law (Skånske lov) written entirely in runes.
A vellum manuscript from c. 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved runic texts
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Asztalos Gyula – Accessed 11 Sept. 2015


Runes were invented in about the first century CE, the first brief inscriptions and graffiti appearing in about 200 CE as an alphabetic script derived from Roman Latin or possibly some other Mediterranean written language. Runes would remain in use in Scandinavia for over 1000 years.

In Britain the first runes were found on deer bone carved in about the fourth or fifth centuries and these make up a slightly different Anglo-Saxon alphabet. In the south and south-west use of runes had declined by 650 CE but to the north they remained in use from the seventh to eleventh centuries, probably appropriated by the church.[7]

Though little tradition was retained from the former Romans or Britons Latin remained the written language of scholarship, mostly restricted to church clerics. With the departure of the Roman garrisons Latin had effectively returned to Europe but in 597 CE Roman prelate Augustine (not to be confused with philosopher and Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 CE) with his entourage was sent by Pope Gregory as a Christian missionary to Britain. Augustine was received by Ethelbert, King of Kent, who had married a Christian Frankish princess who had a personal chaplain. With Augustine arrived not only the Christian faith but Latin, parchment and pens, and his appointment as the first Archbishop of Canterbury, which at that time was the major city in Kent.

Within a century both Latin and the Christian faith had spread, at least nominally, throughout the island and had become the vernacular language in Kent.[8] During the period 603-616 the Law of Ethelbert appeared as the first English text written in the Latin alphabet. The story of England’s Christianisation is recounted in excellent Latin by the monk Bede in his History of the Church of the English People in 730 CE although very few people were literate at this time and Latin was painstakingly learned in the religious context of monastery schools.

Vikings & Old Norse

A new invading force and language (Old Norse) arrived in England when the Vikings attacked the monastery at Lindisfarne in 787 CE, their initial coastal raids lasting for about 70 years during which plundering and looting included the destruction of illuminated manuscripts and many of the written manuscripts of learning dating to Bede’s time. In 850 a settlement fleet of 350 ships delivered people inland supported by Danish armies followed by a period of assimilation in the 9th century. The new language was adopted across the country except in Wessex and the Viking advance was only halted when King Alfred the Great (871-899) defeated a Danish army resulting in a division of the country into two, the Danish sector under Danelaw and the remainder, mostly the former Wessex, Anglo-Saxon.

Bede had produced some of the earliest extended English written text and he was followed by the literary King Alfred the Great (871-899) an intelligent man who had visited Rome, becoming inspired to translate important Latin texts into the peoples’ English. This process was continued in the years around 1000 CE when many literary and ecclesiastical texts and histories were written in the standard West Saxon dialect including the monk-maintained Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, beginning in the 9th century as a record of Anglo-Saxon history and continuing into the 12th century.[19] It was between the 8th and 11th centuries that the anonymously-written folk-epic Beowulf, set in Scandinavia in the late 5th century, tells of the adventures of a Germanic hero and his battle with the monster Grendel … and in so doing establishing a uniquely English poetic tradition though with the familiar themes of duty, loyalty, and honour so characteristic the great Greek and Roman sagas of Homer and Virgil.

The written English of the period extending roughly from Alfred to the Norman invasion of 1066 is now generally referred to as Old English which is probably most closely related to Old Frisian and Old Saxon while the French adopted by the new upper class after the Norman invasion is more aptly termed Anglo-Norman.

By this time English had developed a degree of sophistication unparalleled on the continent.

Middle English (1066-1470)

The language of the British Islas was about to undergo a dramatic change with the invasion of a completely new people from across the North Sea.

Normans & Old French

The successful Norman invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror in 1066 resulted in drastic social change as the English ruling class were replaced by French-speaking Normans. Administrative and legal documents were now all written in Latin or French. William introduced the feudal system of social organisation with the English as cottage-dwelling serfs and the French their noble masters living in castles and building magnificent cathedrals administered by Norman prelates. French was the language of the royal court and would remain the official language of the nation for 300 years during the reign of the French Plantagenet dynasty and for some time concerns with lands and business in France outweighed those in England. Henry II (1133-1189) inherited the French districts of Anjou and Maine, his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine adding additional estates in the south such that Henry reigned over not only England but about two thirds of the lands in France.

The Normans, though themselves a Germanic people, spoke Old French which had Latin roots. Overall about 10,000 French words were imported into English, especially those to do with the law, social structure, the Church, royal court, romance, chivalry, trade and medicine and, not surprisingly, ‘castle’ was one of the first. All the while English remaining the accepted language of the common people which was absorbing many words from the Old Norse, a trend most evident in the northern part of the country. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles petered out in the 12th century.

After the Norman invasion few literary works appear until about 1200 after which the once formal spelling and grammar of the former West Saxon is for about 200 years replaced by languages using various dialects and spellings since it was produced largely for small local audiences. Around this time the French royalty relinquished its continental estates and rivalry between the two countries increased leading eventually to the 100 Years War. The return to local dialects resulted in rapid changes in both grammar and vocabulary with many inflections (different endings to nouns and verbs) and this persisted until some order returned in about 1350 as vowel sounds changed and the number of inflections was reduced.

Return to Anglo-Saxon

French gathered in importance into the thirteenth century as the royal families in England and on the continent shared common ancestry and land. Across Europe the French were admired as the epitome of chivalry, the French language enjoying a widespread favour for a period that would not return until the 18th century. The early 13th century was commercially vibrant with a strong wool trade and expanding towns with active craftsmen, self-governoing local communities and a rising middle class. The population of London doubled in this century. But bickering between British and continental royalty came to a head in 1337 marking the commencement of the 100 Year’s War beginning with English victories in France at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and later Agincourt (1415) but tempered by the feats of ‘The Maid of Orléans’ Joan of Arc (1412–1431). Over time the French nobility were forced to work more closely with the English people. The Great Plague of 1348 had depleted the communal-living religious orders eroding the power of Latin and with demand for labour rising wages saw a breakdown of the feudal system and greater use of English in books, schools and business.

From 1349 to 1385 English had gradually been reintroduced to the schools. In 1362 Parliament was introduced using the English language and from this time on legal documentation was to be in English. In 1381 the Peasant’s Revolt led by Wat Tyler and prompted by a universal poll tax attempted to abolish serfdom. As a threat to the French nobility ringleaders, including Tyler, were rounded up and hanged but by now few French lands were in the hands of the English. By the late 14th century English, formerly a language secondary to both French and Latin, had become the language of both the army and law courts and in 1399 Henry II made English the language of kings in a process that had been accelerated by the introduction to England in 1476 of the printing press of William Caxton (c. 1422 – 1491). English was now once again the official language of the country for the first time since Anglo-Saxon King Harold (c. 1022–1066).

Language & the Church

The Catholic Church pervaded all aspects of Medieval life. Through the 14th and 15th centuries a long battle was fought to replace the Latin restricted to the church clergy with words that could be understood by commonfolk, thus removing the priest as an intermediary between beliefs and the Bible. Oxford scholar John Wycliffe (c. 1331– 1384) and his supporters, known as lollards, railed against clerical corruption and privilege and, in 1382, he completed a translation of the Bible into the language of the people but was declared a heretic and his bibles burned.

Bibles in languages other than Latin remained heretical into the early reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547) although Wycliffe’s cause was now taken up by William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536) who, moving to Cologne, printed a new vernacular translation written in rhythmical and well-crafted prose and a rich vocabulary that would serve as a template for the later King James Bible, the Authorised Version of 1611. Still regarded as a heretic Tyndale was captured, strangled, and burned at the stake shortly before Henry VIII’s Protestant Reformation in 1540 when, eventually, a Bible was published in the English language, the Prologue proudly commending it to ‘all people’.
English was now the preferred language of teachers and writers and by the late 15th century French had been completely replaced.

In about 1350 there was a rapid development of the written language as dialects disappeared and a common literary idiom began to emerge with its foundation in London and most evident through the publication of Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1342-1400) The Canterbury Tales in the 1390s. French nobility had taken English wives and very gradually the native culture took hold. Then in 1417 when Henry V of England was victorious against the French at the battle of Agincourt he decided that official documents of the Chancery (civil service) and Court would henceforth be written in English with the standardised London dialect.[17] This curbed the many spellings, pronunciations and dialects that were used at this time.

This was in a tumultuous time that included the Peasants’ Revolt and Great Schism, a period of diversity that lead to gradual standardisation of the vernacular that took place between the Norman conquest and late 15th century and marking the period of English language history now referred to as Middle English.

The broad social changes that took place in England were echoed in France, Sweden and Italy in the 11th to 16th centuries. Small states coalesced into larger nation states, each with a national written and spoken language based on Latin script and with a proud national literary tradition. The national language was linked to the source of political power, essentially that of the royal court, and the name of the language was established after the creation of the written form. Language was thus a major force in the birth of the modern nation state.[18]

English was no longer a highly inflected language. Many of the Old English words had gone, replaced or supplemented by thousands of words from French and Latin. Even so, it is notable that while about 90% of the words in the English dictionary are of Greek, Latin, or French origin the spoken language contains a much higher proportion of Germanic words, reflecting common language and usage.[16]

Early Modern English (1470-1650)

From the 15th to 17th centuries English society would be transformed by the introduction of the printing press which provided not only books but newspapers to a wide audience. By 1640 about 20,000 titles had been published in English.[3] Improved education increased literacy and communication gnerally was much more efficient leading to a generally better informed populace.

In 1588 the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I exhorted English sailors to defeat the Spanish armada. England’s population of 3.5 million were to become the heirs to later world naval supremacy. The prevailing languages across the world at this time were: Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese, and Spanish, the latter pair a consequence of recent colonial conquest. With the advent of new maritime trade and exploration the English language would accrue another 10,000-12,000 words like those words naming new delicacies for the table, many from the New World: limes, bananas, chocolate, apricots, tomato, yam, lychee and bamboo. With the Renaissance came the revival of language originating from the classical world of the Greeks and Romans, their philosophy, art, architecture, law, medicine and more as the British elite, from about 1650-1850, completed their education with a Grand Tour that took in the sights of the ancient Mediterranean world.

By 1600 about half the English population had some literacy and with the influx of new words and a royal court that prized rhetoric and composition, not to mention the appearance of the first English-only alphabetical dictionary in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall, the stage was set for William Shakespeare (1564–1616) to explore the English language to the full.

As plays, poetry and prose flourished French, Italian and Spanish were now challenged as the languages of literary preference. The famous Globe Theatre in London produced plays that appealed to all sectors of society and attracted huge audiences from London’s population of 200,000 people. Though the educated were familiar with the classical Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid, Shakespeare himself was not university-educated, attending his local grammar school and church and skillfully combining in his work the elevated language of learning with the monosyllables of the street that conveyed feeling more directly. Shakespeare’s plays and Tyndale’s Bible (and its influence on the Authorised King James Bible) were probably the greatest of all ambassadors of the English language.[1]

Modern English (18th century to today)

The period of Modern English takes us out of England as the language absorbs influences from English colonies and elsewhere including America, India, West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada but not before the Age of Reason had attempted to tame its wild growth and lack of discipline.

Logic and reason

Enlightenment English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) proposed in his great work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) that conflict arose because of a failure in communication, through simple misunderstanding of word meanings. Locke was a member of the Royal Society and although his claim seems unlikely, the sentiments were of the times – a scholarly desire to communicate with precision, simplicity, and clarity. Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) was published in Latin but his later Opticks (1704) was written in English and there was uncertainty as to whether the native language had the precision of its classical predecessor.<sup[Bragg]

This was the age of scholars as new technical words were added from classical times and rapidly expanding scientific disciplines. Newspapers were now avidly read and their contents discussed in packed coffee-houses. Language had changed so rapidly that Chaucer had become difficult to read and understand. For some this was a sign of unregulated liguistic decay in desperate need of system and order. To counter this alarming trend would require ‘fixing’ language by standardising its pronunciation, spelling, and grammar. Among the champions of the cause were Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and Samuel Johnson well-known for his dictionary of 1755 containing 43,000 words that he completed in seven years. He acknowledged its many omissions and the difficulty of taming language but was determined that there should be a single correct form of pronunciation. It was a vain hope as Italy and France had already tried unsuccessfully to regulate their own languages.

Class, snobbery, and pedantry played a large role in the demand for ‘correct’ spelling and pronunciation. Cockney pronunciation was said to epitomise the vulgar and uncouth accent of the lower classes, an accusation also frequently levelled at the Australia accent. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913) in which Professor of phonetics and elocution Henry Higgins coaches cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle to speak like a duchess drew attention to the feigned gentility, airs, graces and pretentions that established social status.

But pronunciation was a minefield. There are seven ways of pronouncing ‘e’ and the varieties of ‘ough’ are infamous and how could you possibly decide who was ‘right’. Playwright Richard Sheridan (1751-1816) argued that if all adopted the same pronunciation there would be a socially equalising effect.

A movement of resistance was headed by people like Scottish poet Robert Burns who countered the Scottish embarrassment in the sound of their pronunciation by taking pride in its uniqueness and colour. English poet William Wordsworth used romantic and revolutionary language to promote linguistic imagination and creativity rather than fixity and standardisation. Eighteenth century prudery had censored the crude words out of Shakespeare but once again it was pointed out how effectively and cleverly he had juxtaposed elegant scholarly language with the direct language of the streets. The Lewis Carol (1832–1898) Alice books, notably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) delighted readers with their word play, neologisms and general flouting of the rules. Slang flourished.

With the Industrial Revolution, perhaps most socially evident in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, came the language of engineering. Greek and Latin were used in the creation of new words, and word meanings were changing at a greater rate.

World War I marked the beginning of a long-term decline of the ‘accepted’ social order – the class system, social pretension, and female inferiority, and the British Empire as internal power in Britain passed to the rising middle class and external power to America.

Today a rough breakdown of word-derivation in the English language is 29% Latin, 29% French, 26% Germanic, 6% Greek and 6% other.


