Tuesday, December 14, 2010

E-prime

Much of the way that people write and speak in English makes heavy use of the various different forms of the verb ‘to be’ – for example, count how many sentences use the words ‘is’, ‘am’, ‘are’, ‘were’ (etc).  Some thinkers criticise this pattern, saying that it promotes a kind of mental laziness or imprecision: we say “the sky is blue”, but what can that ‘is’ mean there?  Better (more precise) to say “the sky appears blue”.

Around 1965, David Bourland proposed a new dialect of English – E-prime, or E’ in mathematical notation, short for English-Prime – based around the mental discipline of deliberately avoiding all of the forms of ‘to be’.  Instead of saying “I am a lawyer”, say “I answer legal questions, I write contracts, I represent people in court”; by saying precisely what you actually do you are obliged to examine exactly what “being a lawyer” means.  Or consider the old ditty:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Honey is sweet,
And so are you.

In E-prime, we might instead write:

Roses look red,
Violets look blue.
I like honey,
And I like you.

You can find further examples of E-prime in the books of the psychologist Albert Ellis or science-fiction author David Gerrold, each of whom wrote several books in an E-prime style.

This seems to me to be a viable explanation of “alignment languages” in D&D, not that they are actually separate languages, but that they are “mental disciplines” of talking or writing using certain forms and avoiding others.  The idea of a dialect built upon such precision sounds like something that could mark out Lawful-Neutral types.

It also reminds me of the pop-psychology therapy idea of using an “active voice” and avoiding nominative forms.  So instead of saying “you are an idiot”, saying “I feel frustrated when you do that”.  They share a feeling of saying “me me me” all the time; I feel frustrated, the sky looks blue to me.  All this self-centric talk would suit chaotic alignments too.  Imagine Chaotic-Good as a kind of touchy-feely, new-age types instead of the rugged individualists for a change.

2 comments:

  1. When I think of alignment languages, I think of the Ascian language in Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun".

    Ascian language consists only of phrases drawn from the Ascian government's propaganda texts. Meaning is conveyed by the choice of phrase.

    Wikipedia has a good entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascian_language

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