Ecolinguistics and Esther T.W. Pig?

I adore pigs! look at Esther – she’s so cute! Look at her little front teethies! She’s pigtastic! (as her dads would say.) *Squeee*

If this is the first time you’re hearing about Esther T.W. Pig, I suggest you drop everything you’re doing, including reading this blog, and head on over to her facebook.

What is ecolinguistics?

From the first minute I read Nature and Grammar by Dr. Andrew Goatly I was hooked. In this article he compares the representation of Nature in Wordsworth’s The Prelude and The Times through grammar, particularly transitivity and agency, meaning who does what to who and whether nature is represented as a ‘doer’ or as a resource. One interesting finding was how in The Times, animals were usually used in the names of businesses.

Ecolinguistics, in its roots, started by Einar Haugen in the 70s where he conceived of ‘the ecology of language’ in reference to the interrelation between languages in both the human mind and in multilingual communities. Edward Sapir’s paper Language and the Environment (2001, p. 13) was a linguist’s first step away from simply describing language in terms of its parts: phonology, morphology, word meaning, etc. He started considering how the physical environment influences the language used, the relation between the physical and social environment. Sapir proposed that the individual’s environment, both physical (topography and the economical basis of human life: fauna, flora) and social (religion, ethics, art), will be reflected in their language. One example Sapir gives is of the Nootka Indians who have precise terms for marine animals, similar to European societies who live by the coast. He contrasts this with desert dwellers of the Southern Paiute of Arizona whose vocabulary of the topography was extremely prolific: divide, ledge, sand flat, knoll, plateau, and more.

Ecology, for Sapir and Haugen, is therefore a metaphor for language studies: diversity, environment, ecosystems. Haugen’s definition for a language ecology is “the study of interactions between any given language and its environment”. The environment here is in the sense of society. Therefore, it is sociolinguistics. The ecology of language diversified also to endangered languages study and conservation (Norman Denison, 1982), language contact (Mackey).

However, ecolinguistics is also a branch that questions the narratives that underpin our unsustainable civilisation, exposes stories and discourses that lead to ecological destruction, social injustice and speciesism, and tries to find new discourse that would improve the conditions of animals, the environment,and humans. Ecolinguistics studies discourses, metaphors, frames and other linguistic features that come to convey ideologies. As Goatly (2001, in Stibbe, 2014) notes: “Ordinary language, especially the transitive clause, is inadequate to the representation of the world demanded by… ecological theory”. 

Ecolinguistics can be extended to ‘other-directed social movements’ (Stewart, 1999). These are movements which ‘are struggling for the freedom, equity, justice and rights of others rather than selves’. Many of the victims of abuse and destruction Ecolinguistics tries to protect, are those who have no voice and cannot “resist oppressive discourses”. (Stibbe, 2014, p. 3).

What do you mean, pigsactly?

*Warning: the following will cause you to tear up, as the harsh reality of pig flesh production is not pretty 

In his fascinating paper As Charming as a Pig, Stibbe  (2001) notes how there is shame attached to pigs. The duality of people in Victorian Britain living with pigs, feeding them only to kill them afterwards, manifested itself in many insulting terms attached to pigs: fat pig, dirty pig, male chauvinist pig.

Now the relationship between humans and pigs is distant; most people have never met a pig up close. (I have!) The drive for cheap meat led to pigs being confined indoors, and as Stibbe rightly points out, the only interaction people have with pigs is when they eat them.

Stibbe examines the uses of the word pig in the British National Corpus (BNC) consisting of 100 million words extracted from many written and spoken modes (newspapers, magazines, recorded and transcribed speech). He finds that:

  1. Pigs feature more than any other animal in the BNC through idioms, similes, and metaphors.This shows how pigs are part of the British culture.
  2. The attitudes towards pigs are overwhelmingly negative: absolute pig, capitalist pig, irritating pig, misogynist swine, and many others. 
  3. Even when phrases seem to be positive, they have negative attributed meaning: you lucky pig, happy as a pig in the mire.
  4. Presupposition: as fat as a pig presupposes that pigs are very fat animals; as selfish as a pig presupposes pigs are selfish animals. Stibbe, using Fairclough’s notion of ‘gap filling’ (1989: 85 in Stibbe, 2012, p.39) points out that sometimes, these presuppositions are not quite as straightforward: “She’s behaving like a pig!” may be used to say that she is “behaving greedily”. The presupposition implied here is that “pigs are greedy”.  Listeners have to interpret the meaning based on cultural knowledge.


