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What Is Animacy?

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  • Written By: Meg Higa
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2016
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Some languages of the world categorize nouns into classes. One of the most common noun classifications is that of gender. Other than the gender distinctions of pronouns, English does not have any meaningful categorization of nouns. Other languages, however, can have a variety of noun classes which dictate how any given noun is to be correctly used. Animacy, in quite a few languages, is the classification of nouns, and the things these words refer, based on the degree to which they are “alive” or animate.

Some languages simply separate a noun into whether it is animate or inanimate, such as a person versus a tree. Within a language, there is never overlap or ambiguity of noun class; but across languages, classification can differ, such as a culture which might regard a tree as animate. Other languages therefore may have a more complex animacy to their nouns. It might be a class, not only of division, but also of hierarchy.

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As in the example of a tree, it cannot be generalized across languages, but a system of animacy with more than two categories will typically employ a subset of the following order: the first person “I,” followed by other human males, females, children, animals, plants, natural forces such as water, concrete objects, and lastly, abstractions. The animacy of nouns is also a taxonomic scheme, or system of hierarchical classification, of a culture’s perception on degree of sentience. Linguistically, nouns do not fall into a class of animacy unless they also have grammatical consequence.

The class of a noun can have various effects on a language’s grammar. The German article for “the” is either der, die or das to designate the following noun as either masculine, feminine or neutral. These represent the most common rules of noun classification. Animacy can affect a language in other ways, such as proper word order, different verb forms, or classifiers such as prefixes and suffixes that change the noun to plural case.

In Japanese, the verb for “to be, to exist, or to possess” is iru for animate things such as people and animals, but aru for inanimate objects. Slavic languages such as Russian must add the suffix -a to most animate nouns if it is not the primary subject of a sentence. When an animate noun is a direct object of the sentence, Spanish adds the preposition a for “at, or to,” but not so for inanimate places and things. The Native American Navajo language has been extensively studied for its complex animacy hierarchy, and how it affects their language’s word order and changes their verbs with prefixes to explain the relationship between this order of nouns.

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