International Journal of
and Public Health
The Elements of Eco-Connection: A Cross-Cultural
School of Psychology, University of East London, London E15 4LZ, UK; email@example.com
Received: 9 November 2019; Accepted: 13 December 2019; Published: 14 December 2019
The environment is widely recognised to be in peril, with clear signs of a climate crisis.
This situation has many dimensions and factors, but key among them are the often-destructive ways in
which humans interact with the natural world. Numerous cultures—particularly more industrialised
and/or Western ones—have developed predatory and disconnected modes of interaction. In such
modes, nature tends to be constructed as a resource to be exploited (rather than, say, a commonwealth
to be protected). However, many people—especially, but not only, in less ‘developed’ nations—have
cultivated less destructive modes of relationship. These bonds may be broadly encompassed under
the rubric of ‘eco-connection’. In the interests of exploring these latter modes, an enquiry was
conducted into adaptive forms of engagement with nature across the world’s cultures. The enquiry
focused on untranslatable words, i.e., which lack an exact translation in another language (in this case,
English). Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey literature, together with additional
data collection, over 150 relevant terms were located. An adapted form of grounded theory identiﬁed
three main dimensions of eco-connection: sacrality, bonding, and appreciation. Such analyses have
the potential to promote greater wellbeing literacy with respect to our relationship with nature, both
within academia and beyond in the wider culture. This includes enriching the nomological network
in psychology, and more broadly building a nature-related vocabulary that is more sustainable and
harmonious. In doing so, there may also be beneﬁts to public health, in that developing such literacy
could possibly inﬂuence people’s engagement with nature itself, leading to more adaptive forms
Keywords: eco-connection; nature; language; literacy; cross-cultural
The global environment is increasingly recognised to be in peril, with alarming statistics on
the state of the climate emerging almost daily. To give one prominent example, one of the latest
reports by the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [
] charts how glaciers
and ice sheets worldwide are already melting rapidly, and argues that the world may only have
until 2030 to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees (widely recognised as the threshold past which
runaway climate change is likely to occur). Such developments have great existential signiﬁcance for
human beings. As such, the crisis—and our response to it—has a potent psychological dimension, as
reﬂected in emergent concepts such as eco-anxiety [
]. As humans wrestle with this increasingly urgent
predicament, various ways of appraising and addressing the situation can be found worldwide, from
scientiﬁc analyses and technological ﬁxes to moral arguments and public activism. For instance, aligning
with the latter, the burgeoning Extinction Rebellion movement focuses on the role of government
inaction in fomenting this state of aﬀairs, and aims to compel their action through acts of civil
Among these varied approaches, a report for the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change
argues that one important strategy will be to address how we think about our relationship to nature,
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120; doi:10.3390/ijerph16245120 www.mdpi.com/journal/ijerph
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 2 of 16
psychologically and culturally [
]. Over recent centuries, industrialisation has seen the rise to global
prominence and dominance of a mode of relationship that is fundamentally extractive and predatory.
In this, nature is constructed as a resource to be exploited (rather than a commonwealth to be protected,
for example). This mode of relationship is arguably a key reason why humans have damaged the
environment to such an extent that our own survival is threatened, since this way of relating both
encourages and justiﬁes such behaviour. Thus, if we are to ﬁnd more sustainable and adaptive ways of
living on this planet, we will need to develop more harmonious and respectful modes of relationship.
Crucially, such modes have been cultivated historically, and indeed can still be found, particularly in
less-industrialised cultures, but also in industrialised ones (albeit generally in non-hegemonic ways).
In that sense, studying and engaging with these modes has the potential to enhance our ‘wellbeing
] with respect to our relationship with nature. This includes helping people ﬁnd new ways
to conceptualise, articulate, rationalise and discuss this relationship. Wellbeing literacy can be broadly
deﬁned as “the vocabulary, knowledge and skills that may be intentionally used to maintain or improve
the wellbeing of oneself or others” [
]. In that respect, the literacy central to the current paper is
one where the ‘others’ in that deﬁnition is not restricted to humans, or even sentient beings, but the
environment as a whole. Moreover, this literacy in turn may potentially have beneﬁcial public health
outcomes by improving the relationship itself.
As such, this paper explores more adaptive and sustainable modes of relationship between humans
and the environment, modes which are referred to collectively here under the overarching rubric of
‘eco-connection’. The paper explores these through the innovative device of studying ‘untranslatable’
words. By analysing such words, three main themes pertaining to eco-connection were identiﬁed,
each with three sub-themes: sacrality (including animism, polytheism and pan(en)theism); bonding
(including intertwining, rootedness and longing); and appreciation (including savouring, sensitivity
and aesthetics). These themes shall be introduced and explained in depth below. Before that, the paper
will elucidate the nature and signiﬁcance of untranslatable words and outline the method deployed to
identify and analyse these. First though, we begin by examining further the idea that recent centuries
have been dominated by destructive modes of relationship between humans and nature.
1.1. Dominion and Disconnection
There are many possible ways for humans to be in relationship with the natural world, as we shall
see below. However, over recent centuries, one particular mode of relationship has become dominant
]. This is one characterised by a disconnected, extractive, predatory ethos, where nature
is constructed as a resource to be exploited. Before delving into the origins and nature of this mode, a
few preparatory remarks are in order.
