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Gender (Kind or Class)

Ojibwe nouns belong to one of two grammatical classes or genders, animate and inanimate. The two classes show different grammatical patterning, for example, animate nouns have obviative (4th person) forms, but inanimate nouns do not. Animate nouns have plurals ending in /g/, for example bineshiinyag 'birds' and ikwezensag 'girls,' while inanimate plurals end in /n/, e.g., jiimaanan, 'boats' and adoopowinan 'tables.' These classes are also very important for choosing appropriate verb forms, since verbs are sensitive to the grammatical gender of their subjects and objects.

The animate and inanimate genders of Anishinaabemowin words are mostly based on their meanings. All nouns making reference to people, spirits and mythological beings, animals, birds, fish, insects, and trees belong to the animate class. Most nouns referring to plants are animate, but a few are not. Most, but not all, nouns referring to non-living things of human manufacture such as furniture, tools, and clothing are inanimate. Many words specifying natural features such as lakes, rivers, and ground are inanimate as well.

The workings of Anishinaabemowin gender contrasts significantly with that of English, which has a somewhat covert gender system encoded in its personal pronouns, where third person singular distinguishes between masculine (he/him/his), feminine (she/her), and neuter (it). Furthermore, in English, the masculine and feminine gender categories canonically apply to humans; animals can be either unspecified for sexual gender (the default case for most non-human creatures), in which case they are referred to with it, or specified, in which case he and she are used to refer to them. The English indefinite pronouns also show a human versus non-human category distinction, in the pronouns someone versus something, the former referring expressly to humans and the latter to everything else. Anishinaabemowin does not typically do this..

In order to introduce the Anishinaabemowin categories of animacy, the following tables provide some examples of the most common subgroups of both animate and inanimate nouns.

Examples of Animate Nouns

Anishinaabe person, Ojibwe
ikwe woman
inini man
mindimooyenh old woman
akiwenzii old man

manidoo spirit
jiibay spirit, ghost
Animikii Thunderer
wiindigoo cannibal spirit
Gichi-Manidoo Great Spirit

awesiinh wild animal
waagosh fox
zhaangweshi mink
amik beaver
wazhashk muskrat

bineshiinh bird
migizi eagle
opichi robin
aandeg crow
zhiishiib fish

giigoonh fish
name sturgeon
ogaa pickerel
ginoozhe northern pike
asaawe perch

manidoons insect
zagime mosquito
oojii fly
memengwaa butterfly
enigoons ant

wiigwaasaatig birch tree
giizhik white cedar
gawaandag white spruce
okikaandag jack pine
zhingwaak white pine

Some Examples of Inanimate Nouns

Items of Human Artifice
onaagan plate
mookomaan knife
adoopowin table
apabiwin chair
babagiwayaan shirt
makizin shoe
dikinaagan cradleboard

Natural Features
aki land, earth
nibi water
wajiw mountain
ziibi river
zaaga'igan lake
Gichigami Lake Superior
nagweyaab rainbow

Further Subclasses of Animate Nouns

Most students who come to Anishinaabemowin are intrigued by a substantial group of nouns which are grammatically animate but which do not appear to be "alive." For example, the linguist Leonard Bloomfield noted several subclasses of items that were animate in Menominee, a sister language to Anishinaabemowin. These included 'boards and timbers, including canoe parts; animal hides; corn, wheat and their products; tobacco and associated objects; shells and beads; moving machines (except ships); gambling instruments; money and coins. In addition certain body parts and secretions, plants and plant products natural features, and many other objects are animate in gender.' (Nichols 1980:21).

Here are some examples of items from these classes.

nabagisag board, plank -oog
waaginaa canoe rib -g
amikwayaan beaver hide -ag
bizhikiinsiwayaan calfhide -ag
wazhashkwayaan muskrat hide -ag
mandaamin corn -ag
bakwezhigan bread -ag
abwaajigan bread cooked over fire -ag
asemaa tobacco -g
biindaakwaan snuff -ag
opwaagan pipe -ag
manidoominens bead -ag
es shell -ag
miigis mide shell -ag
odaabaan car -ag
ishkodewidaabaan train -ag
nabagidaabaan toboggan -ag
ataadiwin playing card -ag
danens club suite card -ag
bezhigooobii'igan ace -ag
zhooniyaa money -g
aabita-zhooniyaans nickel -ag
bezhizhooniyaans dime -ag
dibik-giizis moon -oog
giizis sun -oog
anang star -oog
goon snow -ag
mikwam ice -iig
asin stone -iig

