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Dripstone is the research blog for queer visual artist, researcher, writer and curator Venus Jasper.

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Grammar of Animacy

Hereby I post a segment of the brilliant and useful essay 'Grammar of Animacy' by Robin Wall Kimmerer as published in her 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass.

Grammar of Animacy

"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 [verb] 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."

English doesn’t give us many tools for incorporating respect for animacy. In English, you are either a human or a thing.

"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 o subjects, not a collection of objects.”

"One afternoon, I sat with my field ecology students by a wiikwergamaa 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 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."

Maybe a grammar of animacy could lead us to whole new ways of living in the world—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, possibilities, 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."

"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 the 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."

Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013

More recently, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been sharing what she believes could be an alternative, or addition, to our current use of pronouns in the natural world. Below is a podcast in which Robin speaks about the pronoun KIN (them, multiple) which comes from KI (s/he/it, singular). Super beautiful offering. Check it out.

- https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/together-earth/2015/03/30/alternative-grammar-a-new-language-of-kinship

Books:
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Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.


Talk by Bayo Akomolafe on romanticizing of 'Indigenous" and "Right Relationships" :
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https://forthewild.world/listen/dr-bayo-akomolafe-on-coming-alive-to-other-senses-300

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