Competition between European states no doubt contributed to the technology that took seafarers across the Atlantic Ocean to subjugate the native peoples of the Americas, replacing native languages with Portuguese, Spanish, and English and leading to a population today (2013) of 954 million compared to the 743 million in Europe. The period of European colonialism spelled the end of indigenous languages on a massive scale.[9] In 1500 the population of Europe was about 70 million with 30 languages while in America the population was about 50 million and over 1000 languages. While the number of substantial languages in Europe has remained about the same over this period, the number of languages in the Americas has reduced to three.

It would be some time after the discovery of the Americas by Columbus in 1492 before the English Pilgrim Fathers stepped ashore from the Mayflower onto today’s New England on the Atlantic coast of America in November 1620, the second English settlement after the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. They were puritans, a persecuted minority of religious separatists. Other European countries had claimed territories: Delaware was Swedish and then Dutch before becoming English; Florida was Spanish and it was only in 1804 that Louisiana was purchased from the French. But it was the conservative English that remained and settled, borrowing little from the native language and preserving the language of the Bible through the strict rules taught from the New England Primer (1687).

In 1776 America declared its independence from the mother country. The blend of dialects showed little variation but by 1824 there was already a divergence from English in the trend to pronounce every syllable and in spelling to reduce the number of letters ‘honor’ for ‘honour’, ‘traveler’ for ‘traveller’, ‘ax’ for ‘axe’). Such changes had been presaged in the spelling books that preceded the first of the many editions of Webster’s Dictionary of 1828. This was a mixture of independent American ideas and a desire for uniformity and precision. English snobbery regarded American English as barbaric: ‘We have everything in common with America except, of course, language‘ declared Oscar Wilde.

In 1804 explorer-frontiersmen Lewis and Clark had reached the Pacific west coast and this heralded a freeing up of American English from the conservative hold of the eastern states. Now America’s great rivers, especially the Mississippi and Missouri were opened up as new settlers arrived in numbers, many from Scotland and Ireland, and changing the language. A new entrepreneurial creative spirit introduced new words of trade, gambling, and drinking. Opening up the west saw the native Indians confined to reservations and a frontier spirit exemplified through the cowboy, epic stories of pioneers like Davy Crocket and the popular cowboys vs Indians entertainment of Buffalo Bill (William Cody). The trickle of people to the west became an avalanche when gold was discovered in California in 1849 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, other tracks reducing the need for river steamboats. The mix of peoples and commerce provided a melting pot for language and novelty.

At Sullivan’s Island off South Carolina large numbers of black slaves were introduced to America an their way to the cotton plantations. To prvent plotting their captors had ensured that groups were of mixed language. English became the means of communication but in a much simplified form called ‘gullah’ that is also found in the Bahamas adding many new expressions and constructions to the regular form.

Much of the American spirit is captured in the writing of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) which convey the dialects spoken on the great American rivers by frontiersmen, blacks, boatmen, travellers, businessmen, and conservative easterners.

However, American English was yet to be enriched by the many migrants of the twentieth century – the Germans, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Poles, and Jews and American English took on Central and Eastern European words along with yiddish. Afro-Americans defined much of the music scene. Jazz thrived as did gangsters, movies and Hollywood, all bringing new words.

With World War II came a revival in oratory as Churchill and Hitler strove to inspire with rhythm and rhetoric, Churchill especially reverting to traditional vocabulary in his war-time speeches. Recovery from the devastation of this war resulted in the fifties in growth, suburbia, the comforts of consumer society, mass electronics, and now the influence of social media.


English seems an unlikely language for a population of 1.252 billion people (2013) speaking over 200 languages – mostly Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Kashmiri and Sanskrit. English linguistic influence arrived with trade in the form of the British East India Company and its early 16th century spice trade developing especially in Calcutta. English settlers studying Sanskrit would first postulate the existence of a common founding Indo-European language. English racial arrogance was at its height during Indian colonisation as Christianity was introduced to civilise the natives and elite English-speaking schools, based on the English public school model, were built to create an Indian educated class that could administer an Indian civil service under a British Raj. Hill stations outside the cities and away from the heat allowed the British to enjoy tiffin and pink gins in comparative comfort. Design of a major part of New Delhi by Edwin Lutyens was to become India’s site for government. The occupying British army introduced a kind of slang consisting of Anglo-Indian colloquial phrases with these and many other words entering the English language.

Only with Gandhi would resistance to British linguistic control emerge while today trade has ensured that English can be seen on hoardings in all major Indian cities. Though it is a minority language it expresses internationalism, jobs, money and status. The elite British-style English-speaking schools remain.


Over the first 80 years of Australian settlement about 150,000 convicts were transported, mostly cockneys and Irish. Apart from numerous new words for the flora and fauna of the new land there was a retention of old words that disappeared from the mother country (digger and cobber), criminal slang (chum, swag). Though awareness of social differences existed between convicts and emancipists, new settlers and an increasingly affluent squatocracy, there was, in general, a resistance to authority and the social distinctions so marked in the country that they had left.

The poems and writing of Banjo Patterson expressed the world of the bush and sheep farming.

Australia printed its first national dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary, in 1981 based on Hamlyn’s Encyclopedic World Dictionary (1971) also the American College Dictionary (1947) the New Century Dictionary (1927), The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language and the Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1841, second edition).

Most evident in pronunciation are the addition of ‘e’ and ‘o’ to words (tinny, dunny, lefty, smoko, jacko), the popularity of monosyllables and abbreviations, the glottal stop (‘right’ stopped at the end with the throat and without a pronounced ‘t’), and a tendency for sentence endings to rise in pitch as though a question is being asked.


English pirates preying on Spanish treasure ships began English settlement in the Caribbean (named after a ferocious native people the Caribs) on the islands of Nevis and St Kitts. This would produce a rich blending of English and native tongues as black slaves were introduced, first for the tobacco plantations and then the sugar cane, the new dialect known as creole varing from island to island. Many new words and colloquialisms were incorporated into English from this settlement apart from the food words associated with South America and its maize, tomato and potato.

The once-despised proninciations of the new Englishes now stand together as equals – the American drawl, the Caribbean patois, Australian strine – as English continues to evolve.

Language, education, & power

National languages provided a sense of common identity while literary traditions gave this identity a sense of pride in history and often a sense of national purpose. Knowledge of tradition was encouraged in schools as was the development of that tradition. The model for education had been established by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Romans had a deep respect for Greek culture. Young men from those wealthy and influential Roman families active in pubic life were expected to speak both Latin and Greek so that the wisdom contained in the literature of both nations could be learned put into practise. With the decline of the Roman Empire what little schooling was available was confined to the Christian monasteries and cathedrals until the first universities were established in the 12th century with reading and writing still based on Latin. Though Latin was no longer spoken as a native language it provided a means of international communication between the well-educated and it was the language of the Church.

The use of Latin in the Catholic Church excluded the non-educated from participation this being a factor in the desire for church Reformation that was gathering momentum across northern Europe. Among the influential people calling for change were Englishman John Wycliffe (1331-1384) and German Martin Luther (1483-1546) with royals considering the possibility of a church that was loyal to the king rather than the Pope. Henry VIII of England was opposed by the Pope when, seeking an heir, he had been refused divorce from his unforthcoming wife. Not to be thwarted Henry formed the Protestant Church which was loyal to the English throne rather than the Pope in Rome. Across Europe the translation and preaching of the Bible in native languages became accepted although Latin for the educated remained in other spheres and only in the 1960s did the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church permit the use of native language in the holy liturgy. Readers, grammars and dictionaries (long available for Latin) only became available for school learning of native languages in the 16th and 17th centuries. The need for people from all sectors of society to deal with official documents written in native languages meant that literate and educated people were no longer drawn from the clergy. More and more people were educated from a young age as a form of vocational training, often in preparation for the world of commerce and ‘knights schools’ offered training for noblemen bent on a military career, and by the 17th century courses were being offered in foreign languages.[10]

Native languages had emulated in many ways the rules and customs inherent in the use of Latin, but they were still largely deficient in profound and sensitive works of human sentiment like those of the great classical authors Homer, Saphho, Aeschylus, Aristophones, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Cicero and others. Gradually European national languages found their own literary and other cultural heroes that would give their nations status: in Italy at the dawn of the Renaissance there were the early 14th century works of Dante (1265–1321), followed by the poet Petrarch (1304–1374) and writer Boccaccio (1313-1375) while other Romance countries were slower to follow; in France there was Rabelais (c. 1483–1553), the philosopher and essayist Montaigne (1533–1592), playwrights of tragedy Jean Racine (1639–1699) and his son, and for comedy Molière (1622–1673); in Spain there was novelist, poet and playwrights Lope de Vega (1562–1635) and Cervantes (c. 1547–1616). In the Germanic tradition there were similar, perhaps lesser, works in Sweden and the Netherlands and in England the works of Chaucer and the towering plays of Shakespeare (c. 1564–1616). All these states had, at the same time, established firm reputations in economics and politics associated with their centres in Leiden and Antwerp, Stockholm, London, Venice, Rome, Genoa, Paris and Madrid.

It is ironic that following the English rejection of French there should be a period of French political and economic ascendancy in the late 17th century during the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV (1638-1715) when it became fashionable to emulate French manners and customs and, of course, to speak French in the literary and scientific milieu of ‘polite society’ not to mention the world of commerce and diplomacy. Competition between European nation-states (not unlike the ancient Greek poleis) has continued to the present day in language, politics, culture, and economics and this has served as a model for more recent nations. For a while in the nineteenth century Germany led the world in scientific and and scholarly activity with the German language sharing its period of pre-eminence.

Pronunciation & accent

Placed suddenly in 18th century society probably the most striking difference we would notice from the present day, apart from changes in technology, would be the pervasive awareness and preoccupation with social status. In the 18th century your place or rank within society would be evident in your dress, general bearing, and above all the way you spoke. You would be judged accordingly. Today, for the first time in the history of civilizations it seems that in western liberal democratic society much of the obsequious fawning and concern about social station has gone. People are respected for their roles in society and are not regarded as morally inferior or superior.

It is only in our age that we are shaking off the pretension of there being a ‘correct’ way to speak. There remains the pseudo-standard of ‘received pronunciation’ – the bland accent of southern England as spoken by BBC newsreaders. But dialects and accents are now enjoyed. Irish, Welsh and Scottish accents now entrance when once they were treated with disdain as an indication of inferior race, repressed in the schools where teachers and children were sometimes bullied into using English rather than native tongues. Liverpool English or scouse is known and loved world-wide through the popularity of the Beatles pop group.

Native languages have seen something of a revival in recent years but the number of speakers is few. Today it is much more important to sound approachable than to create an impression of being educated or posh: we are managing to exist together without an entrenched hierarchy.

The Crown
Anyone who has studied English history will have encountered
the contortions of historically accumulated political and geographic categories and groupings.
The diagram above should help you to disentangle the various groupings.
Courtesy C.P.G. Grey

Commentary & sustainability analysis

English had arrived in the British Isles as a Germanic dialect that pushed the native Celtic language of prehistory to the country’s boundaries. Absorbing first other Germanic dialects and the Old Norse of the Viking invasions it was later subjugated by the Latin-based Old French of Norman invaders in 1066. French (with Latin as the language of scholarship and the Church) then prevailed for about 300 years until the late 14th century to be followed by the full flowering of the English language of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays, developing into the Modern English that would envelope the globe. New-Englishes are themselves diverging in a manner reminiscent of the way the Romance languages emerged from Latin.

Many attempts have been made to establish a world-wide common language the best-known being esperanto, but it is English that has prevailed. English did not come to prominence because of its simplicity, richness of vocabulary, or expressiveness – or any other intrinsic qualities – it prevailed by natural selection, the factors of selection being more basic.[1]

Language is an indicator of political and economic influence. As one nation has prevailed over another the dominant culture has asserted its own laguage as a matter of national identity. This has was especially pronounced with the rise of the nation state as European imperialism spread its native languages across the globe in the 15th to 19th centuries – notably through Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English colonies. For sustainability this reflects the influence of the access to resources and technology that determine the scale of social organisation and levels of consumption. Today’s global prevalence of English clearly reflects the once great English empire but also perhaps a language that has proved adaptable to a wide range of situations. It was the language of power, the pound and the dollar and the desire to share money and power has acted as an incentive for nations and peoples to adopt its use.

Language also reflects the cumulative character of knowledge. Though words are constantly being lost from our regular vocabulary dictionaries are getting larger. This is because with greater interaction and interdependence of the world’s people comes the introduction of new ideas. As academic subjects increase in number, proliferating into new disciplines so there is a parallel increase in technical vocabulary. The cumulative increase in knowledge is accompanied by a cumulative increase in words.

The current Oxford English Dictionary consists of 750,000 words. As a historical record no words are removed but new additions are closely monitored to ensure that they are both quite widespread and likely to be long-lived, a difficult task at the interface of different languages and cultural groups.

Let’s make sure that this helps shed light and understanding rather than complexity, confusion, and lack of perspective.

Word numbers
The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary is a meticulously researched document that contains full entries for 171,476 words (this is omitting inflexions, most obsolete words, archaisms, technical and regional vocabularies, coinages, and neologisms – including 47,156 obsolete words).[4] This we can regard as English words in current use. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.

The myriad names of chemicals and other scientific and technical entities has vastly expanded the known vocabulary to well over a million and growing fast. It is this technical expansion of language that contributes to the idea of progress by accretion of cumulative knowledge. Historically the number of communally available words is related to systems of information storage, beginning with written language, then encyclopaedias and dictionaries made more comprehensive through the printed word, and leading to modern computer databases.

What is of special interest is the repertoire of words that we draw on in our daily conversation. This might depend more on our brain capacity than on the variety of objects that we wish to name.

Clearly we know many more words than we use on a regular basis. The average native English speakers at age 4 knows 5,000 words, at age 8 knows 10,000 words. Adults know 20,000 to 35,000 (average educated adult) words and they learn around 1 new word a day until middle age, their vocabulary growth more or less ceased by middle age. 3,000 words will cover 95% of everyday writing. 1,000 words cover 89% of everyday writing, and the commonest 25 words are used in 33% of everyday writing. At around 10,000+ words you are regarded as fluent in most languages with the words needed to talk about nearly any topic in detail.[5][6]

The key statistic here is that 95% of average English word usage engages 3,000 of the 171,476 words in current use, which is less than 2%.

