Animate-inanimate distinction distinction is one of the more strongly recurring parameters in languages. The distinction has varying levels of importance and morphological encodedness in languages, from purely semantic as in English (the tell-tale is whether we assign gender) to more complex grammatical structures. Inuit languages even have a fourth person required when there is action between an animate third person agent and an inanimate agent ("He moved the boat"). In many languages, inanimate nouns cannot be the agents of actions against passive patients (you cannot say "The rock hit him", you must use another construction analogous to "He was hit by the rock").
Again we should take advantage of differences in neurology between humans, including those associated with pathology as well as those which we see in the normal range of development. Piaget noted that from the beginning of language production until about age 6, children indiscriminately assign animacy to inanimate objects: the sun shines because it's "happy", the toilet "wants" to suck them in. If we're honest, adults resort to this kind of thinking as a coping strategy when the cognition gets tough; medical students frequently hear during lectures that sodium "wants" to flow into a neuron .
But sodium's desires are a consciously used linguistic conceit, and we would expect that a neurochemistry lecture in Inuit would unmysteriously use animate rules for sodium until switching back after the didactic task is finished. Inuit kids talking about toilets sucking them in, and everything else, are unable to slice the world into these distinctions at all. The animate-inanimate mistakes made by children speaking these of languages at this age may therefore be instructive in investigations of human cognition and the physical correlates of the animate-inanimate distinction.
Nurturing the Brain – Part 11, Magnesium
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