Linguistic Ecology

The glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

Ecology of Language: Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Vol. 9, ed. by Angela Creese, Peter Martin, and Nancy H. Hornberger (Springer, 2010),
Courtesy of Amazon 

Linguistic ecology is the study of languages in relation to one another and to various social factors. Also known as language ecology or ecolinguistics.

This branch of linguistics was pioneered by Professor Einar Haugen in his book The Ecology of Language (Stanford University Press, 1972). Haugen defined language ecology as "the study of interactions between any given language and its environment."

Examples and Observations

  • "The term 'language ecology,' like 'language family,' is a metaphor derived from the study of living beings. The view that one can study languages as one studies the interrelationship of organisms with and within their environments presupposes a number of subsidiary metaphors and assumptions, most notably that languages can be regarded as entities, that they can be located in time and space and that the ecology of languages is at least in part different from that of their speakers. . . .
    "The ecological metaphor in my view is action oriented. It shifts the attention from linguists being players of academic language games to becoming shop stewards for linguistic diversity, and to addressing moral, economic and other 'non-linguistic' issues."
    (Peter Mühlhäusler, Linguistic Ecology: Language Change and Linguistic Imperialism in the Pacific Region. Routledge, 1996)
  • "Language is not an object that can be considered in isolation, and communication does not simply occur by means of sequences of sounds. . . . Language . . . is a social practice within social life, one practice among others, inseparable from its environment. . . .
    "The basic idea is thus that the practices which constitute languages, on the one hand, and their environment, on the other, form an ecolinguistic system, in which languages multiply, interbreed, vary, influence each other mutually, compete or converge. This system is in interrelation with the environment. At every moment language is subject to external stimuli to which it adapts. Regulation, which I will define as the reaction to an external stimulus by an internal change which tends to neutralize its effects, is thus a response to the environment. This response is first and foremost the mere addition of individual responses—variants that, over time, lead to the selection of certain forms, certain characteristics. In other words, there is a selective action of the environment on the evolution of language . . .."
    (Louis Jean Calvet, Towards an Ecology of World Languages, translated by Andrew Brown. Polity Press, 2006)
  • "The biological analogy may be the most pertinent—'linguistic ecology' is now a recognized field of study, not just a figure of speech. What dialects are to languages, subspecies are to species. Chainsaws and invaders menace them indiscriminately. . . .
    "What the survival of threatened languages means, perhaps, is the endurance of dozens, hundreds, thousands of subtly different notions of truth. With our astonishing powers of technology, it's easy for us in the West to believe we have all the answers. Perhaps we do--to the questions, we have asked. But what if some questions elude our capacity to ask? What if certain ideas cannot be fully articulated in our words? 'There are amazing things about Aboriginal languages,' Michael Christie told me when I visited his office at Northern Territory University in Darwin. 'Their concepts of time and agency, for example. They go right against our ideology of linear time—past, present, and future. I reckon they'd completely revolutionize Western philosophy, if only we knew more about them.'"
    (Mark Abley, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. Houghton Mifflin, 2003)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Ecology." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Linguistic Ecology. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Ecology." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).