Robin Wall Kimmerer | Learning the grammar of animacy

This is the grammar of animacy. Imagine seeing your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, “Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.” We might snicker at such a mistake, but we also recoil from it. In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.

To whom does our language extend the grammar of animacy? Naturally, plants and animals are animate, but as I learn, I am discovering that the Potawatomi understanding of what it means to be animate diverges from the list of attributes of living beings we all learned in Biology 101. In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places. Beings that are imbued with spirit, our sacred medicines, our songs, drums, and even stories, are all animate. The list of the inanimate seems to be smaller, filled with objects that are made by people. Of an inanimate being, like a table, we say “What is it?” And we answer Dopwen yewe. Table it is. But of apple, we must say, “Who is that being?” And reply Mshimin yawe. Apple that being is.

Yawe–the animate to be. I am, you are, s/he is. To speak of those possessed with life and spirit we must say yawe. By what linguistic confluence do Yahweh of the Old Testament and yawe of the New World both fall from the mouths of the reverent? Isn’t this just what it means, to be, to have the breath of life within, to be the offspring of creation? The language reminds us, in every sentence, of our kinship with all of the animate world.

English doesn’t give us many tools for incorporating respect for animacy. In English, you are either a human or a thing. Our grammar boxes us in by the choice of reducing a nonhuman being to an it, or it must be gendered, inappropriately, as a he or a she. Where are our words for the simple existence of another living being? Where is our yawe? My friend Michael Nelson, an ethicist who thinks a great deal about moral inclusion, told me about a woman he knows, a field biologist whose work is among other-than-humans. Most of her companions are not two-legged, and so her language has shifted to accommodate her relationships. She kneels along the trail to inspect a set of moose tracks, saying, ”Someone’s already been this way this morning.” “Someone is in my hat,” she says, shaking out a deerfly. Someone, not something.

When I am in the woods with my students, teaching them the gifts of plants and how to call them by name, I try to be mindful of my language, to be bilingual between the lexicon of science and the grammar of animacy. Although they still have to learn scientific roles and Latin names, I hope I am also teaching them to know the world as a neighborhood of nonhuman residents, to know that, as ecotheologian Thomas Berry has written, “we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

One afternoon, I sat with my field ecology students by a wiikegama and shared this idea of animate language. One young man, Andy, splashing his feet in the clear water, asked the big question. “Wait a second,” he said as he wrapped his mind around this linguistic distinction, “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?“  Swept away with the idea, he said it felt like an awakening to him. More like a remembering, I think. The animacy of the world is something we already know, but the language of animacy teeters on extinction–not just for native peoples, but for everyone. Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion–until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget. When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple an object, we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying it makes a living land into “natural resources.” If a maple is an it, we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.

Another student countered Andy’s argument. “But we can’t say he or she. That would be anthropomorphism.” They are well-schooled biologists who have been instructed, in no uncertain terms, never to ascribe human characteristics to a study object, to another species. It’s a cardinal sin that leads to a loss of objectivity. Carla pointed out that “it’s also disrespectful to the animals. We shouldn’t project our perceptions onto them. They have their own ways–they’re not just people in furry costumes.” Andy countered, “But just because we don’t think of them as humans doesn’t mean they aren’t beings. Isn’t it even more disrespectful to assume that we’re the only species that counts as ‘persons’?” The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be a human.

A language teacher I know explained that grammar is just the way we chart relationships in language. Maybe it also reflects our relationships with each other. Maybe a grammar of animacy could lead us to whole new ways of living in the world, other species a sovereign people, a world with a democracy of species, not a tyranny of one; with moral responsibility to water and wolves, and with a legal system that recognizes the standing of other species. It’s all in the pronouns.

Andy is right. Learning the grammar of animacy could well be a restraint on our mindless exploitation of land. But there is more to it. I have heard our elders give advice like “You should go among the standing people” or “Go spend some time with those Beaver people.” They remind us of the capacity of others as our teachers, as holders of knowledge, as guides. Imagine walking through a richly inhabited world of birch people, bear people, rock people, beings we think of and therefore speak of as persons worthy of our respect, of inclusion in a peopled world. We Americans are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species, let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us. We don’t have to figure out everything by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us. Imagine how much less lonely the world would be.

Every word I learn comes with a breath of gratitude for our elders who have kept this language alive and passed along its poetry. I still struggle mightily with verbs, can hardly speak at all, and I’m still most adept with only kindergarten vocabulary. But I like that in the morning I can go for my walk around the meadow greeting neighbors by name. When a crow caws at me from the hedgerow, I can call back Mno gizhget andushukwe! I can brush my hand over the soft grasses and murmur Bozho mishkos. It’s a small thing, but it makes me happy.