First, this mode tends to be associated with industrialised nations, and often with Western ones
in particular. However, given the complex dynamics of globalisation and cultural change, one can
see signs of this mode worldwide, for instance in non-Western industrialised nations. Thus, neither
this mode, nor industrialisation, can be characterised as exclusively ‘Western’ phenomena. Second,
even if this mode is hegemonic in Western and/or industrialised nations, other modes can still be
found within these places (as ‘subcultures’ or subaltern perspectives). Indeed, movements such as
Extinction Rebellion are examples of environmental counter-perspectives that have emerged in the
]. As such, although some scholars have found value in assigning overarching characteristics
to large-scale regions—for instance, Bas
] identiﬁes three ‘hyper-clusters’ of cultures, which
focus respectively on honour (mainly African, Islamic, and Christian orthodox cultures), achievement
(mainly Asian and Western), and joy (mainly Latin American and Caribbean)—the current study
prefers to avoid such broad-brush cultural generalisations where possible. Indeed, many of the words
included in the analysis hail from languages of Western and/or industrialised nations. Furthermore,
it is precisely this heterogeneity and dynamism within cultures that provides some hope that this
dominant mode of relationship can be altered for the better. Finally, it should be emphasised that
the destruction of the environment is over-determined, and cannot be traced to single causal factors
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 3 of 16
such as industrialisation or disconnection. For instance, another important factor is over-population,
whose damaging eﬀects are observed even in pre-industrial societies, such as Easter Island [
this study does not make any claims for a simple inverse relationship between eco-connection and
industrialisation. It is possible that such a relationship does indeed obtain, but this would be an
empirical question for future research, and is beyond the scope of this paper to answer.
With all that said, let’s consider this predatory mode of relationship itself. It is also beyond the
scope here to exhaustively consider its origins and complexity. However, we can make some relevant
points to illustrate the general thesis here. In terms of its roots, many factors arguably contributed
to its emergence and dominance. One key inﬂuence though is the perspective expressed in the Old
Testament (in Genesis 1:26). This is rendered in English (King James Version) as, “And God said, let us
make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the ﬁsh of the sea, and
over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that
creepeth upon the earth.” Much has been made of this passage by scholars, particularly in relation
to the key word dominion, a translation of the Hebrew word radah. Some argue that in Hebrew,
while radah can indeed convey a sense of ‘ruling over’, it can also be interpreted beneﬁcently, as a just
king may rule wisely over his kingdom [
]. From this latter perspective, the signiﬁcance with which
humans are endowed by God—as alluded to in the passage—confers a duty of care and responsibility
towards nature. In that respect, certain movements within Judaism and Christianity have embraced
this kind of ‘stewardship’ .
Indeed, such stewardship is a mode of eco-connection which has been an important element
of many cultures worldwide, including in Western and/or industrialised nations (even if it has not
been hegemonic or dominant in such places). This inﬂuence is reﬂected in, and captured by, a
signiﬁcant body of recent literature. For example, showing the presence of stewardship principles
in a Western context, Raymond and colleagues interviewed UK farmers, and identiﬁed four types
of stewardship framings [
]: environmental (farmers conserving or restoring wildlife); primary
production (taking care of primary production assets); holistic (farmers as conservationists, primary
producers, and managers of landscape values); and instrumental (focusing on ﬁnancial beneﬁts linked
to compliance with agri-environmental schemes). Similarly, a qualitative systematic review by Enqvist
et al. uncovered four distinct meanings of stewardship in the literature [
]: ethic, motivation, action
and outcome. Mathevet, Bousquet, and Raymond also articulated four main types of stewardship [
reformist, adaptive, sustainability and transformative. These are diﬀerentiated according to: the role of
science; the exploration and integration of the plurality of values; and the capacity to modify values,
rules and decision-making system. Evidently then, modes of eco-connection like stewardship can be
found both historically and presently, including in Western and/or industrialised contexts.
Historically however, such beneﬁcent perspectives have often been outweighed or overshadowed
by less generous interpretations of radah and dominion. These instead focus more on humankind
standing apart from nature (rather than being ‘of it’), subjugating it. It is of course a complex picture,
given the many traditions and schools of thought in religions such as Judaism and Christianity,
and moreover their evolution over time. For instance, Lea argues that, inﬂuenced by Judaic and
Hellenic traditions, early Christianity upheld a non-exploitative attitude to nature, driven partly by the
anti-materialist prescriptions of these inﬂuences [
]. However, in the wake of the Renaissance and
the Reformation, the dynamic began to shift towards a more extractive relationship. These eras saw
the emergence and then dominance of new forms of religious morality, emphasising concerns such as
industriousness, instrumental engagement with the material world, and pursuit of personal prosperity
and property. Moreover, so central was the Church to the cultural and intellectual climate of Europe
at the time, these ideals soon became hegemonic. For instance, Max Weber argued inﬂuentially that
the ideas, ethics, and practices of Protestantism were key factors in the emergence of capitalism in
the West [
]. Relatedly, they helped shaped the burgeoning scientiﬁc revolution, which was likewise
driven by a systematic focus on the material world [
]. As with capitalism, this was an engagement
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 4 of 16
which tended to view nature as a resourced to be probed, manipulated, or harnessed to the beneﬁt
These inﬂuences have persisted in the West (and elsewhere), even as the hold of religious
traditions themselves has waned. To give some context, in the most recent UK census, 59.3% of
the population identiﬁed as Christian, a sharp decline from 71.7% in 2001 [
]. Moreover, of those
aﬃliated to the Church, Collings-Mayo and colleagues suggest many see this identiﬁcation more as a
fading ‘inherited cultural memory’ than an ‘active faith’ [
]. However, as scholars such as Jordan
Peterson have argued, such ‘cultural memory’ is still very important in shaping who people are [
Even if many in the West (and beyond) no longer have an active religious faith, our common mental
frameworks—including ideologies, metaphysics, morals, and concepts—have been conditioned over
the centuries by Judeo-Christian traditions. In that sense, these inherited ideas of dominion over nature
are still operative, playing a key role in the disconnected, predatory, extractive mode of relationship
that currently dominates in many Western and/or industrialised societies .
As emphasised above, this mode of relationship is implicated in the unfolding climate crisis.
This point brings us to the question motivating this paper: what can be done to address this crisis?
In that respect, one answer is to help people develop more adaptive modes of relationship. There
are many possible elements to this endeavour, including political, technological, and economic ones.
