4: Linguistic Relativity

Course Home | 1: What is GS? | 2: Allness | 3: Bypassing | 4: Linguistic Relativity | 5: Symbol Rulers | 6: Review and Reflection

This course was developed and presented on the Canvas Network by Steve Stockdale, Mary Lahman, and Greg Thompson. It is reproduced here under terms of the Creative Commons Share Alike License as published on Canvas Network from 13 January – 24 February 2014.

Map for Module

Spiral Module Overview

In Module 1 we were introduced to the structural differential and the central problematic of General Semantics: the process of abstracting. In this Module, led by Greg Thompson, we will focus on using cross-cultural comparisons in order to provide real world examples of how language affects thought.

The idea that language affects thought has been called the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – after linguistic anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Relativity Effects can be seen in terms of:

  1. Effects of speaking a particular language on how one perceives the world.
  2. Effects of speaking a particular language on how one interacts with the world.
  3. Effects of speaking human language in the first place (sign language counts as a human language!), as opposed to not speaking a human language at all.

In this module, we will be focusing on the first two types of effects, but it should be noted that the third effect of language is exactly what Korzybski was talking about in his concept of time binding. Language is an instrument of time-binding. And written langauge is particularly powerful in this regard. While there are many examples of non-literate cultures passing down traditions through oral language, written language even further expands our ability to transmit knowledge across great distances of time and space (and indeed it is this very work in which we are presently engaged!).

Description of Module

First, we begin with an overview explanation of what we mean by linguistic relativity on the page titled Language, Thought, and Behavior.

In What We Do With Language – And What It Does With Us, Bruce Kodish provides an excellent overview of Linguistic Relativity and its relevance to General Semantics. He effectively rebuts some of the specific criticisms of LRH by Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker.

The module will be focused around a video presentation by University of California San Diego (UCSD) psycholinguist Lera Boroditsky, How Language Shapes Thought. In this engaging lecture, Dr. Boroditsky provides an outline of the general argument of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis as well as a number of very rich examples of how language could affect how we understand the world around us.

After you’ve viewed the presentation, you can share your Reactions to Lera Boroditsky in a graded discussion.

Next, I explain the Relativity in Linguistic Relativity, focusing on examples of cultural relativity, followed by Implications of Linguistic Relativity.

The module concludes with two graded assignments: 1) a discussion that asks you to share a personal example of how language shaped your thinking; and 2) a short 250-word essay on a controversial cultural practice.

Don’t overlook the Optional Readings page with links to PDF articles you can download.

Thoughout the week, please review and contribute to the Module 4 General Discussion.

I should note that there are serious challenges to doing this kind of cross-linguistic work. First and foremost, we all have very different experiences with language. Some of us are monoglots (like me!), and some of us are bi- or multi-lingual. But there are no two languages that all of us share. This makes it difficult for us to use any two languages for comparison since only a subset of us will know those two languages well enough to understand the examples. This means that we will tend to treat more superficial examples of language effects (e.g. the effects of lexical items in one language vs. another), and will make it difficult to treat more complex examples of language effects (e.g., the effects of grammatical categories).

I am very excited about hearing people’s own personal experiences with bi- or multi-lingualism and what kinds of effects you have observed. So please be sure to participate in the discussions so that we will have some meaty first-hand examples of how speaking a language might affect other aspects of our behavior.

Language, Thought, and Behavior

Structural Differential with Labels

This week we are considering the relationship of language, thought, and behavior. In particular, we consider this using the comparative method. We will look at different languages and how these different languages affect how we think about and behave in the world.

Put slightly differently, this module considers how different maps can map the ‘same’ territory in a potentially indefinite number of ways.

Here we return again to the structural differential as a way of understanding how language functions to interpret the world for us.

We will be focused on the level that is most relevant to the actual formal features of the language that we use, namely the level of Description.

In this module, we will see how the different languages can give us different descriptions of the same reality.

In this unit, we will consider examples taken from a number of different languages that can help us to see how the language we speak can affect how we understand the world around us.

Beyond Eskimos and their 10/100/1000 Words for Snow: The Sapir-Whorf(-Korzybski?) Hypothesis

"100 words for Lawn"

Did you know that suburban white males have over 100 words for ‘lawn’?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (LRH), refers to the claim that the language that you speak will affect the way that you understand the world around you. The first to formally forward this hypothesis were Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf. Although Sapir first formulated the hypothesis, it was Whorf who was most active in researching the claim.

English examples of Linguistic Relativity

I’ll begin the discussion with some of the classic examples from Whorf’s work as a fire insurance claims adjuster. (Yes, Whorf was a leisure-scholar — meaning he had a full time job and studied language in his free time. Note that this is a point that many of his detractors cite as evidence that he wasn’t a serious scholar. Based on what you’ve learned so far, is this a reasonable inference? Perhaps it would be better to actually read his work and then decide?)

In his work as an insurance claims adjuster, Whorf was responsible for looking into the origins of fires (ostensibly so that the insurance company see if there was justification for them to not pay out the claim). In his line of work, it was generally accepted that one need only look into the physical situation in order to understand what “caused” the fire. Yet, in his work, Whorf came to the belief that it was not just the “physical situation” that caused the fire, but that the meaning of the situation was critical, and that, more specifically, the linguistic meaning or the label applied to the situation was critical to understanding the cause of the fire. Below are some of his examples.

  1. People working around “gasoline drums” will be extremely careful and cautious while people working around “empty gasoline drums” will not. The sense that they are “empty” suggests that they pose no harm. And thus, as Whorf discovered, a worker may with no concern, flick a cigarette stub into one of these “empty gasoline drums.” The results are, well, explosive. This, it turns out, is because “empty gasoline drums” in fact contain highly explosive vapors.
  2. At another plant, metal containers were insulated on the outside with “spun limestone”. Seeing that it was “limestone” (i.e., “stone”), workers made no attempt to protect it from heat or flame. Yet, it turned out that this material reacted with the chemical fumes inside to produce acetone, a highly flammable liquid. Thus, when these “stone” lined containers were exposed to flame, much to everyone’s surprise, the “stone” caught fire.
  3. A tannery discharged waste water containing animal matter into an outdoor basin partly roofed with wood. A workman working nearby lit a blowtorch with a match and then threw the match into the “pool of water.” Anyone want to guess the results?

Each of these examples show how the linguistic meaning of the situation can be seen to have very important, and perhaps even dire, consequences for participants involved. (Whorf is not clear as to whether anyone was hurt in these fires…)

Cross-linguistic examples of Linguistic Relativity

Consider the oft-quoted example of Eskimos and their words for “snow” that Whorf mentions in his paper titled “Science and Linguistics.”

