Language, science and human control of nature: the case of Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’

Hanna Roman discusses the importance of understanding the link between language and nature in 18th century France in her book, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

In the French eighteenth century, it is difficult to understand how science worked without first studying its relationship to written language. Language was not only a way to communicate ideas. It was the foundation of worlds both real and imagined: it comprised the building blocks of both human nature and of external nature. Things in the world existed because people named, ordered and narrated them. Nature could be studied because it was, in large part, an invention of the human mind; its workings became legible, predictable, scientific because they had been captured in language. In the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot asked: ‘What difference would there be between the reading of a work in which all the motives of the universe are explored, and the very study of the universe? almost none.’[1]

roman-BuffonThe French natural historian, Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, thought in a similar manner, proposing in his 1778 ‘Des époques de la nature’ (just recently translated into English!) to recount the great eras of natural history ‘as they are or as they could be: for these two points of view are practically the same.’[2] He wrote as if he had personally observed the work of nature since the birth of the planet Earth, and the imagined or hypothetical story was to be considered as good as, if not better, than the first-hand experience of observation. My book traces this curious assumption which can sound quite foreign in the light of modern scientific practices, but which begins to make sense when science is understood as itself a language. The discipline of natural history, in particular, was rigorously redefined by Buffon in the 1750s terms of the creation of relationships (‘rapports’) between the mind and the world in the form of written expression.

Buffon believed that the more the historian studied nature, dedicating time and thought to understanding its order and operation, the more his or her language would come to resemble the world. Nature could be reproduced in words, and soon words could come to stand in the place of nature. The idea of a new, written nature became ever more important to Buffon’s work through the 1760s and 1770s, when he suggested that real nature was losing energy and slowly dying. It needed to be replaced with the human idea of nature. This was no longer simply the story of the past eras of natural history or of the regularity of natural law: it was a vision of a future where the art of human language and the artificiality of human landscapes would become the new natural. Humans gained the ability, right, and obligation to control and change nature because they had appropriated its language. In ‘Des époques de la nature,’ Buffon imagined the world devoid of what he thought to be terrifying wild animals, rugged and inhospitable forests, and cold, uninhabitable swamps. Once people could speak like nature, they could possess it and transform it into a temperate garden, a terrestrial Eden.

After finishing the final chapter of the book, about the human control of nature and the creation of what Buffon considered to be a ‘better world’ through language, I began to think more about the continued influence of the Enlightenment on modern-day thought. It is crucial to understand eighteenth-century attitudes and theories such as Buffon’s about nature in order to see better the assumptions made in Western societies about the environment and its relationship to people. These are not only assumptions about dominating, taming, and taking control of nature for the good of human survival, industry, science, and culture. There is also the underlying belief that the relationships between humans and the natural world are intrinsically part of a story. They must be made to fit into and justify the arc of an inevitable narrative with a clear beginning, end, structure, and chain of causality linking all parts together (examples of such narratives and how to approach their study are examined in the recent publication, Anthropocene Reading, for instance). The language of this story was, for Buffon, a series of keys that would eventually unlock the meaning of the past and the implications or predictions for the future.


The underlying motifs of Buffon’s story were the slow death of nature as it lost its initial heat and energy, and the opposing, active force of humankind as it worked to hamper this heat death by conquering nature and changing, taming, subduing it. Buffon in fact begged for global warming: he encouraged people to cut down forests, to burn fallow land, to dry up swamps. This idea became part of the narrative of industrialization in western culture, and it is still present as society considers what it has done to the world and how to mediate the world’s end. Buffon’s narrative is an upsetting one—but it raises the issue of the value of a story, of the necessity of inventing a new narrative of nature to which to aspire, and of the uses, implications, and dangers of fiction in the modern sciences.

– Hanna Roman

Hanna Roman is an Assistant Professor of French at Dickinson College. She is interested in the discourses of scientific knowledge in Enlightenment France, and her new research focuses on the languages of theology and natural history in works of eighteenth-century geohistory.



[1] ‘Quelle différence y auroit-il entre la lecture d’un ouvrage où tous les ressorts de l’univers seroient développés, & l’étude même de l’univers? presqu’aucune.’ Denis Diderot, ‘Encyclopédie,’ Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert, ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, Ed. Robert Morrissey (Chicago, n.d.) http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/, vol.5, p.641 (my translation).

[2] Buffon, ‘Des époques de la nature’, in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: supplément, vol.5 (Paris, Imprimerie royale, 1778), p.53.


