Animacy is a grammatical and/or semantic category of nouns based on how sentient or alive the referent of the noun in a given taxonomic scheme is. Animacy can have various effects on the grammar of a language, such as choice of pronoun (what/who), case endings, word order, 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 (animals) or inanimate (e.g. buildings, 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 humans, other animals, plants, natural forces such as wind, concrete objects, and abstractions, in that order. It is possible that different languages with animacy hierarchies could rank nouns in different ways; but because human languages have not all been thoroughly documented yet, it is impossible to generalise completely.


The distinction between he/she and it is a distinction in animacy in English and in many Indo-European languages. The same can be said about distinction between who and what. Some languages, such as Turkish, Spoken Finnish and Spanish do not distinguish between s/he and it. In Finnish there is a distinction in animacy between hän "he/she" and se "it", however in Spoken Finnish se also can have the meaning "he/she". English shows a similar lack of distinction between they animate and they inanimate in plural, but does as shown above have such a distinction in singular.

There is another example of how animacy plays some role in English. 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 versus 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.

Proto-Indo-European language

Because of the similarities in morphology of feminine and masculine grammatical gender inflections in Indo-European languages, there is a theory that in an early stage the Proto-Indo-European language had only two grammatical genders: animate and inanimate/neuter. This distinction is preserved in Anatolian languages, e.g. Hittite.

The animate gender would then later (after separation of Anatolian languages) have developed into the feminine and masculine genders. The plural of neuter/inanimate nouns has assumed to originally have had the same ending as collective nouns in singular, and some words with this collective noun ending in singular were later to become feminine gender words. Traces of this can be found in Ancient Greek, where the singular form of verbs was used when they referred to neuter words in plural. In many Indo-European languages, such as Latin and Slavic, the plural ending of many neuter words in nominative, accusative and vocative corresponds to the feminine singular nominative form.


Like most other 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 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.

(1) Ashkii at’ééd yiníł’į́
boy girl yi-look
'The boy is looking at the girl.'
(2) At’ééd ashkii biníł’į́
girl boy bi-look
'The girl is being looked at by the boy.'

But sentence (3) sounds wrong to most Navajo speakers because the less animate noun occurs before the more animate noun:

(3) *Tsídii at’ééd yishtąsh
bird girl yi-pecked
*'The bird pecked the girl.'

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

(4) At’ééd tsídi bishtąsh
girl bird bi-pecked
'The girl was pecked by the bird.'


Although nouns in Japanese are not marked for animacy, it has two existential/possessive verbs; one for implicitly animate nouns (usually humans and animals) and one for implicitly inanimate nouns (often non-living objects and plants). The verb iru (いる also written 居る)is used to show the existence or possession of an animate noun. The verb aru (ある, sometimes written 在る when existential or 有る when possessive) is used to show the existence or possession of an inanimate noun.

An animate noun, in this case 'cat,' is marked as the subject of the verb with the subject particle ga (が), but no topic and no location are marked. This implies the noun is indefinite and merely exists.

(1) Neko ga iru.
cat SUBJECT to exist
'There is a cat.'

In the second example, a topic is introduced, in this case "I", with the topic particle wa (は). The animate noun is again marked with a subject particle, and no location is denoted. This implies that the topic owns, or perhaps is holding onto, the noun.

(2) Watashi wa neko ga iru.
I TOPIC cat SUBJECT to exist
'I have a cat.'

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.

(3) Neko wa isu no ue ni iru.
椅子の上 いる
cat TOPIC chair+NOUNCOORDINATOR+above/on LOCATION to exist
'The cat is on the chair.'

In all of those cases, if the noun is not animate, such as a stone, instead of a cat, the verb iru must be replaced with the verb aru (ある or 有る[possessive]/在る[existential,locative]).

(1) Ishi ga aru.
stone SUBJECT to exist
'There is a stone.'
(2) Watashi wa ishi ga aru.
I TOPIC stone SUBJECT to exist
'I have a stone.'
(3) Ishi wa isu no ue ni aru.
椅子の上 ある
stone TOPIC chair+NOUNCOORDINATOR+above/on LOCATION to exist
'The stone is on the chair.'

In some cases where 'natural' animacy is ambiguous, whether a noun is animate or not is the decision of the speaker, as in the case of a robot, which could be correlated with the animate verb (to signify sentience or anthropomorphism), or with the inanimate verb (to emphasise that is a non-living thing).

(1) Robotto ga iru.
ロボット いる
robot SUBJECT to exist
'There is a robot' (emphasis on its human-like behavior).
(2) Robotto ga aru.
ロボット ある
robot SUBJECT to exist
'There is a robot' (emphasis on its status as a non-living thing).


In Russian, the accusative of animate nouns that are either masculine singular or masculine, feminine or neutral 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" (lifting machinery) in accusative case:

(1) Брат поднимает кран
Brat podnimayet kran
A brother lifts a crane

On the contrary, брат in accusative case, кран in nominative case:

(2) Кран поднимает брата
Kran podnimayet brata
A crane lifts a brother

This holds also for adjectives agreeing with nouns. The same pattern is enforced in most Slavic languages.


In spoken Sinhala, there are two existential/possessive verbs: හිටිනවා hiţinawā / ඉන්නවා innawā are used only for animate nouns (humans and animals), while තියෙනවා tiyenawā for inanimate nouns (non-living objects, plants, things, etc.)

For example:

(1) minihā innawā
මිනිහා ඉන්නවා
man there is/exists (animate)
There is the man
(2) watura tiyenawā
වතුර තියෙනවා
water there is/exists (inanimate)
There is water



In Spanish, the preposition a (meaning "to" or "at") has gained a second role as a marker of concrete animate direct objects:

Veo esa catedral. "I can see that cathedral." (inanimate direct object)
Veo a esa persona "I can see that person." (animate direct object)
Vengo a España. "I come to Spain." (a used in its literal sense)

This usage is fully standard and is found across the Spanish-speaking world.


Spanish personal pronouns are generally omitted when they are the subject of the sentence, but when they are explicitly stated, they are used only with people or humanized animals or things. There are no inanimate subject pronouns in Spanish, like it in English.

Spanish direct object pronouns (me, te, lo, la, se, nos, os, los, las) do not differentiate between animate and inanimate entities, and only the third persons have gender distinction. Thus, for example, the third person singular feminine pronoun, la, could refer to a woman, an animal (e.g. mariposa, butterfly) or an object (e.g. casa, house), provided that their genders are feminine.[1]

With pronouns, there is a tendency to use le (which is usually an indirect object pronoun, meaning "to him/her") as a direct-object pronoun, at the expense of the direct-object pronouns lo/la, when the referent is animate. This tendency is especially strong (a) when the pronoun is being used as a special second-person pronoun of respect, (b) when the referent is male, (c) with certain verbs, (d) when the subject of the verb happens to be inanimate. There is great regional variation as regards this usage.

Animacy hierarchy and morphosyntactic alignment

Split ergativity

Animacy can also condition the nature of the morphologies of split-ergative languages. In such languages, participants 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:

1st person > 2nd person > 3rd person > proper names > humans >
  • non-humans
  • animates
> inanimates

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 overlap, 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 with either 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. The inverse construction is used when the "notional object" outranks the "notional subject".

See also


  • 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
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