Poor piggy!

The cultural stereotype of pigs then is very negative: pigs are thought of as greedy, fat, smelly, lazy, dirty. But in actual fact, I can confidently say that the opposite is true. Pigs can’t stand filth, are very clean animals and wallow in dirt to cool themselves and protect their sensitive skin from the sun. They are affectionate and very communicative. This is, of course, a generalisation, as every pig has their (deliberate 3rd person possessive pronoun here!) own unique personality. Even the grumpy ones are delightful.

Having said that, it’s important to emphasise that, in my opinion, even if those stereotypes were true, pigs should be given a social status, rights and generally be left alone to run their lives as they please. Just like the most detestable person you can think of ( and on the morning of the US elections I can conjure one up quite easily…) has the right to live free from harm, so should all animals, regardless of their attributes.

And in relation to the US elections, Valentine (1998, in Stibbe, 2012) says that members of the dominant group acquire their position from: “basking in the reflection of a negatively constituted other”.  [Stibbe actually, and most likely unknowingly at the time said that: “these shortcomings [of the other] are simply trumpeted more loudly].

So what we’ve looked at so far is use of pig idioms and metaphors in general discourse. What about the actual pork industry discourse?

Pigs are not even identified as sentient beings, and there is no personality accorded to them as the kind we’ve seen earlier. Very technical and pseudo-scientific language. But it doesn’t mean they’re not accorded some negative meaning.

Stibbe analysed the Pork Industry Handbook using critical discourse analysis. This handbook is basically the science of husbandry. This is the “science” (it’s in quotes because I believe the word science gives a sort of automatic legitimacy to horrendous practices) that studies how little resources you need to invest in an animal to get the most product and profit, be it meat, wool, babies, milk.

Not many people have heard of husbandry and I certainly hadn’t until  my second year of veterinary medicine. I refused to take this course and when I was told that the degree award is conditioned on successfully passing this module (and many other horrid ones where the vet student is forced to experiment on animals), I left. This was a very difficult and trying time, but let me know if you would like to hear more about my vet studies experience.

Here’s how pigs are conceptualized in the Pork Industry Handbook:

  1. Health – The pigs’ health is important to the industry, not the animal: “Health is the condition of an animal with regard to the performance of its vital functions. The vital functions of the pig are reproduction and growth.” (p.41) If a health problem doesn’t get in the way of production, it is ignores: Quote 3) Pigs can be subjected to very high levels of ammonia for a relatively long time with little adverse production effect (PIH 2002:54). 
  2. Health is also changed to performance“Medical intervention for the sake of ‘performance’ is quite different from medical intervention to save lives or reduce pain. For example the ‘Hysterectomy-derived, colostrum deprived germ free (microbe free) pigs’ (PIH 2002:139) are produced by ‘opening the uterus and extracting the pigs by hysterectomy…’ and then rearing them ‘in isolation…on artificial milk replacer’ (PIH 2002:139). The result: ‘infections disease levels may be low and pig performance excellent’ (PIH 2002:139).”
  3. Disease – Again, pigs being sick are a risk not to their own health but to the “farm sustainability”. Stibbe also points out how the individual non-human animal disappears when the HIP discusses “herd health”.
  4. Pronoun ‘it’ – There are many uses of euphemisms such as ‘humane euthanasia’ used when animals are ill. An example of such ‘humane euthanasia’ the piglet is reduced to an object by using the pronoun it:

     Quote 10) hold the piglet by its hind legs and forcefully hit the piglet’s head against a hard surface such as concrete (PIH 2002:18) 


What to do??

Critical language awareness!

It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it “has the potential to undermine discourses by revealing their hidden ideological assumptions, and thus taking away the power that implicitness gives them” (see Fairclough 1992a, 1999, Males 2000). I always get the urge to stick a photo of suffering pigs whenever I’m at the supermarket when I see packaged pieces of dead flesh. Changing the discourse head-on is hard. There’s evidence of how that backfires when we talk about political correctness. According to Mills, the media creates absurd examples mocking the attempt to change language. (Mills, 2003 in Stibbe, 2014).

