KEYWORD - Languaging

How do dogs and humans communicate?

Can we use 'language' as a verb?

  • A radically unexpected event may easily go unnoticed - until someone gives it a suitable name.
  • In the 6th century, Bhartrihari (450-510) argued that our ‘reality’ is structured by language.
  • This implies that, by changing a ‘linguistic paradigm’ (c.f. de Saussure, 1916) we change what is ‘thinkable’ (Whorf, 1956).
  • The American saying: "there ain't a noun that can't be verbed" is seldom heard in the UK.
  • This is because the English traditionally use the word 'language' only as a noun.
  • This limits it to playing an exclusively passive role within the communication process.
  • It means we need other verbs (e.g. 'to learn', or 'to speak') to make it work actively.
  • But both of these examples are only subsets of what we mean by 'languaging'.

How do babies learn to speak?

Languaging a new reality

  • It is clear that babies do not 'learn' to speak by memorising vocabularies and rules.
  • Instead, they use a profoundly heuristic approach to discover what 'works' for them.
  • It is a highly situated learning process that can create new, but meaningful syntax.
  • At the social level, it integrates what the infant 'wants' with what others 'want'.
  • In this sense infants 'language' their continued survival within an adult-led world.
  • This opportunistic 'languaging' activity is not unique to babies - we can all do it.
  • Who invents new words that appear in the language, quite frequently? (We all do).
  • However, education sometimes makes us less able to 'language' creatively.
  • Even designers may forget that languaging is - potentially - part of design.
  • It is certainly an important aspect of metadesigning.

The 'realities' of our languages

In theory, by changing the metaphorical and syntactical structures of language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) we can re-attune ourselves to new 'realities'. This would be a way to change attitudes, relationships and habits of behaviour. If, when organisms encounter other creatures they find certain reciprocal actions beneficial, they may continue the process until it becomes habitual and changes their own structural integrity. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1980) describe this eventual state as 'structural coupling', where the term 'structure' refers to the sum of essential elements within their world, as a system. It therefore includes the vital organs, metabolic, sensory and cognitive processes, in addition to all of the symbolic, or semantic codes and values that sustain its living state. The level of structural coupling is co-managed by the organisms, each of which must balance its own benefits of coupling, with the risk that they might hold for its own, structural identity.

EXAMPLE: George Monbiot proposes action via re-naming - he expressed alarm about the lack of urgency in current debate, despite environmentalists having "tried everything' to get to people's hearts and minds. On 1/11/2018 he published this list on Twitter:
The environmentThe living planet / natural world
Climate changeClimate breakdown
Global warmingGlobal heating
Fish stocksFish populations(don't exist to be exploited)
Natural resourcesLiving systems / the fabric of the Earth(don't exist to be exploited)
Natural capitalNature / living systems
Ecosystem servicesLife support systems
Nature reservesWildlife refuges(‘reserve’ implies distance)
ExtinctionEcocide / annihilation(these terms suggest agency)
The planetThe living planet
Saving the planetDefending the living planet
Climate scepticClimate science denier
Freemarket think tankOpaquely-funded lobby group

Structural coupling

Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) was a pioneer in exploring how different organisms established what we might see as working relations (i.e. 'structural coupling') despite their very different habits and protocols. Von Uexküll knew that each living creature experiences the world differently, because of differences in their sensory organs and nervous systems. This approach borrows from empirical philosophy, which assumes that our experience consists of sensory data from the ‘outside world’, and which arrives at the brain after mediation by the particular sensors and processors of the nervous system. He therefore coined the term ‘umwelt’ (von Uexküll, in Ingold, 2011, p. 64) to describe the subjective ‘reality’ of this experience, noting that each individual creature has a characteristic repertoire of awareness. In the case of humans, we have managed to augment our experiential reach with technological sensors, and other prosthetic devices. As humans, we may also realise that different languages and cultural contexts can heighten our awareness of specific phenomena.


Structural coupling is managed through what Humberto Maturana calls 'languaging' (Maturana, 1978). This can be described as the reciprocal, meaning-making activity by which adjacent organisms first create, then settle on, a workable code of communication. It is important to emphasise that this process is part of each organism's survival repertoire. It is, however, not an individual process of 'self-expression', but both a creative and a co-creative capability. It would be unusual for two co-dependent organisms to be independent of others in the food web. However, within our artificial systems of economics, law and education it is more possible. The act of 'co-authorship' could be described as a type of 'coupling' between authors. However, in many research contexts this process is less of a structural mode of coupling if it is characterised by highly cynical, or hierarchical processes in which a team leader will precis and 'edit' existing documents, rather than encouraging the much longer, deeper process of 'structural coupling' that might lead to co-creative innovation by the team of authors. We call this deeper mode sympoiesis.
Albert Einstein

The idea of Languaging Change

  • See an explanation of our term Lemkinism-Glossary
  • We will use this approach to develop metadesign tools that harness neologies.
  • This includes revising the vernacular to describe critical, but hitherto unnamed phenomena.
  • As the individual mind cannot easily embrace many perspectives at once, our research will explore fashion creativity from multiple standpoints.
  • It will then integrate them and reframe them within neologisms created by teams of experts.
  • These will include researchers, and consultants from across the humanities.
  • They will include theorists, practitioners and managers of design.


  • We believe that languaging is an important aspect of co-authorship.
  • We also regard co-authorship as an aspect of metadesign.
  • However, co-authorship is often understood as a routine process of editing.
  • Moreover, it may also reflect a hierarchy of power relations.
  • We think that a more holarchic languaging process may work better.
  • Our invented term sympoiesis acknowledges the importance of a shared languaging process.
  • This has community/team-building benefits, as well as creating new knowledge.

Further reading