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

One common form of grammatical animacy is to have animate vs. inanimate nouns that are treated differently. In English, only humans are consistently considered grammatically animate (…and not all humans, in some cultures with slavery). Pets are sometimes granted animacy, but food animals typically are not.

  • Grammatical animacy is illustrated in the difference between saying “Who is that?” instead of “What is it?”.
  • Japanese does not mark nouns for animacy, but uses different existential verbs 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” or “there are pencils 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

Nearly all nouns in Potawatomi (besides still 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 during a ceremony, but not recreational tobacco)
  • notions of time
  • celestial bodies
  • things in motion, including cars/rocks that are currently moving

Verb-centric language

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.

English: one of the ultimate inanimate languages

By comparison, English is an incredibly inanimate and objectifying language with a huge anthrocentric superiority complex. 70% of its lexicon consists of nouns, 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.)

(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

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.

  • I’ve stopped referring to animals (and sometimes plants) 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 no longer makes sense to get mad at them. Instead, I just fix them. Of course they broke as a natural consequence of their history! Super reasonable.
  • I went on a guilty late-night conlang bender once where I read the entire Na’vi grammar guide instead of sleeping. Na’vi has mood infixes that you insert into verbs to inflect how you feel about an action, which feels fantastically effortless. 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.
  • Japanese has a versatile sentence-ending particle ね “ne” which can denote that you are not sure about something, asking the listener for confirmation, don’t want to be presumptuous, etc. American English speakers seem to get the point if you end a sentence with “ey?” or “eh?” in the same tone that Japanese speakers use “ne”.

Indigenous revitalization

Languages are an irreplaceable lens through which to better understand different cultural perspectives, and they are dying constantly. The Potawatomi language is still spoken, but it is incredibly endangered, with only nine fluent speakers left alive at the time Braiding Sweetgrass was written.

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 in the context of creating 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

Potawatomi language



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