Language Ideologies in the Wild: Braiding Sweetgrass

This post continues the Language Ideologies in the Wild series, where I discuss language ideologies I encounter in my everyday life, usually in books or podcasts. Today,  I’m looking at selections from a book I read recently: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I enjoyed and thoroughly recommend this book, which focuses on recognizing Indigenous knowledge about plants, humans, and ecosystems and integrating it with western scientific approaches (while also showing the limitations of the latter). So, my discussion of language ideologies in this book is not a critique of the author, or the book, but just a way of highlighting the unrecognized role of language ideologies in our everyday lives.

In a chapter called “Learning the grammar of animacy” Kimmerer describes her desire to learn Potawatomi and the practices she has engaged in to do so. Potawatomi is the language of her ancestors, and was taken from her tribe through the linguistic violence of government boarding schools like the one her grandfather attended. At the tribal language learning event she attends, she explains there are only nine fluent speakers, all elders. 

What was striking to me in reading this chapter was the tension between language ideologies, specifically between language as a social activity (usually associated with a translingual perspective, and also clearly related to the Indigenous epistemologies described in the book) and language as an object (usually associated with monolingual language ideologies, and also the western scientific approach Kimmerer is critiquing in this book). Kimmerer uses language as an analogy to describe the differences between a social, holistic perspective, and an analytical, object-focused one: 

I did learn another language in science though, one of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing. I honor the strength of the language that has become a second tongue to me. But beneath the richness of its vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around you and in you when you listen to the world. Science can be a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts; it is a language of objects. The language scientists speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, an omission, a grave loss in translation from the native language of these shores. 

Here, Kimmerer is talking about scientific categorization of plants, but we can make the same observation of a scientific categorization of language: when it’s reduced to “working parts”, like vocabulary lists and grammar, we miss the social activities we actually do with language (whether these involve people or not). 

Kimmerer’s desire to learn Potawatomi is clearly based in the perspective Potawatomi gives her on these social connections and the opportunities for relationships. She describes learning new vocabulary to describe the world: 

My first taste of the missing language was the word Puhpowee on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by the Anishinaabe ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay, in a treatise on the traditional uses of fungi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all it’s technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery. You’d think that biologists, of all people, would have words for life. But in scientific language our terminology is used to define the boundaries of our knowing. What lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed. 

The larger point of this chapter is to describe what Kimmerer calls the “grammar of animacy” or of extending life and personhood beyond humans to animals, plants, rocks, water, and more, as Potawatomi does by requiring specific verb forms for these. 

The interesting part of this chapter to me is how despite these clear descriptions of language as inherently connected to our social world, Kimmerer evaluates and describes her own language learning in ways that show the influence of the conception of language as an object to be broken down, analyzed, and used in monolingual settings. 

So now my house is spangled with Post-it notes in another language, as if I were studying for a trip abroad. But I’m not going away, I’m coming home.


Here, we see the assumption that language learning is commonly for studying abroad, crossing a national border, and so Kimmerer’s post-its are unusual because she is “coming home”. But should language learning to connect at home be such a marked activity, with so many Indigenous languages spoken within U.S. borders, as well as other non-English languages? 

Kimmerer goes on to critique her language skills as limited to naming the objects labeled with post-its and “a parody of conversation” with her sister:

I cook dinner, pulling utensils from cupboards labeled emkwanen, nagen. I have become a woman who speaks Potawatomi to household objects. When the phone rings I barely glance at the Post-it there as I dopnen the giktogan. And whether it is a solicitor or a friend, they speak English. Once a week or so it is my sister from the West Coast who says Bozho. Moktthewenkwe nda–as if she needed to identify herself: who else speaks Potawatomi? To call it speaking is a stretch. Really, all we do is blurt garbled phrases to each other in a parody of conversation. How are you? I am fine. Go to town. See bird. Red. Frybread good. We sound like Tonto’s side of the Hollywood dialogue with the Lone Ranger. “My try talk good Injun way.” On the rare occasion when we can actually string together a halfway coherent thought, we freely insert high school Spanish words to fill in the gaps, making a language we call Spanawatomi.