However, among the most foundational are the psychological and cultural dimensions—how people
think about this relationship. In the terminology of this special issue, this means helping people
cultivate better wellbeing literacy with respect to their relationship with nature. As noted above, if
wellbeing literacy is “the vocabulary, knowledge and skills that may be intentionally used to maintain
or improve the wellbeing of oneself or others” [
], this means a literacy where ‘others’ does not
only mean humans, but the environment as a whole. To that end, this paper rests on the informed
conjecture—based on the ongoing lexicographic project introduced below—that such literacy can
be fostered through engaging with cultures who have developed and/or maintained more adaptive
relationships. More speciﬁcally, this engagement here takes the form of cross-cultural linguistic
enquiry, focusing on untranslatable words.
1.2. Exploring Untranslatability
Historically, cross-cultural research has tended to be undervalued within psychology, which
over recent decades has been heavily Western-centric, and speciﬁcally American-centric. This bias
was not always the case. Danziger suggests that prior to the Second World War were various
centres of knowledge and practice, as well as peripheral locations where such knowledge/practice
was reproduced [
]. However, the post-war dominance of the United States meant that American
psychology was exported globally, eﬀectively becoming the sole centre, with the adjective ‘American’
soon erased as superﬂuous. Of course, during that time, local ethnopsychologies [
referred to as ‘indigenous’ psychologies [
]—were and still are operational globally. However,
American psychology came to dominate, meaning that its concepts, ideologies, priorities, and methods
have shaped the international scene [
]. An example of this—with signiﬁcance here—is that (American)
English has become the default language for the ﬁeld. This bias is an issue, as recognised by decades of
research on the linguistic relativity hypothesis (LRH), popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis,
following the work of Sapir [
] and Whorf [
]. Central to the LRH is the claim that language shapes
how people experience and understand the world. In that respect, if the ﬁeld’s ideas and theories are
structured around the contours of English, its knowledge is therefore to an extent also provincial and
However, the Western-centricity of psychology is becoming more widely recognised and moreover
acknowledged as problematic. For instance, Henrich and colleagues [
] published an inﬂuential paper
in Nature arguing that the bulk of the research in ﬁelds like psychology is conducted on and by people
who are ‘WEIRD’ (from contexts that are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic).
Yet the majority of the world do not fall into that category, which raises questions regarding the
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 5 of 16
generalisability and validity of such research. In that light, there are increasing eﬀorts across academia
to promote and engage in cross-cultural scholarship. One such endeavour is my own recent initiative
to create a lexicography of untranslatable words , on which the current paper is based.
While untranslatability is a contested phenomenon, it commonly refers to a word that lacks
an exact equivalent in a given other language. The value of such words is manifold. First, they
assist in understanding other cultures, oﬀering insights into their values, traditions, philosophies,
and ways of being. The theoretical context here is the aforementioned LRH, the stronger version of
which is linguistic determinism, where language inextricably constitutes thought, whereas the milder
relativistic version simply asserts that language shapes it. In relation to untranslatability, the stronger
view suggests that only people from the culture that produced a given word can truly understand or
experience the phenomenon it signiﬁes [
]. However, the milder perspective holds that such words
are accessible to people outside the culture to an extent, holding some universal relevance. This latter
point highlights a second aspect of interest regarding untranslatable words: beyond being informative
-vis the culture that created a given word, they enrich other lexica. Indeed, cultures ‘borrowing’
words from each other is central to language development. For instance, of the more than 600,000
lexemes in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), the percentage of borrowed words—also known as
loanwords—is estimated to be as high as 41% .
Of particular interest here is why words are borrowed. Haspelmath identiﬁes two main reasons:
core versus cultural borrowings [
]. The former is when a loanword replicates a word that already
exists (i.e., with similar meaning) in the recipient language. This tends to happen for sociolinguistic
reasons (e.g., cultural capital associated with using foreign words). This type of borrowing is not
of concern here. However, the latter category is central. This occurs when the recipient language
lacks its own word for a referent (e.g., if a new practice or idea is introduced to a culture). Thus, the
loanword is adopted for pragmatic reasons: it is cognitive and socially useful, allowing speakers to
articulate concepts they previously struggled to. In Lehrer’s terminology, such words ﬁll ‘semantic
gaps’, i.e., “the lack of a convenient word to express what [one] wants to speak about” [
]. It is
such gaps that makes words untranslatable, indicating phenomena that have been overlooked or
undervalued by one’s own culture, but which another culture has identiﬁed. Thus, a central premise
of my lexicography is that such words can enrich the nomological network in psychology (and English
more broadly). Such augmentation is desirable for many reasons, including as a means of redressing the
Western-centricity of psychology. This goal therefore intersects with that of the present paper, namely
developing an enriched lexicon—and hence wellbeing literacy—with respect to our engagement
with nature. More speciﬁcally, this paper focuses on the following research question: what are the
dimensions of ‘eco-connection’ (i.e., adaptive modes of relationship with the environment), as revealed
by untranslatable words.
In the paper establishing the lexicography [
], I identiﬁed 216 untranslatable words pertaining
to wellbeing through a ‘quasi-systematic’ review of academic and grey literature (quasi in that
there was insuﬃcient material in academic journals to permit a conventional systematic review).
