Land & Nature / WORDS FROM THE WILD BY ME & ORLA
A child’s language is a patchwork quilt of their world – each square representative of an idea or object suddenly understood.
I say this with something similar to authority, having worked for a decade in paediatric Speech and Language therapy for the NHS. In a multi-cultural inner city environment, I met children fluent in four different languages, and children who know only the strange, Americanised staccato gleaned from their iPad. And, of course, everything in between: each child individual, each patchwork vocabulary a unique reflection of their world.
Then along came Orla, to make it all more personal and real: my daughter, a perfect mimic, our idiolects intermingling until I can’t really recall if ‘ahh’ is a real word for ‘cuddle’ or not.
Her language surprised me. At one, she knew all of the sounds for the farm animals in her books, but when confronted with the real thing, would fall silent and confused. Sheep and cows were not these stomping, smelly beasts; they were the neat, sanitised pictures on the page.
We were meeting a lot of farm animals around that time. Our little family was in the process of moving – swapping our red-brick city terrace for a crumbly old cottage in the Yorkshire hills. It was a move prompted by a lot of things, not least the sense of displacement I’d had since Orla was born; this tiny person, by nature so animal and free, that our concrete and streetlights seemed increasingly like a dated and gated enclosure at the zoo. Through her language I saw the world from her angle, and our move seemed like a chance to broaden her horizons, both mentally and literally.
Years back at University I read linguistics, learned that language is a living, breathing thing. Each generation makes their own alterations – words are born, they evolve, age and decay. To try to prevent this is as futile as pushing back the tide.
How ironic then, that even as we packed for our rural move, the words in decline were the parlance of nature: pasture, heather. lark, mistletoe and nectar. These, and more, from the Oxford Junior Dictionary – especially for children aged 7-11 – deemed archaic and unnecessary by the highest authority on English.
There was outrage from all corners – a wealth of writers, artists and columnists spoke out in horror. Many recalled in sadness all their own happy childhood associations with these words – catkins and conkers and cowslips in summer, autumn adventures and nostalgic winter wonderment. Accepting the OJD’s decision to remove these terms was to accept that our children now live in a very different world – a world where most spend less time outdoors, and more time hooked up to electric entertainment instead. However great the benefits of IT, it so far still struggles to match the sheer sensory pleasure of a waist-high meadow under the August summer sun.
Perhaps this is the biggest clue to the true cause of the wild words’ decline – for many of us, this was a world loved, and then left at childhood’s door. Alongside the Sindy dolls and the Lego, we put away the wild words, the pastures and larks, and moved on to brighter & shinier pursuits. Now parents ourselves, we go crawling into attics in search of our old playthings, only to find that somebody threw them away for rubbish years ago – and who can blame them? Blackberry is a mobile phone now, at best an untrusted berry on a roadside bush.
So it is a world that is a little less wild these days, a little less feral. Instead of the adder and otter, we stay home with broadband and blog, use our smartphones for voicemail and chatroom. All necessary and useful, in their own right, for children equipped for their modern world.
In my mind’s eye I see those blankets: the kaleidoscopic pattern of the bilingual, the binary tones of the new e-kids; my own daughter’s messy, chaotic and colourful.
TOAST Charali Bedspread – Made in India from layers of recycled sari fabric quilted together with running kantha stitch.
The world has changed, but the wild is still out there, roughly where we left it as kids. When we can just find a way to balance the two, our children’s blankets will be brighter, heavier and more brilliant than ever. Amongst the black and the silver & chrome, a flash of kingfisher blue; a square of heather pink.
Words by Me & Orla.
Photography by James Melia.