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One grunt or two?

MY NAME IS ALFRED. This sentence, besides giving my name, demonstrates what we used to call an "is of identity" construction, which early believers in E' thought was the most deadly use of the verb "to be." You who someday read these words will most likely not know that E' (E-Prime) was the name given to a variety of English without any of the forms of "to be." It became popular for a while, because its champions claimed that it would reduce or eliminate statements of identity (equating one abstraction with another as in the first sentence above), the passive voice, notions of permanence, and other problems that caused people to misuse and mininterpret the language with often unfortunate results. The E-Primers were a group of otherwise nice folks who started us on a fatal spiral of language "correctness," leading finally to our present deplorable situation, though I suppose one coulde say that we have succeeded in achieving "communication" with no ambiguity whatsoever.

But I'm ahead of myself. The E-Primers zealously spread their message, and after a few years it became mandatory to teach only E' in our schools. Amazingly, speakers of the rest of thw world's languages fell into line. Unfortunately, life and strife went on much as before (people managed to misunderstand each other just as well without "to be" as with it). Eventually, though, a shattering discovery was made: indentification could occur using verbs besides just "to be." Saying, for example, "Charlie has the brains of an ass" left little doubt about identifying Charlie with an ass, and seemed even more insulting than, "Charlie is an ass," because it was clear to most people that Charlie couldn't bray. Obviously the next step was to legislate against the "to have" verbs. Soon, many more equally troublesome verbs were identified and added to the list: appear, become, come, consist, continue, feel, get, go, grow, involve, keep, lie look, prove, remain, resemble, run, seem, sit, sound, stay, turn, wax, and others too numerous to mention. People promoting this change called themselves Double Primers, and though there was some grumbling, before long the schools were teaching this new version, now called E". Luckily, many graduates found work rewriting already published literature.

The Double Primers waxed eloquent about the new English, but the reform proved futile: people were still able to make trouble for each other through language. Inevitably, one day the Triple-Primers came along, a group that had realized adjectives are forms of identification, too. For example, if somebody said, "That beautiful flower," it surely meant pretty much the same thing as saying "that flower is beautiful." Obviously, all adjectives had to be eliminated, and so E''' was born. Heavy penalties were exacted for anybody caught with an adjective. Unfortunately, the goal of creating harmonious communication still wasn't within reach: people developed such stress and worry about incorrectness and punishments that they fought over almost nothing.

At long last, theoreticians among the Triple-Primers recognized the core of the problem: language. People talk and write and incite with language, they tell each other off in language, they plan, scheme, cheat with language. The ultimate solution thus became crystal clear: complete elimination of all language, with capital punishment (or even worse) for anyone caught using any form of recognized speech. What a stroke! Disagreement virtually stopped, except for occasional local tribal battles over who got the most food around the fire. Industry and commerce vanished, and, except for all the bodies that resulted from rampant starvation and fighting, pollution became nearly nonexistent.

I remember an old story about someone named Gulliver who visisted the School of Languages in Laputa. The scholars there had decided that using words shortened life, so they should communicate by showing the "things" that words stand for. Serious talkers had a carry a huge bag of these "things," though one could stuff enough under one's arms for a short conversation. Maybe this is where Korzybski, another old timer, got the idea that the most basic communication is pointing at something. Anyway, that's what we do these days: point at things -- though most people find it helps to grunt now and then, by way of emphasis.

I'm scratching this message into a rock; I may be the last person either crazy enough or able to write in the old way. It's dangerous, but perhaps someone will understand if one day.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Institute of General Semantics
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Author:Menefee, Emory
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Words:730
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