Readers interested in the process are encouraged to consult this original paper; suﬃce to say that
the search protocol had several elements (including examining the ﬁrst 20 websites returned when
entering “untranslatable words” into Google). Once the 216 words had been identiﬁed, robust
deﬁnitions were sought though several sources, including on-line dictionaries, peer-reviewed academic
sources, and bilingual colleagues. The words and their deﬁnitions were then analysed using grounded
theory (GT), a methodology which allows theory to emerge inductively from the data via three main
coding stages (open, axial and selective). In a process of open coding, the data—words and their
deﬁnitions—were examined for emergent themes, assisted by other GT processes such as memoing and
initial theorising. Axial coding then involved comparing themes through constant comparison, and
grouping them into categories based on conceptual similarity. Six categories were produced, paired
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 6 of 16
into three meta-categories: feelings (positive and ambivalent); relationships (love and pro-sociality);
and development (character and spirituality). Finally, selective coding saw the identiﬁcation of a ‘core’
category of wellbeing. Although applying GT in this way might be deemed unconventional, there is
considerable heterogeneity in the studies purporting to use GT, and it is suﬃciently aligned with GT
principles to be considered one such example.
Following this initial paper, the lexicography has since expanded to over 1200 words, partly
through crowd-sourced contributions to a website created to host the project (www.drtimlomas.com/
lexicography), and partly through my own follow-up enquiries through ‘conceptual snowballing’.
The term snowballing derives from recruitment, where participants facilitate the involvement of
additional people. This metaphor has been borrowed to reﬂect the way enquiries into an untranslatable
word might lead one to encounter related concepts. For instance, although over 120 languages
are currently represented in the lexicography, many words are taken from a select group that are
especially well-studied in psychologically-oriented literature, including Chinese, French, German,
Greek, Japanese, P
ali and Sanskrit. Thus, an enquiry into a word from these languages would often
lead me to a text in which related words are discussed (which would then be added to the lexicography).
In adding a word, the same checking procedures were followed as in the initial paper. Moreover, once
words and their deﬁnitions had been added, they were accessible on the website for public inspection
and feedback (with people sometimes suggesting a reﬁned deﬁnition of a word), providing a further
credibility check (which is valued in GT).
This subsequent phase of data collection cannot be regarded as systematic (not even in the ‘quasi’
sense of the original paper). Indeed, some 7000 languages exist worldwide, and it is unlikely that
one research project could study them all and retrieve their relevant words. However, even if the
lexicography is a work-in-progress, one may still usefully analyse its existing words and emergent
themes, even if such analyses are incomplete and subject to revision. Indeed, with the addition of
the new words, the thematic structure outlined in the original paper has been updated. The six
categories initially identiﬁed are still present, and moreover have been enriched by the additional
words, with thematic analyses published on each (positive feelings [
], ambivalent feelings [
], prosociality [
], character [
], and spirituality [
]), plus a theoretical paper [
] on the lexicographic project itself. However, the additional words have also led to
six new categories being identiﬁed. The meta-category of feelings now also includes sensations and
cognition. The meta-category of development now also includes understanding and skills. Further,
the meta-category of relationships now also includes aesthetics and eco-connection. It is of course this
latter category that is the focus of the present paper.
This emergent category of eco-connection comprises over 150 words at present. For this paper,
these words were analysed using the GT variation developed in my original paper [
]. The data
again comprised the words and their deﬁnitions, which had been reﬁned and checked in the ways
outlined above (e.g., consulting dictionaries, peer-reviewed sources and bilingual speakers, together
with website feedback). In the ﬁrst stage of open coding, words and their deﬁnitions were examined for
thematic content. Next, words were grouped together through constant comparison into nine thematic
codes (referred to below as ‘sub-themes’), and in turn aggregated into three themes. This process
could be described as somewhat intuitive since, unlike factor analysis (with its recourse to statistical
techniques), choosing which thematic structure provides the ‘best ﬁt’ for the data mainly relies on
the informed judgement of the researcher. Thus, it is acknowledged that this analytic process is
somewhat idiosyncratic, shaped by my personal inclinations and perspectives; other researchers may
have conﬁgured and labelled the themes diﬀerently, based on their own situatedness and reading of
the data. Finally, a single ‘core’ category was generated, namely eco-connection (although this category
had been in mind from the start, so cannot be deemed a truly inductively-derived core category).
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 7 of 16
3. Results and Discussion
The analysis generated three emergent themes—sacrality, connection and appreciation—each of
which has three subthemes, as illustrated below in Figure 1. These themes will be discussed in turn,
illustrated using select examples from the lexicography (usually several per subtheme).
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17, x 7 of 16
3. Results and Discussion
The analysis generated three emergent themes—sacrality, connection and appreciation—each of
which has three subthemes, as illustrated below in Figure 1. These themes will be discussed in turn,
illustrated using select examples from the lexicography (usually several per subtheme).
Figure 1. The themes and subthemes of eco-connection.
The first theme captures the complex and plural idea that nature is ‘sacred’ in some way. The
sacred is itself a contested, evolving idea. Etymologically, it entered English around the 12th century,
derived (via French) from the Latin sacrare, which encompasses meanings such as to anoint,
consecrate, dedicate, immortalize, and make holy . In modern scholarship, many
conceptualizations rest upon the pioneering work of Durkheim , who contrasted it with the
profane: the latter pertains to ordinary everyday life, the former to “things set apart and forbidden”.
Thus, the sacred describes phenomena regarded as ‘other’ and non-ordinary. This can include divine
beings, and places and objects connected to these . It also encompasses phenomena simply
deemed ‘numinous’ in some way . That said, in Otto’s original articulation of the numinous —
based on the Latin numen, meaning divine power or presence—this concept was generally
interpreted in theistic terms . There are many untranslatable terms in this space, including proper
names (e.g., of deities). Names are not usually considered examples of untranslatable words, since
one would not normally ‘translate’ a name. However, they are relevant in this context if there is no
equivalent in English. For instance, it is significant to the analysis that there is seemingly no English
equivalent of Poseidon (Greek god of the sea). Of the various words pertaining to sacrality, these can
be organized into three subthemes, based on a conventional taxonomy of forms of religion: animism,
polytheism, and pantheism/panentheism.
