Monday, November 7, 2011

Learning the Grammar of Unity

I recently taught a wonderful essay, called "Learning the Grammar of Animacy," in my freshman writing class. It's by a woman named Robin Wall Kimmerer, and she's native American -- Potawatomi -- and a botanist, who specializes in mosses. She also happens to be a lovely writer.

Kimmerer's essay is largely about her study of the nearly-extinct Potawatomi language, and the lessons she derives from it. The thing about this language is, it doesn't divide the world into he, she, and it in the same way that English does. It doesn't assume that human beings are the only animals -- or natural entities -- deserving of subjectivity (being a he or she instead of an it). In Potawatomi, a bay is gendered. So is a tree. And so is a rock. These are things of nature, and they are infused with a life-spirit. They are animate things, and they are subjects rather than objects.

When bays and trees  and rocks, when cats and roosters and earthworms, are perceived as subjects, they are treated as though they have intrinsic value. They are respected. When your language is structured such that most things except for human-made objects (tables, lamps) are animate. you live life in a certain, all-embracing way. What a great way to live!

Most languages are structured in a more binary way than Potawatomi. By binary way, I mean that they are governed by oppositions. The most basic opposition, one shared by the Potawatomi, is probably he/she.  But we also have s/he and it (and there are far more "its" in English than in Potawatomi). There is also day/night (not a human construct) and rich/poor (definitely a man-made construct). The most destructive binary, in my opinion -- and perhaps the most "natural" of them all -- is I and you. Us and them. The rich and the poor. The blacks and the whites. Christians and Jews. Jews and Muslims. "Normal" and "abnormal." We divide our world up into these binaries, and this allows certain groups to exercise power over other groups. It enables people like Benjy to look themselves over and conclude that they are inferior to the "norm" (whatever that is), because they don't resemble it. And the "norm," whether behavioral or aesthetic or sartorial or religious, is a tyrant.

Of course, nature is binary. I mentioned day and night. There's also hot and cold, sour and sweet, hard and soft. And there's life and death. When Benjy says, "I do not think my life is worth living. I want it to end," he is invoking the binary of life and death. Life is painful, and there is only one alternative to it. Either you are alive or you are dead.

Maybe we can't escape binary thinking. Our language, our world, are built that way. But Kimmerer, as she learns the Potawatomi language, is teaching her botany students a thing or two about the grammar of animacy. She's helping them to see the world in a new, and more humane way.

I would like to learn the grammar of animacy too, which is also a grammar of unity. I want to teach it to my chldren, my parents, my friends, my students. Who's with me?

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