Is this number of words determined by our brain capacity and, if so, in what way?



For a contextual account of Latin within the broad family of languages see Language – history
For someone first taking an interest in plants and the world of botany, one of the most unusual aspects of the subject is its frequent use of a strange and foreign ‘dead’ language, Latin. We encounter Latin in both plant names (more so than in zoology where the common names are better known) and in terms used for the various of plant structures.

How did this come to be, and why do we persist with it?


The word ‘Latin’ is derived from the Roman word ‘Latium’ which referred to a tribal district in the vicinity of ancient Rome, and later a district of Rome that was south of the Tiber River where the Latin language was spoken. In the period before 75 BCE (the late Roman Republic) Old Latin was spoken: it had writing and spelling conventions that were rarely fund in subsequent works which were standardised into Classical Latin (latinitas)which was the formal language of the Late Republic and Roman Empire with special rules applied to the scholarly works of poetry and rhetoric. Vulgar Latin was the Latin spoken by the general population across the Roman Empire with dialects diverging around 200-300 CE until about 750 CE when Classical Latin died (it was no longer spoken as a natural language but was retained as Ecclesiastical Latin which had a simplified syntax and a pronunciation based on Italian). By 850 CE Vulgar latin was diverging into the various European Romance languages.

We find this language and alphabet (which is in the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages) first appearing in inscriptions dating to about 600 BCE. These were used by the Etruscans who occupied much of Italy until about 500 BCE. The Etruscans themselves had modified the Greek alphabet which, in turn, had been derived from the Phoenician one.[21]

Latin spread across Europe with the Roman Empire, the Romans being masters of social organization and governance. Though expansionary Empires were militaristic they tried to avoid internal conflict and for about 200 years there was a Pax Romana during which the population rose to about 70 million citizens. When Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity Latin became the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic church across western Europe so when the empire collapsed around the 5th century CE Latin was the preferred language for scholars in the monasteries. As universities evolved from about 1000 CE into the Renaissance, all lectures were delivered in Latin, the students expected to become fluent by using only Latin in everyday conversation. There was no common language across Europe so it became the mutually-understood language of the literate and well-educated – essentailly those involved with theology, medicine and the law. It would be some time before printing would arrive and literature appear in native languages. This is why many biological, legal and medicinal terms are in Latin today. And it is also why the great Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who laid the foundations of botanical nomenclature, spoke Latin when he visited Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1736, and why he used Latin as the language of plant names when he published his famous Species Plantarum (Species of plants) in 1753 which listed every species of plant known at the time, denoted by a binomial. In the Middle Ages those who read, did so in Latin.

Botanical Latin was an innovation post-dating the ancients and mostly assembled after 1650, its spelling and pronunciation diverging from that of Classical Latin although its grammar followed the classical precedent.[4] By 100 CE the few remaining Italian languages had been absorbed into the empire-wide Latin, and as the empire spread so Latin took the place of indigenous languages among the more educated citizens. Botanical scholars often Latinized their names and the many Greek words used in plant names were also Latinized in this way as when the Greek word narkissos was converted to the Latin narcissus. Few countries escaped, although we still have the Basque language on the border of today’s Spain and France, the Breton of Brittany, and Gaelic languages in Ireland and Scotland – but Latin was near-universal across the Western world. Speaking Latin became a symbol of learning, a privilege of an educated upper class – one of the distinctive qualities of a ‘gentleman’.

Botanical Latin

Our greatest all-time authority on botanical Latin was the learned Classical scholar, historian, botanist and keen horticulturist William Stearn (1911-2001) who was Librarian of the Royal Horticultural Society in London from 1932–1951 and who wrote the highly readable definitive work Botanical Latin.[1] Every serious botanist should have a copy of this book. He writes:

‘Botanical Latin is best described as a modern Romance language of special application, derived from Renaissance Latin with much plundering from ancient Greek, which has evolved, mainly since 1700 and primarily through the work of Carl Linnaeus, to serve as an international medium for the scientific naming of plantsin all their vast numbers and manifold diversity’
Stearn’s Botanical Latin, pp. 6-7

In the opening Stearn outlines the history of the use of Latin in botany and for anyone seriously interested in the topic I suggest reading his account. For those who cannot access his book, I have outlined the main elements in this article.

I once had the pleasure of sharing sandwiches with this true gentleman during a lunch break at a symposium on the taxonomy of cultivated plants in Edinburgh in 1995 when he was 84. He was one of the key speakers and I recall that, although there was the usual strict time schedule for the talks, the repeated bells and prompts to finish were ignored as he sailing on gloriously, oblivious of his allotted time, enthralling the audience with his enthusiasm and erudition.

To get a feel for the use of Latin from a gardener’s point of view you could try the recent A little book of Latin for gardeners (2018) by Peter Parker.[13]

Theophrastus & plant names

Where do plant names and Latin terms come from?

Many plant names used today come to us from ancient Greece and Rome either as the common or medicinal names used at that time, and it is essentially the ‘Father of Botany’ Theophrastus’s terminology as presented in his De Historia Plantarum (Enquiry into Plants), along with the morphological terms he used for plant structures, that would be used for nearly 2000 years. To Theophrastus we probably owe the insight that the full range of structures we call ‘flowers’ were in fact items of the same kind, thus generalizing from particular instances to general principles and giving us the scientific botanical concept ‘flower’. The two original major works of Theophrastus that have come down to us from nearly 2000 years ago probably met their end with the Christian insistence on the burning of pagan books in the famous library of Alexandria (named after Theophrastus’s student Alexander the Great). However, copies of his work had been retained in the Islamic East and a Latin translation from an Arab manuscript held in the Vatican library was recovered by European scholars in the 15th century.[3]

Greco-Roman world of learning

The Roman empire lasted from about 27 BCE to 476 CE. Most notable of the Roman writers on botanical matters was Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) who, although serving as a commander in both the Roman army and navy and an administrator to the Emperor Vespasian, managed to find the time to study, his writing being mostly on geography and natural history. His best known work was the monumental Naturalis Historia (Natural History, 77– CE) an encyclopaedic work of 37 books on a wide range of subjects and essentially summarising all the knowledge of his day. A true scholar Pliny cited the sources of his information and provided an extensive index. His method of working would later serve as a model for the great encyclopedias written in the Age of Enlightenment when, in the Western Renaissance, there was a revival of the classical learning from Greco-Roman civilisations. Pliny cites 146 Roman sources and 327 Greek while for the plant content he sings the praises of his plant forbears Aristotle and Theophrastus. All-in-all he describes about 800 plants and their uses, and Books 4-6 are devoted exclusively to garden plants. A much-travelled man, Pliny had begun his career in Germany and died in 79 CE as commander of the Roman fleet which was destroyed was it went to the assistance of villagers waiting on shore during the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Herculaneum and Pompei in 79 CE.

The other great compiler of the period was Dioscorides a Greek who had served in the Roman army and produced an extensive compilation of the medicinal uses of plants.

Modern scholars criticise both Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides for lacking the critical imagination so evident in the work of Theophrastus: they were not original thinkers but derivative synthesisers whose curiosity did not extend beyond plant uses. They did not analyse plant form, function, and ecology. It might be noted that the Romans emphasised the cultivation of plants for their beauty in a way that was not a part of Greek culture. What is, however, a sad historical fact is that for about 1200 years the works of Pliny and Dioscorides were revered and considered beyond improvement, being copied and re-copied slavishly until a new era of critical thought began in the European Renaissance.

Names and structures

15th & 16th centuries

The works of Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder were among the first books produced after the establishment of printing. Naturalis Historia was first printed in 1469 and by 1799 it had run to 190 editions.[5] Although Pliny’s plant terminology was widely accepted it had been used in an imprecise literary way although there are still 187 of his botanical terms roughly the same as those we use today.[2] Probably the next most prolific user of Latin botanical terms was the Medieval Bishop of Regensberg, Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) who included 142 terms in his De Vegetabilibus Libri VII other later Medieval writers of influence being Valerius Cordus (1515-1544) and Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566).

Although Roman names now existed for the general plant parts the sexual significance of the parts of the flower was not fully appreciated until the end of the 17th century giving them names using existing Latin words but giving them precise botanical meanings. As more and more plants were studies and introduced to European gardens it was clear that botanical progress required a stable and universal terminology.

17th & 18th centuries

With the revival of learning and knowledge accumulation in Europe after the Renaissance authors were now producing substantial compendia of plants with their Latin descriptions. Two monumental works of this period were Rariorum Plantarum Historia (1601) by Dutchman Carolus Clusius and Historia Plantarum (1686-1688 suppl. 1704) by Englishman John Ray. Plant description had been given an enormous boost in the 17th century by the use of the magnifying glass which stimulated the creation of improved terminology. Researchers like Italian Marcello Malpighi, English anatomist Nehemiah Grew, German Joachim Jung all added new terms, while Frenchman Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) compiled an impressive conspectus of 698 genus descriptions. All botanical workers now recognised the need for carefully defined terms. Englishman John Ray (1628-1705), in particular, had established a working list of the world’s flora, and developed the idea of what it meant to speak of a ‘species’, laying emphasis on a simple botanical terminology. The man who demonstrated conclusively that the sexuality of plants was based around the flower was German Rudolf Camerarius (1665-1721). The Key words stamina, ovarium, ovulum, and placenta first appeared in Discours sur la Structure des Fleurs, Sermo de Structura Florum (1717) coined by Frenchman Sébastien Vaillant (1669-1721).

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)

Works like these provided the stratum for the sexual classification system, binomial nomenclature, and botanical terminology that would be published by the great Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus who synthesised the plant knowledge to date in a form that could be accessed by all and with a precision that had not been seen before: all his many publications were written in Latin. It is Linnaeus’s choice of the terms used in his day, together with some new terms added by himself (like corolla and petalum), that forms the basis of botanical terminology today. He presented plant descriptions in a clear format, the words used sparingly, without verbs, thus facilitating comparisons. Carl Linnaeus’s supreme skill in assembling and cataloguing plant names and plant information in a practical and readily comprehensible system (and all in the universal scholarly language of Latin) secured him fame in his day and a place in the history of science.[12] It was an internationally-accepted method of overall plant inventory that Linnaeus bequeathed to western plant science, not just the reinforcement of binomial nomenclature.

After Linnaeus – late 18th to early 19th centuries

After Linnaeus, especially in the late 18thand early 19th centuries, there continued to be studies penetrating in ever greater detail into the structure and function of floral parts. William Stearn lists the following Western European botanists as contributing most to botanical terminology at this time: Englishmen Robert Brown (1773–1858) and John Lindley (1799-1865); Frenchmen Adolphe-Théodore Brogniart (1801–76), Alphonse de Candolle (1806-1893), Charles-François Mirbel (1776–1854), Louis Richard (1754–1821); and Germans Joseph Gaertner (1732–1791), Heinrich Link (1767-1851), and Carl Martius (1794–1868).[6]

Although many botanical names date back to the ancients, most Latin words for floral, seed, and fruit parts obtained their current usages in the years between 1736 and 1844 and it is through this century that botanists developed the vocabulary necessary to describe plants and their parts with precision, a process greatly assisted by the proliferation of text books and botanical glossaries that occurred at this time. Outstanding among these was the massive Handbuch der Botanischen Terminologie und Systematik (1830-1844) of Gottlieb Bischoff (1797-1854).[7] This was an invaluable archive of terminology including all the obsolete terms. More practical glossaries were published by three taxonomic botanists who were also university teachers, two of them also garden directors: Frenchman Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841), Englishman John Lindley (1799-1865) and American Asa Gray (1810-1888) all people who, William Stearn approvingly notes, had ‘an enquiring philosophic attitude leading to a careful choice of words’ and were therefore both ‘instructive and pleasant to read’.[8]

In more recent times there has been the relatively brief but meticulous Benjamin Jackson’s Glossary of Botanic Terms (1900) and of course now we have several more loosely constructed but operational botanical glossaries on the web like those available in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

Technical language

William Stearn brings the story of terminology into the present day by pointing out the ever-present difficulty for those introducing new terminology. Should you replace the the lexical definition (how a word is currently used) with a familiar word but one which has a technical and precise (stipulative) definition, or would it be better to introduce an unfamiliar but unambiguous new word. Also if you are thinking of introducing a new word try to make it: short, euphonious, phonetically spelled, easily pronounced, unambiguous in meaning and not easily confused with an existing word and, if possible, with a derivation that suggests its meaning.[9]

For botanists communication is most efficient using precisely-defined technical terms (remember there are technical terms in any subject from computers, to car engines). Having said this, there seems little point in day-to-day conversation or popular writing on plants in talking about a ‘petiole’ when ‘leaf stalk’ is perfectly adequate.

Latin in science today – the International Code

Linnaeus’s great strength was that he provided the European community of scientists with system of plant description, nomenclature and classification that was, more or less, acceptable to all. His standardization has proved so persuasively powerful that it has now been accepted by the international scientific community for the biological nomenclature we need to survey all the organisms that exist on planet Earth. Such agreement is a rare commodity.

Each six years there is a meeting of the International Association of Plant Taxonomy at which the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants (ICN), (formerly in separate codes, the most notable being the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature) is reviewed and a new edition published. Since the time of Linnaeus it has been the official tradition to accompany the formal description of all new plant species with a description in Latin (the diagnosis). It is a measure of globalisation and the international history of science and the spread of English as a lingua franca that in the ‘Melbourne Code’ of 2012 authors of new plant names are now permitted a description in English.

Learning Latin

The classics were once considered a necessary part of a well-rounded ‘liberal education’. Greek and Roman literature formed the core of the education curriculum for young English gentlemen sent to prestigious schools, especially those stiff-upper-lip chaps who forged the British Empire.

