This post introduces a unique feature of Myaamia nouns known in linguistics as animacy. This system is used to separate nouns into two categories: animate and inanimate. Every noun we have falls into one or the other and that gets represented by the last letter of the word. For animate nouns the word ends in ‘a’ and for inanimate nouns the word ends in ‘i’. Examples of these are:
Animate: alenia ‘man’, mahkwa ‘black bear’
Inanimate: šooli ‘money’, wiintaakani ‘book’
When it comes to finding a pattern for which nouns fall into which category, things become complicated. From the examples above we might conclude that animate nouns must be ‘alive’ or ‘living beings’ while inanimate nouns are ‘objects’ or ‘non-living’. While these categories are reliable in some cases, they are not accurate. Animals and humans both consistently fall under the animate category, but there are also many examples of things we might consider ‘objects’ that fall into the same category. For example:
Animate: ahkihkwa ‘drum’, alaankwa ‘star’, manetwa ‘falling snow’, kiilhswa ‘sun, moon, clock’
From the perspective of ‘living’, these animate nouns do not seem to correlate. Another contradictory example involves body parts, which are mostly inanimate, except for a handful such as the ones below:
Animate: nihciwa ‘my upper arm’, nilaana ‘my calf’, nitelia ‘my shoulder’
Inanimate: ninteehi ‘my heart’, nintepikani ‘my head’, nintooni ‘my mouth’
Why might these parts of the bodies be considered animate alongside humans and animals while the majority of others are inanimate? It is not immediately clear why and there may be a deeper cultural context that gives reasons for why they should be animate. Once we realized that ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ didn’t work as the two categories, we started looking for more clues. In the records we found a French translation for animate nouns, ‘noble’ which in English means ‘important’. It may be that animate nouns were considered ‘important’ or ‘significant’ while inanimate nouns were considered ‘common’ or maybe just the default. In the body part examples above, it may be that those specific body parts were considered more significant than those body parts that end in ‘i’. Although ‘significant’ and ‘common’ still don’t fit neatly with our current understanding, they are currently the best ways we have of explaining the difference between the two.
One reason these categories are important is because they affect the language that is used when talking about them. And while we still do not fully understand how and why these two categories are separated the way they are, it is very clear that they have an important place in how the language works. An example of this is when we talk about eating; because different foods can fall into different categories. Here is an example of how the type of noun affects which verb is used:
Animate: mihšiimina ‘apple’ → mihšiimina eemwaki ‘I am eating the apple’
Inanimate: keekaanwimini ‘banana’ → keekaanwimini meeciaani ‘I am eating the banana’
As you can see, the verb for ‘eat’ is different if you’re referring to a food that is animate versus one that is inanimate. This distinction exists across our language and therefore knowing which category each noun falls into is important when communicating about those nouns. Our understanding of animacy is still evolving and as we continue to study it, and over time our definitions of these two categories will continue to develop and become more accurate. As learners of Myaamiaataweenki, it is important for us all to know these two categories exist and how that affects the language we use and learn.