Long time readers here will note that “e-prime” refers to the use of English when completely avoiding the verb “to be”. This removes what Alfred Korzybski, father of the General Semantics movement (and coiner of such gems as “the map is not the territory”), called the errors of identity (“she is a woman”), and of predication (“she is beautiful”); the e-prime discipline also removes the progressive tenses – tenses that actually come in handy quite a bit. “I am walking”, “I was thinking”, etc. ‘To be’ acts as a helper verb in these situations, a purely coincidental (in my mind) construct in English, differing from other modern languages. Progressive tense makes no errors of identity or predication; it gives tone and image to the verb, a sense of “ongoingness” rather than “abruptness”. We lose this progressive tense in e-prime purely because, if we continue to use as it stands, the verb ‘to be’ creeps back in bit by bit. You can’t easily remove ‘to be’ errors unless you remove all occurrences of the verb, innocent or not. At least, many have tried, but it substantially extends the learning curve, so much so that I don’t know anyone that successfully speaks or writes in e-prime that keeps the progressive tense use.

Admittedly, I know precious few people who speak or write in e-prime – the sample size could stand some enlargement for accuracy sake. I accept volunteers!

Now we come to ‘e-primitive’, the understanding that most, if not all (I have yet to find an exception!), intact indigenous languages, lack a ‘to be’ verb. On investigating this further I discovered that these animist and indigenous languages additionally prioritize useful non-Aristotelian observation (and therefore quantum, afactual, and highly in accord with modern scientific values of precision in language). Of course Aristotle made famous (though did not invent) the notion that objects in the world have an “isness” and essence. Thus we have the idea today that the “janitor” has little emotional, intellectual, or spiritual life outside of scrubbing toilets; movies like “Good Will Hunting” play up the cognitive dissonance that ‘genius janitors’ create in our impoverished Aristotelian minds.

These animist (animating) languages prioritize verby-ness over nouny-ness, some going so far as to having no nouns whatsoever in the language. This means if we modern folks look at a photo of a man in suspenders and flannel with an axe chopping down a tree, we see a logger, whereas an animist sees a photo of chopping. They see a photo filled with activity, we see a photo filled with a role.

“Is” light a particle or a wave? In English, this creates a crippling paradox, rendering quantum theory an obtuse and mysterious quagmire to this day. In animist language, we ask “does light particle? does it wave?”, creating a both/and answer that creates no paradox, because it removes the error of identity: “is” light a particle, or a wave?

Animism (or, because “ism” really hides another ‘to be’ verb, better to say animating thought) happily accomodates the non-locality (“changing this particle in my hand, will change that particle five miles away, instantaneously with no clear connection between them”),  flux (“everything constantly changes”), and vibrational (“everything verbs constantly”) understandings of quantum theory. David Bohm, a physicist and intellectual, once proposed (in his book “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”) creating an entire mode of the English language called the rheomode (“flow-mode”), entirely composed of verbs, to support sane, clear conversations about quantum reality.

Animist languages have done this since humans first started speaking, and only stopped for reasons of hierarchical efficiency – to put it bluntly, personal freedom and a lack of a rigid box holding your identity hostage, makes it hard to finish the construction of pyramids. We need these restricting and suffocating roles (foreman, high priest, mason, president, guard, pharoah, police officer, teacher, artist) to keep the hunter-gatherers from wandering off and finding more fun things to do. Sorry about that. Anyway, enough of your weeping, look at all the great pyramids we built! We’ll give your Village and Family back (not to mention the holiness of your relationship to the constantly grieving and gifting Land from which you originate every day) once we finish this last pyramid. Well, maybe just one more pyramid after that (heck, we just got to the skyscraper-shaped pyramids)…and after that (three words: pyramids in space!)….and after that…

So, decisions, decisions. We have reached informed consent time. Some, figuring this out, still want to build pyramids (we still haven’t build the spaceship pyramids yet, like the USS Enterprise – c’mon people, let’s get to it!). Some, once the light bulb goes on above their head, feel pretty had by the whole enterprise (pun intended). They want to stop. They want to come home to the arms of Village, Family, Land. They want their freedom of identity back. Some run off to learn primitive skills with enthusiastic friends in the wilderness, only to find they brought the rigid boxes with them; that in fact, these rigid boxes extend beyond roles and on to other side-effects of enslavement, such as a belief in good and evil people, right and wrong behavior and belief. A clue: usually we see the other guy as the wrong, evil one. Sad fact: the more sensitive ones of us see themselves as the wrong, evil one. Watch the tragic fireworks.

To head off these kinds of tragedies, some will decide to change the way they think; knowing language drives their thinking, they’ll start exploring the use of e-prime and e-primitive. English without the verb ‘to be’, modified for ‘verby-ness’ over ‘nouny-ness’.

Now I finally arrive at the whole point of this article: but what if taking a razor to the English language and excising the verb ‘to be’ constitutes yet another attempt to use the ‘to be’ mentality itself to solve a problem?  In effect, ‘to be’ pulls a bait and switch, extending its own life by pretending to kill itself!

This kind of thing can keep me awake at night, let me tell you.

[continued in Part II]

Written by Willem