Today all this antiquity seems passé, something that we have culturally outgrown. Shouldn’t we be looking to the future rather than harking back to the past? Ancient Romans and Greeks did much that we reject today. They were extremely nationalistic and militaristic. Their much-admired architecture and infrastructure was constructed by maltreated slaves. They were male societies, the Greeks to a degree that we find perverse today. Women, if not openly oppressed, were treated as socially and politically second-rate citizens. We have also reacted against the arrogance and cruelty of British Imperialism that emulated many of the ideals of the classical world. And, as our perspective on existence has become more global, so we have also realized that other cultures have made major contributions to the world. We no longer understand history as proceeding linearly and gloriously along a trajectory of Western progress (‘Plato to NATO’).

Add to all this the fact that Latin is a ‘dead’ language and you might, with some justification, think good riddance.

But in spite of all this, we have over-reacted. There is much to be learned from the ancient world. Romans and Greeks, for all their faults, were highly socially organised, sophisticated, cultivated, and thoughtful people – although this might only become clear when you take the time to read and think about what they wrote over 2000 years ago.


About 60% of the English words we use today are derived from the Latin used by ancient Romans. How did that happen when Anglo-Saxon England was Germanic in origin?

When the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, overran England in 1066 their language, Norman-French, was based on Latin and it became the official language of politics, economics, religion, and the law, thus usurping the Anglo-Saxon of the general population.

Roughly, of the 20,000 English words in common usage about 10,400 are Latin, 5,400 Anglo-Saxon, and 2,200 derived ultimately from Greek. Latin is embedded in English in three forms: in their original form (e.g. per capita, vice versa, terra firma), absorbed into the language and taking English plurals (actor, impetus, error), or derived from Latin but with their own form and meaning (accommodation, efficient, available). European Renaissance students learned Latin by conversation as well as book work using the methodthat became known as ‘practical grammar’. The Romans left very little on the teaching of their native tongue, so some of the best books on practical grammar come out of this period, notably the works of Comenius (1592-1670) a brilliant thinker regarded as the ‘Father of Education’ who first introduced the use of pictures as an educational tool, especially for children, and the application of meaningful rather than rote learning. The practical grammar approach was used in the 19th century by Adler’s Latin Grammar a near-forgotten tome recently rediscovered. So many Latin words were added to the English language by early scholars who used Latin as their first language, or via the various Romance languages. Latin-derived words have also spread across the world through the English-speaking colonies of the British Empire to become, by default, the global lingua franca (‘scuse the pun).

For botanists learning Latin will help you to learn the subject and therefore understand plants better. But there are many additional reasons why learning Latin will reap dividends:


  1. The European (Roman)ce languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, (Roman)ian, and Catalan) evolved out of Latin – so a foundational knowledge of Latin will provides you with the foundational knowledge for the major European languages which are now spoken over much of the world
  2. Latin words make up more than half of the English language which is effectively today’s global lingua franca so learning Latin will give you a better understanding the structure of the English language, its vocabulary, and expression
  3. In addition, familiarity with Latin improves comprehension by focusing on word meaning and therefore improves writing skills. These benefits can be enjoyed without having to spend long periods in a native-speaking country
  4. It stimulates the mind with a different perspective on life and ideas – and gives us insight into the Western outlook on life and the cultures that gave us our system of government, much of our art, philosophy and science. It also opens the door to some of the world’s greatest literature
  5. Learning a new language is an intellectually-demanding exercise to challenge the brain and bring reward for perseverance. It is a worthwhile exercise in itself


Once confined to dusty university and ecclesiastical libraries, classical books and manuscripts have only in the last decade become available for free download on the following sites:,,,, and the Perseus Digital Library

Latin is a highly logical and structured language, which means that – unlike English with all its idioms, strange and confusing spellings, and irrational and irregular pronunciations – it can be learned and pronounced in a sytematic way.
There is, however, a hurdle to vault because Latin is a highly inflected language.

So … here is the main problem for teachers and students alike: there are four verb conjugations. Then there are five declensions applied to nouns, pronouns, and adjectives (participles – verbal adjectives e.g. ‘burned toast’) each with six (seven) cases that must eventually be learned.

In a long tradition dating back to Roman schoolchildren, the learning of grammar has been associated with censoriousness and cruel punishment. As a product of an English Grammar school where I learned Latin for five years I recall my terror as the Latin master moved from student desk to student desk demanding the conjugation of verbs which we were force-learned parrot-fashion. I would not be surprised if this tradition was passed on from the Roamns themselves. Poor performance meant public humiliation and occasionally a sore bottom or hand (Roman-style cruelty). It was the only subject of my English GCE exams (as they were called then) that I failed and I think it is ironic that I was probably the only one in my class who would actually use it in later professional life. I got what I deserved because I copied homework from others on the train on the way to school each day (dare I say – steam train!). Returning to this subject has been a revelation, an education, and a real pleasure. Better late than never.

You’ll be glad to know that we fought bravely against the oppression of Latin masters using devastating wit like the following:

Latina est lingua morta,
Mortuissima quam.
Pred et cedit Romani,
Et nunc et cedit me.


Latin is a dead language,
As dead as it can be.
First it killed the Romans,
And now it’s killing me.

For most of us older generation learning Latin meant slogging away at grammar text-books and difficult translation. Nowadays there are numerous Youtube videos and Latin apps that make the whole process simple, quick, and enjoyable.

Learning Latin – the old traditional way

From Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’


The logical structure of Latin grammar seems to provide a clear path into the language and is generally taken as the first step in developing familiarity by poring over text books on Latin grammar. But this is not the way we learn other languages which we do by immersion in conversation (aural and oral experience) not by intellectual analysis. Learning grammar leads to a knowledge of Latin as an intellectual decoding process, seeing the structure of the language and translating this into our native tongue. To be truly fluent the language must pass directly into our understanding without this intellectual filtering and this is achieved by experiencing the spoken language on a regular basis which is much less painful. In this way the grammar eventually emerges rather than being superimposed. No doubt the more inhumane aspects of learning the language have contributed to its unwarranted demise.

So, much of the internal logic of the language is conveyed using different word endings (inflections). For verbs there are endings that indicate whether they are singular or plural, and whether they are referring to ‘I’, ‘you’ (singular), ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘we’, ‘you’ (plural), or ‘the’y. There are four kinds of verbs and the endings for each need to be learned: this is called conjugating the verbs. Similarly word endings indicate whether nouns are the subject or object of a sentence, male or female, singular or plural, and whether they are implying ‘of’, ‘to’, ‘by’, ‘with’, or ‘from’. There are five kinds of noun endings known as declensions and you will therefore need to work at declining nouns. Once you have learned to conjugate verbs and decline nouns the rest will become much more straightforward. Word order, so important in English, is not so important in Latin which achieves similar grammatical objectives using the word endings.

To follow the grammarian approach there is Wheelock’s Latin and its web supplements (6th edition of 39 chapters available on the web free with a free app revising each chapter), while the practical grammar approach can be addressee through the extensive web and Youtube materials of Evan der Millne at Though even this requires a sustained effort over perhaps several years it will repay the effort. It includes the London Latin Course, Coursum Latinum and much more – explore the materials. My own suggestion would be a combination of both approaches. If you read a little about grammar the broad linguistic landscape will quickly become apparent. Then by listening to spoken Latin and eventually doing your own reading you will find things rapidly becoming much easier and the Classical world will open up to you.


If you want to learn Latin properly then pronunciation is certainly important: long and short sounds can change the meaning of words that have the same spelling. You will soon become familiar with the line above letters, the macron, indicating a long sound. As part of your learning you can listen regularly to Latin spoken properly, and for this I recommend The London Latin Course on Youtube. It is as well to remember that classical Latin was used for the formal literature read by the well educated: it was the vulgar Latin of the masses that gave rise to the Romance languages.

But for the gardener and lay-person pronunciation (like word meaning) is probably best decided by common usage. There is no ‘proper’ way any more than there is a ‘proper’ way of pronouncing English – it all depends on dialects (where you come from) and many other factors besides. Although we have clear rules for the pronunciation of Ecclesiastical Latin as it is spoken in the Roman Catholic Church, and also the Reformed Academic pronunciation of classical scholars, which aims to replicate the spoken language of ancient educated Romans, the problem is that there is a kind of Gardeners Latin which seems to have simply evolved naturally by reverting to corresponding words spoken in our native language, and with many variations.

There is no way that the Classical pronunciation can be forced on people and so we fall back on common usage.

Perhaps the best example I know expressing this dilemma confronting the plant science student and gardener is a witty poem about the pronunciation of the genus name Cyclamen . . . are the ‘c’s soft or hard, the ‘y’ and ‘a’ long or short? There are many permutations. This erudite little ditty appeared in the pages of an old gardening magazine.[2]

How shall we sound its mystic name
Of Greek descent and Persian fame?
Shall “y” be long and “a” be short,
Or will the “y” and “a” retort?
Shall “y” be lightly rippled o’er,
Or should we emphasise it more?
Alas! The doctors disagree,
For “y’s” a doubtful quantity.
Some people use it now and then,
As if ‘twere written “Sickly-men”;
But it comes from kuklos, Greek,
Why not “kick-laymen”, so to speak?
The gardener with his ready wit,
Upon another mode has hit;
He’s terse and brief – long names dislikes,
And so he renders it as “Sykes”.

For the pedantic academic scholarly pronunciation turns on selection of long and short vowels and correct positioning of stress on syllables. In general, pronounce each syllable in turn – so it is cot-on-e-aster, not coton-easter (ko-ton-e-aster, not cotton-easter). But then remember that although Botanical Latin is ‘Latinised’, about 80% of generic names and 30% of specific epithets (the second word in the binomial) are from languages other than Greek or Latin.[10]

William Stearn tells how the great Linnaeus, who had not travelled widely nor educated in languages other than his native Swedish, when deciding to visit Germany, Holland, England, and France in 1735-1736 spoke to his fellow scientists in Latin.[11]

The Roman alphabet omitted the letters j and w and the letter k rarely used. In the second century the rounded u appeared but both v and u are now employed in Latin texts of most modern editions, our letter w being a double u of the v-shaped kind. Vowels in Latin had only two possible pronunciations, long and short. Long vowels were generally held about twice as long as short vowels like half notes to quarter notes in music. Long vowels are indicated with a line over the letter (th macron), those without are short and their use or not can change meaning (liber = book, liber = free).

Though we often associate the Roman alphabet with that of the ancient Greeks, the Romans learned their writing skills from the Etruscans, who had themselves learned to write from Greek colonists who had settled near Naples during the 8th century BCE. So, we may view the Roman alphabet as just one form of the Greek alphabet except that the Greeks had adopted a semitic alphabet used by the Phoenicians whose inspiration, it seems, was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

We can repay this enormous debt to antiquity by taking the trouble to learn a little about their world and languages.


Latin has a basic vocabulary (word frequency) of about 1,500 words[1]. Armed with this lexicon you will recognize about 84% of the words in the literature. And then there are less than 4000 words in general use. Ancient Greek has many times that number. For a run-down on word numbers in English and our word capacity see Language – English. In general, words are best learned in context rather than parrot-fashion. Word-frequency dictionaries can be found on Wikipedia for free if you search ‘wiki word frequency.’ Routledge also produces nice word-frequency dictionaries that go up to 5,000 words.

The key to learning Latin is not intellectual mastery but immersion – exposure to seeing and hearing the language as much as possible: volume of throughput (familiarity), not quality. However, there are now free apps to to give you vocabulary workouts. You must wait for the great texts of Virgil, Cicero etc., their subtlety and splendour can only be appreciated if you understand the finer points, and that does take a little time. Nowadays the business of learning has been speeded up by the vast array of free web resources.

Making it happen – a learning plan

You can learn Latin without spending a cent.

My suggestion is to start with Latina Lingua per se – Familia Romana and aim to follow this up with its sequel Latina Lingua per se – Roma Aeterna. This is a manageable goal and by the time you reach the end of the second book you will be ready to set out on your own. These books are entirely in Latin but the progress gently graduated.

Set up your computer with a series of tabs to address all eventualities – one tab for the text or book you are working on, another tab for ‘no dictionaries’, another tab for a different dictionary, another for a translation (it is OK to work with these as you will learn from them), another for grammar (Wheelock’s grammar is organised into chapters so that you can dip in as needed). For variety you can have another tab to the 170 few-minute, Youtube episodes of spoken Latin in the London Latin Course. There are also many free apps that are now available and these will also reinforce your learning.

Scientific communication

Wisdom is shown in clarity not obscurity

Euripides, Orestes: spoken by Menelaus line 397

“the sowing and planting of ideas into an orderly series, as opposed to just living off the careless ideas one finds in daily experience, is pleasurable in itself”

Thomas Hobbes

The old stereotype of the scientist as a white-lab-coated bespectacled nerdy introvert male swanning around his laboratory with an air of daffy dissociation from the real world . . . has gone.

Nowadays a scientist is expected to convey highly technical and specialist research in a clear and engaging style that can be understood and enjoyed by everyone. After all it is OK to be a geek . . .  but your research grant depends on the impression you create as a person in the flesh . . .  and even more on the way you express yourself in writing. This is a tough call, especially when for some of us the greatest literary challenge faced on a daily basis is some creative texting (lol).


Sir Dent-de-Lion

Sir Dent-de-Lion
A dandelion flower illustrated ‘as if’ it were a knight – an example of a pictorial metaphor
1899 Walter Crane (1845-1915)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Fae, Accessed 20 Oct. 2015


There are many general style manuals available, including books dedicated specifically to science writing.[11][17] But of all these I strongly recommend one written by a scientist – Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (2014) which adopts a refreshingly relaxed approach to writing protocol.

You can read this book for yourself – all I shall touch on here are a couple of his main points, one which he refers to as ‘classic style’ and the other ‘the curse of knowledge’.

Classic style

In writing for a general audience Pinker suggests clarity, simplicity, and a conversational style (writer and reader as equals) drawing the attention of the reader to something in the world that they may not have noticed before. To hold the reader’s attention requires engaging but restrained prose, putting aside philosophical and other complexity. The supreme skill of this kind of writing is not to dazzle the reader with the writers depth of knowledge, linguistic brilliance, or profundity of insight but to express an argument or thought in a simple way and in an ordered sequence using examples that clarify what is being said. When done well the hard work needed to achieve this end result becomes totally invisible … only the writer knows the enormous effort that was needed behind the scenes.[15] Classic style looks to its effectiveness by simulating two of our most naural acts: talking and seeing.[16]

The curse of knowledge

The ‘curse of knowledge’ is an expression coined by economists in 1989 to convey the difficulty experts have in considering something from the perspective of a person who does not know what they know – an apparently obvious point but one ignored by many scientists when they talk to people outside their peer group. There is a skill in finding the balance between giving patronisingly long explanations – or no explanations at all.

