On language and sustainability: YCP speaker urges audience to ‘become enchanted and reacquainted with nature again’

By Anna-Grace Rowland

Dr. Richard A. Russo, from Frostburg State University, visited York College on Wednesday night as one of the headliners of this year’s Campus Sustainability Awareness Campaign.

The chair of Frostburg’s Department of Geography gave a speech titled, “The Words That Sustain Us ­– GeoHumanities and Sustainability,” which focused on the connections between sustainability and language diversity.

This was a free event open to the public in person in the Weinstock Lecture Hall, Willman Business Center and via Zoom.

Russo’s lecture had four key ideas in which he gave specific examples from different authors and real stories from groups of people whose languages might be in danger of becoming extinct.

Russo’s first point is that language is at the center of human-environment interactions. As a geographer, Russo pointed out that the geographical perspective is so diverse and the etymology, or the origin, of the word “geographical” means “writing about the earth.” Russo asked the question, “How does language connect us to the environment?” He then said that culture is embedded in language and thus language frames the way we see the world around us, and that language is embodied, as it requires us to “inhale and exhale the atmosphere around us; we use our bodies to communicate.”

Russo then transitioned into sustainability and the protection of linguistic diversity, the heart of his speech. He asked the question, “Can languages lose their vocabulary of the environment?” Russo cited a book called “Weatherland” by Alexandra Harris, which captures the essence of climate change from the perspective that climate change itself has a key role in shaping the character of people. Russo showed examples of words from different dialects of languages around the world that would only make sense in the context of that language. This concept is what Russo called the lexicon of the habitat of English.

Russo’s next point focused on sustainability and lexical precision, where he emphasized that words matter. Russo said earlier in his speech that language forces us to pay attention to some things, and the deletion of some words and the addition of others is important because technology is making things become invisible. He said that “in 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed some entries and included new ones” such as acorn, ash and buttercup. Dandelion, fern, heron, mistletoe, nectar, and willow were some of the words deleted. Included in the new version were the words attachment, blog, bullet-point, cut-and-paste-, and voicemail.

Russo asked, “How can we sustain languages that are becoming extinct?” The answer, he said, is by recording oral history from the people left who speak the language. His final point was emphasizing the importance of “grounded stories.” His advice to the audience was “to become enchanted and reacquainted with nature again.”

Russo is chair of Frostburg’s Department of Geography and has earned degrees from the University of Mary Washington, Syracuse University, and a doctorate from the University of Maryland.

Russo said that as a child he was inspired by the creek behind his house. He added that his love for learning is the driving force behind his passion for geography and language studies.

Anna-Grace Rowland is a senior majoring in integrated marketing.

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