Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

What E-Prime "Is Not": A Semiotic Phenomenological Reading

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

What E-Prime "Is Not": A Semiotic Phenomenological Reading

Article excerpt

Whatever one might say something "is," it is not.

--Alfred Korzybski

Oliver Burkeman, in his recent essay, "This Column Will Change Your Life: To Be or Not To Be ...," published in The Guardian (January 2010), honors general semantic (GS) principles by celebrating the forty-fifth anniversary of David Bourland's writing idea known as E-Prime. First introduced in 1965 in the General Semantics Bulletin (Bourland, 1965/1966), E-Prime continues to garner interest as a writing device for "attaining a kind of vigorous clarity" in our thinking (Bourland, 1989, p. 209). While E-Prime stirred controversy from the beginning, its popularity quickly made "it virtually impossible for the general semantics community at large to ignore" (Kellogg, 1992, p. 206). In 1992, an entire issue of Et Cetera devoted space to E-Prime's theoretical development and practical refinement. At a rudimentary level, we can say that E-Prime offers an additional extensional device to the list of many (such as dating and indexing) proposed by GS founder Alfred Korzybski. As a technique, a writer using E-Prime consciously eliminates the use of the verb "to be," in an effort to destabilize any taken-for-granted acceptance of language and discourse in its static Aristotelian conceptualization. As Bourland (1992, p. 220) claims, "[To be] portrays a static relationship that has no place in the semantic reactions of people trying to come to grips with a dynamic, ever-changing world." All such extensional devices function to free us from our "dead-level abstracting" of the world--so theorized Korzybski; a typical unawareness, in other words, produced by a misguided view of language, its use, and impact on our functioning as human beings.

At the very heart of GS resides the fundamental belief that our use of symbols sets us apart from other living creatures (see, for example, Rapoport, 1955; White, 1943). Few in the academy now argue against such a position. Unsurprisingly, countless language philosophers over the years voice "concern with the evaluation of language as a bearer of meanings, as a medium of communication, and as a sign or symbol of reality" (Urban, 1939, 37). Our symbolic capacity leads Korzybski to claim that we possess the ability to time-bind, to produce socially shared "meanings" of our lives that form the basis of our on-going cultural heritage (Korzybski, 1921/2008). According to communication theorists Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson (1987), over time these socially-shared "meanings," produced from message exchanges from many people to many people, lose their time markers because the "sources and destination of messages are ... unknown" at this socio-cultural level of communication (p. 282). As a result, the taken-for-granted "nature" of a culture (its beliefs, traditions, attitudes, and values) settle into sedimented forms of meaning structures ("code systems" to a semiotician). The process of writing functions as one of the primary ways we sediment culture (p. 282). But Korzybski takes these ideas one step further by exploring how culture sediments us and, as a result, produces all kinds of human maladies--both physical and mental.

Because of our time-binding capabilities, general semanticists often ask how, exactly, do these "generalized meanings" get constructed as performances of writing (and orality for that matter)? And, more importantly, do these generalized meanings function in our best interest as a human species? For, above all, the motivating force behind the field of GS lies in its concern for the quality of human life. Recognizing the personal "quandaries" that we face as we attempt to adjust to a rapidly changing society (Johnson, 1989), Korzybski developed the solution-oriented theory of GS. Grounded in the firm belief that the language system and structure we employ shapes our perceptions and expressions (experiences) of "reality"--an idea that later found popularity through the works of cultural linguists Edward Sapir (1921, 1966) and Benjamin Whorf (1956)--GS specifically addresses how we can "perfect" our individual use of language expressed as particular messages through performances of orality and/or writing. …

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