It is interesting that the snow example is actually given as an elaboration of another point that nobody ever seems to talk about, the fact that the Hopi have one word for “insect”, “aviator”, and “airplane”. The point here is that if a Hopi speaker were to be walking through, let’s say, an airport and if she were to be looking out the window at an airplane at which point she saw a fly buzzing around a window just as she passed an “aviator” (i.e. a “pilot”), she would say that she just saw three of the “same” thing.

This is much like the non-skiing American for whom powder, slush, and crusty snow are all the “same” thing (I qualified that as “non-skiing American” because skiers have different terms for snow – and more importantly, they engage with those different categories of snow quite differently, often to the point of even having different types of skis for different types of snow).

Whorf’s point is that, for the Eskimo, these are not the “same” thing. One substance is good for making igloos (“hard-packed snow”), another is good for walking on (“ice-covered snow”), and another is generally a pain in the rear end (“powder”). But, for the Eskimo each of these different types of snow are, as Whorf says, “different things to contend with.” Having a different name for each of them tells an Eskimo what exactly it is that they are contending with.

So the next time someone says that the Eskimo have over 100 words for snow, after you have helped them understand how this is false-to-facts (11 seems a more plausible number), you can then tell them that the Hopi have only one word for “insect”, “aviator”, and “airplane”. That should blow their mind.

What We Do With Language – What It Does With Us

The article below by Bruce I. Kodish, Ph.D., presents an excellent overview of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (or Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) and its relevance to General Semantics. He effectively rebuts some of the specific criticisms of LRH by Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker.

This article was published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 60 Issue 4. It also constitutes Chapter 10 in his 2003 book, Dare to Inquire (available on Amazon).

If you prefer to download the PDF version, click: What we do with language – what it does with us

Neuro-Linguistic Relativity

Dare to Inquire CoverA particular view of language relates to the applied, evaluational approach of general semantics. Language is intertwined with behavior, consciousness, etc. It has a neurological base; that is, language doesn’t exist entirely separately from nervous systems-persons using the words. By means of spiral feedback mechanisms, we create our language; our language affects us; we create our language; etc., ongoingly. This individual process is embedded in, influences and is influenced by, a particular culture and community of others.

This view, “linguistic relativity,” has a history in western culture going back at least several hundred years to the work of Vico and von Humboldt and more recently to linguistic anthropologists Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf, among others.

For those who espouse linguistic relativity, what we call ‘language’ and ‘culture, ‘consciousness’ and ‘behavior’ develop and operate together through individual and group experience. (Since they do not function in complete isolation from each other, although they can be considered separately, I put the terms in single quotes here.) Linguistic anthropologist Michael Agar has coined the term “languaculture” to label the joint phenomenon of language-culture. How do these factors work together?

Without denying cross-cultural similarities among humans, the principle of linguistic relativity implies that, as Whorf scholar Penny Lee wrote:

…although all observers may be confronted by the same physical evidence in the form of experiential data and although they may be capable of “externally similar acts of observation”… a person’s ‘picture of the universe’ or ‘view of the world’ differs as a function of the particular language or languages that per­son knows. (1)

Korzybski and Keyser independently and earlier formulated similar notions in relation to undefined terms, logical fate, etc. As you may recall, they contended that the culturally inherited structure of an individual’s language, including his or her terminology, grammar, logic, doctrines, etc., relates to assumptions, premises, implications about the structure of ourselves and the world.

In Science and Sanity, Korzybski hinted at the practical implications of this structure even within a particular, apparently ‘unified’ languaculture:

We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of s.r [semantic or evaluational reactions] and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us. (2)

Various distorted versions of this view have come to be known as the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” an academic abstraction which does not label anything that Sapir or Whorf ever put forward as a hypothesis on their own. (The principle of linguistic relativity which they did put forward can be interpreted in various ways and may lead to many different hypotheses.) Some scholars have pursued their own distorted interpretations and made a strawman rendering of Whorf’s views.

As you might imagine, much controversy has been generated by the various versions and responses to them. I consider this controversy important to examine in some detail in Dare to Inquire, due to the centrality of linguistic relativity in general semantics. I discuss the general-semantics view in the course of going into various other versions.

Language and Thought

According to psychologist Steven Pinker, both Whorf and Korzybski pre­ sented linguistic relativity as a single-valued, absolutistic and uni-directional belief that “language determines thought.” (3) This “strong version” (and ‘weaker’ ones as well) of the supposed Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is “wrong, all wrong” (4) claims Pinker (widely accepted as an expert in linguistics and psychology).

Actually, neither Whorf nor Korzybski posited a ‘language’ entirely isolated from human behavior-in-a-culture as the sole, one-directional, single­ valued determinant of some separable entity called ‘thought.’ According to both men, ‘language,’ ‘thought’ (more accurately, neuro-evaluational processes), ‘behavior,’ and ‘culture’ do not function separately but rather as elements within a gestalt (a unified whole) where they mutually interact in multi-dimensional and probabilistic ways.

In saying that ‘language’ does not function separately from ‘thought,’ I do not mean to imply, as Pinker does, that either formulator claimed that there is no ‘thought’ without ‘language.’ Whorf, at the very least, qualified this and Korzybski denied it.

Neither did they deny the possibility of inborn and ‘universal’ language­ related processes, more or less impervious to cultural modification. Neverthe­ less, the thrust of their work suggests that language has important aspects modifiable through learning. Through neuro-linguistic (a term originated by Korzybski) processes, our language use helps create modifiable neuro­-evaluational, neuro-linguistic environments, i.e., cultures, which can change and grow through time-binding. We not only do things with ‘language,’ ‘language’ does things with us.

The general-semantics view of linguistic relativity appears unique among other versions of linguistic relativity for several reasons. First is its explicit neurological emphasis. Using general-semantics language, we can talk more accurately in terms of neuro-linguistic relativity:

Even a gramophone record undergoes some physical changes before words or noises can be ‘stored’ and/or reproduced. Is it so very difficult to understand that the extremely sensitive and highly complex human nervous system also undergoes some electro-colloidal changes before words, evaluations, etc., are stored, produced, or reproduced? (5)

Before his untimely death, Whorf appeared to be struggling toward such an explicit neurological formulation as well. (6)

A second point which distinguishes general semantics from many other views of linguistic relativity is its focus on an individual’s language behavior or use as it relates to his or her evaluative (roughly ‘cognitive’) processes. The term “language” as neurocognitive linguist Sydney Lamb has noted, does not necessarily stand for one thing. Using a device suggested by general semanticists, Lamb indexes language(1), language(2), language(3).

