Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

For today, I’ve decided to discuss E-Prime, a language created by D. David Bourland Jr.

Proponents of E-Prime maintain that the English verb ‘to be’ in all of its forms has no place in discourse. Thus, words like “be, being, been, am, is, isn’t, are, aren’t, was, wasn’t, were, weren’t” are strictly forbidden. However, no ban has been placed on words like “has, become, will, would, do, shall, ought”. Two wonderful poems have been placed on the Wikipedia site, one in E-Prime, and one in Conventional English.

Conventional English

Roses are red;
Violets are blue.
Honey is sweet,
And so are you.

E-Prime

Roses seem red;
Violets seem blue.
Honey pleases me,
And so do you.

E-Prime’s creator felt that these rules “reduce the possibility for misunderstanding and for conflict”. The reasoning for this seems firmly rooted in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as they argue that the use of ‘to be’ can create false security in characteristics (when we say “the coat is red”, we only know that “the coat looks red to me”). They also seem to feel that the elimination of ‘to be’ leads to a language based less on an objective view of reality. Thus, eliminating statements of reality which include no epistemic information (information about how we know what we know) forces us to concentrate on the subjective nature of our interpretations. By adopting this language change, the creators of e-prime seem to feel that our perceptions would gradually shift as well, and eventually, so might our thoughts.

My primary skepticism involves the benefits of adopting such a change. Even if the elimination of ‘to be’ in written and spoken discourse could actually affect our perceptions of the world, I wonder whether the resulting change would really reduce the possibility for conflict and misunderstanding. Sure, false objectivity and lack of epistemic information in language could disappear (at least partially), but I question whether the awkwardness caused by eliminating ‘to be’ might outweigh the benefits and create additional sources of confusion. However, the awkwardness would vary from person to person. I composed this entire post in a basic form of E-Prime (excepting examples), and I did not find it overwhelmingly difficult, but I also cannot imagine it working well in spoken discouse.

E-prime seems quite innovative to me, and although I cannot see it catching on in everyday use, the mere idea provides a great example of thinking outside of the linguistic box in language creation/expansion. It seems like a good step towards precision language, and the idea of eliminating words for higher precision fascinates me. Thus, like many created languages, E-Prime seems destined to a gradual journey down the river to obscurity. However, like all created languages, it offers a new perspective and a new way to view the world.

I’ll end with a great quote from one of the E-Prime sites:

“You don’t need to take drugs to hallucinate; improper language can fill your world with phantoms and spooks of many kinds.”


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