All-in-all a passage of writing is a great opportunity for a scientist to be artistic: it is a designed object with sections, topics, themes, actors, and an overall arc of coherence. Like any formal work of art it must have harmony, balance, and appeal – which requires careful crafting with attention to detail. The reader is your judge, so be friendly as well as informative.

Scientific detachment

We, as scientists communicating our work, are balanced on the horns of a dilemma. On the one horn we are expected to be pillars of objectivity, fixing the world with a cold gaze that is unmoved by human frailties and distractions. But, on the other horn, we are told again and again that it is the frosty detachment of science that has contributed to our lack of connection with the natural world: we might ‘know’ but we do not ‘care’. Science arose and flourished in the West and it is the West that cares least about its impact on nature, it is sometimes said.

How can we get people interested? This is not easy. We all know the bright and breezy presenter with an easy and relaxed manner, all familiarity and a ready serving of jokes. One method is catharsis, the relieving of tensions by using humour to expose and purge contradictions, injustices, and fears, and give an airing to general sources of confusion, pain and suffering. Take care in attempting this as you can just seem false (‘What a surprise, I’m just like you, but really smart and with a great sense of humour’). Another device used to capture your attention and heart and, incidentally, a pet hate of mine, is the use of artistic license to capture a sense of urgency, of here and now:

‘Albert Einstein gazed wistfully out of his window into the clear blue sky. Yet another week of frustration with nothing to show for his efforts. But ‘Perhaps’, he mused, ‘this week will be different’. . .

Read on to see if Albert can deliver the goods . . .

The art of persuasion

There was a time, not so long ago, when books were scarce or non-existent and few people could read or write. In those days you would sink or swim among your fellows based on the impression you created in conversation and public debate.

In the world’s great ancient civilizations the art of persuasion was therefore carefully nurtured and this was done through the discipline of rhetoric. Written reference to these skills can be found as far back as Akkadian wrings from Mesopotamia dating to about 2285–2250 BCE and the Neo-Assyrians of 704–681 BCE and in the Chinese writings of Confucius (551-479 BCE). Eloquence was deeply admired because it would command respect and it was therefore taught as a system of rules (the verbal tricks of the trade).[1]

As democracy (not like today’s liberal democracies) became a part of life in ancient Greece, much of public and political life turned on decisions made as a consequence of competitive oratory in front of large crowds and in the law courts. This is why rhetoric became a compulsory part of ancient Greek education that was continued through Roman times when we hear of great public speakers like Cicero and Julius Caesar (who was tutored in oratory by a Greek) and this continued into the Middle Ages. Privileged medieval students studied philosophy which was essentially another word for all knowledge. Their studies began with the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric – from which we get the word trivial, meaning ‘easy’) which was a preparation for the more difficult quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) that together became known later as the seven liberal arts. With attention to detail you would then avoid sgrammatical errors or solecisms as they were known.

So what exactly is rhetoric? As usual Aristotle gives it to us straight between the eyes, defining it as the critical art of persuasion through logos (reason), pathos (emotional appeal, imaginitive identification), and ethos (credibility, trustworthiness, authority). Credibility was demonstrated through wisdom and communication skills combined with integrity, sincerity and a genuine desire to engage. Of course every speaker needs to convey the truth but, said Aristotle, rhetoric ‘… adds the necessary sparkle to the diamond of truth’ thus demonstrating by example his mastery of the subject.[18]

The most effective approach in both written or spoken communication was epideictic rhetoric. This was a preliminary ‘feeling-out’, or ‘softening-up’ of the audience before launching into a cause or viewpoint. For example, the speaker might use some form of praise (a panegyric, encomium, or eulogy). Sometimes the role of the speaker was already defined so the audience might be expecting polemics (the uncompromising statement of a single point of view), apologetics (the defence of a particular position), or dialectic (logical comparison of views often represented as the statement of a position, the thesis, its opposing view, the antithesis, leading to a synthesis – which might then serve as a new thesis).

For most of us rhetoric is a distant echo of a long-abandoned classical education. In the 17th century we hear the first mutterings of criticism of the formal, no doubt statesmanlike but in all probability ponderous and pompous, manner adopted by people in public life. Wit, man of letters, and preacher Thomas Sprat (1635–1713) derided ‘fine speaking’ suggesting that public communication should ‘reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style’ and instead ‘return back[4] to a primitive purity and shortness’. He was supported by English poet, literary critic, playwright and Poet Laureate John Dryden (1631-1700) who promoted communicating in a manner appropriate ‘to the occasion, the subject, and the persons’.[2] But some people never learn. Nearly two hundred years later Queen Victoria grumbled about Prime Minister Gladstone … ‘He speaks to me as if I was a public meeting’. We are only now emerging democratically from an era when education and high social status was immediately apparent through the wielding of an imperious and authoritative tone of voice combined with an exaggerated attention to precise diction.

It is difficult to find a happy medium (Aristotle said that the greatest moral virtue was moderation in all things). Today we still have a distaste for rhetoric because we associate it with pretension and call it ‘bullshit‘, but this is a pity. We all know people who try to assume authority by being supercilious, pompous, or opinionated, not to mention the guile of the silver-tongued salesman. The Greeks were wary of smoothe-talkers too, calling them Sophists and regarding them as insincere. But there are obvious benefits in expressing our ideas with clarity and appeal when we fumble along with ‘so, like, well, she goes … then he goes … isn’t it? … like, see what I mean?’ which would have made Gladstone blush.

In this article, in a few paragraph’s time, I will ask you to put yourself in the sandals of educated young Greek men (yes, Aristotle thought women were ‘imperfect men’ and should stay at home, which shows that even he can get it wrong sometimes) who, instead of tweeting and playing with their smartphones, would have spent their spare moments studying how to win friends and influence people using the skillful manipulation of words. I think that, like me, you will amazed by the insights into language and its use that are revealed by a short study of rhetoric.

Now, following Aristotle’s example, I’ll cease the paralipsis (omitting the important) and get to the point by being succinct. You can read about style yourself. In this article I’ll restrict myself to three areas I think are of special interest: the lexicon of literary devices that we can use to wrap up our message (literature for scientists); the conscious and unconscious use of metaphor, its advantages and pitfalls; and the idea of science as an objective value-free language.

Literary devices (rhetoric, word play)

What tools are available to the wordsmith? How can we spice up the language we use to sell ourselves?

I’ll try to give you here a synoptic tour of our language’s figures of speech (ways of using words without their literal meaning) and rhetorical tropes (strategies for improving the way language informs, persuades, and motivates).

Like the contemporary jargon associated with computers, ancient Greece had its own technobabble. Words associated with rhetoric seem to make up a disproportionate part of any dictionary so if, like me, you have dived for your dictionary again and again looking up the meanings of these words, only to forget them yet again, then I hope that putting some of them together in a comparative way, as follows, might be some help. It might not make you a better communicator but at least it should give you a wider view of the linguistic landscape.

Logology is the study of recreational linguistics which is the manipulation of letters, words, sounds, sentences, and meanings – so let’s get going!


Perhaps the oldest way of ‘getting people in’ has been the use of personification or anthropomorphism – what John Ruskin called the ‘pathetic fallacy’. You make the natural world sound like a person and thus soften or enhance concerns about its threats and mysteries. If it is just like us then, hopefully, it is nice and friendly as well. You can tell them that galaxies ‘agonise’ or ‘weave intricate and majestic interstellar webs’, that plants ‘offer their gracious petals to the Sun’. But don’t get too carried away and become overwhelmed by autophasia, which is what happens when you are awestruck by your own cleverness with words.

One way of settling your audience and making them feel at home is through the anecdote as you recount an amusing or illuminating incident (‘On my way to the laboratory today …’). Or tension can be set up in the collective mind of your audience by using antithesis, the juxtaposition of opposites (‘One small step for man: one giant leap for mankind’), and the caesura, aposiopesis, or pregnant pause (‘But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’) or the feigned doubt of aporia (‘I just don’t know where to begin …’).

You can immediately demand attention by posing a rhetorical question (one that does not really anticipate an answer) such as ‘Is science ultimately responsible for today’s environmental catastrophe?’ and you can maybe supplement this with erotesis, which is a rhetorical question posed with emphasis, like ‘Do you think I am joking?’ Although you are, in all probability, about to answer your own question, which is hypophora. Maybe use an epitrope by simply appearing to accept something but handing over responsibility for it (‘Who cares if climate change is real?‘).

Other devices to quickly get attention include the taunting barbs of sarcasm like the backhanded compliment when saying ‘You are early today’ to someone who is always late. One special kind of sarcasm is ennoia or damning with faint praise. Litotes employs understatement to make a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive, often incorporating double negatives for effect. (‘He’s not bad looking’). You could use dialogismus by suggesting you are standing in someone else’s shoes (‘If I were you …’).

If you are not sure what to do then try parrhesia which is just speaking out directly and candidly and if you slip up try metanoia which is a way of retracting or weakening a statement by stating it in a better way (‘I saw it on Facebook: but it is listed in Encyclopaedia Britannica’). And in setting out your thesis or argument, remember the importance of distinctio (clarity and clear definition) and procatalepsis (anticipation of contradictions).

Sometimes stating things twice is enough to interrupt a sense of cosy familiarity as in a repeated phrase (tautophrase) like John Wayne’s ‘A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’; a repeated name (tautonym) Ziziphus ziziphus for the Jujube Tree or Lang Lang for the famous pianist; or stating the same point in different ways (tautology) as in ’He is always making predictions about the future’, ‘HIV virus’, ‘Added Bonus!’ or even ‘$15 dollars’. A rhetorical flourish is achieved by the repetition of a word in phrases and sentences, either using the last word of one sentence for the start of the next, known as anadiplosis (‘Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering’) or at the beginning of one sentence and end of another, known as epanalepsis (‘The king is dead; long live the king’).

Playing with sounds

Rhetoricians have a wonderful word for the rhythm and pattern of sounds, they call it prosody. We can all relate to this through the rhymes we enjoyed in childhood. Alliteration is the repeated use of the same sound in a series of words as in ‘Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Pepper’. Assonance, is alliteration that uses the rhythmic repetition of vowels (‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’) while consonance uses the rhythmic repetition of consonants (‘Around the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran’).

Then there is the switching of different parts of words as vowels, consonants or sounds (metathesis). Examples are the spoonerism (‘The Lord is a shoving leopard’, instead of ‘The Lord is a loving shepherd’); cockney rhyming slang which swaps an entire sentence (‘The trouble and strife’ rhyming with ‘wife’); the malapropism which swaps a similar-sounding word for the correct one (‘He only goes running because of the feeling afterwards that comes from the dolphins’ – for ‘dolphins’ read ‘endorphins’ or ‘Sebastian was effluent’ – for ‘effluent’ read ‘affluent’).

Rather similar there is onomatopoeia, where the word imitates the sound it describes (‘buzzing’ of bees, the ‘plop’ of a drip of water) or a holorime, two different sentences that sound identical as in the immortal words of Jimi Hendrix: was it ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky’ or ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy’, this mis-hearing of words also known as a Mondagreen?

Sometimes there is just the simple pleasure of sound rhythms all mixed up, such as ‘’Malignant cancer’ is a pleonasm for a neoplasm’ and the old favourites ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore, the shells she sells are sea shells I’m sure’ and my two favourite tongue-twisters, both best when repeated rapidly ‘I never felt at a felt hat that felt like that felt hat felt’ or, shorter but more tricky, ‘Red leather, yellow leather’.

Well-worn phrases

You can sound very literary and sophisticated by referring to a trope, which is a word, phrase or image used for artistic effect. Tropes, unfortunately, can quickly descend into empty or difficult-to-define buzzwords (‘Mission Statement’, ‘Sustainability’). So try to avoid banal or prosaic (unoriginal or unimaginative) oft-used truisms and platitudes like ‘Better late than never’ because it is just a small step into meaningless chatter as gobbledygook, gibberish, mumbo-jumbo or word salad. There are specialist kinds of chatter either associated with particular spheres of life or used for cheap effect, like psychobabble (‘Positive psychology’, ‘Empowerment’, ‘Self-actualisation’) and the similar cases of technobabble, legalese, corporatese and so on.

You can also appear with-it by using a fashionable or well-known catch-phrase (‘Here’s looking at you kid’ Rick Blaine in the film ‘Casablanca’, ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy’ Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser) provided you don’t end up in a double-bind, Hobson’s Choice[5] or Catch-22[6], which is a choice that is not really a choice at all, you are cornered (‘Heads I win, tails you lose’).

Avoid the trap of reminiscence (anamnesis) because you are likely to lose your train of thought (amnesia).

Word tricks

Since you probably do crossword puzzles you will already have thought of the anagram, the rearrangement of letters in a word or phrase to give a new word or phrase (William Shakespeare = I am a weakish speller) but there are all kinds of ways of mixing up letters and words for efficiency or effect. Here are a few distractions: an acronym is an abbreviation constructed from the initial components of a phrase or a word (North Atlantic Treaty Organization reduced to NATO) while a backronym creates a new phrase from an already existing word (Spam interpreted as ‘Something Posing As Meat’); acrostic, which uses the first letter or syllable of each line to create another and can therefore be used as a mnemonic or aide memoire which assists recollection; the pangram, which uses every letter of the alphabet (‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’); the heterogram or isogram which is a word with no letter repeated as in the 17-lettered ‘Subdermoglyphic’. Finally, there is the palindrome when the sentence is identical whether read forwards or backwards (‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’, ‘Lewd did I live & evil I did dwell’ (almost) and ‘Snug & raw was I ere I saw war & guns’.