[1] Portrait of Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1753) François-Hubert Drouais, Musée Buffon à Montbard

[2] Cover of Hanna Roman, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2018)


The Language of Nature in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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Literature, Liverpool Interest

The Liverpool English Dictionary – In conversation with Tony Crowley

Tony Crowley is transforming our understanding of the history of Liverpool, one word at a time. To celebrate the launch of The Liverpool English Dictionary, we quizzed him on the evolution of language in Liverpool and his favourite ‘Scouse’ words. 

Liverpool English Dictionary

Tweet your pictures of Liverpool to @livunipress by 25th October for a chance to win a free copy of The Liverpool English Dictionary and tickets to the launch.  


The Liverpool English Dictionary records the rich vocabulary of Liverpool, what made you focus on the history of language in Liverpool?

First and foremost, I was born and bred in Liverpool so its language is my language – the form I grew up with, am most familiar with, and feel most comfortable with. But given that the language of Liverpool is also one of the most stigmatised forms in Britain, at least nationally if not locally, I wanted to show the rich historical complexity of this form with all of its distinctive lexical sharpness, humour, and edge. I also wanted to shift the focus away from the Liverpool accent – which is what most people associate the place (usually in stereotypical form) – and on to the vocabulary itself.

This book has been over thirty-five years in the making, what were the sources that you used when researching for this book?

Yes, the book has been a very long-term project. I used as wide a range of sources as I possibly could – everything from the latest digital resources of linguistic corpora (enormous data bases of words), through to local newspapers, local history books, basic glossaries of ‘Scouse’, early sociological studies of Liverpool, working-class autobiographies… you name it. Most important though was my discovery of what I call ‘the lost literature’ of Liverpool – primarily the Liverpool novel. There is an astounding history of literary production in Liverpool, ranging from mid nineteenth century critiques of mercantile capitalism, to late nineteenth century Anglo-Welsh novels, Victorian melodrama, early twentieth century feminist novels, the amazing body of James Hanley’s work, mid twentieth century ‘race’ writing, and late twentieth century ‘Scouse’ dialect novels. That range of texts gave me my most valuable material.

How do you think the history and culture of Liverpool has affected the production of the Scouse dialect?

Well, as I showed in Scouse: A Social and Cultural History (LUP 2012), ‘Scouse’ is a very modern term and wasn’t used to refer to the language of Liverpool before 1950 (and not widely till the late 50s and 60s). But given that ‘Scouse’ is now mostly used in that sense, the answer to the question is that it is the very specific history of Liverpool that has produced this form of language and its role in the everyday culture of the city. As is always the case, the language, history and culture are intricately related and the vocabulary of Scouse reflects and refracts Liverpool’s changing fortunes over the past two and a half centuries.

How do you think that this book could transform our understanding of the history of Liverpool?

The book transforms our understanding of the history of the city by demonstrating that it was a multicultural, multilingual place. This is a challenge both to the received history of ‘Scouse’ but also to the rather narrow conception of Liverpool’s history. In both cases, there is a tendency to view language and history in limited, primarily British terms, whereas what I argue in the book is that Liverpool’s role as a major port-city opened it up to a whole variety of languages and cultures. The evidence is there in the vocabulary of the place – many of its words were borrowed from the host of peoples who travelled to and through Liverpool in a sustained way over a considerable period of time: migrants, traders, soldiers and sailors, workers, refugees, entrepreneurs…they brought their languages with them from all over the world and some of some of their words stuck. So I hope that broader perspective will change how we think of both Liverpool’s history, but also British history more broadly.

Did you find any of the words or phrases particularly interesting etymologically?

Masses of them. ‘Scouse’, in the sense of ‘stew’ dates to the early eighteenth century in the phrase ‘lobscouse’ (‘scouse’ is coined towards the end of the century in Liverpool). It might be from the Latvian ‘labs’, ‘good’, ‘kauss’, ‘bowl’, although the Latvian could be from the English. As with all the best etymologies, we don’t know. ‘Bullamacow’ is interesting – it’s Fijian pidgin, and I like ‘jigger’, which is traceable to sixteenth century cant, ‘gygger’, ‘door’, possibly ultimately from the Welsh ‘gwddor’, ‘gate’. One of my favourites is ‘gobshite’, which may be from the Irish English ‘gobshell’, ‘a big spittle direct from the mouth’, from the Gaelic ‘gub’, ‘mouth, beak’ and ‘seile’, ‘spit’, though it might simply be a combination of ‘gob’ and ‘shite’.

Tony Crowley is Professor of English at the University of Leeds. Born and bred in Liverpool, he has taught at Oxford, Southampton and Manchester Universities. He was the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of the Humanities at Scripps College, California (2005–13), and is a Fellow of the English Association. His previous books include Scouse: A Social and Cultural History (Liverpool University Press, 2012).

Waterstones Liverpool One – Wednesday 25th October


20% off this title when you use discount code CROWLEY at the checkout.

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