In the beginning was the Word . . . Although I don’t identify as Christian so much as Multi-faith or ‘Faith embracing’, that phrase has always resonated at some deep level within me.
Words, language, and the way in which we use them hold such power. Today, savouring my reading of the wonderful Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer gifted me with one of those precious moments of illumination that shift the world on its axis.
A language of things
I had never particularly thought about how the distribution of a particular type of word in a language may mediate our relationship with the world. English is a noun-based language, a language of things. We make that which is not human an ‘it’, an object. Potentially, in so doing, we create a barrier between the human and everything else that makes it much easier to disrespect, despoil and destroy. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, the words of being and doing.
A language of being
Learning her ancestral language, Potawatomi, Robin Wall Kimmerer was initially bewildered to discover that 70 percent of its words are verbs and that, whilst there is no dividing the world into masculine and feminine, the use of language is shaped by whether something is perceived as animate or inanimate.
It was the word for ‘bay’, which reads more like ‘to be a bay’, that provided that vital spark of understanding.
This ‘grammar of animacy’ extends not just to plants and animals. It includes rocks and mountains, water and fire, places, sacred medicines, songs, drums, stories – anything that is imbued with spirit. The inanimate forms of language are largely reserved for objects made by people. It strikes me that, in our English speaking and many other Western cultures, our art, our music, our poetry is often an attempt to reclaim animacy.
Animate or inanimate?
I remember my daughter at a very young age fascinated by making the distinction between male and female, boy and girl. Today I find myself looking around me with the same fascination, trying to distinguish between animate and inanimate.
I hold up a small candle, burning in a glass jar. The glass and the candle itself feel inanimate, though the changing state of the wax gives me pause for thought. But the flame is so obviously animate.
Looking at my nightstand, made from reclaimed wood, I address it as something inanimate, but which has also once been animate. I wonder, though, if a table imbued with love, with a reverence for the tree from which it is hewn, built with artistry and skill, is animate or inanimate?
In truth, I identified at least to some extent as an animist from my teens, so this is not entirely new territory. The last five years, living so close to nature, this sense has bubbled up with increasing vigour. I perceive the Lake as my greatest teacher, so obviously ‘alive’. I automatically think of the creatures we see or become aware of as beings, as ‘somebody’, even the ticks and the mosquitoes! Likewise, the trees and plants, with whom my relationship deepens as each season passes. This sense of animacy and its implicit connectedness is part of the underpinning of my sense of joy.
I can’t help wondering, now, how other languages reflect and shape their speakers’ relationship with the world – what a fascinating area of study for one of my parallel lives.
Braiding silence with animacy
How wonderful it would be to have a living language, imbued with this sense of being, in which to think and speak and write. Some thirty years ago, I wrote a poem entitled The Speaking of Silence. I still aspire to learning the language of silence. But now I would wish to find some way to braid it together with the language of animacy.