The longer that I’ve really embraced animism, not only as a life philosophy but as an active spiritual path, the more I realized that to be an animist is to radically turn your world upside down on every level. Being an animist means that rather than living in a world of only things you can physically see or experience, you live in an enchanted world where everything–living, growing, place, a stationary object, or human-created object–has a spirit. And those spirits can be interacted with, learned from, and you can develop deep and complex relationships. Being an animist in a Western materialistic and rationalistic world takes more than a bit of bravery and rethinking, well, everything. To be an animist to not only think and philosophize about a world full of spirits but also speak and act in ways that are in accordance with and honoring to those spirits. I would argue that this is critically important: beliefs and philosophies are fine and are a good first step, but in the end, if you want relationships with spirits, you have to actively build them. And boy, this work is hard in today’s age.
And here comes today’s topic in my ongoing series on animsim: how does one speak as an animist? Talk as an animist? Talk to other humans and other spirits? Unsurprisingly, because the English language is shaped by Western materialism, industrialism, scientific rationalism, and so on, I believe that an animist has to attend to how they use language and come up with a better approach. Because to call a tree “it” when you are interacting with the tree’s spirit is disrespectful, even if it is technically correct English. And so, in this post, we’ll explore the English language from the lens of Animism. I’ll share some strategies and next steps I’m working on to combat the inherent biases in English against spirits and animistic philosophy, and I hope maybe you’ll have some ideas too to share about the next steps. I will also share that this is my perspective, and you may not share it, and that’s ok. I’m really posting a lot of this to generate conversation and I’ve been thinking about these things long enough to share what I’ve been thinking about. I’ll also share my background here since it’s relevant–I’m a professor who teaches in an interdisciplinary Composition and Applied Linguistics graduate program, and my graduate studies are both in writing and linguistics. So I’m drawing from that background to talk here today!
For those who have recently joined the blog and as a reminder to longer-term readers, I’ve been sharing in many different ways how to not only start an animistic practice but live as an animist in various ways. In my larger series on animism, I’ve offered an: introduction to animism, embracing an eccentric worldview in nature spirituality, co-creating intentions with nature, animism and permaculture introduction and ethics, connecting to the Genius Loci (spirit of place), and addressing waste as an animist. I’ve also applied these principles to gardening: animistic gardening and its philosophies (Part I), animistic gardening part II: gardening strategies and animistic rituals and ceremonies for the garden. These posts on animism have provided some introduction as well as thinking about animism in a gardening and permaculture context.
Let’s start with English broadly. Languages are shaped by power and prestige, where those in power decide how the language is shaped (this is how certain dialects are “prestigious” or “proper” and others are not–it’s about the power of the speakers). One version of what makes a language is that language is that a language has an army and a navy. When people are conquered, their languages are also conquered, and English has been a conquering language for centuries. Because of this colonialism, today, English is the default Lingua Franca of the world–it’s the language that many globally want to learn to speak fluently, because with that fluency comes opportunity, prestige, and power. And perhaps because of those things, the English language, moreso than some others demonstrates an adherence to the myth of progress, capitalism, post-industrialization, and the biases of colonialism, monotheism, and anthropocentrism that are deeply interwoven into the fabric of English. In my earlier posts, I shared how the English language biases really harm the land through terms like “development” referring to destroying ecosystems and building suburbs, “progress” being used to describe the expansion of capitalist forces, and have worked to shift that. Today, I take another dig at English with my discussion on animsim.
One of the major discomforts I feel in speaking and writing in English is the dehumanizing way in which both spirits and nature are typically referred to. In fact, at present, it is one of the larger issues I face–I’ve been working hard on deepening my practices, but in order to do that, I have to also deepen my language use surrounding those practices. Here are some primary concerns:
- The term “inanimate object” is hardly true, as the so-called inanimate object still has a spirit so it is very much animate
- The issue of how to refer to individuals and beings (without calling them objects, other-than-human). This is especially true because many of the terms used are purposefully denigrating or dismissive in English
- Pronoun use: most living beings in the world who are not human are referred to as “it” which makes them less than humans (e.g. mushrooms, trees, rivers, mountains)
- Capitalization use: while my name as a human would be capitalized as a proper noun (“Dana”), but the name of a tree, Sugar Maple, would not be. I have a problem with this, as these are proper beings.
- What to call all other beings in the world? This is tricky. Some animists use “non-human persons” and I’ve used it on occasion too, for clarity. But, I don’t like this term because it puts humans in comparison to other beings. It is anthropomorphic, privileging humans. It has the same problems that saying something like “woman doctor” does (assuming the doctor to be a man, so you have to specify that the doctor is a woman in the phrase, thereby marking her as different and less than).
- Autocorrect and grammar programs reinforce this heavily and really terrorize people who are trying to do something different (and some of us, like me with dyslexia, have to depend on them).
So why does this all matter? It matters because language shapes reality. As recently evident with a range of human movements where people reclaim parts of English for themselves, reclaiming language is a powerful physical but also magical act. It matters because language helps shape our perception of reality in very subtle yet powerful ways. The theory of Linguistic Relativity describes how the language we speak (the vocabulary, morphology, syntax, phonology, and so on) can directly shape the reality we perceive. Of course, people who study and practice magic already know this to be true. But if we can reshape language that forces the divide between humans and all living beings, then perhaps we can eliminate that and help bring in a new perception and new reality.
So, let’s do something about it! From this list, I am left with a few basic questions. How do we:
- Refer to beings other-than-human in a way that doesn’t compare humans and non-humans? (see the problematic terms in this question)
- Refer to beings who are stationary as something other than “intimate” or “object”?
- Modify or extend pronoun use to give all beings the same respect as humans?
- Modify capitalization rules to give all beings the same respect as humans?
- Address other problematic areas?
