Animacy is a grammatical and/or semantic category of nouns based on how sentient or alive the referent of the noun is. Animacy can have various effects on the grammar of a language, such as word order, case endings, or the form a verb takes when it is associated with that noun.

In languages which demonstrate animacy, some have simple systems where nouns are either animate (e.g. people, animals) or inanimate (e.g. buildings, trees, abstract ideas), whereas others have complex hierarchical systems. In such a system, personal pronouns generally have the highest animacy (with the first person being highest among them), followed by other humans, animals, plants, natural forces such as wind, concrete objects, and abstractions, in that order. However, it is impossible to generalise completely, and different languages with animacy hierarchies could rank nouns in very different ways. For example, deities, spirits, or certain types of plant or animal could be ranked very highly because of spiritual beliefs.Fact|date=May 2008


The distinction between "he/she" and "it" is a distinction in animacy; some languages, such as Turkish and spoken Finnish do not distinguish between "s/he" and "it". English, on the other hand, shows a similar lack of distinction between "they" animate and "they" inanimate.

Animacy plays some roles in English, as in any other language. For example, the higher animacy a referent has, the less preferable it is to use the preposition "of" for possession, as follows: (this can also be interpreted in terms of alienable vs. inalienable possession)
* "My face" is correct, while *"the face of me" is not.
* "The man's face" and "the face of the man" are both correct, and the former is preferred.
* "The clock's face" and "the face of the clock" are both correct, and the latter is preferred.

Examples of languages in which an animacy hierarchy is important include the Mexican language Totonac and the Southern Athabaskan languages (such as Western Apache and Navajo), whose animacy hierarchy has been the subject of intense study. The Tamil language has a noun classification based on animacy.


Like most Athabaskan languages, Southern Athabaskan languages show various levels of animacy in their grammar, with certain nouns taking specific verb forms according to their rank in this animacy hierarchy. For instance, Navajo nouns can be ranked by animacy on a continuum from most animate (a human) to least animate (an abstraction) (Young & Morgan 1987: 65-66):

Human > Infant/Big Animal > Medium-sized Animal > Small Animal > Natural Force > Abstraction

Generally, the most animate noun in a sentence must occur first while the noun with lesser animacy occurs second. If both nouns are equal in animacy, then either noun can occur in the first position. So, both example sentences (1) and (2) are correct. The "yi-" prefix on the verb indicates that the 1st noun is the subject and "bi-" indicates that the 2nd noun is the subject.

In order to express this idea, the more animate noun must occur first, as in sentence (4):

In the third example the noun is marked as the topic (and by default functions as the subject of the verb) while a location, in this case the top of a chair, is marked with the location particle "ni" (に). This implies that the noun is both a definite noun and that is located at the specified location.


In Russian, the accusative of animate nouns that are either masculine singular or masculine or feminine plural coincides with the genitive, while the accusative of inanimate nouns in the same cases coincides with the nominative.

For example, animate noun "брат" [brat] "a brother" in nominative case, inanimate noun "кран" [kran] "a crane" in accusative case:

Animacy hierarchy and morphosyntactic alignment

plit ergativity

Animacy can also condition the nature of the morphologies of languages which are split-ergative. In such languages, participants which are more animate are more likely to be the agent of the verb, and therefore are marked in an accusative pattern: unmarked in the agent role and marked in the patient or oblique role. Likewise, less animate participants are inherently more patient-like, and take ergative marking: unmarked when in the patient role and marked when in the agent role. The hierarchy of animacy generally, but not always, is ordered:The location of the split (the line which divides the inherently agentive participants from the inherently patientive participants) varies from language to language, and in many cases the two classes overlaps, with a class of nouns near the middle of the hierarchy being marked for both the agent and patient roles.

Hierarchical alignment

In a direct-inverse language clauses with transitive verbs can be expressed either using a direct or an inverse construction. The direct construction is used when the subject of the transitive clause outranks the object in salience or animacy but the inverse is used when the "notional object" outranks the "notional subject".


* Frishberg, Nancy. (1972). Navajo object markers and the great chain of being. In J. Kimball (Ed.), "Syntax and semantics, (Vol. 1)", (p. 259-266). New York: Seminar Press.
* Hale, Kenneth L. (1973). A note on subject-object inversion in Navajo. In B. B. Kachru, R. B. Lees, Y. Malkiel, A. Pietrangeli, & S. Saporta (Eds.), "Issues in linguistics: Papers in honor of Henry and Renée Kahane", (p. 300-309). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
* Thomas E. Payne, 1997. "Describing morphosyntax: A guide for field linguists." Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-58224-5

* Young, Robert W., & Morgan, William, Sr. (1987). The Navajo language: A grammar and colloquial dictionary (rev. ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1014-1

ee also

* Grammatical gender
* Noun class
* Classifier (linguistics)

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