Thursday, October 15, 2009

From Climate Change to Language Change

The word green is getting a lot of exercise these days. Sure, it's been used for a long time to indicate all sorts of things —enviousness, underripeness, inexperience, and of course the reflection of light at around the 510 nanometer range.

But these days, green has been commandeered by environmentalists.

Look around and you'll see green everything. Green cleaning products, green building materials, green energy, green cars (of all colors), and other types of green technologies are all a part of what is now called green living.

It's inescapable. Environmentalism has had as much impact on our language as we've had on our planet, both for good and ill.

For the last three years, the New Oxford American Dictionary has chosen its Word of the Year from the language of environmentalism. Their WotY, starting in 2006, were carbon neutral, locavore, and hypermiling, all words related to saving the environment.

The prefixes eco- and bio-, too, have found their way into new words in ways not even considered three decades ago. We now have ecotourism, biofuels, ecoterrorism, bioethics, and ecohacking to describe acts geared toward minimizing humans' negative impact on the environment. In some cases, old words are finding new life in the global conversation about the environment. For example, biomass, biodiversity, and ecosystem were once considered scientific jargon, spoken primarily by specialists. Today, no one would think twice about these terms appearing in, say, a presidential address.

The language of climate change itself has been changing, too. Do you remember the greenhouse effect? That '80s buzzword predicting doom and gloom for our planet? The greenhouse effect is still there, but you don't hear about it all that much anymore. Why? Because it only tells you a cause; it doesn't reveal the effect that will lead to action. (Plus, people like me were just tired of hearing it all the time.) The greenhouse effect gave rise to global warming, which, although it didn't sound like such a bad idea in the middle of January, does reveal a frightening effect.

But the changes in our ecosystem aren't limited to rising temperatures. Short- and long-term weather patterns have been changing all over the world, so global warming has been replaced by climate change to describe our impact on the planet.

The rate of language change seems to be keeping pace with the rate of technological change — which makes sense when you think about it. As new technologies are created and scientific mysteries are solved, we need new words to describe what they are, what they do, and how they affect us. (Could this lead linguists to a Moore's Law of language? Or is there already one?)

But as scary as global climate change is, the fun part, as a logophile, is ruminating on the future of enviro-speak. How will we be talking about environmental issues ten, twenty years from now? Will we be reading glogs, "green blogs"? How will we describe breakthroughs in the recycling and repurposing of our most harmful pollutants? As new technologies develop, what words or affixes will we use to describe machines or processes that go beyond carbon neutrality to actually result in a net gain for the environment? Will the phrase global climate change further evolve into a new term? And will that term be broader or more specific?

What do you think?