..when we look closely we can see that it [“language”] is used for a number of quite distinct collections of phenomena selected from the kaleidoscopic flux, including especially these three: (1) language as a set of sentences (e.g. Chomsky) or utterances (Bloomfield); (2) language as the system that lies behind such productions; (3) language as linguistic processes, as in the title of Winograd’s Language as a Cognitive Process (1980). (7)

A given general language(1) system such as English, French, German, etc., can have within it distinguishable dialects (regional variations) and registers (professional and group variations, such as the language of physicians, etc.). Individual speakers or writers of a given language(1) will have unique particular variations within the more general system — which may include their vocabulary, logic, metaphors, doctrines, etc. Language(2) includes the neuro­linguistic processes by which we generate language(1). A large part of human evaluative processes relates to language behavior or use, i.e., language(3). We learn how to do things with words in a social context in order to negotiate our lives with others—and with ourselves. Language(3) has become an area of increasing academic interest in recent years, as for example in discussions of “thinking for speaking” and “speech acts.” General semantics especially focuses on language(3)—how an individual’s evaluative processes relate to their language(1) generated from the neurological processes involved in language production, language(2) .

A third factor that distinguishes general semantics from other forms of linguistic relativity is its specific attention to practical implications and applications—even within the boundaries of a particular, apparently ‘unified’ languaculture. Whorf, who died in his forties, noted but was not able to elaborate much on the more practical implications of linguistic relativity. On the other hand, general semantics focuses on ways in which individuals can become more aware of the effects of their language and its implicatory structure for ill and for good.

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me,” goes a saying from my childhood. On the contrary, neuro-linguistic factors, i.e., words with the associated neuro-evaluative processes in each of us, can play a harmful, sometimes quite toxic role in our lives—especially if we remain unconscious of their implications.

We have particularly good access to our linguistic behavior, which appears modifiable to some degree. This is not any form of word magic. We’re interested in the underlying implications and orientation reflected in the structure of language. These involve our evaluational (semantic) reactions, including so-called verbal ‘thinking,’ as well as non-verbal ‘thinking,’ ‘feeling,’ behaving, etc. By becoming more aware of our language and its implications, we can nudge our orientation to get closer in line with so-called ‘facts.’

The Chomskyite Protest

The theory of Noam Chomsky has dominated linguistic studies in the United States for decades. Chomsky has consistently argued for the universal, innate and unlearned structure of human language. Building on Chomsky’s work (focusing on language(1), Steven Pinker has proposed that the structure oflanguage, i.e., grammar, etc., comes primarily by means of what he calls a “language instinct” determined by genes.

This chomskyite approach has now begun to show serious wear with little positive results for the claim that “language is an instinct.” (This failure has serious implications for the more general program of “sociobiology” or “evo­ lutionary psychology” as well) Linguist Geoffrey Sampson has done an especially thorough job of analyzing the inadequacies of chomskyite views. Sampson has concluded that:

…there are some universal features in human languages, but what they mainly show is that human beings have to learn their mother tongues from scratch rather than having knowledge of language innate in their minds. Except for the properties that lead to that conclusion, languages are just different (except that they probably do all contain nouns and verbs) … (8)

It seems that Dante had more or less the right view when he wrote in his Paradiso:

Tis nature’s work that man should utter words,

But whether thus or thus, ’tis left to you

To do as seems most pleasing. (9)

Nonetheless, the great popularity of the chomskyite program has probably prevented many people from taking Whorf’s and Korzybski’s work more seriously. To those who believe that most of language structure gets determined genetically, the differences between different linguistic groups can in some sense be considered trivial. If one accepts Pinker’s claim that in its most significant aspects “language is not a cultural artifact,” (10) then attention to language use cannot be used to affect human perception and behavior in the way general semanticists and others claim it can.

I decided to closely examine Pinker’s dismissal of linguistic relativity in his book The Language Instinct, to see if there was anything there that would require me to revise my own views. The lack of substance in his arguments surprised me. Pinker’s presentation does not seem notable for its accuracy and fairness regarding opposing views. It illustrates how someone nominally functioning as a scientist can block the way of inquiry. As Lamb noted, “Those who doubt that language can influence thinking are unlikely to be vigilant for the effects of language on their own thinking.” (11)

Non-Verbal ‘Thinking’

Pinker states that “General Semantics lays the blame for human folly on insidious ‘semantic damage’ to thought perpetrated by the structure of language.” (12) Pinker finds this something to scoff at. However, Korzybski did not talk or write in terms of ‘blame’ or of ‘thought’ and ‘language’ so elementalistically.

A more accurate rendering of a general-semantics view of ‘language’ and ‘thought’ states that the structure of a language, with its associated neuro­ semantic (evaluative) reactions —in each of us, at a given time, among other factors—affects our ongoing behavior, perception, evaluating, etc., for good and ill. Pinker may be unable to understand the nuances of this view because, as a good chomskyite, he lacks the linguistic consciousness that would allow him to stop objectifying the abstract terms ‘language’ and ‘thought’ as if they represented isolated entities in the world.

Despite his inaccurate description of general semantics, Pinker does correctly conclude that general semanticists find some support for their views in Whorf’s work. Unfortunately, Pinker also incorrectly concludes that linguistic relativity must imply that “thought is the same thing as language” (13) and writes at great length to refute this. However, his efforts here have no relevance whatsoever to either Korzybski’s or Whorf’s actual views. Neither claimed that “thought is the same thing as language.” In fact they both directly denied this while not eliminating the importance of what Penny Lee calls “linguistic thinking” (Lamb’s language(3)).

In Korzybski’s case, as I have already emphasized, the term “semantic(s)” in general semantics implies “evaluation” and does not typically refer to “just words” despite the usage of those ill-informed about general semantics. Evaluation refers to happening-meanings, i.e., ‘thinking,’ ‘feeling,’ verbal and non-verbal organism-as-a-whole transactions within an environment. Indeed, Korzybski stressed the importance of non-verbal formulating within his understanding of neuro-linguistic behavior, noting that silent contemplating and visualization can allow us to take in and develop fresh information, relatively unbiased by verbal ruts.

