All nouns in Mi'gmaq belong to one of two categories: animate and inanimate. Animate nouns are generally things that are alive, such as people (like lpatuj, 'boy') or animals (like mui'n, 'bear'), while inanimate nouns are generally things that are not alive, such as places and objects (like guntew, 'rock', or wigatign, 'book'). However, the distinction is not always so clear-cut: containers, for example, are a type of object that are always animate. In addition, some foods and items of clothing are animate (like atla'i, 'shirt' or gmu'jmin, 'raspberry') while others are inanimate (like a'gwesn, 'hat' or aloqoman, 'grape'). This animate/inanimate distinction is sometimes referred to as the gender of language, in parallel to other languages such as French, where le couteau, 'the knife', is masculine and la cuillère, 'the spoon', is feminine.
Animacy and Nouns
Animacy is important to keep in mind with nouns because it determines which plural ending to take. (Notice in the examples below that sometimes adding the plural ending also changes the final vowel of the word.) Animate nouns (in general) take the ending -g (although this sometimes changes to q, while inanimate nouns take the ending -l (which sometimes changes to n):
'bears (cf. singular ''mui'n'', 'bear')'
'rocks (cf. singular ''guntew'', 'rock')'
Some words can also change from being animate to inanimate by adding the suffix -ewei. For example, plamu, 'salmon', as an animal is animate, but plamuwei, 'salmon meat' is inanimate.
Animacy and Verbs
Animacy is also important to keep in mind with verbs, since it helps determine which ending the verb will take (except in the first and second persons, which are always animate), as well as the class to which the verb belongs.
apje'ji-t lpa'tuj be.small-3.AN boy.AN
'the boy is small'
apje'j-g na guntew be.small-INAN NA rock.INAN
'that rock is small'
In transitive verbs, the animacy of the object determines whether the verb is animate (example 9) or inanimate (example 10) (it's usually assumed that the subject is animate), and thus which ending to take:
nemi-'g epit see-1>3.AN woman.AN
'I see the woman'
nemi-tu ptauti see-1>INAN table.INAN
'I see the table'