First, cross-culturally, many of the earliest conceptions of the sacred fall under the overarching
label of animism, a term coined by nineteenth-century anthropologists from the Latin anima
(meaning soul, breath, or life). The label reflects the belief that all natural phenomena individually—
e.g., each tree or river—possess a unique spirit or soul. Indeed, animism was probably the dominant
mode of cognition among the social groups that started to coalesce approximately sixty thousand
years ago (or possibly earlier) . It is perhaps understandable that early societies concluded that
natural phenomena possessed some sort of consciousness and soul, given that humans themselves
were just starting to acquire cognisance of their own thoughts, feelings, and volition. Their world was
thus ‘enchanted’, as Weber put it, suffused with agency and significance . Moreover, animism is
not an exclusively ancient perspective, but continues to have force today. Norse mythology, for
instance—millennia in the making—constitutes a living belief system for many people of the region.
To give some examples, its taxonomy is populated by a multitude of væ ttir (nature spirits), including
Figure 1. The themes and subthemes of eco-connection.
The ﬁrst theme captures the complex and plural idea that nature is ‘sacred’ in some way. The sacred
is itself a contested, evolving idea. Etymologically, it entered English around the 12th century, derived
(via French) from the Latin sacrare, which encompasses meanings such as to anoint, consecrate,
dedicate, immortalize, and make holy [
]. In modern scholarship, many conceptualizations rest
upon the pioneering work of Durkheim [
], who contrasted it with the profane: the latter pertains
to ordinary everyday life, the former to “things set apart and forbidden”. Thus, the sacred describes
phenomena regarded as ‘other’ and non-ordinary. This can include divine beings, and places and
objects connected to these [
]. It also encompasses phenomena simply deemed ‘numinous’ in some
]. That said, in Otto’s original articulation of the numinous [
]—based on the Latin numen,
meaning divine power or presence—this concept was generally interpreted in theistic terms [
There are many untranslatable terms in this space, including proper names (e.g., of deities). Names are
not usually considered examples of untranslatable words, since one would not normally ‘translate’ a
name. However, they are relevant in this context if there is no equivalent in English. For instance, it is
signiﬁcant to the analysis that there is seemingly no English equivalent of Poseidon (Greek god of the
sea). Of the various words pertaining to sacrality, these can be organized into three subthemes, based
on a conventional taxonomy of forms of religion: animism, polytheism, and pantheism/panentheism.
First, cross-culturally, many of the earliest conceptions of the sacred fall under the overarching label
of animism, a term coined by nineteenth-century anthropologists from the Latin anima (meaning soul,
breath, or life). The label reﬂects the belief that all natural phenomena individually—e.g., each tree or
river—possess a unique spirit or soul. Indeed, animism was probably the dominant mode of cognition
among the social groups that started to coalesce approximately sixty thousand years ago (or possibly
]. It is perhaps understandable that early societies concluded that natural phenomena
possessed some sort of consciousness and soul, given that humans themselves were just starting to
acquire cognisance of their own thoughts, feelings, and volition. Their world was thus ‘enchanted’,
as Weber put it, suﬀused with agency and signiﬁcance [
]. Moreover, animism is not an exclusively
ancient perspective, but continues to have force today. Norse mythology, for instance—millennia in
the making—constitutes a living belief system for many people of the region. To give some examples,
its taxonomy is populated by a multitude of vættir (nature spirits), including landvættir (land spirits),
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 8 of 16
vatnavættir (water spirits), and sjövættir (sea spirits). Indeed, Iceland celebrates four landvættir on
its coat of arms (Dreki the dragon in the east, Gammur the griﬃn to the north, Griðungur the bull
in the west, and Bergrisi the giant of the south). Such spirits are connected to speciﬁc locales, which
they guard and infuse with their presence. To reiterate the point about this mythology still having
resonance, Icelandic oﬃcials have been known to assess the potential impact on vættir habitats when
considering urban planning [
]. Many other animist mythologies have existed and continue to
exist—all with lexica of relevant untranslatable words—but the Norse example is suﬃcient to illustrate
this ﬁrst form of nature sacrality. Indeed, many such words and mythologies are not yet included in
the lexicography—which, as emphasised above, is a work-in-progress—and so could not be featured
here in any case.
The second class of words relating to sacrality can broadly be termed polytheistic. One should
be wary though of positioning speciﬁc mythologies as exclusively one class or another. After all,
Norse mythology is not wholly animistic, but also has a pantheon of gods—including Odin, Thor,
and Loki—which introduces a polytheistic element. Indeed, the distinction between animism and
polytheism is not always clear cut. The main diﬀerence pertains to the level of abstraction, where
in polytheism the deities are somewhat removed from the phenomena they represent or rule over,
existing transcendently in another realm. As with animism, there are and have been numerous
polytheistic taxonomies across cultures, many featuring gods that signify or relate to nature in some
way. Take Greek mythology as an example. This envisaged three separate generations of divinities,
spanning aeons, as detailed in epics such as Hesiod’s Theogony (circa 700 BCE (before common era)),
which outlined their genealogy [
]. First came the Pr
gonos (‘ﬁrst-born’), a primeval triad of
creative forces that fashioned existence. In the beginning was Kh
os, the void preceding the cosmos.
The cosmos then came into being through the union of Gaia and Ouranus, deities of earth and heaven.
Together they created a second generation of twelve Tit
nes, who were subsequently overthrown
by the twelve Olympian gods. The latter were contemporary with the classical era, and conceived
of as exerting a powerful inﬂuence on people’s lives. Their names are legendary still, and include
several pertaining to nature, including Poseid
n (god of the sea) and D
er (goddess of the harvest).