Basic Color Terms

Pinker also makes much of the “basic color term” research of Berlin and Kay, and of Rosch, as disproof of whorfian-korzybskian views. (14) Even though different languacultures have differing numbers of color terms, there does seem to exist a rough, cross-cultural sequence of those colors which get labeled first, second, third, etc. In addition, people across different cultures may tend to pick particular focal colors as the best examples or prototypes for a particular category. Although at least some of this work has flaws in both its data collection and interpretation, it does lend support to the notion that some aspects of language may depend upon the biologically based perceptual equipment of humans across cultures. This doesn’t, by the way, prove that some gene or genes are directly responsible for specific, observable language behaviors. Trial-and-error empirical learning may still play a role even in the development of color terms, however biologically based. (Note that “based” does not equate with “solely determined by.”)

Despite Pinker’s and other chomskyites’ attempts to make this an either-or issue, any research which shows the possibility of some cross-cultural, biological basis for some of the terms we use does not actually challenge the notion oflinguistic relativity. Neuro-linguistic relativity held non-absolutely has no inherent conflict with some degree of non-absolutist neuro-linguistic universalism, which may have some more or less direct biological basis.

Hopi Concept of ‘Time’

Unfortunately Pinker doesn’t play fair when it comes to discussing these issues. His representations of linguistic relativity cannot be relied upon for accuracy. For example, he uses selective quotes to ‘prove’ that Whorf made “outlandish claims” that the Hopi Indians were “oblivious to time” and did not have tenses in their language. (15) Although Whorfs analysis of Hopi languaculture may not be entirely flawless, a comparison of Pinker’s claims about it and what Whorf actually wrote results in very different pictures.

It seems clear from a full, non-selective reading of Whorfs work that he recognized the importance of how the Hopi languaculture clearly deals with durations and times. Whorf did not deny that the Hopi have used dating or calendars, counted the number of days or duration of events, etc. What he did claim was that the Hopi did not conceptualize “space or time as such” in the reified manner that we do in English and other Indo-European languages. This has been corroborated by others who have lived within and studied Hopi language and culture, such as anthropologist Edward Hall.

Eskimo Snow

In his crusade to show how linguistic relativity is wrong, Pinker doesn’t seem to mind descending to personal attack either. A common “urban legend” claims that Eskimo language has hundreds of different words for snow. By connecting Whorfs work to this popular claim, Pinker suggests that Whorf was party to a hoax. According to Pinker, from a report of four Eskimo words for snow made by Boas in 1911 “…Whorf embellished the count to seven and implied that there were more. His article was widely reprinted, then cited in textbooks and popular books on language, which led to successively inflated estimates in other textbooks, articles and newspaper columns of Amazing Facts.” (16)

Whorf actually wrote that English had one word for snow and Eskimo had three. Whorf used data that he had available at the time of this writing (1940) to emphasize that: “Languages classify items of experience differently. The class corresponding to one word and one thought in language A may be regarded by language B as two or more classes corresponding to two or more words and thoughts.” (17) To say that Whorf embellished anything here distorts what he said. Whorf does not have responsibility in any way, as Pinker tries to suggest, for other people’s exaggerations and misinterpretations. This constitutes pure name-calling and has no basis in fact. (18)

Experimental Evidence for Linguistic Relativity

Studies to deliberately test one or another interpretation of linguistic relativity have gone on for at least a half-century. This research remains an area of great contention and, despite the claims of chomskyites to some sort of victory, their efforts to declare linguistic relativity “bunk” don’t stand up to analysis. Pinker and others have attempted to downplay the significance of tests that corroborate the notion that words can in some sense have an effect on memory or categorization. However, the evidence hardly seems “weak.” The results of these tests have sometimes surprised researchers who didn’t necessarily favor linguistic relativity.

In one set of classic studies, subjects were shown colored chips. The colors varied in their codability, how easily an individual could apply a color label or name from his or her language to a chip. The chips were then removed, mixed up and shown again to the experimental subjects, who were asked to pick out the chips they had been shown before. The more easily labeled, more codable chips, appeared more available. In other words, the subjects had a better memory for, and could pick out, the more easily labeled chips, even though they could also remember colored chips without names. (19)

Pinker briefly mentioned and pooh-poohed the significance of another study about which the experimenters concluded that the habitual categories of speakers’ languages could indeed influence their color-categorizing behavior. (20) One of the researchers, Willett Kempton, later wrote:

A simple experiment, clear data, and seeing the Whorfian effect with our own eyes: It was a powerful conversion experience unlike anything I’ve experienced in my scientific career. Perhaps this all just goes to affirm Seguin’s earlier quote, as applying to us as both natives and as theorists: “We have met the natives whose language filters the world—and they are us.” (21)

Neuro-Linguistic Revision

Do this simple experiment. Have a friend select a number of newspaper headlines of similar size. Find a distance at which the friend can hold the headlines so that you cannot make out what they say. At this distance, when your friend tells you what an unfamiliar headline reads, the headline will probably ‘pop out’ at you.

This experiment provides a literal demonstration of neuro-linguistic revision. It illustrates how your linguistic maps may have a visible effect on what you ‘perceive,’ respond to, etc. Indeed, to a great extent we react to what goes on around us as a function of the linguistic maps that we hold. In other words, we often appear to react to our neuro-linguistic reactions.

To the extent that the structure of our language fails to adequately map the non-verbal territory, we may ignore important ‘facts’ or respond to fictitious entities created by our way of talking. We do well to become aware of and, when necessary, change the structure of our language in order to create more adequate linguistic maps. The languages of science and mathematics not only provide another worldview but also serve as models for the kind of linguistic behavior that can help us improve our evaluative abilities. They provide especially powerful means for helping us to fit our language to the non-verbal world.

This doesn’t mean that we can create a language that perfectly matches the world. Quite the reverse: our representations remain that; never exactly the same as what we’re representing. Does it follow from this that we waste our time when we try to tidy up language, to make it more structurally in keeping with the structure of the non-verbal world? Surely not!

On the contrary, if our representations have properties not shared by the thing represented, or vice versa, we need to look at that. It indicates a lack of fit or structural similarity between our mode of representation and what we wish to represent. This lack of fit can lead to problems and should be put right to the degree possible. We can study other languages and linguistically expressed viewpoints, including the language of science and mathematics, to expand our ‘perceptions’ and ‘conceptions’ of the world.

Neuro-linguistic relativity provides another way of understanding logical fate. Its significance relates not only to different ‘languages’ as convention­ ally understood, i.e., English, Hopi, Tarahumara, etc. (languaget), but also and perhaps even more importantly to the “linguistic” behavior of each individual (languageJ). The words we use, the sentences we say, the logic we apply, the doctrines we espouse, insofar as they are done in language, must be produced and affect us through neuro-linguistic (languagez) mechanisms.

