Tuesday, May 11, 2010

To Be or Not To Be

E Prime - The Ultimate Right Speech

According to Robert Anton Wilson, "In 1933, Alfred Korzybski proposed that we should abolish the ‘is of identity’ from the English language.The ‘is of identity’ takes the form X is a Y, or ‘Joe is a Communist,’ ‘Mary is a dumb file-clerk.’ In 1949, D. David Bourland Jr. proposed the abolition of all forms of the words ‘is’ or ‘to be’ and this new English without ‘is-ness’ he called English Prime, or E-Prime.

The case for using E-Prime rests on the simple proposition that ‘is-ness’ sets the brain into a medieval Aristotelian framework (which posits a permanence to our world view by suggesting that an event is naturally characterized by giving its position in space together with the time of its occurrence) and makes it impossible to understand modern problems and opportunities. Removing ‘is-ness’ and writing and thinking only and always in operational/existential language sets us, conversely, in a modern universe where we can successfully deal with modern issues."

From a Buddhist perpective, E Prime weakens and lessens our concept of the Self. It loosens our idea of Self at the third and fifth skandhas. At the third skandha, perception, it lessens our ability to attach a label to people and things, falsely making them appear as permenent, solid and substantive. At the fifth skandha, consciousness, where we normally appropriate and identify with our perceptions (I’m the kind of person who does this when he sees that”, E Prime shatters our clinging by stopping us from so easily identifying with our sense contacts.

For instance:

Standard English: The photon is a wave.

E-Prime: The photon behaves as a wave when constrained by certain instruments.

Standard English: The photon is a particle.

E-Prime: The photon appears as a particle when constrained by other instruments.

The description of a photon as either a wave or a particle is both inaccurate (a photon is both, depending) and polarizing (probably fighting words at the local quantum bar). We could make up a word like "wavicle" - but why? E-Prime seems an efficient and effective way to express all sorts of uncertainties, paradoxes, ambiguities, ambivalences and mysteries. In other words, E-Prime encompasses all the richness that the "is of identity" is too narrow to contain. For Buddhist, this makes E Prime ideal for expressing phenomena in a conditioned world.

E-Prime is not an easy language to learn. To say "You are wrong" in E-Prime, you would have to say, "Based on what I understood of the circumstances in the moment, I don’t understand your reason for doing what you did." To say "I am right," you would have to say "I behaved in accordance with my understanding of the situation."

Getting unstuck from the "is of identity" would make life both at the quantum bar and at home more peaceful. Give it a try.

If you don’t feel ready for a day of E Prime, try this simple linguistic exercise to loosen your clinging to Self: spend a day without using the pronouns "I, me, my or mine."