Cities, Semantics & Approaches to ‘WILD’

Ensemblage: Pigs, by Author.
Meanings of WILD transmitted through languages have direct implications on how we plan our cities.
Collage: Pigs by Amartya Deb; Illustrated for Expanded Environment.

Spatially, cities and wilderness areas are treated as mutually exclusive systems. This problem partly rests with the discipline of Town and Country Planning which faces the challenge of delineating and generalising geographical space. Planners have the task of assigning utility and character to spaces on a grand scale. This often blurs the mosaic of nature present in cities as much as the presence of human life in natural areas – thus compromising the legitimacy of such co-existence. Re-organisation of space, using maps as powerful visual tools has flattened and solidified the ideas of wilderness and human settlements as two mutually exclusive areas.

Until recently, my construction of meaning to ‘wild’ had been with reference to the physical; or in other words, aspects that are tangible. In my book Introducing Wildlife in Urban Areas[1], I merge urban and wild, partly by overlaying the traditionally separated geographical units. In doing so, I used three dimensions to define wild: scale, control and movement.  But there also exist intangible meanings of ‘wild’ which vary depending on context and tone used across different cultures. A linguistic approach offered a deeper understanding of this intangibility[2]. Comparing meanings of wild across three languages suggests that our cultural depiction of WILD has encouraged this separation of wild and urban areas – which now reflect in our planning practices.

Intangible meanings of WILD

Exploring English, Bengali and Albanian, I find that there are at least 80 synonyms[3] of the word WILD. Essentially, these can be grouped into multiple broad themes of culture, geography, control, utility value, measure (or scale) and navigation. Hereon, I focus on examples to illustrate the dominant understandings of wild.

In English at least, wild-land is often referred to that which is ‘uninhabited or unpopulated’. Indeed, ‘wilderness areas’ are not inhabited by human beings. But of course, it is both inhabited and populated by non-human nature. Here the meaning of wild not only separates wild-habitats from human-settlements, but also reflects an overbearing of humans on nature. That is – humans dominate the universe, and nature is that which remains otherwise. This can result in a utilitarian approach to nature; that is – nature must serve interest of humans.

In contrast,  Bengali words that are synonymous with WILD rarely distinguish human and nature by geography. For instance, in Bengali although the word ‘Ohrohnno’ (all Bengali words in this article are in English converted pronunciation) is inter-changeably used for forest, the literary meaning of this word refers to sylvan, or ‘related to woods’. In Bengali, Orohnno would not even refer to wild animals. The phrase ‘Ban’ya pasu’ is more appropriate to describe the untamed fauna present in the forest. The prefix Ban’ya translated to English would mean: that which is ferocious, feral, savage, sylvan or haggard. Whereas, the word ‘Jongol’ or jungle, more accurately refers to forest. Going through a list of such synonyms, I find that the words which represent WILD in Bengali more represents a character or behaviour of that ‘belonging’ in forests.

Wild is often associated with traits of violence and ferocity possessed by animals in the forest. But humans too, can be ferocious and savage. In English language, wild is also commonly synonymous with aspects of nature or human behaviour that is out of control. One can find this in the use of wild as ‘untamed’, ‘broken’, or ‘undomesticated’. In Bengali as well, the word Akrishito, a synonym of wild-land actually refers to unploughed or fallow land. However, I fail to find a single similar synonym of wild in Albanian which would relate to human control on nature. In Albanian, much like in Bengali, synonyms of wild reveal their meanings like that of character or behaviour. Meanings of Wild in Albanian refer to especially those behavioural-characteristics which carry a negative connotation or are not desirable in our civilised society. Thus use of the word i egër, or WILD in Albanian, can be found to carry a strong element of culture.

A phrase in Albanian:

Pavarësisht nga kundërshtimi i egër i armiqve, Jehovai
është kujdesur që Fjala e tij të jetë libri më i përkthyer në
historinë njerëzore.

Translated by human[4] to:

Despite fierce opposition from enemies, Jehovah
has seen to it that his Word is the most widely
translated book in the history of mankind.