If we do not understand these mechanisms, we are more likely to misuse them and/or to become misused by means of them. The faith-based mass-murderers of September 11, 2001 probably screamed “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for “God is Great”) as they killed themselves and thousands of others. They could not have done what they did without their particular language-based evaluations. Their actions inevitably required neuro-semantic, neuro-linguistic mechanisms and influences in order to occur.

Training in the system of GS provides an explicit language of evaluation. This language and its associated evaluative (semantic) reactions make our own neuro-evaluative, neuro-linguistic mechanisms more codable and thus more available for each one of us to consciously control. Semiotics pioneer Charles Morris wrote:

The work of A. Korzybski and his followers, psycho-biological in orientation, has largely been devoted to the therapy of the individual, aiming to protect the individual against exploitation by others and by himself. (22)

General Semantics can help us understand the basic mechanism through which this neuro-evaluative, neuro-linguistic control occurs. Out of this understanding, suggestions for practice follow including the use of neuro­ linguistic devices which can influence perception and behavior in less unsane/insane and more positive, inquiry-oriented directions.


  • Penny Lee 1996, p.87
  • Korzybski 1994 (1933), p.90
  • Pinker 1994, p.58
  • Ibid, p.57
  • Korzybski 1994 (1933), p.xl
  • Whorf, p.239
  • Lamb 2000
  • Sampson, p.136
  • Qtd. in Vossler, p.235
  • Pinker 1994, p.18
  • Lamb 2000
  • Pinker 1994, p.57
  • Ibid, p.57
  • Ibid, pp.61-63
  • Ibid p.63
  • Ibid, p.64
  • Whorf, p.210
  • Pinker gets his ‘information’ about this from original research by anthropologist Laura Martin (Martin, 1986) and an article on Martin’s work by Geoffrey Pullum, entitled “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.” Martin’s conclusions were later challenged by Stephen 0. Murray. The term ”hoax” implies a conscious act of deception. Pullum and Pinker abuse Martin’s research. They have no actual evidence of conscious deception by Whorf or his colleagues.
  • Agar, pp.69-71.
  • See P. Kay and W. Kempton, “What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?” This research is discussed in Lakoff 1987, pp.330-334.
  • Kempton. Also see Alford, Minkel, and Nisbett and Norenzayan.
  • Morris, p.283


Agar, Michael. 1994. Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Alford, Dan. 1980. “A Hidden Cycle in the History of Linguistics.” In Phoenix, vol. 4, numbers I& 2. Available at http://enformy.com/dma-2.htm.

Hall, Edward T. 1984. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. New York: Anchor.

Kay, Paul and Willett Kempton. 1984. “What is the Sapir-WhorfHypothesis?” Ameri­can Anthropologist 86 (l) March.

Kempton, Willett. 1991. “Whorf and Color.” Lingua List Newsgroup, Subject 2.700, Oct. http://www.umich.edu/-archive/linguisticsllinguist.list/volume.2/no.651-700.

Korzybski, Alfred. 1994 (1933). Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non­ Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Fifth Edition. Preface by Robert P. Pula. Brooklyn, NY: Institute of General Semantics.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lamb, Sydney M. 2000. ”Neuro-Cognitive Structure in the Interplay of Language and Thought.” In Explorations in Linguistic Relativity, Edited by M. Piitz and M. Ver­ spoor. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjarrilns Publishing Company. Also avail­able at http://www.ruf.rice.eduHambllt.htm.

—-. 1998. Pathways of the Brain: The Neurocognitive Basis of Language. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Lee, Penny. 1997. “Language in Thinking and Learning: Pedagogy and the New Whorfian Framework.” Harvard Educational Review Fall 1997: 430-471. Cambridge, MA.

—-. 1996. The Whorf Theory Complex: A Critical Reconstruction. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Martin, Laura. 1986. “Eskimo Words for Snow: A Case Study in the Genesis and De­ cay of an Anthropological Example.” American Anthropologist 88 (June): 418- 423.

McNeil, David and Susan D. Duncan. 1998. “Growth Points in Thinking-for-Speaking.” Cogprints at http://cogprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/archive/ 00000664/.

Minkel, J. R. 2002. “A Way with Words.” www.scientificamerican.com/explorations/ 2002/032502language/.

Morris, Charles. 1946. Signs, Language and Behavior. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Murray, Stephen 0. 1987. “Snowing Canonical Texts.” American Anthropologist 89 (June): 443-444.

Nisbett, R. E. and A. Norenzayan. 2002. “Culture and Cognition.” In D. Medin and H. Pashler (Eds.), Stevens’ Handbook of Experimental Psychology, Third Edition, Volume Two: Memory and Cognitive Processes. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Article available at Richard Nisbett’s website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~nisbett/index.html.

Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Morrow.

Pullum, Geoffrey. 1991. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Sampson, Geoffrey. 1997. Educating Eve: The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate. London: Cassell.

Slobin, Dan. 2001. “Language and Thought Online: Cognitive Consequences of Lin­guistic Relativity.” Draft Version. http://ihd.berkeley.edu/slobin.htm.

Vossler, Karl. Trans. by Oscar Oeser. 1932. The Spirit of Language in Civilization. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. ed. by John B. Carrol. 1956. Language, Thought & Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

How Language Shapes Thought

Dr. Lera Boroditsky is now professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. At the time of this presentation, she was at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. One of the leading researchers studying linguistic relativity, in this engaging lecture sponsored by The Long Now Foundation, she brings together numerous examples of research on linguistic relativity, both her own and that of others.

The YouTube video is embedded below. The entire video is one hour forty-one minutes long. You may want to watch it in multiple viewings. Here is a time guide that may be helpful:

  • 0:00 Introductory video about Words (interesting, but not directly relevant)
  • 3:50 Stewart Brand’s introduction of Dr. Boroditsky (Stewart Brand published The Whole Earth Catalog from 1968-1972)
  • 5:08 Dr. Boroditsky’s presentation begins
  • 1:09:45 Question & Answer period
  • 1:41:11 End

If you would prefer to watch the video directly on YouTube or with a YouTube mobile app, copy/paste this link: http://youtu.be/cPGpZp1pfQQ

If you cannot view the video below, try this alternative link.

After viewing the video presentation by Dr. Lera Boroditsky, “How Language Shapes Thought,” select two examples of how language affects thought that you found most convincing (or most memorable) and explain your selections.

You will not be able to see others’ responses until you post yours.

Relativity, not determinism

One of the most important things to understand about the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis is that it is not about “determinism”. The argument is not that your thought is “determined” by the language that you speak – as is implied by George Orwell’s classic book 1984.

