Last week, I joined the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer, Alaska on the stunning Kachemak Bay campus of my alma mater, The University of Alaska. I stayed with a friend on the Homer Spit and – as you can see above – I woke up pretty mesmerized every day!
One of my favorite moments of this conference was hearing Robin Wall Kimmerer, Potawatomi member, scientist, and author of the beautiful essay collection Braiding Sweetgrass.
In Potawatomi, as with many indigenous language, words focus on flows between substances. Nearly 70% of Potawatomi is verb-based. About 30% of English is verb-based, suggesting that English speakers think in terms of objects and isolated action, rather than with a holistic or systems-based perspective.
Kimmerer discussed these differences in her 2012 essay “Learning the Grammar of Animacy.” But what was new and fascinating for me to hear was a potential tweak in English grammar that can restore our familiarity with the natural world, or what ecologist David Abram calls the “more-than-human world.”
Instead of referring to plants and animals or “natural resources” as it or they, try using the pronouns ki (singular), kis (possessive) and kin (plural). These pronouns stem from aki, an Anishinaabe word meaning “earthly being.”
This is a fantastic alternative to it or that, which people tend to use whenever we don’t know someone’s name (or lack the care to learn a “new “foreign” name).
This shift in grammar literally ushers in a kin-centric view.
Kimmerer offers several examples:
- Kin are flying north.
- Ki is eating
- Look at kis azul feathers.
This grammatical shift challenges the myth of human exceptionalism. In the ultimately pernicious philosophy of human exceptionalism, humans are always at the top of a pyramid. Because of the uncritical use of cliched words like it, sustainability, natural resources, or ecosystem – which present the natural world as disparate from humans and as no different than a car engine – the fiction of human exceptionalism has become an unquestioned form of “common sense.”
Ki challenges human exceptionalism by positioning humans as part of nature as opposed to above nature. Ki helps move our thinking toward the more-than-human world from a pyramidal structure to a circular structure, as RWK showed in the powerful diagram above.
Using it reaffirms a human-centric world. Using ki builds a more kin-centric world.
Rather than viewing nature exclusively as an “ecosystem,” the clarity of Ki encourages an affinity with all earthly beings — rivers and mountains included. As Kimmerer said, “The words we choose have real consequences for the land.”
Steps like these are how we move from linguistic imperialism to linguistic restoration.
On the drive back from Homer to Anchorage, I listened to The Spell of the Sensuous (1996) by David Abram.
As you can imagine, when surrounded by immense, snow-capped mountains, this line delighted me:
“The mountain, too, has its thoughts.”— David Abram
I immediately thought of RWK’s grammar of animacy.
Rewriting this quote was simple enough: “The mountain, too, has kis thoughts.”
These tweaks may take some getting used to, but overall, I find this” grammar of animacy” to be a beautiful, simple, and powerful way to more accurately perceive our union within the more-than-human world.
Some of you will observe that the car on the right is moving north to south (Anchorage to Homer) when I apparently listed to “The Spell of The Sensuous” and you’d be right! The drive back was super overcast and at times a bit unnerving with 50mph wind gusts along Tutl’uh/Turnagain Arm, making for less than stellar pictures. Also before RWK’s talk, I had never heard of David Abram; on the drive down there, I had Kim Petras play on repeat 🙂