Ecology & Economy: A Look at Language

When I was eight years old, I asked my parents “where did words come from?”. They told me to ‘ask Jeeves’. Fifteen years later, I stood at a till waiting to pay for my ‘eco-friendly three-trees-promise’ toilet roll when the helpful cashier suggested that I “save money by getting the more economical one”. I impulsively agreed and kicked myself on the walk home through retrospective frustration that I had favoured the economical over the ecological. Suddenly I found myself asking the same question; where did words come from, and how did these two words look and sound so similar but refer to two very different things?

The world of linguistics is an endless black hole of theories, hypothesis’ and drama. The evolution of language can be traced throughout history, from symbolic art of ancient civilisations to modern day expressions of sounds and symbols. Language is thought to be a part of our human genetic, as babies grow and evolve their language to communicate with the world around them from the moment they are born. Their language transforms from simple expressions of sad and happy, to noises and actions that are morphed into the language of the culture surrounding them. Language is heavily influenced by its surrounding culture. The exact translation of any language into ones own is never as smooth or simple as the original language. To illustrate this I look to my family language of Gujarati and it’s culture. In Gujarati, my grandparents are not my grandparents. Instead, they are my daada (fathers father), my daadi (fathers mother), my naana (mothers father), and naani (mothers mother). The extended family holds great a priority in Gujarati culture, and no member of the family remains anonymous or grouped under a generic collective noun.

If certain actions or feelings are never experienced in a culture, why would they need specific words? The famous example of Eskimo vocabulary, by the early twentieth century linguist Benjamin Le Whorf, claims that eskimos have multiple words for, what we just call, ‘snow’. He argued that because it is a bigger part of their lives, they’d have words for specific types of snow. This argument is the foundation of the ‘Sapir – Whorf’ hypothesis, which in (very) short proclaims that language comes before thought and that our use of language dictates how we perceive the world. It wasn’t long until this hypothesis and its large following were dismissed by the Noam Chomsky, the ‘father of modern day linguistics’, who argued that all languages share grammatical and structural similarities and so thought, obviously, comes before language. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum discredited the hypothesis further in a piece titled ‘The Great Eskimo Snow Hoax’ (1991), which extorted that “Eskimos aren’t really that likely to be interested in snow. Snow in the traditional Eskimo hunter’s life must be a kind of constantly assumed background, like sand on the beach. And even beach bums have only one word for sand.” Modern day anthropologist Igor Krupnik claimed in 2010 that Pullan’s piece was in fact, a hoax. Like I said, linguistics is an endless black hole of theories, hypothesis’ and drama.

The origin of language itself is an endless quest, so I turned my focus onto the second question; how is it that the word ‘ecology’ and the word ‘economy’ look and sound so similar, but mean such contrasting things? The word ‘eco’ comes from the Ancient Greek word ‘oikos’, meaning house. This got the wheels in my brain turning. ‘Nomia’ is the Ancient Greek word for management, which is seen in words used today like taxonomy, astronomy, and autonomy, all words related to systematic structures. ‘Logia’ is the Ancient Greek suffix that means the study of a specific subject, and we see it today in words like biology, astrology and geology, all words that relate to specific fields of study. Literally speaking, then, ecology translates to house-studies, whereas economy translates to house-management. Curious.

The natural world has existed long before the concept of finance has. Surprisingly though, the word ‘ecology’ is a new term that was first used by Ernst Haeckel, a 19th century German zoologist. The first (printed) use of the word ‘ecosystem’ wasn’t until 1935 by the English botanist Arthur Tansley! It seems that the need for the topic of ‘eco’ arrived quite late into our thought and is still a working concept. The environment must have been an ‘assumed background’, like what Pullam said, whether it was a hoax or not, and we weren’t really that interested in it until we saw it acting differently.

The first recorded use of the word economy takes us back to somewhere around 401 BC, in a work titled ‘Oeconomicus’ (‘the economist’) by the Ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon. Xenophon presented this work in the classic Greek philosophy style of dialogue between the Greek scholars Socrates and Critobulus, discussing household management and agriculture. Within the text Socrates says to Critobulus, “and this word ‘house’, what are we to understand by it? is it the domicile merely? or are we to include all a man’s possessions outside the actual dwelling place?”. Critobulus responds with “everything a man has got”. The use of economics, or house management, in this context is taken literally to mean the house and possessions of a person, which may well be how it came to mean the financial system and structure of what it is today.

We were speaking about possessions and material wealth long before we were speaking about the environment. In todays world where both terms exist together, can they exist together with a balance and benefit each other. The regions that are considered the most ecologically wealthy, seem to also be considered economically unbalanced, and vice versa. Is it possible for us to use the culture that has influenced the language of these words to, not distort their meanings at all but, encourage both the ecological and economical to work together and bridge the contrasting gap between them? After all, they are both, literally, our house! And maybe while we do that, we might stumble onto more clues to the mysterious question, ‘where did words come from?!’.