English-Prime: Stripping Language of Ontological Ambiguity

The other day I happened upon a linguistic system called “E-Prime” or “English-Prime.” E-Prime is basically English, but without the verb to be (in any of its forms – be, am, is, are, were, being, etc.). It’s not so much a practical type of speech – although it can be if you’re really into this idea – but is a kind of academic conditioning and checking of how we speak, and how we speak may not line up exactly with the way things really are or what we believe.

It’s simple to see how this works. Try this sentence: “This apple is red.” Well, the apple isn’t really red – red is how it appears to whoever is seeing it. The E-Prime version states more accurately: “This apple appears red to me.” Or try something like this: “This show is awesome.” Not really. Nothing is inherently awesome about the show. You can say “I really enjoy this show” or “this band’s music makes me dance my ass off.” Or something more better than that, but do you see what I mean?

This apple appears red to my eyes.

E-Prime is an experiential language that divests speech of one of its biggest ontological issues – without a word that says something “is,” things become relative experiences, events, etc. Agency must always be attributed – no longer can things be good or bad, but can only illicit certain responses.

Of course this path also deadens the language a bit. No more metaphors, that’s for sure. Look what happens to Shakespeare:

To be or not to be; that is the question.”  vs.  “To exist or not to exist; I ask this question.”

What’s lost here? The ambiguity of “being.” Being here no longer refers to many levels of action/inaction, life/death, care/apathy, etc. Being is simplified into existing, when we all know they are not the same thing. Try Gertrude Stein’s famous, I don’t know, is it an aphorism? Anyway:  “A rose is a rose is a rose.” I don’t even know where to start with that – the whole point is that a rose both is and isn’t a rose, and that being a rose means so many more things than whatever single affect the rose could produce at any given time. I’m not sure which I prefer – the ambiguity of a multiplicity in a single moment, or the singularity of the instance.

Both these examples kind of lead to Heidegger, which I guess is where I had to be heading with this – that being is, in fact, the linguistic investigation of the concept. In other words – not to put words in Heideggers mouth – if we rid the language of the concept, we rid the language of its ability to do what it has been crafted to do and in turn, suppress what is essential to our existence, or our “being” human. One more try: ambiguity is not only a good thing, but essential.

Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being.” – MH


2 thoughts on “English-Prime: Stripping Language of Ontological Ambiguity

  1. this was interesting, thanks. three thoughts:

    first, “The red apple sitting on the table.” “That red apple over there.” etc. seem like perfectly sound english’ sentences, so if anything this inconsistency will amplify metaphysical ambiguity rather than reduce it. english (simpliciter) may be ambiguous but it doesn’t pretend otherwise.

    second, when we say something like “This apple is red.” we typically take ourselves to mean something other than “This apple appears red to me.” — that is, something about the actual object independent of our perception, eyes, etc. one could take a sheet of white paper (“This paper is white!”) and hold it under a pink light and say, meaningfully, “This paper appears pink to me, but I know it to be white.” color metaphysics is hard, and it won’t be solved by throwing away words.

    third, no matter how clearly you or anyone else lays out a bit of heidegger i will never understand what that man was on about.

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