Choice of words is crucial so don’t forget that among the many options is the informal use of slang. Portmanteau words blend the parts of several words or sounds to give new meaning, as in the languages Chinglish and Franglais, or the word ‘Eurasia’. However, try to avoid the use of the word ‘fuck’. Its pervasive presence in daily life has become known as ‘fuck patois’ and its versatility is truly amazing, even appearing as a noun, adjective, verb, and adverb all within a single sentence. Despite its versatility in daily intercourse (so-to-say) … it is not nice, and will not win you friends.

Special effects can be achieved by simply moving words around. Anastrophe is the reversal of the usual positioning of the adjective and noun (‘In times past’) while a short, sharp impact can be made with the aid of asyndeton, the removal of conjunctions while maintaining grammatical order (‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’).

Then there is hypozeuxis, where every clause in a sentence has its own independent subject and predicate, or repeats an element (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’). A rhythmic effect can be achieved by a criss-cross or reversing of ideas as in chiasmus ‘Ask not what your country can do for you: ask what you can do for your country‘. Then there is the swapping of entire words as in ‘The salesman bawls out his wares while a dachshund …’ which is rather risqué. Synchysis is the deliberate scattering of words to create confusion and force the audience to consider both the meaning of the words and the relationship between them as in ‘I talk and write, loudly and legibly.’

Then there are a whole series of logical permutations relating to the mix of word sound, spelling, and meaning: homograph, as words with the same sound and spelling but different meaning (‘Bear’, ‘Close’); homophone (multinym), same sound but different spelling and different meaning (‘Rays’, Raise’, ‘Raze’), and homonym, same sound and spelling but different meaning (‘Fluke’). If words have identical spelling but different meanings and pronunciations then they are heteronyms (‘With a number of injections my gums were getting number’).


This brings us to many other kinds of name (epithet, moniker, cognomen) or – nyms would fill a whole page but it is useful to know about a few: synonyms as different words or phrases with the same meaning (‘purchase’ and ‘buy’) with opposite meaning words as antonyms (‘Black’ and ‘White’, or ‘Quick’ and ‘Slow’); ananyms, names with the reversed letters of an existing name like the Welsh village of Llareggub in the story Under Milkwood by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas which, when transposed, gives us ‘Bugger all’; aptronyms, names that aptly describe a person (‘Shorty’, ‘Nervous Nellie’), or a charactonym which aptly describes their character (‘Mr Angry’); pseudonym, which is a fictitious name (‘King Arthur’); or an eponym which is a name used for something other than itself, such as the eponymous botanical journal Muelleria. And don’t forget that a posh nick-name is a sobriquet.

An anaphor is a word used to refer to another (‘Eric will wash-up when he’s ready’).

Playing with meaning

Semantics deals with the meaning of words and it is anathema (a curse) for all of us that one word can have many meanings (polysemy), the art of manipulating these meanings in discourse being known as paronomasia, more widely referred to as a pun. But watch out for the Freudian slip which gives away what you are really thinking, so when she said ‘Would you like a cup of tea or some bread and butter?‘ he replied ‘Bed and butter.’

Some words can mean opposite things (‘Cleave’ meaning both ‘to stick together’ or ‘to separate’) so, using zeugma (syllepsis) the same word is used with two different meanings (‘You are free to execute your laws and your citizens as you see fit’). And you can even create a new word as a neologism.


In general terms we can speak either literally (factually) or figuratively (when we use non-literal language). Perhaps the best-known use of figurative language are the many idioms whose figurative meaning is different from their literal meaning as in ‘Don’t pull my leg’ or ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’.

It is difficult to describe phenomena in nature without drawing analogies (comparisons) of various kinds. In comparing two items we may make a direct comparison between them in the form of a simile (‘You are like an animal’) or a statement of identity rather than likeness, as a metaphor (‘You are an animal’) or, for effect, simply name one item with the other implied as in hypocatastasis (‘Animal!’).

Metaphors are sometimes further divided into metonyms as names or expressions indicating something else as when we use ‘Hollywood’ to mean the American movie industry or ‘Fleet Street’ the British press, while synecdoche is a sub-set of metonym in which a word denoting a part stands for a whole, as when we use ‘suits’ to refer to businessmen or ‘wheels’ for a car. Synecdoche is often used as a type of personification by attaching a human aspect to a non-human thing.

When fleshed out some of these devices become full-blooded literary forms. A fleshed-out metaphor becomes an allegory, like Plato’s allegory of the cave which compares people in a cave to the mental darkness of the unenlightened masses. Mockery as exaggerated imitation becomes parody, and when something occurs that is contrary to what is expected and therefore wryly amusing, we are dealing with irony, eironeia (‘It is ironic that the lifeguard drowned on a canoeing safari’). When shortcomings are ridiculed or lampooned, especially those of governments, it is known as satire which also makes ample use of sarcasm and irony.

For a stark confrontation of opposites we resort to enantiosis (‘Hasten slowly’, ‘Yin and yang’).

There will be times, though, when you commit catachresis by simply using the wrong word (‘Its time to mow the carpet’) and sometimes the comparison is just plain silly as with diasyrmus (‘Not saying ‘Hello’ is like spitting in your face’).


Provided it does its job well, it is handy to have a quotable quote up your sleeve.

One of the best ways of getting attention is with a witty riposte or clever phrase as a bon mot, or simply nailing a situation with its most apposite word, its mot juste. There are another series of analogies: the parable as an, often religious, instructive story or moral tale. A parable employs humans while a fable is recounted with anthropomorphic and mythic animals, plants, inanimate objects, and natural forces. Simple terse expressions or truisms are known as maxims, adages, apothegms, aphorisms or proverbs (‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, ‘More haste less speed’). When a saying is memorable for its wit or sarcasm the word ‘epigram’ is more appropriate (‘Carpe Diem’ meaning ‘Sieze the Day’ or poet John Dryden’s ‘Here lies my wife: here let her lie! Now she’s at rest – and so am I.’, which is also an epitaph or brief comment on death, but in this case not very politically correct. The statement on comedian Spike Milligan’s grave is presumably both an epigram and an epitaph (‘I told you I was ill!’). However, repeat these sayings too often and they lose effect, becoming a cliché.

Hypostasis is a special case, generally taken to be the underlying reality, as when people going about their daily lives suddenly realise they have been taking part in a television program: sometimes, giving something the character of a substance (‘Time was slipping through his fingers‘).


Pleonasm is the way that, in our excitement to emphasise an idea, we sometimes use more words than is necessary. We might, for example, talk about a ‘burning fire’. ‘Return back’ is a pleonasm used by Thomas Sprat (quote given above) while ‘Malignant cancer’ is a pleonasm for a neoplasm. Use of such words or expressions is needless repetition, redundancy or tautology while hyperbole is straightforward exaggeration or overstatement (‘I was waiting for an eternity’).

Archetypes are outstanding examples of people or ideas (Alexander the Great as an outstanding example of a military hero).

Also, try to avoid using unsubstantiated claims as weasel words (‘Most people say …’, ‘It is obvious that …’, ‘Evidence suggests …’).


Contradiction is expressed in various ways, not just as gainsay<sup[9] or denial. It can use a word of opposite meaning, an antonym. An oxymoron uses contradictory terms together for emphasis (‘Military intelligence’, ‘Organised chaos’) while a paradox is a contradictory or illogical puzzle, superficially self-contradictory but conveying a truth such as (‘This statement is a lie’ or Socrates’s paradox ‘I know that I know nothing’). Synoeciosis is a coupling or bringing together of contraries, but not in order to oppose them to one another (as in antithesis).

Apophasis or paralipsis draws attention to something through its denial (‘Don’t mention the war’ or ‘Nobody has taken them, and anyway I wasn’t there, so I couldn’t have dropped the keys on the way out’).


Sometimes we want to avoid causing offense or alarm by either using an innocuous word in place of one which might be more appropriate, or using some other method to avoid using an unpleasant word. This is frequent in the topics of sex, religion, bodily functions, disability, death, and race. We do this by using a euphemism (‘Collateral damage’ instead of ‘Killed civilians’ – sometimes also called doublespeek, ‘Pushing up daisies’ instead of ‘Dead’, ‘Downsizing’ instead of ‘Making redundant’). Occasionally we avoid the matter by simply hinting at what we mean by circumlocution, innuendo, or equivocation (‘Are you hungry?’) or altering the word slightly to give a mispronunciation of the word we are avoiding (‘Frickin’, ‘Oh, shoot’) or an abbreviation (‘Jeez’ for ‘Jesus’, ‘What the eff’n’). Political correctness is sometimes regarded as euphemism (‘Vertically challenged’ instead of ‘Short’). The antonym or opposite of euphemism is dysphemism (cacophemism) when something pleasant or innocuous is expressed in an unpleasant way (‘You old bastard’).

Take care – all these can seriously misfire.


As scientists we should be especially vigilant when creating or using metaphor (‘as-if’ talk). Metaphor can facilitate our thinking but also trip us up by creating seriously misleading mental representations.

For most of its life metaphor was treated as just another rhetorical device, one of many ways to colour language. But in 1980 cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published ‘Metaphors We Live By’, an instant best-seller. In the Afterword of a later edition written in 2003, they outlined their thesis that metaphor is not just about literature: ‘Metaphors are pervasive, not just in language but in thought and action’, ‘There appear to be both universal metaphors and cultural variation’, ‘Abstract thought is largely, but not entirely, metaphorical’, ‘Metaphorical thought is unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious’, ‘We live our lives on the basis of inferences we derive via metaphor’.

Research by cognitive scientists into metaphor has continued[10] to confirming that metaphor is embedded in the way we think and perceive the world. One of the most exciting recent findings of cognitive science is that there might be just a few underlying concepts expressed through metaphorical speech, most notably space, time, force, agency and causation.[8]

In thinking about the relationship between science and language Steven Pinker in ‘The Stuff of Thought’ (2008) shows how embed the key scientific concepts of space, time, matter, and causality in everyday language. Nouns express matter as stuff and things extended along one or more dimensions. Verbs express causality as agents acting on something. Verb tenses express time as activities and events along a single dimension. Prepositions express space as places and objects in spatial relationships (on, under, to, from etc.). This language of intuitive physics may not agree with the findings of modern physics but, like all metaphor, it helps us to reason, quantify experience, and create a causal framework for events in a way that allows us to assign responsibility. Language is a toolbox that conveniently and immediately transfers life’s most obscure, abstract, and profound mysteries into a world that is factual, knowable, and willable.[14] What this means is that the logic of familiar concrete situations can be used as the logic for mapping and making inferences about more abstract things like time, quantity, state, change, action, cause, purpose, means, categories, and so on. What we do with metaphor is understand one mental domain in terms of another. Simile declares itself with the word ‘like’ but metaphor does not give itself away, it claims identity and, if we are not careful, we simply take it at face value, we take it for reality.

This is best understood through examples. While ‘it is raining cats and dogs’ is patently obvious, think for a moment about the way we treat the difficult concept of time. Time is one of the most difficult and abstract ideas we will encounter in life so, not surprisingly, the language of time is riddled with metaphor. We keep time, tell the time, and pass through time. Time is an object (‘Everything exists in time’); time is a moving object (‘Time bears all its sons away’); time is an object with variable speed (‘Time flies by more quickly every day’); time is stationary but we are moving (‘We are getting closer to Christmas’); time is moving but we are stationary (‘Time is passing by’); time is space (‘I was waiting a long time’, ‘It all happened in a short space of time’). ‘Time flies’ implies three metaphors, time as a bird, time as object, time as motion. Then there is the best of all, time as space, as in ‘It was a long time’.

Time is one of many examples: love is a journey; difficulty is an impediment to motion; purpose is a destination; the mind is a container (’empty-headed or full of ideas’); causes are forces; more is up, less is down; change is motion; the natural world is a machine; the mind is a computer – and so on.

You can see here how metaphor is being used as a tool for thinking about something obscure. This can be extremely useful in any creative process but we need to be aware of what language is doing. Time is not moving, it is not space, and it is probably not an object. Perhaps all this metaphor makes for colourful general communication but it does not always help us to think scientifically.

We need to be careful. Understanding X in terms of Y is not all bad, even though ‘the map is not the territory’. Considerable thought has been given to metaphor in science: metaphor is creative, thought-provoking and direct, it establishes likenesses and new meaning for difficult concepts so it is a verbal and sometimes visual aid to understanding – it is vivid, compact, and expressive. We need internal mental pictures to grasp new phenomena so metaphor is an invaluable tool for scientific communicators and a necessary heuristic, a way of explaining technical aspects of a subject to those who are less well informed. All this can lead science in directions that result in breakthroughs.

What are some popular scientific metaphors? Well, we think of Rutherford’s atom-as-a-solar-system and the way electricity flows like water through wire. But perhaps the greatest metaphor ever harnessed by science has been Descartes’s ‘nature as machine’, like a clock, and the path of explanation proceeding by analysis from the simple to the complex. On the one hand it taught us to seek answers by looking carefully at the wondrous interconnection of parts. But it also needed a ‘designer’ and it made us introspect ‘downwards’ in ever more detail with a reductionism that forgot how to look ‘up’ as Aristotle had suggested. Sometimes the universe, and especially planet Earth, has been compared to a cosmic organism (Gaia). Today’s great metaphor is the computer, a universe or mind that is driven, not by a designer, but by universal software, the ‘governing’ laws of physics and natural ‘selection’. This is a world, not of billiard balls, but complex systems.

I dont think we need to agonise too much about metaphor in science, worrying about all its advantages and disadvantages. We treat it as we would anything else in science: when it is useful, a good way of understanding and explaining something, then we keep it. If it becomes misleading or tired, or we find something that does a better job, then we replace it … but awareness of its dangers is a good start.

I have my own ax to grind and it relates to the metaphor still widely used by philosophers and biologists who speak about living organisms and their world as consisting of hierarchical levels of organisation, ranked by, say, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, and then maybe populations and ecosystems. To what extent is this just a convenient way of explaining things and to what extent is it the way the world really is? I think we can improve on this metaphor.

Finally, just to get into the metaphorical groove, think about the way we apply direction – ‘up’ and ‘down’ – to so many aspects of our lives.

