How can our ideas and beliefs help us answer the question, “Who am I?” How can language describe and even define our identity? As in many other societies, indigenous identities are expressed in specific words, which are, in turn, embedded in cultural practices, political outlook, and religious beliefs. The role of words—that is, language—is therefore very important: it organizes and gives meaning to people’s experiences. Put differently, insofar as a language is tied to the culture and worldview of a group, it is central to that group’s identity, for it defines the way a group understands itself, the world, and its place in it.
In the reading Words Matter, we examined an interview from Mary Isabelle Young’s book Pimatisiwin: Walking in a Good Way. Her work features an interview with another participant, Aanung, who talks about the relationship between language and indigenous identity.
As Aboriginal people we look at things in our way; a lot of that is rooted in the language. It comes directly from the language. [It’s] just the way we see the world, the concepts we have and the understanding we have in general. When non-Aboriginal people want to have an understanding or try to understand something from an Aboriginal perspective, I honestly don’t think they can. Our worldview is rooted in the language and it is drastically different from other worldviews. An example is the way we classify things as animate
and inanimate. English speaking people consider rocks and trees inanimate and if you want to break it down in a grammatical sense we can talk about those suffixes like mitick (tree), mitickok (trees, an animate suffix). It shows that we see it as being a living thing with spirit. Asin, asiniik (rocks). And when you put the “ok” sound, suffix inninowok (men), ekwewok (women) those are living things whereas things with an “an” suffix like onagun (dish), onagunan (dishes) are inanimate and they are not living things. That’s the best way I can understand it. It’s different if we speak the language. If we speak about he or she, the context is always in the third person. If we are talking about an action we express it in a verb. Pimosay, he or she is walking. There is no distinction between he and she. We use only the third person form.1
Alex McKay is an Anishinaabe individual from Northern Ontario and a senior lecturer in the Aboriginal Studies Department of the University of Toronto. He, like Aanung, speaks to the particularities of his language:
Does it confuse you when I refer to animals as people? In my language, this is not confusing. You see, we consider both animals and people to be living things. In fact, when my people see a creature in the distance, the thing they say is: Awiiyak (Someone is there). It is not that my people fail to distinguish animals from people. Rather, they address them with equal respect. Once they are near and identify the creatures’ shadows, then they use their particular name.2
What is a worldview? Can you think of similar words that express the same idea?
In the two excerpts above, the speakers, who both self-identify as Anishinaabe, connect their identities to their worldviews and their language. What do their references to plants and animals as animate objects and their respectful addresses to animals indicate? What values are reflected in the excerpts?
In the first excerpt, Aanung says, “When non-Aboriginal people want to have an understanding or try to understand something from an Aboriginal perspective, I honestly don’t think they can.” Do you think she is right? Why? Are there things in your language that cannot be translated to other languages?
Is it possible to understand something from another person’s perspective? What challenges might you have to overcome to see things from someone else’s point of view?
animateanimate: In some indigenous cultures, there is no distinction between animate and inanimate things. All beings are considered living and soulful. Anthropologists call this worldview animism.
1Mary Young, Pimatisiwin: Walking in a Good Way, A Narrative Inquiry into Language as Identity (Manitoba: The Prolific Group, 2005), 47–48. Reproduced by permission of Pemmican Publications.
2Faymus Copperpot, “Indigenous Language Immersion in Canada,” modified October 11, 2011, accessed September 2014.