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the grammar of animacy

Updated: Jul 13, 2019

Inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass

From the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of “communicate” that most resonates with me is to have a common connecting door, aperture, channel, etc; to open into one another. This definition speaks to the interconnectedness at the heart of communication: to open into one another is to allow a boundary-less sharing, a transfer of essence among entities, with no specification as to the means or mode. Abstract thought and linguistics are not requisite, and the point is interpenetration and connection. This is significant because language is the means by which we connect with our own experience and with others. Without critical analysis, referents become their labels and in this way, the languages we speak determine and structure reality itself.

According to Kimmerer, mast-fruiting trees, such as pecans, somehow coordinate their patterns of production. She states that “there are no soloists” and that all pecan trees fruit, in all groves “all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective” (15). Mast-fruiting is a curious phenomenon indeed when communication is considered. How do these living systems unify and coordinate? Kimmerer describes the “boom-and-bust” cycle of the pecan trees as the “pulse of abundance” (15), and it occurs to me that rhythm itself is a means of communication and connection. Sympathetic resonance and entrainment are fluid and living means by which entities join in experience—in other words, communicate.

The tendency of human cognition is to anthropomorphize that which stands outside of our lived experience in order to better understand it. When we consider the communication of trees, we inevitably parse it in terms of human language, even if we think we aren’t. This is understandable as we have no other point of reference. However, different languages have different features and emphases, and some are much more dynamic and fluid than others. Those dynamic languages bring communication closer to a natural mode, closer to that of the more-than-human world. A more fluid language would then have the potential to decentralize the human experience and to connect us to the broader web of creation. Features of these types of languages are those that are tonal, rhythmic and, if a written system exists, pictorial. Mostly, languages with these features are those of traditional and indigenous cultures.

Kimmerer shares her experience with learning the Potawatomi language of her Anishinaabe lineage. Potawatomi is a living language, comprised of 70% conjugated words. This means that it is a verb-based language. In comparison, English is a noun-based language, which is built to separate the animate from the inanimate and is “somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things” (53). Potawatomi centers life and grants animacy to all phenomena. Kimmerer lends the example of the word for “bay.” It means “that-which-is-baying” or “to-be-a-bay.” The bay is not a thing, but a being. Sovereignty and wisdom are inferred. Additionally, Kimmerer describes learning the language as a tactile experience in her mouth: she describes a taste and feel of certain words (48). This is an example of resonance in that the language is designed to evoke an embodied connection rather than a simply intellectual one. She also mentions that humor is built into Potawatomi: for example, “the mystical word puhpoweeis used not only for [the act of mushrooms rising] but also for certain other shafts that rise mysteriously in the night” (54). Humor and levity have a tremendous potential to connect us in an embodied way to our own experience and each other. We relax and open when spirit smiles.

The tragedy in this story is that at the time of the book’s writing, there were only nine living fluid speakers of Potawatomi. At a language class offered at the annual tribal gathering Kimmerer attended, “A great-grandmother from the circle says, ‘It’s not just the words that will be lost. The language is the heart of our culture; it holds our thoughts, our way of seeing the world. It’s too beautiful for English to explain” (50).

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