Ecolinguistics is a recent branch of linguistics. Developed in the 1990s, it attempts to establish a link between the language used by a community and the (natural and cultural) ecosystem within which said community lives and thrives.
The various aspects of ecolinguistics differ greatly from one another, but all possess their own cultural significance and help to shed a light on the changes human communities are undergoing in terms of culture and the environment.
Critically analysing language from an ecological perspective
Ecolinguistics attempts to critically analyse the written and spoken language of a community and to relate it to the environment. This analysis can either be conducted on a global or local scale (by analysing the different words used in several local dialects to name the same plant species).
In the case of the former, attention is focused on identifying the ideologies that shape our relationship with our environment within certain socio-political contexts.
‘Unmasking’ capitalism’s exploitative relationship with the world’s ecosystem – leading citizens to engage in unbridled consumerism – has been one of the main focuses of ecolinguistics in recent years.
What might be ‘good’ for consumerism (i.e., the continuous production and consumption of goods) can actually be very ‘bad’ for the environment. This phenomenon is often concealed in more or less subtle ways by political and commercial communication around the globe. The goal of ecolinguistics is to teach people to understand just how much, and how deeply, ideologies affect our relationship with our environment.
The relationship between humans and the world according to ecolinguistics
Another fundamental focus of ecolinguistics is ‘linguistic ecology’, or rather, protecting languages that have fallen into disuse and which once possessed a broad vocabulary to name elements of an environmental ecosystem. From this perspective, it’s easy to understand how biodiversity and linguistic diversity are closely related and how protecting one protects the other.
Linguistic ecology attempts to analyse and understand the mechanisms that lead to the extinction of ancient languages and tries to put a stop to this phenomenon, recovering and protecting fragments of languages that have almost disappeared but bear knowledge that could soon be lost forever.
Linguistic ecology uses the gnoseological model of the ecosystem to represent (and to better understand) the relationship between languages and human communities. Linguistic ecology studies the various levels on which a language develops, in addition to the dialects used by different groups of speakers and the rules that govern them, while also studying the cultural differences that have shaped different languages around the world.
It’s important to have a good understanding of these differences when translating and/or localising a text. Different languages have different perspectives, sensitivities, and values, and joining the dots between profoundly diverse linguistic structures is the eternal challenge of the translator.