This paper focuses on the connections between languages and the multiple values that people hold about nature. Individuals and communities value the complex range of meaningful relationships they have with local nature in different ways. These types of values are termed ‘relational values’. Relational values differ from valuing nature either instrumentally (for its usefulness) or intrinsically (for its own sake). Relational values about nature reflect how people see nature as being important for issues like living a meaningful life, their cultural identity, or attachment to local place. These values are potential levers with which to promote more sustainable ways of living. However, the question of whether languages play any role in the development of human values about nature, especially relational values, has not yet been sufficiently examined.
In this study, we tackle this question and apply it to a specific social-ecological context. We ask whether the ancient Basque language spoken in the Basque Country (bordering France and Spain) influences the relationships between local communities and their environments. We focus on mountain forests of the Western Pyrenees as a case study and applied a mixed methods approach to shed light on the connections between Basque language (Euskara) and relational values, especially those related to cultural identity and place attachment. Fieldwork was based on in-depth conversations with local informants and the use of focus group discussions. The information was then used to draw up a list of the types of relationships that local people have with their mountain forests, and the values that informed those relationships. These were turned into statements to be used as inputs into a Q-method, a semi-quantitative method that allows to systematically study people’s viewpoints about a given topic. The Q-method required 56 participants to sort a range of 33 statements about local people’s relationships with the forest in order of their own preference. The way that statements were ordered by the participants indicated that the Basque language directly and indirectly influenced the way they valued the surrounding mountain forest.
The main result of the study suggests that the forest is important for local identity and attachment to place and this identity and attachment, in turn, is closely linked to speaking, treasuring, and understanding the environment though the Basque language. This result has implications beyond the Basque language and the forests of the Pyrenees. We posit that it is likely that positive relationships with languages can shape and promote positive relationships with local nature. This rapport ought to be recognised and encouraged to establish more sustainable and meaningful ways of living in different social-ecological contexts, especially in those where minority languages are endangered. Through this lens, people could be encouraged to recognise that in working to preserve and nurture linguistic diversity around the world they may also be helping to protect living nature, and thus global sustainability.