There Is a Language of Sustainability... But Is it English?

01/09/2016 07:42 am ET | Updated Jan 09, 2016
  • Ed Gillespie Author, futurist, campaigner, joker, slow traveller, urban cyclist, balcony gardener, and chef who subverts dominant paradigms through FUN
Getty Images

"The limits of my language, means the limits of my world" said philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, our perceptions of the world are therefore constrained by the words we use. In the context of our challenges around sustainability this is critical, and I am left wondering whether english is perhaps failing us in this respect.

Even the word 'sustainability' itself is hardly red-hot and inspirationally sexy. You wouldn't want your date to describe you as 'sustainable' or 'efficient' for example. And we're in danger of over-using and mis-using this term to the point of meaninglessness as cartoonist XKCD points out here. Maybe other languages provide more elegant terms to describe our relationships with the world, each other and our 'stuff'?

Take 'hiraeth' for example - a unique Welsh word with links in meaning to Portugese 'Saudade' (listen to this track by the late great Cesaria Evora for a moving musical sense of the word), that conveys a heady mix of yearning, longing, nostalgia, wistfulness and homesickness, tinged with a sadness for a Wales of the past. It's a beautiful encapsulation of a certain strain of sustainability that seeks an elegant simplicity, often rooted in historical experience, to tackling our challenges.

Even more powerful in a modern progressive sense is the notion of 'bodlon'. A direct attempt at translation would be 'happy' or 'satisfied' but the interpretive meaning is much more subtle. It is as much about a sense of 'enough' or 'contentment' in being pleased and thankful for what you have as it is about being simply 'cheery'.

This connects with the Swedish idea of 'lagom'. Perhaps mis-translated as 'enough', 'sufficient' or 'adequate' lagom means so much more than that. Words like 'moderation' and 'average' have distinctly unsizzling negative connotations, whereas lagom suggests positively 'appropriate', and as my Swedish colleagues in our Stockholm office would say "Lagom är bäst" - or 'enough is as good as a feast'.

It's a lovely way of aspiring to 'just enough', or to each their need, something I was aiming for in my idea of 'frucool' (admittedly a pretty ugly neologism) - a conflation of 'frugal' and 'cool' (which was memorably described in a comment on one of my Guardian blogs as the kind of word only a 'Twunt' would come up with!). Still, it's now my Twitter moniker (@frucool) and I'm sort of stuck with it!

Whilst English is without question a fantastically diverse, kleptomaniac (we do like nicking words don't we?) and effective language, I do wonder that it's very ability to take us into deeply detailed and jargonistic territory potentially further alienates us from some of the simple pleasures and deep connections in life that words like hiraeth, bodlon and lagom far more eloquently encapsulate.

Do you know any other brilliant words from other languages that offer a specific perspective, world view or insight in the context of sustainability in either a beautiful way or that are expressed with breath-taking brevity?

Please tweet suggestions to @futerra or @frucool.