Moreover, as with animism, some polytheistic deities continue to have meaning for people (even if not
in the same way as for our ancestors). For instance, when Lovelock and Margulis [
] proposed their
theory of ‘atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere’—describing the earth’s dynamic ability
to maintain viability as a living planet—they named it Gaia. Moreover, subsequently, people have
been newly inspired by this theory—for instance within ecological movements—to regard the earth as
This latter use of Gaia shades into our third class of sacrality—reiterating the point that the
distinction between the classes is not always clear-cut—namely, nature itself as sacred. There are
two subtly diﬀerent forms of this perspective, pantheism and panentheism. The former is arguably a
form of monotheism (identifying one overarching divinity), one which views God and the cosmos as
indivisible. This perspective is most closely associated with the philosopher Spinoza, who invoked
the monist idea of substantia—something capable of self-subsistence—and argued that there was
only one substance in the universe, namely God [
]. He then employed the Latin phrase natura
naturans (‘nature naturing’) to reﬂect the idea that God is the dynamic process of creation itself, nature
unfurling in all its glory. Subsequently, many modern thinkers have endorsed his perspective (without
reference necessarily to a theistic being), where the cosmos itself is regarded as divine. For instance,
asked whether he believed in God, Albert Einstein replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals
himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and
actions of human beings” [
]. In addition to pantheism is also a stance known as panentheism, coined
in 1828 by Karl Krause using Greek roots to mean ‘all in God’. Pantheism simply means ‘all God’,
where the cosmos and the divine are one, so the divine is immanent (immersed in the cosmos) but
not transcendent (it does not exist other than as the cosmos). By contrast, in panentheism, in addition
to being immanent, the divine is also transcendent, thereby being both of the cosmos and outside it.
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 9 of 16
An often-cited form of panentheism is the notion of Brahman, a central feature of the sacred vision
expressed in the Upani
ads (foundational works of what is now known as Hinduism, composed
between 1500 and 500 BCE) [
]. That said, at the risk of complicating the picture, Hinduism can also
be construed as polytheistic. However, the Upani
ads do attempt to identify Brahman as a unifying
force beneath the multiplicity and ﬂux of life, hence it being viewed as one of the ﬁrst panentheistic
With this second theme, human beings themselves enter the picture. People were of course
implicit in the theme above, particularly in relation to pan(en)theism, in that they are part of the natural
world regarded as sacred. But this second theme is more centrally about people’s relationship to nature.
Cross-culturally, there are many ways of constituting and understanding this bond, and this theme
includes subtle variation in that regard. Overall, though, the uniting principle is people connecting
with nature in various ways—physically, experientially, cognitively, emotionally, philosophically, and
]. This naturally stands in contrast to the modes of disconnection noted in the introduction.
Of course, in one sense, all three themes are about connection with nature (or ‘eco-connection’, per the
title of the paper). But this theme in particular focuses on the quality and nature of the relationship
between humans and the environment, and speciﬁcally on the ways such ties can be close, intimate,
and signiﬁcant. In that respect, three subthemes were identiﬁed: intertwining, rootedness, and longing.
The ﬁrst subtheme of ‘intertwining’ reﬂects the notion that humans are inextricably part of
nature, in all the multidimensional ways alluded to above. Salm
n calls this type of perspective
a ‘kincentric ecology’, in which people “view both themselves and nature as part of an extended
ecological family that shares ancestry and origins” [
]. This stance is particularly evident in cultures
often referred to as ‘indigenous’ or ‘aboriginal’. Consider for instance the peoples native to Australia,
who began developing culture—e.g., symbolic art—as early as 50,000 years ago [
]. During this long
cultural evolution, modes of understanding began to emerge that were fundamentally characterised
by this ‘intertwining’ perspective. One such example is known as Aljerre-nge, denoting the complex
cultural–religious belief system of the Aranda (or Arrente) people. Other Aboriginal peoples have
comparable knowledge systems known by diﬀerent names, such as the Kija’s Ngarrankarni. In English,
Aljerre-nge and comparable terms are sometimes rendered as ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘The Dreaming’, terms
coined by Stanner in the 1950s [
]. Although the terminology has been criticised for implying
unreality, among other obfuscations [
], Stanner seemingly intended to highlight the epistemological
signiﬁcance of dreams as means of acquiring knowledge, including receiving guidance from ancestors.
But Aljerre-nge and related concepts are about more than dreaming in the literal sense of the word
(i.e., cognitive activity while asleep), signifying holistic, all-encompassing ways of perceiving all life
as interconnected. Stanner also coined the term ‘everywhen’ to denote this mode of understanding,
encompassing past, present and future. More than a synonym for timeless, it acknowledges the ongoing
relevance in these cultures of the ancestral beings and powers that shaped the world. Moreover, such
traditions and epistemologies are not conﬁned to the past, but are vibrant, complex, living ways of
engaging with the world that still resonate for many indigenous people today.
A related subtheme is ‘rootedness’. If people recognise themselves as intertwined with the natural
world, they are likely to identify with, and be invested in, speciﬁc regions of the earth to which
they have historical connections. This notion of connection to a locale is reﬂected in the M
turangawaewae, meaning ‘a place to stand’, describing that portion of the planet one calls one’s
]. It is also nicely articulated by Sale in relation to the Spanish term querencia [
reﬂects that “deep sense of inner well-being that comes from knowing a particular place on the Earth;
its daily and seasonal patterns, its fruits and scents, its soils and bird-songs. A place where, whenever
you return to it, your soul releases an inner sigh of recognition and realisation.” Relatedly, some words
celebrate the active act of ‘earthing’ or ‘grounding’ oneself in nature—investing time in the natural
world, and connecting emotionally with it—like the Finnish maadoittuminen. An important aspect
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 10 of 16
to this subtheme is that it often intersects with the notion of stewardship raised above, as does the
ﬁrst subtheme. After all, a corollary of being intertwined is people caring for this world of which
they are part (assuming people have a vested interest in caring for themselves). In itself, stewardship
has various aspects and forms in the words analysed here (in addition to the conceptual variation
identiﬁed in the literature above). One may feel a general sense of stewardship towards the earth, as
perhaps reﬂected in terms like Gaia. Often though, cultures speak of stewardship over speciﬁc regions
to which they feel rooted. For instance, related to turangawaewae is the term mana whenua, which
pertains to the mana—alluding to force, but usually also with moral or spiritual dimensions—exerted
over a territory by a given people. It has thus been used in New Zealand to describe who exerts moral
authority and guardianship over land. It has even had legal implications, being incorporated into
legislation that deals with stewardship of natural resources .
