E-Prime and the Imperialist Razor, Part II

Now we have a paradox to wrestle.  The mindset that sees a verb ‘to be’-based reality, itself sees simply removing ‘to be’ as the course of action. In the ‘to be’-based mind, if I cut out ‘to be’, then it will no longer ‘be’. Problem solved, right?

I think Albert Einstein called this trying to “solve the problem at the level of thinking in which it was created”.

Recently I discovered something that made me see these issues in a whole new light. But we’ll have to tackle this from a couple different angles.

I found a new voice articulating these same issues in Calvin Luther Martin’s The Way of the Human Being. He refreshes the fundamental point:

The reality of non-locality: the physicists discovered the truth of this only within my lifetime; the Yup’ik Eskimos and other Native Americans have known its truth for millennia. When I lectured on quantum theory at the seminary, Sarah Owens confided afterward that her grandparents had told her as much.

And then proceeds to articulate another aspect of that point:

I am reminded of eastern woodland Indians in colonial times, blaming Europeans for their drunkenness, since it was they who furnished it after all. Or even blaming the beverage itself.

Oscar illustrated with a curious analogy. He said that when a man fires up his steamhouse (which is like a sauna) and invites the other men over, and they arrive and he begins pouring buckets of water on the fire, they accuse him of “throwing them out.” No! Oscar protested. “He’s not grabbing them and tossing them out! It’s not his fault! Think about it.” His voice is earnest. “It’s not that man’s fault they’re running out of the steam; it’s the steam’s fault! The steam is sending them running out the door.”…With alcohol, the western mind fingers the imbiber, Yupiit blame the vendor (or the drink).

So, the Yupiit, inheritors of animist language and logical systems, a non-‘to be’ verb culture, observing the world in that quintessential animist way; focusing on animating relationships, on clear observation, on active verbs.

For a long time I’ve seen in the Gypsy Roma a still somewhat intact, relatively animist culture. They speak Romani, a language related to Sanskrit, and thus one of the family of modern, Indo-European languages, the classic (though not sole) perpetrators of Aristotelian  errors of “isness”. Their language possesses the verb ‘to be’, the linguistic tool that aids the conceptions of these errors making them easier to say and think, thus easier to embody and spread.


Animist cultures clearly exist on a continuum. You don’t wake up one day, as a people, and discover you’ve all started following the teachings of Aristotle. Even for indigenous communities that have adopted Christianity, they can continue to see that faith through an animist lens; this almost surely fades over time.

So I offer up the Gypsy Roma as a culture of people who, though possessing the ‘to be’ verb (which made participation in the caste-based and highly stratified society of India possible), still continue to keep animating thought alive, in the form of their cultural idiom, even if not in the structure of their language itself. From Gypsy Law, edited by Walter Weyrauch, Ronald Lee writes:

While the Rom accept the dangers of drug abuse and forbid the use of illegal drugs, they generally do not consider alcoholism to be a problem. This results in situations where alcoholic Rom get into fights and other situations at group gatherings where acts are committed or words said which lead to problems that must be settled at the kris. If the guilty party committed the offense during a blackout, he then cannot remember what offense he committed or is accused of committing. His defense is then to admit his guilt and say Lya ma e rakiya — “The whiskey took me.” This will be acceptable as a defense since the Rom believe that visible or invisible forces can act on their own to influence actions of people. The action is not described in the passive, as it is in English. For example, if a Rom falls into the river and drowns, they will say: Mudardya les o pani — “The water killed him.” If he is accidently electrocuted, Mudardya les o ilektriko — “The electricity killed him.” Thus a Rom does not get drunk; the whiskey takes control of him and compels him to commit some act he would not commit if he were sober…thus the force, not the subject, is guilty. This can be seen in the following: If a Rom is killed in an automobile accident but the vehicle is still in good shape, it will immediately be sold to a non-Gypsy. The car, in the eyes of the Rom, has become a mudarimasko mobili (killer car) and has become bi-baxtaló (a bringer of bad karma). It was thus not the Rom’s careless driving or the fact that he had been drinking before the accident that caused the accident, but the car which has killed him.

The challenge for a modern mind lies in seeing that the Roma, the Yup’ik, and all intact indigenous peoples, as animist systems-thinkers who exist because of their ability to think ecologically, have identified relationships as the priority. Whereas the modern mind sees this as ignorant and childish, prioritizing a truly naive cause and effect paradigm, arguing over ‘facts’ (that even scientists, the faithkeepers of this modern world, know as a fallible notion – modern scientific exploration and thought, from statistics to quantum theory, continues to reveal this).

I think, if you’ve made it this far, you can handle the next idea. Martín Prechtel, author and speaker on intact indigenous cultures (having grown up with a foot in both worlds himself), asked an audience recently what they considered the opposite of the verb ‘to be’. The lack of the verb ‘to be’ doesn’t really count as its opposite, so he had pointed at some deeper truth there. “‘Description’,” I suggested to him, opposed ‘to be’.

“Sure,” he replied. “To de-scribe, to bring writing to life, rehydrate language and take it away from the page. Sure. But what, even more than that?”

Silence in the room…

“Story?” I offered.

“Yes. I believe Story is the opposite of the verb ‘to be’,” he said, grinning.

If Story opposes the verb ‘to be’, as Martín proposes, and not the simple and linear-minded excision of the offending verb itself, how does that change our attitudes toward English, and modern languages? What lies next for someone who, with informed consent, wants to speak a language that creates life and liveliness, that frees their natural identity, that allows them to walk away from hierarchical and civilized modes of enslaving thought, into the embrace of Village, Family, Land?

I don’t know. Let’s figure it out together – perhaps we’ll start by jamming Story, and see where it takes us. What do you think?

Written by Willem