Language is one of the invisible architectures that shape our world view and group dynamics without us really noticing it. To express our thoughts we use language. At the same time language restricts us to the words that are already there.
To Be? No! Not to Be: e-Prime
Hacking our language is actually not new. The linguist D. David Bourland coined the term e-Prime in 1965 to describe a derivative of the English language. E-Prime does not make use of any of the forms of the verb “to be” to dissociate from the idea of the absolute. Everything depends on the perception of the speaker and anything in the world can possibly change.
By omitting all forms of “to be” it becomes also impossible to use the passive. Using active sentences forces the speaker or writer to indicate the responsibility of each action to a subject. Hence clarity of thought improves.
Thingification of Life
Language makes it sometimes very easy to distance ourselves from reality. We rather say “I like to eat meat” instead of “I enjoy eating an animal”. The latter sounds quite cruel but means exactly the same thing as the first. When we think of meat in the West we often imagine a cooked steak or a piece of packed meat in the supermarket. We might not even think of the animal that just died recently to provide us with what we call our food.
Taking Responsibility for Our World View
Expressions like “She is a nice person” or “He is a bad teacher” become obsolete and translate into “I like this person” or “I cannot follow his teaching”. It probably also has an effect on one’s own perception of identity, as the E-Prime speaker cannot use phrases like “I am German” or “I am a woman”.
The use of e-Prime appears to me less dogmatic than what I was used to. I see similarities with non-violent communication and believe that skipping the verb “to be” can be a step towards a use of language with less conflict and less violence (unless listeners translate the sentences back and choose to understand them in a dogmatic, violent way). At the same time I think that it is possible to claim universal truth without using “to be”. For example if one says: “Your cooking skills suck.” or “You smell nice.” they claim universal truth.
Concepts of Time in Languages
Anyone who is capable of speaking more than one language has probably realized that some languages offer expressions we miss in others. And not only that! When I studied Chinese I realized that with a new language can come a new world view.
One example: In the West we have a linear idea of time. We – as an individual – move along the time path as time progresses. Figuratively we move from the left to the right while the beam of time with its beginning and end remains constant. Our calendars are structured that way.
Chinese Circular Time Comes from Behind
In the Chinese perception, time is circular and flows over a person from the back. The individual remains in the same spot and time is the one that moves. The expression for “the day after tomorrow”, 後天 (hòutiān) is in Chinese literally “the day behind”. While the expression for “the day before yesterday”, 前天 (qiántiān) literally translates into “the day in front”. In the West we would usually see the day in front of us as “tomorrow” and the day behind us as “yesterday”. One could possibly argue that our concept of time is an invisible architecture in itself but I don’t want to go into more detail on time here.
In some languages, like in my native tongue German, we use different forms to describe male and female terms for occupation, role or other personal descriptions. Pilot would be Pilotin (female) and Pilot (male), Physician would be Doktorin (f) or Doktor (m). As you see the suffix “in” usually indicates the female form. However, it doesn’t make texts or speeches nicer to always include both forms. In the past and even today there is a widespread use of the male term and often women are asked to feel included into that male word.
Some initiatives started to use the female form for employee and with an asterisk indicated that the female form includes also male employees. A small company in Berlin made use of this technique in their work contracts to the big surprise of male employees. The dazzled reactions show how we manifest a patriarchic structure of society and male dominance through our German language.
Some alternative groups I have recently spent time with constantly use the female form of a noun. To indicate that they mean both, the male and the female they make a very short break before the “in”. This language hack felt strange for me at first. That shows how much I have been conditioned to subordinate myself under male descriptions over the span of my lifetime. In fact I like the idea to value both genders in the most concise way possible in the slightly complicated German language.
About Hidden Architectures
Recently I have been thinking a lot about what shapes our view of the world without us really noticing it. I like to call these phenomena “invisible architectures”. Here I focus on those invisible architectures that are relevant to (almost) everybody in a given society. I find them highly interesting as they help us understand the development of group dynamics.
Hidden Architectures include, for example, language, social codes, laws, economic systems, and our use of money. Last but not least even physical architecture can have an influence on group dynamics without us really noticing it. Thinking about hidden architectures I realized that almost nothing in the world is really carved into stone. Most depends on our perspective. That means: Change is possible. Even if we think there are no alternatives. And even more so if we know about the influences of hidden architectures on group dynamics.
This is a five weeks series. Last week I wrote about the Influence of physical architecture.
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