The ﬁnal subtheme is more melancholic, recognising that if people can bond to particular places,
they can also suﬀer if those bonds are threatened. This issue is a speciﬁc place-based form of longing,
which is a paradigmatic example of a ‘mixed’ emotion, being “a blend of the primary emotions of
happiness and sadness” [
], or more evocatively, “an emotional state suﬀused with a melancholic
]. With respect to place, there is melancholy in people being separated—by choice or
necessity—from the place they love. Yet, there is a redemptive possibility of being reunited; and even if
reunion is not possible, the longed-for place may nevertheless always be central to a person’s identity.
Such sentiments are reﬂected in words tied to speciﬁc places, including hiraeth (“a Welsh cultural
longing for Wales” [
]); saudade (a “key Portuguese emotion” [
], and “an emotional state that
pervades Brazilian culture and thought” [
]), and toska (“one of the leitmotifs of Russian literature
and Russian conversation” [
]). There are also more generic forms of longing—not tied to speciﬁc
places—as reﬂected in terms like the German Fernweh. This combines pain (Weh) and far (fern)
to capture the alluring “call of faraway places” [
]. This may be anywhere one misses (including
one’s homeland), but can also apply to lands unknown (thus being a counterpart to Heimweh, i.e.,
‘regular’ homesickness). Fernweh is augmented by terms such as Wanderlust, which has already
entered English as a loanword denoting longing for travel and adventure. As a ﬁnal point, one can
also express idealistic longing for lands that do not even exist—but may have previously, or may yet in
the future—as reﬂected in terms such as the Greek Arkad
a, describing an idyllic, utopian pastoral
realm, where humans live in harmony with nature.
The third theme takes us into the realm of appreciation. There were shades of this in other themes
of course. In feeling rooted to a place, for instance, this would likely include elements of appreciation
for it. However, appreciation is not necessarily integral to that subtheme, and could conceivably even
be absent from it. Here though, appreciation comes to the fore. Once again three subthemes have been
identiﬁed: savouring, sensitivity, and aesthetics.
The ﬁrst subtheme relates to people actively engaging with and enjoying nature. There are many
relevant words across cultures, each with their own particular nuances. Japan for instance has a
tradition of shinrin yoku—‘forest bathing’—drawing on Buddhism and Shintoism, which have a
rich heritage of appreciative engagement with nature [
]. It refers to the act of spending quality
time in forests, and alludes to the restorative beneﬁts of luxuriating in these spaces, literally and
metaphorically. After all, a wealth of research is now emerging pointing to the impact upon wellbeing
of spending time in nature, as for instance shown in Gesler’s work on ‘therapeutic landscapes’ [
It appears that forests may be particularly good at oﬀering these beneﬁts, due to factors such as air
quality, quietness, and diverse stimuli. Indeed, this has long been widely recognised and moreover
harnessed in Japanese clinical contexts, where shinrin yoku is oﬀered for the treatment of physical or
psychological ailments [
]. Moreover, the practice is beginning to ﬁlter into other cultures where it is
also being used therapeutically [
]. Such receptivity is unsurprising given that many cultures have
comparable ideas and practices. Consider for instance the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv—‘free air
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 11 of 16
life’—which describes a philosophy of open-air living and being in tune with nature [
]. This notion
has long been valorised by Norwegians, and Nordic nations more broadly. It is reﬂected in parenting
and schooling practices, for example, where children regularly spend portions of the school day
outside, whatever the weather; hence the saying, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad
clothing’—which is the title for a popular Nordic parenting book .
The second subtheme is sensitivity: being attentive and receptive to the details of the natural
world. This follows from the ﬁrst subtheme, in that savouring nature includes playing close attention
to it, and developing a ﬁne-grained appreciation of its nuances. An example of this lexical granularity
can be found in how cultures delineate the seasons. For instance, Japanese identiﬁes 72 distinct k
(micro-seasons) lasting ﬁve days each, such as k
ogan kitaru (wild geese return), from the 8th–12th
October. A related case of cultural variation—yet also commonalities—is around the traditions that
have emerged with respect to seasonal change. In late October, say, are a wealth of related occasions
marking the autumnal transition from summer to winter, such as Samhain, a Gaelic festival with Celtic
Pagan origins. Granularity can also be found regarding features of the environment. A well-known
example is the notion that Eskimo–Aleut languages possess many diﬀerent words relating to snow
and ice, such as aqilokoq, an Inuktitut term denoting gently falling snow. The issue is complicated,
since such languages are agglutinative, creating complex words by combining morphemes. Thus,
some linguists argue they do not possess greater complexity than English (for instance), since the
latter can use adjectives to the same eﬀect [
]. However, pragmatically, Eskimo culture is inﬂuenced
by an environment dominated by snow and ice in ways that most English-speaking cultures are not.
As such, Eskimo–Aleut languages contain many more relevant words in common usage than English.
