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Animate and Inanimate Nouns In Ojibwe

On our Ojibwe colors worksheet, you can see that some adjectives have two or three different forms in Ojibwe--for example, "white" is translated as waabishki in Ojibwe, but a white object is waabishkaa, and a white animal is waabishkizi. That's because there is a distinction in Ojibwe between animate and inanimate nouns.

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If you're familiar with a European language like Spanish or French, nouns in those languages are divided by gender. In those European languages, adjectives describing masculine and feminine nouns have different endings. So if you want to use the word "old" to describe a man in Spanish, you say viejo, but if you want to describe a woman, you say vieja. For men and women, this is easy to remember, but for other nouns, you just have to remember their grammatical gender. In Algonquian languages like Ojibwe, you use the same adjective and verb forms regardless of whether the subject is male or female. Instead, there are different word forms depending on whether the subject is animate or inanimate. All people and animals are considered animate in Ojibwe, but for other nouns, you just have to remember whether they are animate or not--you probably wouldn't be able to guess that "feather" is animate and "river" is inanimate in Ojibwe any more than you would be able to guess that "feather" is feminine and "river" is masculine in Spanish.

makizin waabishkaa
(the shoe is white)
bineshiinh waabishkizi
(the bird is white)
makizinan waabishkaawan
(the shoes are white)
bineshiinyag waabishkiziwag
(the birds are white)
makizin miskwaa
(the shoe is red)
bineshiinh miskozi
(the bird is red)
makizinan miskwaawan
(the shoes are red)
bineshiinyag miskoziwag
(the birds are red)

The third form that is written above the pictures--which doesn't exist for all the colors--is a prefix form. So instead of saying bineshiinh ozhaawashkozi you could also say ozhaawashko-bineshiinh, bluebird. That prefix is the same for both animate and inanimate nouns.

In some cases, animate and inanimate endings can change the meaning of a word. For example, mitig means "tree" when it is used with animate endings or verb forms, but it means "stick" when it is used with inanimate ones. Asin means a rock or stone in nature when it is used with animate endings or verb forms, but it means a marble or pebble when it is used with inanimate ones. In some Ojibwe communities, using the name of an animal with inanimate endings is a way of referring to its carcass.

There are actually even more forms of each of these words that used to be used in the old days. If something like cloth is white, you could say it is waabishkiigad. If something like stone or metal is white, you could say it is waabishkaabikad. If something like wood is white, you could say it is waabishkaakwad, and if something like a rope is white, you could say it is waabishkaabiigad. Not many people still use those material-specific color words anymore, but you can still hear them in some communities.

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