If you heard anyone refer to their mother as “it,” you’d likely take it as a sign of extreme disrespect. So why do English speakers call the Earth “it” without flinching? The English language enforces an innate lack of respect for non-human beings through the word “it,” and may therefore be perpetuating the ecological crisis we face today. This is the case made by Zoe Vokes in the article “What If You Call Your Mother ‘it’?” published on Medium. Influenced by the “deep relationship of reciprocity” that the First Nations peoples of North America shared with Earth, Zoe examines how the English language fosters a lack of disrespect for non-human beings.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is a professor of environmental biology at the State University of New York and the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Wall Kimmerer is also learning her native Anishinaabe language and believes that there is a serious problem with the English pronoun “it”. As she explains, “Grammar is how we chart relationships through language, including our relationship with the Earth,” and the grammar that we have in the English language is not one that inspires connection and inseparability, but instead reduces non-human beings, including our Earth, to mere ‘things’.Imagine speaking of your own mother and saying “it has grey hair,” or “it is cooking lunch” — such a mistake would be an incredible act of disrespect, and would rob your mother of selfhood and kinship. Using “it” reduces your mother to merely a ‘thing’. We certainly wouldn’t dream of calling our mother “it”, and yet, in the English language, that is the only pronoun available for us to refer to our beloved Mother Earth.Our language allows for no form of respect for the other-than-human beings with which we share this Earth….all 8.7million species of them. Animate beings are either human or they are “it”. “It” results in the objectification of the natural world, which in turn perpetuates the belief in human supremacy and dominion over nature — a belief that has lead to the reckless exploitation of our Earth. When you call a tree an “it”, it isn’t entirely surprising that we are able to clear forests without a second thought. As Wall Kimmerer points out, ‘“it” means it doesn’t matter.’However, in Anishinaabemowin (the Anishinaabe language), along with many other indigenous languages, it is simply impossible to speak of animate beings as “it”. ‘We use the same words to address all living beings as we do our family. Because they are our family,’ explains Wall Kimmerer.She suggests that perhaps the time has come for a transformation of the English language — an adoption of a pronoun that more accurately represents our true relationship to the natural world and the beautiful planet we are fortunate enough to call home. We might find the inspiration for such a pronoun within the Anishinaabe language itself.