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Linné on line arrow The History of Ideas arrow Linnaeus’ language

Linnaeus’ language

There’s something special about Linnaeus’ language. Listen to this, for instance (he is describing what he sees in the seasonal changes in nature):


Photo: Ragnar Insulander
 
13 December Butter lets go of the dish.
1 January The cracks are clashing on the ice.
2 January The house-joints pop in the night.
4 January The horse manure is hopping.
8 January Twelfth Night thaw.
26 January Paulsmas slush.

These lines are from Linnaeus’ Flower Almanac, which contains observations from the whole year. Linnaeus thought it would help farmers decide the right time to sow and harvest. Daily notations like these about what you see in nature could be expressed in a much more tedious way, but Linnaeus turns them into poetry. If you take away the dates, you could read the lines as a poem. If a name were to be put on the style, it would be ‘the poetry of facts.’

Linnaeus’ contemporaries did not pay much attention to his way of writing; they were more interested in what he had to say. One of the first people to focus on his language was the author August Strindberg, who praised Linnaeus in the 1880s because he wrote in a way that people could understand. “His achievement was to be understood,” Strindberg wrote. In the early 20th century Linnaeus began to be truly admired for his language. According to the literary scholar Oscar Levertin, he wrote not only simply, but well. And since then Linnaeus’ style has been analyzed and much esteemed.

Linnaeus wrote some works in Latin and some in Swedish. Latin had long been the language of science, but just when Linnaeus embarked upon his writing career it was starting to be more common to write in Swedish. This had the support of the Royal Academy of Sciences, which wanted science to be of use to the nation. And if useful works were in Swedish, then more people would benefit from them.

What strikes many readers is how Linnaeus can write so simply yet so descriptively that it feels as if you are sitting right there with him on the bog or wherever he might be. Here’s a sample of a log from his travels:

Night came with its thick darkness. The high conifer forest became a wall, twice higher in the dark, sheet lightning flared like ghostfires, sharply and often, thunderless, the horses were flashing, sparks flying from their shoes against stones, owls shrieked like phantoms, and the nightjar was thrumming like a spinning wheel.  
Photo: Magdalena Hydman

Linnaeus felt that language should not be encumbered by unnecessary adornments:

“A plain style, short words with pure meanings, and avoidance of tautology are what make one’s style clear.”

Let’s look at two of the terms literary scholars often use when reading Linnaeus: “parallelisms” and “impressionism.”

Sometimes Linnaeus feels that he has to repeat the same thing in several different ways in order to get his message across. Here’s how he can sound:


The elephant in Alfred Edmund Brehm, Djurens lif (Lifes of Animals) (1874)
  We have not the strength of the elephant, but our intelligence has tamed the strongest of them.

We have not the speed of the hare, but our genius has learned to capture the speediest of them.

We have not front feet to dig through earth like the mole, but our minds have devised ways to bore through hard bedrock. [...]

And after several more comparisons between humans and various animals, he sums it up by saying that reason is the noblest gift that God and nature have given humans and that we should therefore make use of it. This is the sort of repetition that is called parallelism. If we compare the term ‘tautology,’ which we encountered earlier, we find that whereas a tautology is an unnecessary, not to mention irritating repetition such as ‘a naked man without clothes,’ a parallelism is a conscious stylistic move that, provided it is done elegantly, is not the least bit tedious. Decide for yourself whether you think Linnaeus succeeded in the lines above.

When parallelisms are brought up in Linnaeus’ texts, it is usually pointed out how similar this is to the style of the Bible. It is believed that Linnaeus grew up hearing the scriptures read aloud since his father was a clergyman, and that he then used biblical language as an adult.

There is no doubt that Linnaeus truly loved nature. And it is Carl’s own enraptured voice we hear in his texts. Let’s compare this with an extremely boring description of a bird. In 1772, another Swedish naturalist, the anatomist Anders Retzius, wrote: “Beak: Upper jaw arched. Nostril: Egglike. Tongue: Forked. Feet: Running, four-fingered. Lives on seeds.”

Of course, Linnaeus could also write abbreviated descriptions when necessary. The difference is that he also had the capacity to write in another way. When he describes nature, he often bases it on what he himself has observed in his travels. Sometimes it almost sounds as if he is a personal friend of the animal. Here’s how he describes the skua (or jaeger), a bird he saw on one of his journeys:

Elof was the name of this blackish gull that cannot capture fish in the water by diving from the air; instead he was created to be a pirate among gulls. One saw with pleasure how this Cossack pursued the other gulls as soon as they had caught a fish, […] the gull had to vomit up the fish he had caught and already packed away. […] Since gulls often fish more than they should, they can also afford to yield treasure to Blackbeard.  
Five skuas pursuing a gull.
Drawing: Gunnar Brusewitz

When this Linnaean manner of writing is termed ‘impressionistic,’ what is meant is that Linnaeus bases his description on his own sense impressions. If it deals with animals, it is called zoological impressionism.

Linnaeus’ way of writing has come to be used by others who depict nature, both in Sweden and abroad, from his own day up to the present. It is not the only way—of course, there are those who have described and still describe plants and animals in other ways, but Linnaeus’ approach to the fascination of nature has without doubt helped create the interest in the outdoors that is cultivated today in teaching, in organizations, and through the traditional right to public access to nature in Sweden.

Literature tips if you would like to read more:

  1. Om blomsteralmanackor - Linnés och andras: Gunnar Brusewitz, "Blomster-almanackan och den nöjsamma nyttigheten" i Svenska Linnésällskapets Årsskrift 1975-77.
  2. Om Linné som författare: Henrik Schück och Karl Warburg, Illustrerad svensk litteraturhistoria, del 3: Frihetstiden (Stockholm, 1927).
  3. Om parallellismer och andra bibliska stildrag i Linnés texter: Jöran Sahlgren, "Linné som predikant" och Sixten Belfrag, "Parallellism och parallelliserande enumeration: En genetisk studie" - båda uppsatserna finns i Svenska Linnésällskapets årsskrift och samlade i antologin Linnés språk och stil, sammanställd av Sigurd Fries. (Stockholm, 1971).
  4. Om Linnés impressionism: Knut Hagberg, Carl Linnæus (Stockholm, 1939) - kapitlet "Fåglarnas lätta rytteri".
  5. Av Linné: Blomsteralmanackan (1757) - finns i nytryck