Here, the measure Kimmerer is using for herself aligns with monolingual language ideologies, berating herself because she can’t do everything in Potowatami the way she can in English, and she can’t stick to only Potowatami in her conversations. Yet from a translingual perspective, we could instead look at the creativity of her practices, and that while she may not be engaging monolingually in Potawatami, she is in fact using it in situations where she could use only English. This is in fact the perspective she reports from her teacher:

Our teacher tells us not to be discouraged and thanks us every time a word is spoken–thanks us for breathing life into the language, even if we only speak a single word. “But I have no one to talk to,” I complain. “None of us do,” he reassures me, “but someday we will.” 

I also want to look further at this idea of having “no one to talk to”. This stood out to me, because it seemed like she was talking to people, fairly regularly: her sister, her teacher, the students in her twice a week lunchtime class, her dog. Is this really no one to talk to, especially when she could talk to all of these people in English, and use no Potawatomi? Or is she holding herself to an imagined monolingual ideal, like an imagined study abroad immersion, because of the monolingual language ideologies that inform our expectations of use?

There’s a similar tension when she discusses her language learning in terms of nouns and verbs, and her struggles with a dictionary.

On nouns:

So I dutifully learn the vocabulary but find it hard to see the “heart of our culture” in translating bed and sink into Potawatomi. Learning nouns was pretty easy; after all, I’d learned thousands of botanical Latin names and scientific terms. 

On verbs: 

To actually speak, of course, requires verbs, and here is where my kindergarten proficiency at naming things leaves off. English is a noun based language, somehow appropriate in a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30% of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70%. Which means that 70% of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered.

Dividing language into its small parts, with vocabulary lists to be memorized, and verbs to be conjugated is an ideological approach firmly rooted in the western scientific tradition this book is demonstrating the limitations of, so it’s not surprising to me that learning languages this way is frustrating to Kimmerer. What is striking is the fact that she’s so aware of these epistemological differences in botany, but not in language. Not at all her fault, since we rarely discuss language ideologies, but I wonder how it would impact her language learning to be able to name these same problems?

In fact, it’s when she stops worrying about whether something is “supposed” to be a noun or a verb that she has the key realization on which the chapter is based, that allows her to connect language to the social world: 

“A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa–to be a bay–releases the water from its bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise–become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything in alive. Water, land, even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms: This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us.

 Another place we see these tensions is in her final evaluation of her language use:

Every word I learn comes with a breath of gratitude for our elders who have kept this language alive and passed along its poetry. I still struggle mightily with verbs, can hardly speak at all, and I’m still mostly adept with only kindergarten vocabulary. But I like that in in the morning I can go for my walk around the meadow greeting neighbors by name. When Crow caws at me from the hedgerow, I can call back Mno gizhget andushukwe! I can brush my hand over the soft grasses and murmur Bozho mishkos. 

Here, her successes with the language are in the social connections (to the elders, to Crow, to the soft grasses) and her struggles are with the measures of success inherent in monolingual language ideologies: verbs, speaking fluently, vocabulary knowledge. 

In a book so focused on recognizing the limitations of traditional western scientific approaches to the natural world, it’s striking to still see the unquestioned imprints of these approaches in descriptions of language, and language learning. I wonder, would her language learning be any different if she recognized the variation in approaches to language learning the way she does with botany and was able to more deliberately reconcile them? If so, what would it look like and what possibilities would it create?





2 responses to “Language Ideologies in the Wild: Braiding Sweetgrass”

  1. Peter McKenna Avatar
    Peter McKenna

    Thanks. This is a perspective on language acquisition that needs to be foregrounded to students, I think. Otherwise, like Ms. Kimmerer, we just waste a lot of time beating ourselves up.

    1. Emma Trentman Avatar
      Emma Trentman

      Thank you!

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