Here is a comparative list of metaphors associated with ‘up’ and ‘down’:

Up – more (numbers have risen), increasing (prices are going up; high stakes), complex (what a mix-up, high-tec), happy (things are looking up), good (straight up), synthetic (lets built it up)

Down – less (numbers are going down), decreasing (prices are going down; bottom dollar), simple (low-maintenance, low-brow), sad (I’m feeling low), bad (drop dead), small (we’re down to the last), analytic (no, lets reduce it, or break it down)

The ‘up/down’ metaphor is also illustrated with the social metaphor of ‘high’ and ‘low’.

High – Look up to, Talk up an idea, Head, top (top cat), heaven, God up in Heaven, glass ceiling for women, upstairs

Low – Look down on, Talk down an idea, Body, bottom (dog’s body), hell, Devil down in Hell, basement, downstairs

The point here is to become attuned to the use of metaphor because it is pervasive in both everyday and scientific language. For example, I respect the efforts of scientists and what they are trying to achieve with science. Describing science metaphorically as a ‘narrative’ to me sounds insulting. Science tries to meticulously and accurately explain the world. No matter how inadequately it does this – it is doing far more than simply telling a good story.

There is not the space to go into this fascinating topic further but if you are a scientist then some background reading on the cognitive science of this topic could change your outlook on the world. Suffice it to say that in unwittingly accepting metaphors we can make life difficult for ourselves, and in handing out metaphors to other people we can be influencing both their minds and behaviour … so they need to be the right metaphors.

Consider the following:

Biological metaphors

Science faces a dilemma in communicating its relationship to nature. On the one hand science prides itself in its objectivity and detachment (fact and value, self and non-self) while, on the other, it wishes to re-connect people with the natural world by pointing out that not only are we evolutionarily connected to the community of life but we are also embedded in the environment. Certainly for anyone who feels empathy for the beauty and wonder of nature its objectification and respect only when viewed in instrumental terms is sad.

Mother nature

Is nature a mother, our surrounding landscape or a resource – or perhaps something that, after we have treated it as the source of our consumption, will inevitably hit back by consuming us? Obvious value-adding occurs for example in the expressions ‘invasive plant’, ‘clean energy’ and ‘soft science’.

Deference to economics

When we speak of ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural capital’ is this facilitating communication through economic metaphors that everyone understands or is it an unseemly deference to the world of economics? Are all actions transactions?

Does it work and does it help?

DNA Barcoding

Two examples can illustrate this point. Firstly, when scientists speak of the ‘DNA barcoding of nature’ do you think this a clever metaphor that engages people with their familiar world of retail shopping or does it endorse the characterisation of nature as a landscape of merchandise – of organisms as products on a supermarket shelf and DNA a product identification number that can be subsumed under modern technology?[Larson, p. 127]

Invasive organisms

One of the best-known and most widely discussed metaphors in biology is that of invasive organisms which are sometimes discussed and associated with a rich lexicon of other militaristic terms: we have a ‘war on weeds’. Is this inflammatory fear-mongering language encouraging irrational xenophobia? After all, invaders must be repelled quickly and efficiently, preferably by extermination and killing. Isn’t this a term that pre-judges new plant arrivals? The idea of invaders also invokes associations of inviolable boundaries and territories and a mind-set of natives and exotics, goodies and baddies. Can this be considered yet another example of alarmist hyperbole – the ‘apocalyptic and fear-laden imagery’ so often associated with a narrative of impending disaster and presaged by environmental science?[12]

Or is this a highly effective way of drawing public and scientific attention (not to mention research funding) to one of the greatest threats to biodiversity on the planet – a way of evoking some response from politicians and the general public when inaction is the norm – where extensive objective evidence and scientific information is met with indifference? Or does such talk de-sensitize and therefore result in apathy and denial and alienation of scientist and citizen? Does it have an adverse effect on children by making them fearful of the natural world and a paralysis of pessimism about the future?

As scientists we need to be aware of value-laden metaphors and the way that metaphor unites fact and value, and can confuse and mislead with its multiple meanings (polysemy). In creating metaphors of our own we need to be fully aware of their power and take time to engage in critical metaphor analysis to ensure that our metaphors nurture sustainability.[13]

Metaphor & plants

The metaphor (euphemism, symbolism) of common language provides a kind of subliminal appraisal of human physical and personality attributes, a kind of folk psychology with possible universal application.[1] How do we use botanical metaphors (botanomorphism) to describe ourselves? Animal metaphors are everywhere but plant metaphors far fewer. Through an analysis of dictionaries attempting to remove reliance on context and culture it appears that fruits are more highly valued that vegetables in their use as descriptors of positive characteristics.

Here are just a few metaphorical words used in relation to plants: class, family, community, alien, invasive, food chain, keystone, and disturbance – but such a list can be greatly extended. [p. 5] Science communication and education both face the difficulty of passing on cold and unfamiliar objective facts in a way that engages through everyday familiar values.

Value & objectivity

Insofar as science is an attempt to remain objective and value-neutral, every scientist should be aware of the use of metaphor. Science and scientific language are full of ideas that assist us in understanding and controlling reality. a metaphor generally emphasises some aspects while obscuring others.

I was educated as a scientist with the assumption that science cannot comment on the world. Science simply describes the way the world is, not the way it ought to be. This issue is discussed elsewhere (Science & morality, Morality & sustainability).

Scientists are encouraged to communicate in an engaging way and that generally means ‘colourful’ metaphorical language. The danger is that we are expected to communicate about the world ‘as it is’ so metaphor, which is ‘as if’ language, is precisely what we are trying to avoid … ‘see’ what I mean?

One aspect of the scientific endeavour of being objective, to be value-neutral, to seeing things ‘from the point of view of the universe’ (Henry Sidgwick), is to remove those characteristics of our language that are specifically human. We must resist our inclination to see the world in human terms. Making the world person-like is a form of metaphor that we call personification. Cultures around the world have personified nature but perhaps the best example of this is the way God is referred to as ‘He’. Freud wasted no time in pointing out the obvious appeal of a kind and loving but authoritative father-figure guiding us through the vicissitudes of life. Firm but fair.

The scientific value of objectivity is obvious and to be encouraged but there is a downside. Elsewhere I point out that natural selection has the character of agency albeit unconsciously so. To ascribe conscious human-like purpose to natural selection is clearly a mistake, but the close resemblance of natural selection (which operates in the world not in our minds) to conscious purpose has warranted the special term teleonomy. Darwin drew the analogy between artificial (human) selection and selection as it occurs in nature, being fully aware of this objective similarity and that, unlike rocks, living organisms have persisted because they survive and reproduce with modification. Again this is a fact in the world, not an interpretation added by our minds.

This and other examples indicate that there is a downside to objectification. In reality we share many characteristics with all living things: we can emphasise these similarities through empathy or we can isolate and detach ourselves from them by concentrating on our difference. As humans we are both purposive and passionate. Though objectivity has many advantages we do not want to deny our humanity altogether. Acknowledgement of our biological need to survive, reproduce and flourish must be a human given.


Metaphor runs deep into our psychology beyond its use as a literary device and it is the source of both scientific insight and confusion. We simply need to use it with care. We can avoid the covert aspect of metaphor by using more explicit analogies and similes. And heaven-knows science can be dry. Never forget some humour.

I hope I have now turned you into a logothete (one who accounts, calculates, or ratiocinates, or who ‘sets the word’). The exact origin of ‘logothete’ is unsure but it referred to some kind of state official. Around the sixth century CE logothetes gained in prominence and power as revenue-gatherers who were allowed to keep a twelfth of the sums they would gather for the Emperor’s treasury and some amassed considerable fortunes. So, if you become a good logothete then you’ll never have to worry about your research grant again.

I’ll leave you with a hierogram (a sacred message) which includes the neologism ‘synectics’ a word coined in the 1960s but derived from the ancient Greek. ‘It is not ‘all in the mind’ but a matter of synectics – the creative process of group problem-solving.’

Key words & expressions

Acronym, Acrostic, Abbreviation, Adage, Aide Memoire, Alliteration, Amnesia, Anadiplosis, Ananym, Analogy, Anamnesis, Anaphor, Anastrophe, Anathema, Anecdote, Anthropomorphism, Antithesis, Antonym, Aphorism, Apologetics, Apophasis, Aporia, Aposiopesis, Apothegm, Aptronym, Archetype, Assonance, Asyndeton, Autophasia, Backhanded compliment, Backronym, Bon mot, Bowdlerise, Bullshit, Buzzword, Caesura, Cacophemism, Catachresis, Catch Phrase, Catch-22, Catharsis, Charactonym, Chiasmus, Chinglish, Circumlocution, Classic style, Cliché, Cockney slang, Cognomen, Consonance, Corporatese, Dialectic, Diasyrmus, Discourse, Distinctio, Double Bind, Double Entendre, Doublespeek, Dysphemism, Eironeia, Enantiosis, Encomium, Ennoia, Epanalepsis, Epideixis, Epigram, Epitaph, Epithet, Epitrope, Eponym, Equivocation, Erotesis, Ethos, Eulogy, Euphemism, Fable, Figure of speech, Figurative, Franglais, Freudian slip, Fuck patois, Gainsay, Gibberish, Gobbledygook, Heterogram, Heteronym, Hierogram, Hobson’s Choice, Holorime, Homograph, Homophone, Homonym, Hyperbole, Hypocatastasis, Hypostasis, Hypozeuxis, Idiom, Innuendo, Isogram, Jargon, Juxtaposition, Legalese, Literary device, Litotes, Logology, Logos, Logothete, Malapropism, Maxim, Metaconcept, Metadiscourse, Metaphor, Metathesis, Metonym, Mispronunciation, Mnemonic, Mondagreen, Moniker, Mot juste, Multinym, Mumbo-jumbo, Narrative, Neologism, Onomatopoeia, Orator, Overstatement, Oxymoron, Palindrome, Panegyric, Pangram, Parable, Paralipsis, Parody, Paronomasia, Parrhesia, Pathetic Fallacy, Pathos, Patois, Personification, Platitude, Pleonasm, Polemic, Polysemy, Portmanteau, Pregnant pause, Procatalepsis, Prosaic, Prosody, Proverb, Pseudonym, Psychobabble, Pun, Quadrivium, Recreational linguistics, Redundancy, Rhetoric, Rhetorical Flourish, Rhetorical Trope, Rhetorical Question, Rhyme, Risqué, Sarcasm, Satire, Semantics, Simile, Slang, Sobriquet, Solecism, Sophist, Spoonerism, Syllepsis, Synchysis, Synecdoche, Synectics, Synoeciosis, Synonym, Tautology, Tautonym, Tautophrase, Technobabble, Texting, The curse of knowledge, Tongue-twister, Trivium, Trope, Truism, Understatement, Weasel Words, Word Salad, Wordsmith, Zeugma.

Science words

Science, like all human knowledge, progresses through the refinement of the categories that it uses to describe its subject-matter. Frequently this entails the addition of new categories. The multiple disciplines of science that we know today arose mainly in the nineteenth century. Up to the seventeenth century educated men were called philosophers, those concerned with living organisms being known as natural philosophers. However, by the seventeenth century ‘natural philosophy’ had become a muddy term that was replaced by the expression ‘natural science’ which, in the nineteenth century was abbreviated to ‘science’. ‘Natural history’ refers more to field science, an expression used in the 16th century by wealthy dilettantes that became more popular during the Enlightenment.

We use the various words denoting science, scientific disciplines, and scientists without realizing the historical period when they arose and were in greatest use, and how their meanings might have changed.

For the ancient Greeks science was any theoretical or systematic study with no inconsistency in speaking about the science of ethics or theology. The language we use today when thinking about scientific questions is almost entirely a construction of the seventeenth century and the scientific revolution that was underway at this time. I have compiled a simple glossary to cover some of the major words and their historical context.

Words strongly connoting ‘Science’

This history of these words is slightly different when expressed in Italian, French, and German.


Students of philosophy in the western tradition often begin their studies chronologically with the pre-Socratic philosophers. They learn that these men used a kind of proto-periodic table consisting of the four elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water to provide natural (not supernatural) explanations of the way the world worked. Another way of expressing this is to say that in their philosophising they provided explanations that depended on ‘intrinsic’ causes arising from the nature of matter, rather than ‘extrinsic’ causes generated by the gods.

Almost without exception these men also held two further fundamental assumptions about the world. Firstly, that it displayed an order (logos) that was amenable to investigation and, secondly, that the world was in a state of constant flux or change.

In all of these matters the pre-Socratics resemble today’s scientists, not today’s philosophers. We would say that the objects of their study involved geology, biology, physics, and other scientific disciplines. In other words in its early days philosophy (a word derived from the Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, or ‘love of wisdom’ and probably coined by Pythagoras) was equivalent to general knowledge about the world, this knowledge coming from any convincing source. For this reason students who are today awarded a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ come from a wide range of disciplines.

Today, looking back at the pre-Socratics, we might prefer to describe them as proto-scientists or natural philosophers.

Our modern idea of science and scientists dates back only as far as the 19th century, the word ‘scientist’ first appearing in 1834 created by the naturalist-theologian William Whewell to distinguish those who sought knowledge of nature from those who sought knowledge of other disciplines, the Latin term scientia referring to any body of kowledge that contained necessary universal terms. In other words, before this time ‘science’ simply meant ‘knowledge’ but from this point it would be more closely associated with the scientific method.

Modern forms of science developed out of philosophy or, more specifically, natural philosophy (loosely equivalent to modern physics and chemistry). Only in the 19th century did publicly funded scientists emerge who did not depend on paronage or their own resources.

Advance in all disciplines has led to increasing specialization. Many academic subjects became ‘professionalized’ following the industrial revolution. For example, historians of the late nineteenth century began to form professional groups and establish academic journals. This was no doubt facilitated by thriving colonial states that could afford support for an intellectual class seen as both serving and asserting the strength of a nation. Just as science is a process of constant revision and improvement, so history can never have just one true story. One disadvantage of the professional journal is its limited audience – perhaps in the order of 500 people though obviously variable.

