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.