There are also many common items that are somewhat unexpectedly treated grammatically as animate:

akik kettle, pail -oog
aagim snowshoe -ag
asab fishing net -iig
giboodiyegwaazon pants -ag

In an analysis of Cheyenne animate terms, a language related to Anishinaabemowin, Strauss and Brightman 1982 claimed that objects within the Algonquian worldview that are considered to have "power" are grammatically animate. Things have power by virtue of either being alive or being viewed as especially "sacred things." Yet there are many objects that Ojibwe people treat as animate, such as snowshoes and pants, which do not seem exceptionally sacred in their cultural evaluation. The anthropologist Regna Darnell has claimed too that "power" is the primary reason for including items in the animate class of nouns in Cree, though the reason that something has power can be associative. Darnell claims that hides of animals are animate because in some way the hide retains the power of the animal, but meat (Oj. wiiyaas, inan.) and bones (Oj. okonan, inan.) don't. Darnell claims that pants are animate because anything associated with procreation will be animate, and because pants have close contact with reproductive organs. In Minnesota Anishinaabemowin (and the Cree that Darnell was studying) many body organs associated with procreation are animate, though most body parts are inanimate. But still it is not clear why the following words are animate: nindenigom, 'my nostril' nindiniigan, 'my shoulder-blade' ninjiigwan, 'my thigh, my lap' nimaamaa, 'my eyebrow hair' ninaan, 'my calf' niniishk, 'my tonsil' nishkanzh, 'my nail' In some languages, one grammatical gender is chosen to be used to mark items as singled out because of their particular cultural importance or salience, and it is possible that some words are placed in the animate category for this reason, such as snowshoes, pails and nets. It also true that gender can be used somewhat opportunistically to allow for new items of vocabulary without having to invent new terms. For example, in Odawa, makizin, 'shoe,' is inanimate, but makizin, 'tire' is animate. Tires resemble shoes in function and structural relationship to the whole, and the change of animacy allows the use of the same word to designate two distinct objects, linked by metaphor. Note too, odaminowaagan, 'toy,' is inanimate, but odaminowaagan, 'doll,' is animate. Another clear case where this phenomenon applies is in the use of nouns as names of individuals or groups. For example, gichi-mookomaan, 'large knife; cleaver,' is inanimate, but gichi-mookomaan, 'whiteman,' is animate. According to popular lore, the term for whiteman, which literally means, 'big knife,' has to do with the long swords traditionally worn by members of the U.S. cavalry.

Another difference between animates referring to people and other living creatures as opposed to such things as money and wheat products is that the gender of the latter groups varies across Anishinaabemowin dialects. In Odawa, for example, money and wheat products are almost all inanimate, while in most other dialects, they are animate. No such dialect shifting occurs with words for more canonically animate entities.

Gender Shifting

There are several interesting occurrences in Anishinaabemowin literature where gender shows shifting, and these can throw light on the system behind animacy. Here are two examples where gender shifting takes place.

1. In one case, the item undergoing gender shift is the culture hero Wenaboo's backside. In a popular tale, Wenabozho has killed some ducks and geese by trickery, and after burying them in the sand to cook and extolling his backside to keep watch, he falls asleep. In the story, when Dakotas approach, Wenabozho's backside shouts out to him, and in all cases where the backside speaks, it is clearly animate in gender, even though the word for backside, ninjiid, 'my rectum,' is normally inanimate. So speaking seems to be a canonical animate act. There are no first and second person forms for inanimate verbs, so it is literally not grammatically possible for an inanimate to function as a speaker-- its gender must change to animate. In another story, this time from the Odawa dialect of Anishinaabemowin, a young man fasts in order to have a vision to guide his life. He has a vision of a mirror. A mirror is normally inanimate in gender, but in this story, when it becomes a visiting spirit, it becomes animate.

2. I have heard a similar story from western Ontario (Charles Fiero, p.c), too. In this case, a man is seeking a vision and is approached by an unknown spirit. The spirit promises the man that the man will live as long as the spirit does. The man jumps at this offer, only to learn later that the spirit was a leaf, which lives only a single season. The word for leaf, aniibiish, is normally inanimate, but in this exchange, is animate.