Natural philosophy

Read about the history of science and the expression ‘natural philosophy’ will soon appear: it was what participants in the Scientific Revolution called themselves (the full title of Newton’s Principia was, in translation,The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). Natural philosophy is thus associated with the early modern break from Aristotle and the ancients with a new program based on observation and experiment. But in a loose sense natural philosophyit is simply speculation about nature and the Greeks had certainly conceptualized and framed the way it was studied an interpreted, most notably through Aristotle’s four (be)causes that addressed questions of motion, change, and the essential nature of objects.

The Latin phrase philosophia naturalis was synonymous with physica in the curriculum of the medieval university, so those who studied the natural world were natural philosophers. Natural philosophy was therefore the particular way of explaining the world that was used by these scholastics. And here it was Aristotle’s natural philosophy that held sway from the 12th to the 17th centuries.

There were two aspects of Aristotelian science that are often ignored. First is the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge, Aristotle’s episteme (theoretical knowledge or epistemology studied by free men of the city) and techne (how to make or do things: applied knowledge or technology which was often associated with manual labour). This was loosely equivalent in the later Latin to scientia and ars, sciences and the arts. This was the difference between explaining and manipulating nature. Part of Francis Bacon’s 17th century attack on Aristotleian scholasticism as being ‘more interested in verbal arguments than in changing nature for human benefit‘ was undermining this distinction – a distinction still continuing in the ideas of pure and aplied research. And, of course, (medieval) natural philosophy was closely aligned with theology in a way that science is not. Theology was an integral part of Newton’s world view.

It would seem that natural philosophy was not displaced but transformed during the Scientific Revolution. We emphasise the new scientific methodology that was adopted at this time but it was also a rise in the cultural status of mathematicians and practitioners of techne – those with the ability to affect change in the natural world through practical intervention – hence the mechanical philosophy that replaced Aristotelian organic metaphors. Aristotelians had been mistrustful of mathematicians because they were unclear how physical conclusions could be drawn from mathematical models.

The 19th century may be treated as the conclusion of natural philosophy, not just because this was when the word ‘scientist’ becomes accepted but because, from the 1840s on, science became a government-approved professionalized practice based in public research institutions, not just a diversion of the clergy and leasured gentlemen. The old medieval theology of natural philosophy also became unacceptable at this time as methodological naturalism became the norm in science: it was not acceptable for public scientists to publish supernatural explanations of the world. The merging of episteme with techne resulted in productive science that supported economic enterprise, improvements in scientific application indicating improvements in theories.

One interesting development of post-Baconian science is the ascendancy of practicality over theory, the assumption that techne demonstrated episteme or, expressed in modern terms, a more pragmatic or instrumental view of science … that theories are true because they work. There is the further point that though technology is clearly cumulative and progressive the explanations and theories that underpin it are not necessarily so. The prevailing view would hold that there can be no absolute distinction between observation and theory, that reasoning must have context.

Natural history

Natural history was the mostly observational rather than experimental study of plants, animals and minerals, loosely equivalent to modern biology and geology. It was ‘field’ science. It had emerged as a discipline in the 16th century among wealthy dilettantes and it gathered momentum during the Enlightenment as museums, zoos, and botanic gardens were opened for the public and travel around Europe became more commonplace.

During the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries Copernicus had finally replaced the classical Ptolemaic view of the Earth as the centre of the solar system, Galileo had resisted religious dogma, and medicine had become more empirically based. Englishman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his Novum Organum (1620) attacked Aristotelian deductive logic and Aristotle’s preoccuption with final cause and teleology as the basis for scientific procedure, replacing this with a new culture of induction, observation, and experimentation. Supernatural perceptions of the physical world were being discarded as alchemy was transformed into modern chemistry, numerology into mathematics, and astrology was becoming more like modern astronomy. Old ideas from antiquity – of four humours (Galen), the four fundamental earthly elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water ( and four causes (Aristotle) were being replaced by a perception of the world as mechanistic cause and effect.

Natural theology

In the 18th century there religious conflict diminished. Science and geographic exploration were exposing weaknesses in the old religious certainties.

Europeans became aware of sophisticated cultures, like that in China, that were non-Christian; the injustice of religious persecution was being questioned; humans were being perceived more as material beings and less as spiritual ones; the possibility of miracles was being challenged; explanations for natural catastrophes like floods, famines, earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions and disease, were being attributed more to natural causes than supernatural ones, like ‘the wrath of God’; rock formations and fossils appeared to be much older than the age of the earth as declared by biblical teaching, the director of the Paris Museum, Buffon for example, declaring the world to be many thousands of years old while in private believing the age to be more like millions of years and likewise Georges Cuvier’s 1808 Geology of the Paris Region suggested that the Earth’s history spanned millions rather than thousands of years; the idea that each organism was individually distinct as created by God was being challenged by new ideas of organic change and extinction.
Biblical literalism, already scarred by the former Catholic anti-Copernicanism, was facing a further assault that was resulting in a change of approach as biblical accounts were increasingly treated as allegory or folk legend but with an underlying religious significance.

Religion was also adapting to the new science through the field of natural theology (loosely defined as what can be discerned of God through human reason). At the heart of natural theology was the ‘argument from design’ the belief that pattern in nature is the revelation of God’s design, an argument stated clearly by Newton in his famous Principia Mathematica: “this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being”. Science was revealing the wonder of God’s Creation. This was the prevailing view for many scientists of the age including its most illustrious naturalist Carl Linnaeus.

There were many dissenters to the new ideas. English poet William Blake (1757-1827) detested both science and natural theology, believing that the presentation of God as a kind of divine clock maker destroyed the possibility of a spiritually rewarding and loving relationship with God. The great philosophers Hume and Kant both resisted natural theology but arguments about the intricate complexity and perfection of the natural world demonstrating the mind of the Creator have remained to the present day: they convinced the early Darwin and Australia’s most eminent botanist Ferdinand Mueller, so far as we can tell, never countenanced the theory of evolution or doubted his natural theology.


The word ‘science’ is derived from the Latin scientia (knowledge) an abbreviation of the common 17th century expression ‘natural science’, the word nature derived from the Latin – natura: in Greek. it was – phusis from which we get ‘physics’.


‘Science’ is a word that hybridises Latin and Greek roots. Words of hybrid composition like this were abhorrent to Latin scholars and this accounts for their being no scientists before 1833 – they were naturalists, physiologists, or physicians. The use of this term marks the declining influence of classical scholarship in the nineteenth century. We forget how important Latin was as a language of scholars. At Universities of the Middle Ages all students were expected to be fluent in Latin, the language in which they were taught.

Natural philosophy

Natural philosophy is generally associated with the Aristotelian ideal of science as a chain of logical deductions based on incontestable premises. We see a remnant of this in the now redundant hypothetico-deductive method thought to characterise good science. Though Aristotle’s method is now discredited it is clear that he was trying to express in logical form the perspective of inexorable determinacy of the world – which is an integral assumption of all science. The world has order – or logos as Aristotle would have said. Early scientists like Galileo and Robert Hooke described themselves as philosophers.


A student of natural science.

Natural science

By the seventeenth century philosophy had clearly become a rather muddy word and one way out of this was through the term ‘natural science’. Only in the nineteenth century did ‘science’ arrive in genral usage and then only as an abbreviation for ‘natural science’.(W p. 26)

Naturalist & Natural Historian

As another alternative a new word appeared in the late sixteenth century that was applied to people who studied natural phenomena and that was ‘naturalist’ which and another alternative ‘Natural Historian’, derived from Pliny’s encyclopaedic 37-volume Naturalis Historia (78 CE). It was only much later, in about the mid eighteenth century that usage of these expressions became restricted to people studying living and dead organisms.

Origin of ‘science’ Wooton.

Etymology of ‘garden’

Perhaps we can get an insight into what a garden is by looking at the derivation of the word itself, its etymology. Peering into the distant past we find that the word ‘garden’ is of ancient origin, derived from the Old English ghordos, an Indo-European word for ‘enclosure’ from which we obtain the English words ‘yard’ and ‘orchard’. We can see this common origin in other modern European languages, the German garten, French jardin, and Italian giardino. But we can step back further in time to the Old English geard which is derived from Proto-Germanic gardaz, from Proto-Indo-European gÿórdÿos (yard, enclosure, court). From similar origins we have the Old Frisian garda, Old Saxon gard, gardo, Dutch gaard, Old High German gart (obsolete German Gart), Old Norse (Icelandic, Swedish and Danish gård), Gothic (gards). The old Indo-European root is also the source of the Latin hortus, the Ancient Greek (khórtos), Proto-Slavic gord (Old Church Slavonic, Russian (town)), Lithuanian gardas, Albanian gardh (fence).[1][2][3]

From a different linguistic route we have the ancient Persian word for ‘enclosure’ as pairidaeza, (pairi-around, daÿza-wall) translated into the Hebrew as pardes, a word encompassing both hunting parks and walled gardens and which, with the translation of the Bible into Greek, became paradeisos from which are derived the English words ‘park’ and of course ‘paradise’.[3]

From the etymology of the word ‘garden’ it is clear that, historically at least, it is the idea of enclosure that most closely captures what it is to be a garden, which is not surprising when we consider that early gardens would have needed protection from not only rain, wind, the elements and possibly other people but, more importantly, both wild and domesticated animals. Perhaps today the actual structural barrier as, say, a wall, fence or hedge, is of slightly less importance although the idea of a garden as a ‘bounded space’ remains relevant.

From the Saxon there is wyrtzerd (plant yard), wyrttun (plant enclosure, note the tun origin of ‘town’) . Also ortzerd (orchard) and wyrt or wurt as the Anglo-Saxon which derived wort as in Stonewort or liverwort.

Latin garden typology

We get an indication of the many different kinds of early gardens from Latin scholars in the period of the Roman Empire and after. From them we have not only the word hortus, garden (and therefore the word ‘horticulture’), but also: hortulus, little garden (the Domesday Book of 1086 mentions both); hortus conclusus, an enclosed or cloistered garden; hortus siccus, a dry garden (a collection of pressed plants or herbarium); hortus academicus, an educational, demonstration, or botanic garden; hortus amoenus, a beautiful or pleasing garden, pleasure garden; hortus amorem a garden for love; hortus hyemalis, a winter garden; hortus academicus, an educational or university garden; then the Italian Orti agrari – economical garden.

In monastery gardens the gardener was a hortulanus or gardenarius.

While engaging with linguistics we might consider the origins of a few related words: the Latin Middle Age word herba, meaning a plant of any kind, including trees, is a word derived from herbarius (plants) as opposed to bestiaries (animals, and not to be confused with a bestiarus who was a Roman gladiator who fought animals in the arena). Note that a herber was an arbour (shelter, harbour). The word ‘botany’ comes from the ancient Greek word βοτάνη meaning ‘pasture’, ‘grass’, or ‘fodder’, although the Greek word itself is derived from βόσκειν ‘to feed or graze’ before being applied in more recent times first to the study of herbs used in medicine and then today to mean, more or less, ‘plant science’. Perhaps the Middle English word wyrt or wort, deserves a mention, familiar in names like Stonewort or liverwort.

Words for scientific disciplines


– a term coined almost simultaneously by J.B. Lamarck (1801) and Georg R. Treviranus (1802), the latter probably the most influential with his Biologie, oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur fur Naturforscher und Artze. The term ‘biologia’ goes back at least as far as th eWolffian philosopher Michael Christoph Hanov’s Philosophia Naturalis, the third volume of whih, published in 1766, names it as the part of physics that studies living things (Hanov 1766). Lamarck had used the term in an unpublished manuscript in 1800 where he speculated about a discipline called biologie.[2]


– as ‘botanic’ dates back to Medieval Latin botanicus – herb or plant, derived from the Greek Βοτάνη – grass, fodder but used by Dioscorides to mean herbs in general and this is the probable source of the Latin term[1]

The word biology is formed by combining the Greek βίος (bios), meaning “life”, and the suffix ‘-logy’, meaning “science of”, “knowledge of”, “study of”, “about of”, based on the Greek verb λέγειν, ‘legein’ “to select”, “to gather” (cf. the noun λόγος, ‘logos’ “word”). The term biology in its modern sense appears to have been introduced independently by Thomas Beddoes (in 1799),[1] Karl Friedrich Burdach (in 1800), Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (Biologie oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur, 1802) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (Hydrogéologie, 1802).[2][3] The word itself appears in the title of Volume 3 of Michael Christoph Hanow’s Philosophiae naturalis sive physicae dogmaticae: Geologia, biologia, phytologia generalis et dendrologia, published in 1766.

Before biology, there were several terms used for the study of animals and plants. Natural history referred to the descriptive aspects of biology, though it also included mineralogy and other non-biological fields; from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the unifying framework of natural history was the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being. Natural philosophy and natural theology encompassed the conceptual and metaphysical basis of plant and animal life, dealing with problems of why organisms exist and behave the way they do, though these subjects also included what is now geology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Physiology and (botanical) pharmacology were the province of medicine. Botany, zoology, and (in the case of fossils) geology replaced natural history and natural philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries before biology was widely adopted.[4][5] To this day, “botany” and “zoology” are widely used, although they have been joined by other sub-disciplines of biology.


– from the Latin natura refering to ‘essential qualities or innate disposition’ which is a Latin translation of the Greek word physis (φύσις) which Aristotle related to the intrinsic characteristics of plants, animals, and other objects. Our use of ‘nature’ to mean the biological word or the world as a whole is a later development. The word φύσις was first used by the pre-Socratic philosophers.


– from the Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, or ‘love of wisdom’ and probably coined by Pythagoras. Originally referring to all knowledge but later, as today, to non-scientific speculation.


– from the Ancient Greek φυσική (ἐπιστήμη) phusikḗ (epistḗmē) ‘knowledge of nature’, from φύσις phúsis ‘nature’

Late 20th century

The maturation of molecular biology and computers from the mid 20th century has spawned new disciplines and terms: bioinformatics (1970), genomics (1986), proteomics (1994).

On the environmental side are: sustainability (1980s), ecosystem services (c. 2006).

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