I’m not advocating that we all learn Potawatomi or Hopi or Seminole, even if we could. Immigrants came to these shores bearing a legacy of languages, all to be cherished. But to become native to this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too, our work is to learn to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we might truly be at home.

I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true.” But, he said, with fingers on his lips, “You don’t have to speak it here, if you speak it here,” he said, patting his chest. “They will hear you.”

“Learning the Grammar of Animacy” from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.

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7 Responses to Robin Wall Kimmerer | Learning the grammar of animacy

  1. Priscilla King August 17, 2016 at 7:29 am #

    Megwech for this. (I keep a handful of Cherokee words in my head mainly by bestowing them as nicknames on friends…I don’t actually *speak* Cherokee.)

  2. Katherine Lawrence August 17, 2016 at 9:39 am #

    What a beautiful gift of story.

    And how sad and inspiring to know so few people are left struggling mightily to hold on to the last threads of a language that contains such an important, true perspective about the relationship between us all–rocks and trees to humans.

  3. Brian Turnwald August 18, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

    Your words seem to slip right past my analytical mind and speak directly to my soul. Beautiful writing! I just got your book on Audible.

    Thank you!

  4. Soumya August 19, 2016 at 1:29 am #

    tears welled up in my eyes – as you shifted my perception in our english-speaking world of bay as a noun to bay as a verb. Somewhere in my mind a paradigm shift happened- all i can think of at the moment is word resonating in my heart- “Thank you”. thank god we have a verb word for gratitude in English.

  5. KT Wolf November 7, 2016 at 6:13 am #

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    I am a biologist by training, but grew up mostly as a wild child, talking to the animals in the woods as people, and refused to ever believe otherwise. My daughter, now 23 years old, stops what she is doing when she finds a spider or a worm, and talks gently to them as she sets them aside, out of danger from our giant, clumsy feet. In our white-world, I sometimes still get impatient with her for being so distractible that i have to ask her to continue doing whatever it is we were doing together. But at the same time, I am so proud that she has this not-lost connection to the Insect People, the Bird People, the Spider People. I found myself thinking, yesterday, that if she ever finds a mate, it will be a man who also speaks kindly and gratefully to spiders.

    I speak to all of the grandmother trees in my wood, and apologize to them and try to explain why I am killing and uprooting their root-friends, the buckthorns, which do not mean to be bad. They are just killers of the undergrowth, and it’s not their fault, but removing them is a good thing to do for the forest. I suppose it would be wiser of me to make it into a song, about how the invader white-people brought their invader plants with them, and that the bodies of these invader-plants will not leave the watching of the Elder trees, but they will have to be reborn as fungi-food, because when they are trees, they harm the smaller plants which love the shade of the Elder trees.

    Having read this essay, I realize, it is not so hard to escape the clutches of English and the colonization-mode of thought. It’s just easier when you start young and leave in place what is already innate in children. My daughter and I used to walk to her school in the morning, after rains, and lift earthworms out of puddles, throwing them onto the grass where they would not be stranded after the puddles dried up. Saving earthworms from dying on sidewalks, gently moving spiders out of the way of anything destructive we might be doing to their webs, apologizing to creatures I accidentally crushed beneath my feet, thanking oaks for their acorns. Even the “silly” things I did like calling out “Keys, where are you?” when i was looking for a set of lost keys–that was all it took to change the world from an inanimate one to an animated, animist world for my daughter. Or to leave it as animated as it always has been. I never had that wild world groomed out of me, because the tamed world was quite cruel to me when I was little, and to love Nature was my only refuge.

    Your children (students) may not speak your Native tongue, either, but the transition of thought is not necessarily lost. I really appreciate what you wrote, and more than anything, I am grateful because it validates my sometimes made-fun-of way of looking at the world. That tells me that all of those times I read about Native Americans, as a white child, I assimilated what was good, and what was welcome to be shared. The books may have been promoters of cultural appropriation, but this concept of Animism is something in our deep roots, for all people in the world. It’s part of our common history that is innate in children: if Western culture is designed to train it out of us (to beat it out of us), avoiding that depersonalization of the world is only a matter of teaching parents and teachers to preserve what children already have.

    • lenore hitchler February 5, 2018 at 9:04 pm #

      I just read this. Do you have any published work? I love your writing.


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