See end notes on this translation

The wild or ‘fierce’ nature leads to a barbaric or violent culture. Wild can be seen here to be separated from that which is benevolent and under control. Such meanings are not absent in English and Bengali – but exist with other meanings of wild that personify an absence or even inability of human dominance. A good example perhaps is the phrase ‘Jharo ha’wa or storm in Bengali. The suffix ‘Jharo’ signifies the wild or vicious character or the wind to help create the same meaning as that of a storm in English. A short verse below translated[5] from a collection of poetry in the book Crossing by Rabindranath Tagore published in 1918 personifies an understanding of storm in Bengali culture:

On that night when the storm broke open my door.
I did not know that you entered my room through the ruins,
For the lamp was blown out, and it became dark;
I stretched my arms to the sky in search of help.
I lay on the dust waiting in the tumultuous dark and I knew not that storm was your own banner.
When the morning came I saw you standing upon the emptiness that was spread over my house.

Tagore, R., 1918. Crossings, 21

The above verse represents the alarming viciousness of a storm and present the natural phenomenon as bearing a fearful brutal force. The scene is set in the night, when humans are most vulnerable naturally – but alas, it is nature’s cycle after sun-down. The lamp signifies a source of hope and security; but too weak a control for humans to have on nature’s forces: darkness and the storm. This lack of control on nature is perceived as a threat across the three cultures I have chosen.

Semantics guiding our approach to wildlife in cities

Viewing WILD as ‘uncivilised’ and ‘threatening’; albeit among few other meanings that are rarely contradictory – has direct implications on how we view our cities. This hostile understanding of nature intertwined in our language and culture implies that WILD does not belong in human-dominated systems.  Through meanings captured in languages passed on through several successive generations, this distinction has come to define both cities and wilderness.  Given a common cynical view of WILD across cultures, it is not surprising that human settlements are seldom imagined with wildlife, despite a growing understanding of mechanisms and evidence for co-existence.

The geographic divide between urban and wild is driven by our understanding of WILD. Languages are intangible from human lives, as communication remains key to cultural exchange – and thereby our evolution. Languages that offer meanings of control over nature also offer linguistic tools to view nature as utilitarian. Expanding the understanding of wild from different cultures could well lead to alternative approaches to WILD – which parts of the world might have forgotten or are even yet to consider.


[1] Deb, A. 2017. Introducing Wildlife in Urban Areas. Copal Publishing: New Delhi.

[2] Akhmanova, O.S., Mel’chuk, I.A., Frumkina, R.M., and Paducheva, E.V. (1963).Several Types of Linguistic Meanings in Exact Methods in Linguistic Research. Translated by David G Hayes and Dolores V Mohr. University of California Press, pp 36-44.

[3] I chose 3 languages for semantic exploration; English – My first language, Bengali – my mother tongue, and Albanian – a language I have never spoken. While an unknown language comes with the caveat of meanings getting misinterpreted in the translation, the Albanian to English dictionary online happened to be a great resource. It offers translation with it mentions have been drawn from analysis of over 300 sentences using the word wild – each translated by human. This is a fairly reliable approach as opposed to computer generated algorithms, human minds hold knowledge of semantics associated with the respective culture and context rather than literal translation of words.  Converting both Bengali and Albanian to English, I arrived at a vast LIST of words in ENGLISH alone that could be referred to as meaning of ‘wild’. Google translate and dictionary proved my best friend for synonyms. After going through the list of words in English, I could identify that most words found indeed become alternative-meanings wild. I gladly removed those I did not feel fit. My initial analysis found there are at least 60 different ways in which the word WILD is perceived in Albanian, Bengali and English. Translating these meanings into English only increased this number to 80 variations in meaning. Given how few words overlap, it is clear that consideration of more languages can reveal more meanings of the word the study is far from reaching saturation. Considering more languages are likely to increase our understanding of how many more ways wild gets interpreted in different cultures.

[4] The English – Albanian-English Dictionary online has a repository of phrases using ‘i egër’ or Wild in Albanian, with their translations in English. [www]  Available at: [accessed on 16 October 2018].

[5] Tagore, R. 1918. Crossings. Verse 21. [www] Available at: [accessed 23 February 2019].

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