The above video (especially the first seven minutes) gives a great overview of animacy, a topic that comes up in this month’s Towards Awareness reading.

This month, we’re reading an excerpt from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist who is also Indigenous. In this chapter, Robin talks about how studying science has given her the vocabulary to closely identify and study plants.

However, when she learned about Indigenous studies of plants, she realized that science, and by extension English, has serious shortcomings when it comes to describing nature. Her heritage language, Potawatomi, has a complete different perspective of nature, and that perspective is encoded in the structure of the language itself. Water, for example, would not be described as “it,” as it is in English. Instead, water is a verb in Potawatomi because it is a living thing.

Due to generational oppression of Indigenous languages, the author does not speak her heritage language. In fact, at the time of writing, there are only nine fluent speakers remaining. The author believes that through learning the grammar of animacy, or the idea that nature is alive, people can learn to care for the environment again.

Discussion Questions

  • Are words like water, tree, and grass nouns or verbs in the languages you speak?
  • How does the author think that viewing nature as a verb can help change our relationship with it?
  • Potawamaki has very few fluent speakers left. What factors (social, political, etc.) have caused many Indigenous languages to have few speakers left?
  • Why does the author find it important to learn Potawatomi?

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Ashwini Kashyap
Ashwini Kashyap
10 months ago

In my native language we consider Tree, water, grass as living things but we don’t use them as verbs.

In English we use water as verb but not sure if that makes sense in this context. 🧐

Reply to  Ashwini Kashyap
6 months ago

That’s really cool Ashwini!