One of my favorite subjects in language.


The Proximate and the Obviative

In English, we talk about “storytelling” in “persons.”  A story told in First Person is one in which the narrator is talking about himself, and the story is told this way, for example, “I went down to the store, and do you know who I saw walking across the street?  Well, I never!”  A story told in Second Person sounds like one of those old “choose your own adventure” books we read in the middle grades of school, “You enter the room and you see a paper on the table.  Do you pick it up and read it?”  A story told in third person is a story told about someone, or something, told by a narrator, “See Jane run.  Run, Jane, run!” without the use of “I.” 

In Potawatomi, and in many other related languages, the “third person” is divided into categories of closeness or importance.  This allows a narrator of a story to verbally focus on one main character, an audio “spotlight”, if you will, a way of maintaining the direction and focus of the story.  Here is how it works: 

When using Transitive Verbs in the “Win” forms…

            The first main noun is the “Proximate.”

            The secondary noun is the “Obviative.”

Potawatomi is notable for having two “degrees” of obviation. As is seen in the following example, a “further obviative” can be marked by a second obviative suffix:

ProximateObviativeFurther Obviative
o bnéshini bnéshiyenni bnéshiynen                             

Don’t let the “Ni” confuse you, and don’t let the endings confuse you.

Always consider the verb.  The verb will tell you if there is a transitive action going on, and what kind of object to expect. 

            O kwé wabman ni nemoshen       (animate object)

            O kwé wabdan ni zawjisésen        (inanimate object)

If a “fourth person” is performing an action, a different ending is required on the verb.


O kwé wabman ni nemoshen énemsénet.          

The woman sees the dog walking off.

O nene wabman ni gigabéyen éyayénowet.        

The man sees the boy laughing.

Wmeshomsen odanek éyénet.                              

His grandfather is in town.

So how do you know which to use as the proximate and which to use as the obviative?

            Well, the main noun is the proximate, and the secondary noun is the obviative.

But how do you know which to use as the main noun, and which to use as the secondary noun?

            It’s up to the speaker, the narrator, whoever is 1st person.  The perspective of 1st person is the deciding factor, not just by which noun is closer, but also which noun is more important to the speaker. 

First Person:  The Speaker

Second Person:  The Listener

Third Person:  The one we are talking about

Fourth Person:  The ones who interact with the one we are talking about

Potawatomi Verbs

Verbs form the backbone of this language.   Everything in Potawatomi is action oriented, so many names for items are actually verbs describing what those items do.  Many words that would be considered adjectives in English are verbs in Potawatomi. 

Every time one uses a Verb, one must consider the Type, the Mode, and the Order.  For the fluent speaker, this happens instinctively and without hesitation.  For the learner, one must slowly learn how to incorporate these concepts into daily language use.

It is important for beginners to avoid trying to learn every verb form in one day.  Beginners should learn one set of verb conjugations at a time, slowly building up until the use of verbs becomes instinctual without hesitation. 

Four Main Types of Verbs

Animate Intransitive (AI)

These verbs have an animate subject and no object.  These verbs can be an action that an animate subject takes, or a description of an animate subject. 

I sitNjibdep
I wrotengi-wawijgé
I am coldNbigéj
Are you hungry?gbekté ne?
He/she is thirstygashknabagwé

Inanimate Intransitive (II)

These verbs have an inanimate subject, or no subject at all, and they describe an inanimate condition or situation. Many weather forms are in this form.

It is cold (the weather)ksenyamget
It is cold (an object)dékyamget
It is red (inanimate)mskwane
It is roundwawyeyamget
It is smallgachinwa
It is raininggméyamget

Transitive Inanimate (TI)

These verbs describe an interaction between an animate subject and an inanimate object. 

I see itnwabdan
Do you hear it?gnodan ne?
Do you want it?gnedwendan ne?
I like itnmedagwendan
I ate itngi-mijen

Transitive Animate (TA)

These verbs involve an interaction between an animate subject and an animate object.  These are verbs that can involve the use of obviatives.

I see himnwabma
I see hernwabma
I see yougwabmen
He sees himwabman
He sees menwabmek
He sees yougwabmek

If there is an inanimate object involved with 2 animate persons, the animate persons take precedence.  This becomes critical information when using the verb To Give.

I gave it to himNgi-mina
He gave it to meNgi-mingo

Author: neaseno

I was born on Powers Bluff in Wood County, Wisconsin, into a traditional community of Neshnabek. I was raised speaking only native languages, and learned to speak English upon entering school at the age of 6. As of this writing, I am one of 5 remaining Heritage Fluent Speakers of Potawatomi.

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