Date Sat Sep 13 08:44:16 2003
To: Mohamed Salem Ahmedou
From: Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.
Subject: Re: E-prime

Hi Mohamed,

Please excuse my delay in responding.  I had to take some time to think up some responses.  I "am" certainly not any expert in this area, just an independent thinker.  I am unaware of literature, but can find lots of stuff about it on the internet, as well as identify books.  Some material can be found on the The Institute of General Semantics websites.

At 2003-09-08 00:31, you wrote:

Dear Ralph Kenyon,
I have been an ELS teacher in a number of Arab countries for quite sometimes. As a native speaker of Arabic, I have always had a problem with remembering to use the verb to be either in the regular SV(be)C sentence form or in the passive. As a teacher, I have had a hard time getting my students to use the verb in similar situations and structures. They always forget to use the be form after the subject and use the present participle directly after the verb in the continuous tenses and the past participle in the case of the passive voice.
Here is a link to a page that describes the various tenses and their uses.

I have always thought it was a language interference lacune or phenomenon for, in Arabic the "be" or "being" concept is already carried by the pronoun and using the "be" or the "being" status after the pronoun is somehow a figure of pleonasm. I should note that  in Arabic, we have two kinds of sentences: a nominal one representing the SV(be)C structure and and a verbal one featuring the SVO form. However, after reading your article, The Spirit and the Letter and Charles T. Low's A Layman's Personal Perspective, I am wondering if the omission of the verb to be is rather a psycholinguistic or a semantic tendency to simplify the utterance and could be a universal manifestation that learners of English from different language backgrounds would tend to have.

My wife has a graduate degree in Russian language and literature.  The "linking verb" use of 'to be' is frequently implicit in Russian.  This is partly because the word endings that apply to both nouns and adjectives (and verbs) carry the same information, and including the verb to be explicitly would be redundant. Moreover, the word endings vary according to what in English corresponds to tense. In English only the third person singular of regular verbs carries an ending. (I run, you run, he _runs_, we run, you run, they run.)  "To be", however is irregular.  In Latin, the verb and the pronoun are one word - "sum, es, est, sumus, estus, sunt" corresponding to the split of the pronoun and the verb in English - "I am, you are, {he|she|it} is, we are, you are, they are".

You are in a better position that I to speculate on how novice native Arabic speakers tend to translate.

When I met my wife, she spoke very little English.  I have been teaching her over the last 8 years, and based on that experience, I have some surmises of my own.

In the Russian case, translation of the words with endings to words without endings is done somewhat literally on a word-for word basis, which results in a combination of incorrect (English) word order and the omission of required English words which did not have an explicit Russian word to translate from. 'Moi edom' (Phonetic  Russian using Latin letters)  translates on a word-for-word basis to 'we going', but English requires adding 'are', and the correct translation is 'we are going'.   Native Russian speakers "think" this sentence in two words. My inclination is to think that beginning and novice translators who think in their native language attempt to translate in a simplistic manner - on a word-for-word basis.  As the learner gains experience more sophisticated understanding allows the translator to revise the word order and to include non word-for-word substitution schemes.  As fluency is gained, and students begin to "think" in the second language, the tendency for such simplistic "translation" begins to disappear, precisely because the novice is now "thinking" the three word form.  It's no longer translation, but use of the new language.

 However, I would like to know what E-prime is or actually mean.

Korzybski and the Institute staff caution general semantics students about the perils of reacting to one thing as if it were something else. Korzybski surmised, not necessarily correctly, that some structural aspects of language dominated our thinking patters - inducing us to react inappropriately at times.  Specifically, the "is of identity" which allows us to easily equate two dissimilar things is claimed to facilitate reacting to one thing as if it were merely one characteristic of that thing.  "He is a communist", which should be understood that he is, among MANY other things, a member of an organization that espouses certain principles, Korzybski claimed, is frequently understood as "he is ONLY a communist", and we would be induced to react to him and treat him ONLY in terms of that one property.  In short, we have "identified" him with a single characteristic, and a characteristic is only one thing, of many, that can be abstracted from him.  Two different levels of abstraction are conflated, and inappropriate behavior results.  Stereotyping and prejudice are gross examples of what Korzybski was objecting to.

Bourland simply said that we can solve this problem just by not using the verb 'to be', and he called the language English' or English-prime - "E-prime" for short [from the mathematical and scientific shorthand of using the apostrophe (') to indicate a variation of a basic quantity as in, "X' is a modification of X."].   However, all kinds of "jury rigged" methods of trying to use the same structure, but without the actual verb, have been tried.  It's like trying the word-for-word translation scheme.  "Thinking in E-prime is necessary to use it correctly", translates to, "In order to use E-prime correctly, one has to learn to think in it" (The Whorfian hypothesis not withstanding).

I also would like your reaction to the analysis above and if there is any literature about the duality of this phenomenon.
I will be very grateful to read from you very soon.
Meanwhile, please accept my best regards.

Mohamed S. Ahmedou

ELC, King Abdul Aziz University
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

And mine to you,

Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

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