Rather, as Dr. Boroditsky noted in her lecture, the argument for determinism has been de-bunked. Rather the argument is that the language you speak will affect how you come to know the world around you. This is an important distinction because it means that it is indeed possible to understand people of different languages and cultures.

Relativity in Physics

As should be obvious from its name, Linguistic Relativity was related to the then emerging Theory of Relativity, which was also quite influential for Alfred Korzybski’s thinking. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity poses a serious problem to the way that most of us think about the world. Most of us think of the world as a thing that is always the same for all observers. And yet Einstein’s theory tells us that perspective matters.

This point is not so simple as the classic parable of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and insisting that they are all touching something different. That is a worthwhile point, but Einstein’s theory goes much further than this.

The theory of relativity predicts that both time and mass change with relative velocity as you approach the speed of light. Thus, the closer you come to the speed of light, relative to some observer, the slower will be the passage of time for you in relation to those you have left behind (this has been demonstrated with atomic clocks on the space shuttle). Similarly, as you approach the speed of light, your mass will appear to an observer to have been foreshortened or compacted in the direction of travel.

Thus, if we were to take the elephant example, if a person is riding an elephant that is moving near the speed of light with respect to some other person, then the person riding the elephant (and the elephant herself) will experience time passing more slowly compared to an observer at rest. What’s more, the elephant will appear to be considerably compacted to that observer at rest.

So what?

The upshot of all this is that Physics has come to the understanding that your frame of reference matters quite significantly for the reality that you perceive.

Linguistic and cultural relativity took this idea into the realm of social life – noting that one’s frame of reference matters considerably when one is trying to understand the meaning of a given cultural practice. Or, to put it in a slightly different idiom, in order to understand a part (e.g., a practice within a culture), one must first grasp the whole (e.g., the culture’s system of meaning).

We have already seen some excellent examples of how language can affect our understanding of the world. Next I turn to how our cultural frames of reference can have a rather considerable affect on our understanding of the world – and with very serious consequences!

Cultural Relativity

As an anthropologist, cultural relativism is an important principle. But before anyone think that I am some kind of moral relativist, let me clarify what I mean by this. Cultural relativism, as I practice it, involves adhering to the principles of General Semantics that have been outlined thus far in the course. Most fundamentally, it involves holding off on semantic reactions until one has fully understood the situation and what it means for those involved. Below I will consider two rather charged examples of this kind of thing that have been hotly debated (what might this suggest?) in the media. But first a word on cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism, for me, is a methodological concept. That means that it involves how I go about understanding a situation. Thus, with methodological cultural relativism, one would want to suspend one’s judgment of a situation until one has a good grasp of the situation. This does not mean that one can never say what is good or bad. That is what is known as moral relativism. Rather, methodological cultural relativism (or just “cultural relativism”) involves exploring the conditions in what some other practice exists before making a judgment about whether or not that practice is good or bad.

“Bride Kidnapping” in Kyrgystan

To take an example, consider the practice of “bride kidnapping” in Kyrgystan. Watch this 20-minute video on the PBS website. (As you watch, remember that videos are representations of the world that already involve a lot of labeling and inferencing – i.e. only a few examples are shown to us, so we are already at a disadvantage. At the same time, this particular video is, at least, an interesting representation of the practice.)

Initially, the very label “bride kidnapping” suggests a practice that is cruel. And yet, watching the video, you begin to wonder if, perhaps, what they are doing is not quite the same thing as “kidnapping.” Often the kidnapping is arranged ahead of time between families, and it seems that the bride can be “in on it”. Further, it is important to know that the practice exists b.c. some families cannot afford to pay the necessary bridewealth (money paid from the husband’s family to the wife’s family). “Bride kidnapping” is the practice that these families must resort to if their sons are going to be married at all.

Thus, to offer another interpretation of the practice that may be true of at some or many of these cases of what is called “bride kidnapping”, it may be that these so called “kidnappings” are well known by the bride-to-be and even agreed upon by her (although this is not always the case in the video). It may be the case that, even if she wants to marry the man (or at least is not opposed to it), she must behave in a way that shows that she is not going easily because that would be disrespectful both to her family  since they would not be receiving a bridewealth payment and potentially degrading to her b.c. for her to willingly accept would suggest that she is not worth a bridewealth.

Note that it could still be the case that some or most, or even all, of the cases of “bride kidnapping” are actually instances where the woman is randomly snatched off the street by force and it is done against her will. The point is not to conclude that if one instance of the practice turns out harmlessly, then all instances of the practice are harmless, or that one can never be critical of another culture. Rather, the point is that deciding whether or not the practice is problematic will necessarily involve more than just relying on the label “bride kidnapping”. Instead, we need to take a scientific perspective, understand the situation and the relevant cultural frame of reference and then decide.

Female Genital Mutilation / Female Circumcision

A second example, that we can consider in slightly more detail is the example of the practice referred to as “Female Genital Mutilation” or “Female Circumcision”. We can see right from the get-go how labels really matter. The difference in English between “mutilation” and “circumcision” is dramatic. Whereas the former implies a grotesque and perhaps torturous act, the latter is a common cultural practice that has been widely accepted for male babies in the U.S. and elsewhere for quite a long time. So, then, we have a very practical problem at hand, for the purposes of this module, how should I refer to the practice?

For this module, I find “female circumcision” (or just FC) to be a less loaded term as compared to “female genital mutilation”. This keeps open the possibility that some may find that “female circumcision” is a despicable practice (perhaps similar to how some view male circumcision). Using the term “mutilation” makes it difficult for one to take the contradictory side – I mean, who would say “I support a cultural group’s right to mutilation”? Alternatively, one could imagine saying “I support a cultural group’s right to circumcision”. So, FC it is.

The debate over FC is a rather intense and hotly argued one. The politically correct position (in the U.S. at least) has been to oppose the practice. This is argued on the grounds that the practice is:

  • oppressive to women
  • evidence of male domination
  • is an attempt by men to reduce the sexual pleasure of women

I suspect that most who live in the U.S. have at least heard of this debate and have probably come to the conclusion that it is indeed a despicable practice.

And indeed, at this point, it would be difficult to imagine that this practice could be understood in any other way (particularly if we have heard it called “female genital mutilation”). And yet, on the other side of the issue, there are those that argue that this conception of the practice is a gross misunderstanding.