An Animist English Primer
Before I get into this list, I will start by sharing that changing your daily language use is really, really difficult both externally and internally. First, there are going to be times that you get it wrong and even when you intend on being more animistic in your English, you may slip into old patterns that are literally hardwired into your brain. It’s okay, the spirits understand that this is a journey (SO much of animist practice can boil down to this–you are re-learning how to interact on a basic level with the world and re-orienting after a lifetime of other practices. Spirits understand this, and they respect your effort even if you aren’t perfect). But also, there’s bound to be confusion with other humans when you use these terms differently. I’ve had some really interesting experiences and conversations when I refer to trees as people, and it can end up being weird, problematic, or interesting, depending on the person.
Here’s an example without modifications:
I see a group of stones that seem to be calling out to me from a stream while I’m on my hike with my friend.” I say to my friend, “I’m going to go over there and sit with those stones for while”. Later, I come back from visiting with the stones. “The stone told me that it’s happy that we are here.”
So you can see in this first example, the use of “it” is really jarring here. Let’s try for a revision:
I see a group of Stones that seems to be calling out to me on my hike with my friend.” I say to my friend, “I’m going to go talk to that group of Stones over there, as they seem to be calling to me.” Later, I come back visiting with the Stones. “The Stones wanted to talk, and they tell me that everyone is happy we are here.”
Yeah, that’s more like it. Now let’s look at a few principles here:
Everyone is a Person or Being
So in terms of a beginning, a good place to start is to revise your choice of words in dealing with beings. I like the term “person” or “being” or “everyone” and at this point, I’ve stopped distinguishing and trying hard not to use the “other than human” or “non-human” in front of “person.” Typically, you might say something like “persons other than human” or “non-human spirits” or some such construction. I think that this is clunky and as I mentioned above, “others” the spirits while continuing to privilege humanity as the unmarked term.
Further, I try to refer to that being by their name as much as possible. In the same way that I, as a dyslexic person don’t like the term “disabled” as it frames me as the one deviant from the norm, I don’t think that framing every spirit in terms of “humanity” is a good idea. I also will offer honorifics as needed to my closer spirit friends (e.g. grandmother, grandfather, friend, and so on).
Pronouns for All Beings
So this directly leads to the next change that I have found to be useful–eliminating the “it” pronoun and using either he, she, or they for all beings. “It” is derogatory in English, and “it” sends a subtle but powerful message of narcissism a human is above other beings, and therefore, those beings are “it.” So I’ve worked to eliminate “it” and replace “it” with anything you deem more respectful (being, person, someone, or name of the being). Most of the time these days, I work to avoid the pronoun entirely by repeating the name of the being:
I try to use the name or they, unless I know the being to specifically be of a gender. I don’t want to gender someone who may otherwise not have a gender.
Proper Names and Proper Respect
Another change I’ve made is in writing conventions, where I have found it necessary to extend the rules of capitalization to refer to beings. So at this point, I’ve begun capitalizing all proper names of beings of a species, such as Sugar Maple, Onyx, Salmon, Raccoon, and so forth. In the same way that “Dana” my name is capitalized when I see Raccoon I offer them due respect. Yes, I realize this is not in line with “proper” grammar and usage, but hey, I’m making all these other changes, so why not?
Going Extreme and Shifting Your Pronouns
As a final step further along the animist path, last summer, among my friends and family, I officially adopted the “it” pronoun as my primary pronoun of choice–both as a statement about my animistic views and to open up conversations on this topic. My thinking was simple: if I’m an animist and I believe that all things have spirit, but they are often dehumanized through our language, then I will be put on equal footing linguistically. If “it” is good enough for the stone, lake, goose, mountain, or tree, then “it” is a good enough pronoun for me. As part of this shift, I spent a great deal of time consulting with my queer and trans friends to make sure my animistic choice of a pronoun was not upsetting or offensive to them, as they were also engaged in deep reclaiming of pronouns. They’ve been very supportive and said that each person should have a right to take on whatever pronoun best fits their identity, so I considered that a good sign to move forward with taking on “it” as my primary pronoun.
This is still a work in progress. In some ways, taking on “it” has been really positive in more alternative communities and among individuals who will be willing to entertain the idea. Among my druid friends, everyone is supportive and some have also decided to make the shift to “it” as well. I went to an ecovillage last summer and had no problems with my new pronoun, and it sparked a lot of wonderful conversations. But I haven’t yet been able to get my family on board and “it” still doesn’t jive with a lot of people, who can’t even comprehend where I’m coming from.
I would say the most positive outcome of experimenting with calling myself “it” is that it allows for some really interesting conversations about the re-enchantment of the world, animism, and druidry. But on the negative, people just think I’m too weird and choose not to engage. So this experiment, like many of these language choices, will take time and is currently a bit of a mixed bag. But regardless, I think it supports my own animism and deepening of my druid practice, so I’ll keep on with “it” :).
Conclusion: Shifting Language to Shift Reality
I feel good about the above changes I’ve shared above in my language use for a few reasons. First, within my own thoughts and actions, I’m working to bring my animsim into my daily practice in a new way, by talking in a way that honors the spirits. This matter of speaking does create some opportunities for conversation (with mixed results). But most importantly, I believe this manner of speaking and writing helps create a better, more connected approach to how I think about the world on a daily basis. Because language shifts are difficult, it requires me to attend to my own thoughts and speak much more–which helps me be a more responsive, aware, and connected animist.
Even so, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface here. I’m curious to hear from you, readers–have you been making shifts in your own language use for spiritual purposes? What do those shifts look like? Or, if you make some of the shifts I’ve suggested above already, how did they work for you?
PS: Please note that I have a new article on Druid Rituals for the Summer Solstice through Spirituality and Health magazine. Please check it out! 🙂