OED and The Climate Connection: Global schooling

OED and The Climate Connection: Global schooling

The Climate Connection (#TheClimateConnection) is a new podcast series from the British Council which explores the relationship between the climate crisis and language education. In partnership with Oxford University Press, and featuring a selection of our Oxford English Dictionary editors, the podcast explores the origins of climate-related language, in both English and other languages.

In the sixth episode of the series, OED World English Editor Danica Salazar examines the term kaitiakitanga.

In 2018, in her opening speech for Climate Week at the United Nations in New York,  New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proposed the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga as the key to combating climate change. A loanword from the Māori language, kaitiakitanga means guardianship or management, especially of the natural resources of a place or area. It can also mean environmental stewardship considered as a duty of the inhabitants of an area; in Ardern’s words, ‘a responsibility of care’ placed upon humans ‘for the environment in which we live’. Under international law, there is no enforceable legal requirement for states to protect the natural environment, but this concept of human trusteeship of the Earth, which is so central to the Māori worldview, is increasingly being used by the international community to emphasize the duty of states to collaborate in preserving our ecological systems, in an effort to convince governments to take this duty seriously and accept it as a legal obligation.

An entry for kaitiakitanga will soon be published in the OED. Our research on this word has revealed that kaitiakitanga has been used in English since at least 1987, the year in which it appeared in an issue of Soil & Water, a publication of the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council of New Zealand. Although originally used in Māori contexts, it is now in more general use. The Google Books Ngram viewer, which gives a graphic representation of the way usage of words varies over time, shows that apart from a dip around 2008, use of kaitiakitanga in English has been on a steady increase.

Most of the terminology we use to talk about climate change originates in the language of Western science. However, it is now becoming clear how important it is to include other perspectives in the global climate-change messaging. Words from around the English-speaking world reflect diverse ways of relating to our environment that can help us find innovative ways out of our current environmental crisis. In addition, being sensitive to the particular concerns and socioeconomic situations of different language communities, and ensuring that the words used in climate-change communications resonate with people of varying worldviews, will make such communications much more effective in eliciting cooperation in tackling the climate emergency.

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For more on climate change research from Oxford University Press, Oxford Open Climate Change is a broad reaching interdisciplinary journal that aims to cover all aspects of climate change, including its impacts on nature and society, as well as solutions to the problem and their wider implications.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.