A few months ago I heard an interview that stopped me in my tracks. I saw how one WORD could be a path to more power and connection within our bodies . . .
Krista Tippett from the podcast On Being was speaking with plant ecologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Robin studies the Potawatomi language, a Central Algonquin language that is undergoing a revitalization effort. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer explains that the Potawatomi language is comprised of approximately 70% verbs, a much larger percentage when compared to English.
Initially Robin was confused by Potawatomi verbs such as “to be a Saturday,” and “to be a bay.” Why would these be verbs instead of nouns? Why so many verbs? Why complicate the process of speaking? In English “Saturday” and “bay” are simply nouns that need no verb tense or conjugation.
In the heat of her frustration, Robin realized that “. . . language (is) a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines andnuthatches and mushrooms.” The Potawatomi language reflects the life of a Saturday. It reflects the flow and arrangement of water, choosing to be a bay. It weaves human and other beings together in the pulse of living-intelligence, vibrancy, and aliveness.
The English language can be very isolating. If we want to talk about a tree, we use the pronoun “it.” Which is the same pronoun we use for a chair or a truck. “It” implies non-intelligent, dead matter in the form of an object. Robin gives the example: “If I called my grandmother or the person sitting across the room from me an ‘it,’ that would be so rude. I just robbed you of your personhood, of your humanity, I disrespected you. “
Guess what else we use “it” to describe? Parts of our OWN BODY. Yes, parts of ourselves. In English grammar, our knee becomes an “it,” our shoulder, our spine, our heart, our tongue, our brain- all “IT-S!”
On some level our words rob our own living systems of animacy. We deny their intelligence. And thus it follows that we occasionally treat them as dead matter in the form of an object, rather than a being endowed with life energy and know-how. This hidden mentality can get in the way of our own experience of aliveness.
So What Do We Do Now?
I personally want to adapt Robin’s proposal for playing with grammar. I’ve been thinking about her suggestion for months. In her On Being interview Robin advocates that when representing animate beings, instead of using the word “it” we try the word: “ki.”
She draws parallels with the word “Qi,” or “Chi,” which in Eastern traditions describes the energy force, or pulse within all things. And the poetry continues with her proposal of making the plural version of “ki” be “kin,” signifying the inter-woveness among living beings.
In my movement practice, I strive to sense the pulse of life throughout the entire body, to weave together living systems, limbs and trunk, roots, buds, and branches. And to enter into the state that some describe as “flow” or the “tao,” the awareness of life moving through all beings, of which the individual is a part. Why not adapt language to reflect this profound state of awareness accessible through the silent wisdom of movement practice?
I am going to do my best to start weaving the grammar of animacy into my life and work. For example the other day I thought: “My knee is bothering me.”
I realized the grammar did not properly portray my thought. Thinking, “my knee is bothering me,” separated my knee from myself. I was able to convert this thought to, “my knee is bothered, my knee feels pain.” Then I felt as though I was already a step ahead on the path of treating and healing ki.
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