Analysing the North Sami language, for instance, Magga points out that knowledge of snow and ice is
a “necessity for subsistence and survival”, and estimates over a thousand such lexemes in common
The third subtheme brings an explicitly aesthetic dimension to the sensitivity above, focusing
on the beauty and quality of the natural world. A good example is provided by Zen, a ‘branch’ of
Buddhism that took root in China around the ﬁfth century CE—when it mingled with the native
Taoism—and ﬂowered in Japan from the 12th century onwards [
]. While summarizing a tradition as
rich as Zen is diﬃcult, overall it constantly seeks to overcome the limitations of conceptual thought,
and point directly into the ‘suchness’ (i.e., nature) of reality, enabling a “direct, intuitive experience”
of it [
]. Central to this goal is the cultivated appreciation of certain aesthetic qualities regarded as
pervading existence [
]. This includes perceiving these qualities in nature, and expressing them in art
(as perfected by the nature-focused haiku of the 17th century poet Bash
o, for example). An inﬂuential
summary of these principles is provided by Hisamatsu in his classic Zen and the Fine Arts [
He identiﬁes seven key principles: kanso (roughly deﬁned as elegant simplicity, and absence of clutter
and ornamentation); fukinsei (asymmetry or irregularity); koko (austere sublimity, or beauty in aged or
weathered phenomena); shizen (spontaneous naturalness, and absence of premeditation); daisuzoku
(freedom from routine); seijaku (tranquillity, stillness, and purity); and y
ugen (profound grace, and
obscure, ineﬀable depth). In Zen, these are all regarded as inherent qualities of nature, and of existence
more broadly. Cultivating aesthetic sensitivity to these is therefore seen as a particularly eﬃcacious
route to the direct understanding of reality, and hence to wellbeing, and even farther to the ultimate
goal of enlightenment itself .
This paper has sought to enhance our vocabulary around engagement with the natural world
by exploring relevant untranslatable words. The context is the contention that the climate crisis can
be traced in part to the disconnected modes of interaction with nature that have become dominant
worldwide, particularly in Western and/or industrialised countries. One response to this situation
is to learn from cultures and subcultures that have cultivated less destructive modes (encompassed
under the rubric ‘eco-connection’), in this case by engaging with untranslatable words from their
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 12 of 16
languages. As part of an ongoing project to identify such words, around 150 relevant terms were
located. Three main themes were identiﬁed—each with three subthemes—as shown above in Figure 1.
This tripartite framework is a promising start in enhancing our understanding of eco-connection.
However, it cannot yet be regarded as a fully-ﬂedged theory, since that would be beyond the remit of
the analysis here. For a start, the lexical search undertaken remains partial and a work-in progress,
given that the lexicography currently only features around 120 languages, out of some 7000 worldwide.
There are thus likely to be many relevant terms missing from the analysis and the lexicography as it
stands. Moreover, some cultures and traditions have been considered in more depth than others (e.g.,
Zen), reﬂecting my interests, which drove the conceptual snowballing in certain directions. As such,
the analysis is not a complete account of all the potential words that exist pertaining to eco-connection.
It is rather an imperfect snapshot of the current lexicography with respect to this emergent category,
one that is partial and subject to revision. Thus, further research will be needed, both to develop
the lexicography more generally, and also to substantiate and reﬁne this analysis of eco-connection
speciﬁcally. To that end, several avenues of research have been identiﬁed and are starting to be
pursued. For instance, I have been awarded a grant to work with specialists in machine learning
to use such methods to progress the lexicography (e.g., identifying and analysing relevant words).
Plans are also underway to devise a research program of in-depth interviews with speakers across
the world’s languages (ideally covering at least one language per country). With such initiatives, it is
possible that the analysis above will be reﬁned and updated (e.g., new themes or subthemes relating to
eco-connection may be identiﬁed). The presentation above also has other limitations too besides some
cultures and languages not yet being included in the analysis. For instance, it would be possible to
structure the thematic analysis in other ways. In fact, at earlier points in the analysis, other thematic
solutions were identiﬁed. Consideration was initially given to an additional sub-theme of ‘immersion’
in nature, for example, but in the end, it was felt this could simply be enfolded within the subtheme
of savouring. As a ﬁnal point on limitations, the elucidation of the words here has been inevitably
restricted by attempting an overarching comparative analysis within the constraints of a brief article.
Translation is always a problematic exercise, so it will not have been possible to arrive at deﬁnitions that
would satisfy all speakers of the donor language. Given the ﬂuidity and complexity of language use,
there are generally numerous ways of interpreting a given word. Thus, the descriptions here are merely
one way of elucidating these terms, based on my interpretation of the source material. That said,
dictionaries and scholarly sources were consulted in the aim of arriving at valid descriptions.
However, even with its limitations, the analysis above is still useful in providing a vocabulary
with which to better understand and articulate this important notion of eco-connection. In turn,
the development of such a vocabulary may hopefully play a role—however minor—in helping
humankind develop more constructive relationships with nature. Indeed, I believe there to be an
appetite for this kind of endeavour, and moreover evidence it can bear fruit, with beneﬁts to public
health. A case in point is the work of Robert Macfarlane. In his book Landmarks [
], he charts the
wealth of nature-related words found in the various tongues of the British Isles (showing that we
often overlook the lexical richness in our own backyard). These include, for instance, the Gaelic term
it—from the Isle of Lewis—which denotes the act of placing pieces of quartz in a stream so that they
sparkle in the moonlight and attract salmon. He followed this up with an illustrated book, The Lost
], with the premise that nature-related words have been disappearing from the languages
of Britain, but that eﬀorts can be made to reanimate this vocabulary. Of particular encouragement
is the sheer enthusiasm of the public response. For instance, campaigns have unfolded organically
to ensure schools have copies in their library, with children embracing the project [
]. An album
has also been composed to complement the book, which has been received to considerable acclaim
(https://www.thelostwords.org/). While just one example, it does demonstrate the potential—and
indeed the public desire—for developing more adaptive relationships with nature. Moreover, it shows
the value and promise of using language in service of this goal. It is hoped this paper may also
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 5120 13 of 16
contribute to this aim, and in doing so help improve our connection with the natural world upon
which our wellbeing and indeed very survival depends.
Funding: This research received no external funding.
Conﬂicts of Interest: The author declares no conﬂict of interest.
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