One rather striking example comes from anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu, an anthropologist who received her PhD from the London School of Economics). In an essay entitled “Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision“, Dr. Ahmadu writes of her own experience of female circumcision. As a woman from Sierra Leone living in the U.S., at 22 years of age, she chose to go back to Sierra Leone to be circumcised – as was standard part of entry into “womanhood” for Sierra Leonean women. As Ahmadu describes her experience of the practice, it was almost exactly the opposite of what most Americans think of the practice. First, it was a practice that was performed solely by women. This was an important part of the ritual because it involved the women removing themselves from the community to undertake the practice away from the men. Second, she argues that it was, for her, not at all a sign of patriarchal power (i.e. the power of men) but rather was a realization of the power of women because the practice could only be performed by women and because the practice involved getting rid of a kind of bodily maleness and becoming more fully female Finally, she argues, and further medical research supports her on this point, that her experience of pleasure during sexual activity was not affected by the fact that she was circumcised.

If you have now read the article and my explication, perhaps you are beginning to be convinced that this might not be the horrific practice of male domination that we thought it to be.

And as with “bride kidnapping”, following the principle of non-allness would mean that just because one instance of a practice was shown to be acceptable this does not mean that we should conclude that all instances are acceptable. But it at least opens us to the possibility that this practice might mean something different to the people who are undertaking it than it means to us.

If you are interested in further reading on the topic, here is a link to an article by Richard Shweder, an anthropologist who has addressed the topic in some detail (and he is quick to acknowledge that he may not be the best person to discuss it since he is a white, Western, male! But the article gives more historical and social perspective on the debate around the practice).

Implications of Linguistic (and cultural) Relativity – here and now

In addition to these implications for cultures around the globe, there are those who have begun to explore the role of relativity within our own culture. One standout in this regard is Carol Cohn’s study of defense intellectuals (click to download).

Although she was generally opposed to many of the policies that emerged from the world of defense intellectuals, Cohn decided that she wanted to study them in order to better understand their frame of reference. Although she saw their policies as inherently irrational, she sought to understand  To this end, she conducted ethnographic research where she became a participant observer in a community of defense intellectuals.

She found that these defense intellectuals had a different language that they would use to describe the act of war. For example, as many Americans will recognize, defense intellectuals don’t speak of “accidental death” caused by bombs but rather, they refer to “collateral damage.”

Examples abound in weapons and war talk. Missiles intended to kill people are called nuclear missiles with up to 400 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima are called “Peacekeepers”, bombs that kill people by explosive power rather than radiation are called “clean bombs”, and devices attached to missiles to help them go further into their target are called “penetration aids.” And this is where things take an interesting turn that makes one wonder What is this bomb-talk really all about? Back to that in a moment.

Cohn was particularly interested, as any good ethnographer or good GS thinker would, in figuring out how it is that people can talk this way without even noticing that they are doing it. How can people talk about killing people in terms that make it sound like a game of cricket. What she describes is that, as she becomes increasingly indoctrinated into the culture and the language of defense intellectuals, her thinking begins to change. As she writes:

“But as I learned their language, as I became more and more engaged with their information and their arguments, I found that my own thinking was changing. Soon, I could no longer cling to the comfort of studying an external and objectified ‘them.’ I had to confront a new question: How can I think this way? How can any of us?” (Cohn 1987, p. 488).

Cohn’s method of approach here is very much the kind of open-mindedness that one needs to do be a good ethnographer. Just as with the examples of “bride kidnapping” and “FGM/FC”, one needs to begin from a place of non-allness by acknowledging that the seemingly irrational acts that other people are engaged in may not be as irrational as they seem to us. Key to gaining this understanding is understanding their frame of reference. And most important to a frame of reference is the language that is used.

So what then does the language used by defense intellectuals mean?

Here is a passage from an earlier article of hers on defense intellectuals that should give us some clues as to what else might be involved in the bomb and missile talk of defense intellectuals (and note that this was recorded in the mid-80’s well after feminist critiques of weapon-as-phallus had been made – a point that Cohn was particularly struck by since nobody she observed using this language seemed at all aware of this interpretation of their language):

“Another lecturer solemnly and scientifically announced ‘to disarm is to get rid of all your stuff.’ (This may, in turn, explain why they see serious talk of nuclear disarmament as perfectly resistable, not to mention foolish. If disarmament is emasculation, how could any real man even consider it?) A professor’s explanation of why the MX missile is to be placed in the silos of the newest Minuteman missiles, instead of replacing the older, less accurate ones, was ‘because they’re in the nicest hole–you’re not going to take the nicest missile you have and put it in a crummy hole.’ Other lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks–or what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called ‘releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump. ‘ There was serious concern about the need to harden our missiles and the need to ‘face it, the Russians are a little harder than we are.'”

Now, thinking about this in terms of general semantics, we would want to better understand what kinds of semantic reactions might come from making these kinds of associations between armaments and masculinity? (I could get more specific here with terminology, but that would be impolite). Cohn suggests one possibility: “if disarmament is emasculation, how could any real man even consider it?” Whether or not this is precisely what is going on here is certainly up for debate. But it nonetheless raises some interesting questions about whether or not this type of language might not be making the world a much more dangerous place than it really needs to be.

You may want to visit Cohn’s website for more.

Once again, we see that choice of language can potentially have very serious consequences.

Personal Examples

Indicate whether you are mono-lingual (English-only, in this case), bi-lingual, or multi-lingual, and tell us which languages you speak. Then provide an example from your own life where language proved particularly consequential.

For bi- and multi-lingual speakers

This could be an instance where there was a problem with translation from one language to another. Or, it could be a general experience that you have of feeling like you are one kind of person when speaking one language and an altogether different type of person when speaking another language. Or, it could be a difference that you experience in your ability to think about particular topics in one of the languages that you speak (assuming that this isn’t just a matter of insufficient vocabulary).

For mono-linguals

Describe some domain in which you had to learn a new set of terms (e.g. a job specific language or perhaps a mathematical language). How did learning that new set of terms affected how you understood the behavior that you were engaged in?

You cannot see others’ replies until you’ve posted your own.

Module 4 Assignment

Pick a controversial issue that you have heard practiced in another culture and do some web research in order to better understand the cultural frame of reference within which that practice is understood. By “controversial,” we mean an issue that is considered normal when seen from another culture’s frame of reference but which may not be seen as normal or acceptable from your own or someone else’s cultural frame of reference. Pay particular attention to the way language and labels encourage you to see the issue in a particular cultural frame of reference.