My proposal for action!

If you come across any language/discourse that represent animals as objects or oppresses them in any way, snap a photo, send it to me or post it on my FB! 

This has been hard to write: reading my own fellow humans’ words describing doing terrible things to fellow beings.

I hope that by exposing unnecessary cruelty and promoting veganism and other more compassionate ways of life, we will be able to offer pigs and all the animals a better place to live on this Earth that they share with us.14963142_1122585147848708_1625766952769526513_n

Love, Peace, Vegan, Esther and all the animals!

Stuff to read:

Esther T.W. Pig  <— A daily dose of love and laughter! and of course: (get the book today!)est

Goatly, A. Nature and Grammar

Fill, A. and Mühlhäusler, P. (2001) The Ecolinguistics Reader, London: Continuum

Stibbe, A. (2012) As Charming As a Pig, Animals Erased, p. 35

Stibbe, A. (2014) An Ecolinguistic Approach to Critical Discourse Studies. Critical Discourse Studies, 11(1), 117-128

The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

4 thoughts on “Ecolinguistics and Esther T.W. Pig?

  1. An excellent treatise, and very much difficult to read regarding the brutality that pigs endure. Pigs too are among my favorite earthlings. Them and opossums and well, every other creature. But you get the point.

    Every evening I set two piles food out for the opossums and the raccoons and the occasional skunk. Sometimes the raccoon and the opossum will eat from the same pile. The raccoon, however, stays a distance away and carefully reaches in stretching his paw to grab food so as not to disturb the opossum. Although I’ve never heard or seen them come to blows. Though I have smelled the odor of a skunk on a few mornings.

    I’m glad to have caught up on reading your posts. I never considered the complexities or the ramifications of ecolinguistics. I’ve never even heard of it before, though it is a fascinating field and I believe much relevant to awareness. I look forward to more of your work.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Peter. I’m so moved by your kind words. Like you I love all the animals and I love talking about them all and how nice they are and what is lovely about each. You are so lucky you can see oppssums! I’ve never met them. Are they native to America? Are they friendly? Raccoons are so sweet!!! I never actually met them or skunks but I would love to. It’s so nice you feed them. Where I live there are only squirrels really and I love giving them nuts at this time of year, just for a little fatty boost for winter!
      Yes, I never heard of ecolinguistics until I started considering what to do as an MA and I came across this book:
      which I think has newer editions now. It was such an eye opener.
      I was meaning to ask, what is behind the name of your blog? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wanted something catchy. Something antithetical to the obvious, soup made from crows’ heads. But rather soup, as in food for thought. And crows being the intelligent bird they are, I thought it a natural fit; crows head soup. Then the tag line, “A Vegan Stew,” stew as in agitation, was to clarify my position as vegan and not a gourmand of soup made from a crow’s head. Well, anyway, it was all quite very clear in my head until I tried to explain it. 😉

        As for opossums, I wouldn’t try to pet them unless they were raised from a baby and familiar with humans. They seem quite shy, although we’ve had them come within feet of us and eat. As do the raccoons. Opossums are native to North America and not related to the Australian possum, a different animal. Although the names have been mistakenly interchanged as in the video below. The video is of opossums. A quick check on will confirm this.

        The skunks I prefer to keep my distance from, although I’ve stood next to one once unknowingly one dark morning and as soon as I moved a little away, he scurried off.

        And as for the squirrels, we’ve two walnut trees that keep them well fed.

        Check out these little darling [o]possums eating watermelon:

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ok, The opossums are going on my FB share because they’re too sweet. Thank you for the link! It made my day 🙂 Animals are the best.

        I love the idea of the stew – delightful pun. I find that I always have to explain my jokes so it’s nice to speak to like-minded punners. It’s interesting you chose crows: they have this mysterious air about them. They are the day-time owls with their intelligence. If you go to Hyde park they come up close and you can feed them (although most people seem to have an aversion to crows and it’s the squirrels that get most of the attention).

        Liked by 1 person

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