The Perse School

Zwer, smeuse and haze-fire – a lecture on our lost language of landscape by Dr Robert Macfarlane

28 Oct 2015

Of all our 400th anniversary lectures, this was the one most likely to elicit a question from those perusing the programme – usually ‘What is a zwer?’ It had a vaguely Germanic ring to it, they felt, or perhaps denoted a fleet-footed change of course. In fact, we learnt from Macfarlane, ‘zwer’ hails from Exmoor, where it is an onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”.

And so the celebrated author lifted the audience up into a world of “rich, diverse and precise” terms that crystallise specific features of place into one or two words. From the ‘rionnach maoim’ (Gaelic for the shadows cast by cumulus clouds moving over moorland on a sunny, windy day) to ‘sun-scald’ (the eye-scorching gleam of sunshine off open water, English regional), he began putting names to the, sometimes familiar, sometimes forgotten, faces of the natural world. More than once I experienced a sudden and fond recognition of phenomena I had not observed for years.

The author has recently published Landmarks, a work he describes as a ‘word-hoard’. Structured around nine glossaries, it is a lexis of landscape drawn from all corners of England, Scotland and Wales. A celebration of the precise and often poetic terms that can unlock a deeper appreciation of the natural world, it also serves as a warning for a vocabulary that may soon vanish, having “slipped from our mouths and through our fingers”.

What might we be giving up, apart from an abundance of winning words for Scrabble? Macfarlane pointed to the ‘smeuse’, the hole in the base of a hedge left by the repeated passage of a small animal. Smeuses are common, and commonly overlooked. By naming them, he argued, we notice them. Once a feature’s name is known, we begin to spy it, and as a result may feel a greater appreciation of and a closer connection to the nature around us. In short, we can read our landscape.

Macfarlane was one of 28 authors who drew attention to the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s decision in 2007 to cut many words associated with nature, among them acorn, adder, beech, ash and blackberry. As the author writes in Landmarks it was a case of “the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual”;  analogue, attachment, block-graph, blog and, of course, Blackberry, were all in. It is easy to jump to conclusions that the Dictionary is setting a pro-tech/anti-nature agenda, but Macfarlane was quick to remind the audience that dictionaries record language as it is used: they are descriptive rather than prescriptive. OUP’s decision can be seen as a logical reaction to children’s experience today.

There is plenty to concern us about this experience. To illustrate the point, Macfarlane drew on a recent National Childhood Report which found that between 1970 and 2010, the proportion of children playing regularly in ‘wild’ places (woods, rivers, fields, moors, heaths) fell from one in two to one in ten. Children are now three times more likely to be able to identify a Dalek than a magpie. We may tut in disbelief, but how many of us would spot ammil (the lacquer of ice that films grasses and leaves when a freeze follows a thaw) this winter?

Macfarlane urged us not to set nature and technology in opposition, but rather to see the value of being able to draw on the compressed, precise terms for each. The experience of each can be life-enriching.

Macfarlane invited us to share and indeed invent our own terms. We would not be the first – from his two-year-old son naming “excitingly claggy and shoe-sticking mud”‘mudpoo’ to Hopkins coining ‘wolfsnow’ for a dangerous sea blizzard, language evolves through its users and usage. His talk was a timely call to “re-wild our voices, imagination and visions”.

Many thanks to Dr Macfarlane for a beautiful, inspiring and moving lecture. For details of upcoming 400th anniversary community lectures please see our 400th anniversary events. Our lecture series is delivered with the support of the Cambridge News.


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