How the English language encodes human exceptionalism

In Speaking of Nature by Robin Kimmerer I learned how the English language encodes “human exceptionalism”: the belief that humans are fundamentally different than all other animals and that they should therefore be uniquely valued.

In the English language, there is a special grammar for personhood. We use pronouns such as ‘he’ or ‘she’ to describe both living and dead human beings. It would, for example, be disrespectful to refer to a dead person using the ‘it’ pronoun, we would “rob him of his humanity”. There is, however, no distinction made between the description of the non-human living world and the description of the world of inanimate objects. They are both referred to with the pronoun ‘it’.
Robin explains that this objectification of nature creates detachment between us and the rest of the natural world which contributes to privileging our wants/needs above all others’. One of his students describes how the pronoun ‘it’ “numbs us to the consequences of what we do and allows us to take advantage of nature, to harm it even, free of guilt, because we declare other beings to be less than ourselves, just things.”

In his article, Robin mentions the Potawatomi language which, contrarily to English, is composed of verbs and nouns that come in both the inanimate and the animate form (he uses the example of hearing a blue jay with a different verb than hearing an airplane, “distinguishing that which possesses the quality of life from that which is merely an object”). In the Potawatomi language, however, there is no distinction between the description of humans and the description of non-human living beings – the same grammar is used when speaking of people, birds and flowers. This allows for a recognition and respect of other living beings.

It is true that grammar doesn’t dictate our behaviour. Just because I use “it” to describe a flower doesn’t mean that I am disrespecting it, that I intend to harm it or that I necessarily think I am superior to it. However, I do agree with Robin and believe that language is important in shaping our view of the world. I think that there is, on some level, a relationship between the way that we use words to describe things and the way that we think about these things. As Krista Tippett writes, “the words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.” I find it fascinating that by simply looking at our grammar, especially our use of pronouns, we can understand how we relate to each other in our society (an example of this is the rule of masculin always ‘winning’ over feminin in French grammar “le masculin l’emporte” – a rule that I obviously never liked).

Finally, Robin suggests a word that could be used to describe the living world in general and potentially reduce human exceptionalism: ki (and the plural, kin). He finishes by writing:

“Thankfully, human history is marked by an ever-expanding recognition of personhood, from the time when aboriginals were not seen as human, when slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, and when a woman was worth less than a man. Language, personhood, and politics have always been linked to human rights. Will we have the wisdom to expand the circle yet again? Naming is the beginning of justice.”


Robin Kimmerer’s book: Braiding Sweetgrass
Picture: Banff, Canada

Leave a Reply