"To Be" in Their Bonnets

A matter of semantics  

A few days ago I opened up a recent issue (Volume 48, Number 2) of Et cetera, the quarterly journal of the International Society for General Semantics, and within a few minutes of doing so got a bit of a surprise. The surprise came from an article by Emory Menefee, a former president of the ISGS, which bluntly calls into question attempts by many society members to promote something called E-Prime, a form of English that has for years ranked extremely high among the interests of the general-semantics community. Advocates of E-Prime, for reasons I'll come to, favor the elimination in English of every form of the verb "to be"—be, been, is, am, are, was, were, 'm, 's, 're, and all the rest. They not only promote E-Prime as a theoretical proposition but also try in daily life to erase to be and its inflections from everything they write. The most committed advocates use E-Prime even when they talk. Given all this, to see the E-Prime endeavor criticized in an official organ— to see that endeavor, indeed, termed "quixotic"—naturally raised an eyebrow. When I queried the International Society for General Semantics about the matter, the executive director, Paul Dennithorne Johnston, assured me that the society never did, and does not now, regard E-Prime as tantamount to some sort of "party line." Well, fine. But it has strong support among the nomenklatura, and I do not expect them to hold their peace.

General semantics originated in the work of a Polish engineer, Count Alfred Korzybski, who first spelled out his ideas about language and other symbolic structures in 1933 in his book Science and Sanity. Korzybski had come to the United States in 1915 and eventually became a citizen. In 1938 he established the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago. The institute moved to Lime Rock, Connecticut, late in 1946. (The field has two journals. In 1943 a student of Korzybski's, the noted semanticist and one-term U.S. senator S.I. Hayakawa, founded Et cetera, which currently has about 2,500 subscribers. Korzybski's associate M. Kendig founded the General Semantics Bulletin in 1950.) Explanations of general semantics can become pretty elaborate pretty fast, but the basic idea sounds simple enough. Most of us think of language as something that reflects reality or at least allows us to express our perceptions of reality. Without denying this, general semanticists believe that the very structure of language can influence or distort our perceptions, and they contend that a failure to observe the many ways in which language can do this results in an inability to apprehend the meaning not only of other people's words but of one's own as well. This, of course, causes problems, the size of which can range from the most minor misunderstandings to complete metaphysical disarray, and the problems, naturally, spill over into the realm of behavior. Korzybski himself took a grave view of the actual and potential consequences of "semantic damage." Semanticists observe, tellingly, that the carnage of the First World War powerfully catalyzed Korzybski's thinking.

General semantics over the years has taken up a diverse array of subjects touching on language — for example, doublespeak, logic, newspaper headlines, nonverbal communication, objectivity, cultural relativism, euphemism, metaphor — but through it all the verb to be has remained a core of concern. That many people in the field, including Korzybski, would zero in on this verb strikes one, in retrospect, as entirely predictable; after all, philosophers had called attention to its problematic character at least as early as the seventeenth century, and their uneasiness had not let up by the twentieth. "The little word is has its tragedies," George Santayana wrote in 1923, in a passage that general semanticists quote frequently and fondly.

It names and identifies different things with the greatest innocence; and yet no two are ever identical, and if therein lies the charm of wedding them and calling them one, therein too lies the danger. Whenever I use the word is, except in sheer tautology, I deeply misuse it; and when I discover my error, the world seems to fall asunder....

Santayana's complaint had to do with locutions like "Mary is a woman" and "Mary is cold," in which the verb is implies the tight coupling of equivalent things, whereas in fact in the first instance it joins nouns that have different levels of abstraction and in the second it joins a noun to an adjective that neither completely nor permanently qualifies it. Transgressions like these may seem trivial, but in fact they pose fundamental problems of logic, and they greatly bother critical thinkers.

To these sins of the verb to be semanticists have added many others. For example, the verb makes possible the widespread use of the passive voice, conditioning us to accept detours around crucial issues of causality ("Mistakes were made"). It makes possible the raising of unanswerable, because hopelessly formulated, questions ("What is truth?"). It makes possible, too, the construction of a variety of phrases ("As is well known...") that casually sweep reasoning under the rug. One also finds the verb to be pressed into service on behalf of stereotypical labeling ("Scotsmen are stingy") and overbroad existential generalization ("I'm just no good"). These issues aside, semanticists say, the verb to be, broadly speaking, imputes an Aristotelian neatness, rigidity, and permanence to the world around us and to the relationships among all things in it — conditions that rarely have any basis in a dynamic reality.

Although Korzybski and others fashioned an indictment of to be relatively early in the history of general semantics, the idea of actually getting rid of the verb altogether dates back only to the late 1940s, when it occurred to D. David Bourland, Jr., at that time a Korzybski fellow at Lime Rock. Bourland first used his writing system, which he eventually called E-Prime (E'), in an article, "Introduction to a Structural Calculus: A Postulational Statement of Alfred Korzybski's Non-Aristotelian Linguistic System," that appeared without fanfare in the General Semantics Bulletin in 1952. (He derived the term "E-Prime" from the equation E'=E-e, where E represents standard English and e represents the inflected forms of to be.) Bourland would later recall that writing this article left him with "an intermittent, but severe, headache which lasted for about a week." Strange as it may seem, a piece of text in polished E-Prime does not necessarily alert readers to the E-Prime aspect of its character, and Bourland continued to use E-Prime, unnoticed by the outside world, in his work. Indeed, he deliberately took no steps to call wide attention to how he wrote, lest, as he also recalled, "I become regarded as some kind of nut." Eventually, though, a few close friends prevailed upon Bourland to go public, which in a manner of speaking he did, in 1965, with another article in the General Semantics Bulletin, this one titled "A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime." Since then E-Prime in its written form has acquired several dozen practitioners within the general-semantics community.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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