Learning About Grammatical Animacy

When I was younger, I thought different languages were just different lexicons that you could interchangeably slap concepts into. But of course, different languages of the world have such vastly different grammars and ways of describing the world that I always get my mind blown when I learn about a new grammatical framework in a language unrelated to English (e.g. not German or most Romance languages).

If you’ve read Braiding Sweetgrass (Robin Wall Kimmerer), you may recall the chapter about indigenous language as a different lens for seeing the world. (Obligatory link to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.) I highly recommend the entire book, but here’s a quick independent summary of that chapter if you’re unfamiliar.

Kimmerer’s ancestral language, Potawatomi, has grammatical animacy. In general, this is not a rare linguistic concept; various forms of grammatical animacy may be found in Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, and many others. However, Potawatomi is an exceptionally animacy-rich language.

Disclaimer: I am only fluent in English and am largely relying on secondhand resources to understand linguistic concepts. If I have misrepresented any of the languages below, please let me know and I will gladly incorporate corrections.

One common form of grammatical animacy is to have animate vs. inanimate nouns that are treated differently. If this feature exists, it tends to include living animals.

  • This is not an exact translation since grammars with animacy are very different from English and also from each others’, but having animate nouns is vaguely akin to the implication between saying “Who is that?” instead of “What is it?” when referring to a tree or animal.
  • Japanese does not mark nouns for animacy, but its existential verbs are different for nouns that are considered alive or not alive. When saying “there are birds here”, you would use the same animate verb いる as to say “my friends are here”, and a different, inanimate verb ある to say “there are tables here.”
  • Some languages have hierarchies of animacy, where certain noun classes are considered “more animate” or differently animate than other animate nouns.

For some weird reason, this kind of distinction is called noun gender. It’s probably because Romance languages have “masculine” and “feminine” nouns which may or may not have any actual gendered associations. But in most languages, “noun gender” can simply be thought of as “broad classes of nouns with different grammatical implications”.

Nearly all nouns in Potawatomi (besides rocks, actively-dead bodies, and most human-made objects) are grammatically animate. Animate nouns include:

  • living animals, plants, insects
  • anything currently in use for a spiritual/ceremonial purpose (e.g. ceremonial tobacco, but not recreational tobacco)
  • notions of time
  • celestial bodies
  • things in motion, including cars that are currently moving

However, animate nouns become grammatically inanimate if you harvest them. A living cedar tree is animate, but if you chop it down, that chopped tree will be inanimate. Simply by using the grammar, you must consider the taking of life.

An even more unusual paradigm is that 70% of Potawatomi’s lexicon consists of verbs, encompassing many concepts that are usually nouns or adjectives in most languages. Lakes and bays are verbs. Fire is a verb. Being colored red is a verb.

A lake does not exist in isolation as a static thing; it must be conjugated with every reference. It grammatically has time, change, and being baked into it by default.

In Ojibwe, a close linguistic relative of Potawatomi with a similarly verb-rich lexicon, defined times such as seasons and days of the week are also verbs: it can be Saturdaying, or was late-summered, or is-not-afternoon. Sunset is a verb. Being named is a verb.

By comparison, English is an incredibly inanimate language with a huge superiority complex: 70% of its lexicon consists of nouns, animacy is not built into the grammar, and humans get special pronouns while all other entities are “it” by default, even animals. We tend to make exceptions for specific animals if we like them enough, but this is not the default.

English has no built-in grammatical way to denote aliveness; nothing is alive or grouped with humans by default unless we explicitly say so.

“[…] doesn’t this mean that speaking English, thinking in English, somehow gives us permission to disrespect nature? By denying everyone else the right to be persons? Wouldn’t things be different if nothing was an it?”

I’ve spoken English all my life, but now I feel stifled by it.

(Also, sometimes, prized rideable objects such as fancy cars, motorcycles, and boats are called “she”, which is a bizarre phenomenon related to objectification of women that is somehow far more objectifying than if said vehicle had just stayed an “it”.)EDIT: My friend pointed out that English has limited animistic dual vocabulary for animals vs. their meat with pig/pork, cow/beef, bird/poultry, etc. However, the modern English-speaking consumer is usually so far from the meat butchering process that it probably just makes it easier to forget that our meat came from a living animal. This duality is actually an interesting linguistic artifact of the 1066 Norman invasion of England.

Having learned little bits and pieces of other languages, I’ve noticed more often how I need to reshuffle whole English sentences to semantically express simple concepts that we don’t grammatically have, but which are casually expressible in other languages with a single phoneme change.

Once you have internalized a grammatical concept, you probably don’t think about it every time you use it; by nature, it has to get baked into your thought patterns so that it is as natural as breathing. You don’t stop and think, “…are birds people?”; you just internalize that birds and humans are intrinsically alike in a way that rocks and tables are not.

Thankfully, some fragments of linguistic concepts can still be translated across the language barrier, even if English can’t express them properly.

  • I’ve stopped referring to animals as “it”, and instead using they/she/he.
  • When objects break and I conceptualize them as entities with complex histories rather than as inanimate things, it doesn’t feel quite natural to get mad at them; I just get started fixing them. Of course they broke because <event> happened to them! (If they’re badly made, I’ll probably still feel upset in the direction of the manufacturer, though.)
  • I went on a guilty late-night conlang bender once where I read the entire Na’vi grammar guide instead of sleeping. It has mood infixes that you insert into verbs to inflect how you feel about an action, which is pretty neat. English doesn’t have this, so I’ve been trying to inflect more actively with my body language if I’m feeling really happy about a verb.

Indigenous revitalization

Languages are an incredible, irreplaceable lens through which to better understand different cultural perspectives, and they are dying constantly. The Potawatomi language is still spoken, but it is endangered.

Like many indigenous American languages, it did not decrease in use naturally over time; colonists waged cultural & physical genocide upon indigenous people by forcibly marching them off their homelands and forcing indigenous children into English-only cultural assimilation schools away from their families, and the impact is still felt on modern indigenous Americans.

Indigenous revitalization movements provide resources and networks to help these languages and cultures continue to survive and flourish amongst indigenous people.

Also consider finding local indigenous-led community organizations to support, or learning more about the history and current events of the indigenous people local to where you live!

  • Dialect is an extremely rules-light (no dice!), oneshot (no commitment!) tabletop RPG about the creation of language through experiences, and how language evolves and dies.
  • The Art of Language Invention (David J. Peterson) is a compressed introduction to linguistics as it relates to the creation of naturalistic conlangs that are designed around a specific fictional culture. Even though it’s focused on fictional languages, it’s a really engaging way to think about the breadth of ways in which different languages can be uniquely intertwined with the cultures that originated them.

Potawatomi language

Ojibwe language

General linguistics

autotelic polymath with an overwhelming compulsion to reverse engineer things I’ve never tried before