Learning About Grammatical Animacy

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.

Animate nouns

  • 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.

Animate nouns in Potawatomi

  • 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

Verb-centric language

English: one of the ultimate inanimate languages

(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.

Linguistic cross-pollination thoughts

  • 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

Other resources that have expanded my linguistic worldview

  • 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.

References I read while writing this post




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

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

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