Animate & Inanimate Nouns
Video Lecture

Language Lesson - Animate and Inanimate Nouns

Animate and Inanimate Nouns

Potawatomi uses a concept called Animacy to classify nouns. Though there are exceptions, most living and spiritual things are classified as animate and most non-living things are considered inanimate.

English does not have an equivalent classification of Nouns.

In Potawatomi, the Animacy classification is more in keeping with the respect and symbiosis that the people have had with Nature. Things that are alive (animate) are treated differently than things that are not alive (inanimate). A tree is considered to be alive so it is animate. ‘The tree’ is written: O mtek. A lamp is not alive and therefore inanimate. ‘The lamp’ is written: I waskonenjegen.

Animate Nouns
living things - people, animals, plants, insects
spiritual things - ceremonial pipes and plants
things in motion - moving cars
celestial bodies - the sun, the moon, stars

Inanimate Nouns
nonliving things - a dead tree, food, rocks
man made things - blankets, cups, plates

More on Spiritual Items
Things that are used in a ceremony or in a spiritual way are considered animate. If you have Tobacco and are making an offering with it, you would consider the tobacco to be animate. If you were just smoking tobacco, that tobacco would be considered an inanimate thing. A few things from this lesson's vocabulary list are sacred plants. Kishke, wishpemishgos, sema, wabshkebyak and other plants are often used in ceremonies and like other things should be considered animate in that setting. When refering to those plants in a non-spiritual situation, you would refer to them as inanimate things.

For instance, cedar, when used in a ceremony, would be refered to as being animate.

You would refer to cedar in that situation as "o kishke" - "the/that cedar".

If you were clipping cedar brush in the wood and had no spiritual intention, the plant once cut would be considered inanimate.

You would refer to cedar in that situation as "i kishke" - "the/that cedar".

O and I - The / That
The letters ‘O’ and ‘I’ are used to say the/that. If the noun is animate then you use ‘O’ to say ‘the’ or ‘that’. If it is an inanimate noun then you use ‘I’ to say ‘the’ or ‘that’.

The examples below demonstrate the difference between Animate Nouns and Inanimate Nouns.

Animate - Living
o moewe
o nanimewe
o meshewe
o pwagen
o dabyan
the wolf
the coyote
the elk
the pipe
the car (moving)

Inanimate - Non-Living
i deschegen
i dopwen
i pedyebwen
i dabyan
the desk
the table
the chair
the car (parked)

Dabyan (car) is considered animate when it is moving and inanimate when it is parked. Some plants are considered animate when they are growing, but inanimate after they have been picked or cut down. A lake is considered animate, but a river is inanimate. This may be confusing for some people. Just try to understand the general rules with Animacy and memorize the exceptions as you come across them.