Here is a short list of some possible controversies:

  • eating dogs in some countries
  • Muslims chopping off hands of thiefs
  • Americans with guns
  • Americans with the death penalty
  • female genital mutilation
  • honor killings
  • arranged marriages
  • death penalty for gays

Write a short essay (250 words or less) describing what you learned from your research. You can type in the box below, or copy/paste from another application. If you found a particularly helpful online resource, include the link.

Optional Readings

These articles provide additional perspectives on the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.

Benjamin Lee Whorf

John A. Lucy

Carol Cohn

Fuambai Ahmadu

Module Completion Checklist


open-checkbox21.png 1.  Did you complete the readings about Linguistic Relativity?
  • Language, Thought, and Behavior
  • What We Do With Language – What It Does With Us
  • Relativity
  • Implications of Linguistic Relativity
open-checkbox21.png 2.  Did you view the Lera Boroditsky video presentation?
open-checkbox21.png 3.  Did you post your reactions to the Boroditsky presentation? (50 points)
open-checkbox21.png 4.  Did you contribute to the Personal Example discussion? (50 points)
open-checkbox21.png 5.  Did you submit your Module Assignment? (50 points)



You’re ready to move on to Module 5: Who Rules Your Symbols?


Heinlein and Ellis: Converging Competencies

ETC 64-4 Cover(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 64 No. 4, October 2007)

On July 7, 2007, the Heinlein Centennial was held in Kansas City to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of acclaimed “Grand Master” science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is generally acknowledged as one of the four great American science fiction writers, along with Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. Among his most notable books are Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Time Enough for Love.

On July 24, 2007, Dr. Albert Ellis died at age 93 in New York City. His front-page obituary in the New York Times referred to him as “one of the most influential and provocative figures in modern psychology.” He originated the field of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and authored more than 70 books, including Overcoming Procrastination, How to Live With a Neurotic, A Guide to Rational Living, and How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything — Yes, Anything.

These two accomplished and celebrated men would seem to have little in common — one a Midwesterner, Naval Academy graduate, futurist, with an almost cult-like following of fans; the other a New Yorker who was referred to as “the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy,” known for his blue language and results-oriented approach to talk therapy.

And yet Robert Heinlein and Albert Ellis shared a common perspective, or point of view, that developed from the same source — Alfred Korzybski and general semantics. Heinlein came to general semantics through Stuart Chase’s The Tyranny of Words (1938) and attended two seminars with Korzybski in 1939 and 1940. In a speech in 1941, Heinlein made the seemingly outlandish assertion that Korzybski was “at least as great a man as Einstein” based on his “monumental piece of work,” Science and Sanity.

Ellis, so far as we know, never met Korzybski but credited him (and general semantics) as a major influence in his development of REBT, using descriptors such as brilliant¸ masterpiece, and pioneer.

I attended the Heinlein Centennial in Kansas City. One of the panel sessions I attended was on “The Competent Man.” I learned this was a theme of Heinlein’s that recurred throughout his novels. An oft-repeated quote from Heinlein’s novel Time Enough for Love concerns competency as a general trait:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I had the privilege to hear Dr. Ellis speak on one memorable occasion a few years ago. In recalling that talk and in reviewing several of his writings, it seems to me that “competency” was also a recurring theme in his work, specifically as it related to cognitive competency.

As the lives and contributions of these two great men — Robert A. Heinlein and Dr. Albert Ellis, just seven years apart in age — shared the news pages in the same recent month, we choose to devote this special section of ETC to them.

The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.  Albert Ellis

I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.  Robert A. Heinlein

What We Could Become

I have read only enough of Heinlein’s writings to have a minimally-informed appreciation of his work. But I know something about the field of general semantics, which certainly influenced Heinlein’s point of view during his early years as a writer and is unmistakably reflected in character and plot development throughout his work.

In the July 2002 Heinlein Journal, Kate Gladstone provided some details from the Institute’s archives regarding Heinlein’s attendance at two seminars with Alfred Korzybski in 1939 and 1940. (1) From my standpoint, the most interesting piece of Heinlein memorabilia found in the archives is an original transcript of Heinlein’s Guest of Honor speech to the 3rd World Science Fiction Convention held in Denver in July 1941. The transcript was sent to the Institute by Heinlein’s wife at the time, Leslyn. He titled his address, “The Discovery of the Future,” published in 1992 in Yoji Kondo’s collection of Heinlein’s writings, Requiem. As he concluded his Denver speech, Heinlein offered this testimony to Alfred Korzybski and general semantics:

I save for the last on that list of the books that have greatly affected me, that to my mind are the key books, of the stuff I’ve piled through, a book that should head the list on the Must List. I wish that, I wish that everyone could read the book – it’s just a wish, there aren’t that many copies of it, everyone can’t, nor could everyone read this particular book. All of you could, you’ve got the imagination for it. It’s Science and Sanity by Count Alfred Korzybski, one of the greatest Polish mathematicians when he went into the subject of symbology and started finding out what made us tick, and then worked up in strictly experimental and observational form from the preliminary works of E.T. Bell.

A rigor of epistemology based on E.T. Bell (break in transcript here – some words lost) … symbology of epistemology. Book refers to the subject of semantics. I know from conversation with a lot of you that the words epistemology and semantics are not unfamiliar to you. But because they may be unfamiliar to some, I’m going to stop and make definitions of these words.

Semantics is simply a study of the symbols we use to communicate. General Semantics is an extension of that study to investigate how we evaluate in the use of these symbols. Epistemology is a study of how we know what we know. Maybe that doesn’t sound exciting. It is exciting, it’s very exciting. To be able to delve back into your own mind and investigate what it is you know, what it is you can know and what it is that you cannot possibly know is, from a standpoint of intellectual adventure, I think possibly the greatest adventure that a person can indulge in. Beats spaceships.

Incidentally, any of you who are going to be in Denver in the next 5 or 6 weeks will have an opportunity, one of the last opportunities, to hear Alfred Korzybski speak in person. (2) He will be here at a meeting similar to this at a meeting of semanticians from all over the world – oh, McLean from Los Angeles, and Johnson from Iowa and Reiser from Mills College and Kendig and probably Hayakawa from up in Canada – the leading semanticians of the world – to hear Alfred Korzybski speak. I think starting Aug. 9, isn’t it, Missy? The early part of August. It’ll be in the newspapers in any case. And it’s much better to hear him speak than it is to read his books. He’s limited by the fact that he’s got to stick to the typewriter, to the printed word; but when he talks – when he talks it’s another matter! He gestures, he’s not tied down with his hands to the desk the way I am; he walks, stumps all around the state, and waves his hands; (audience laughs) … and you really gather what he means. Incidentally – he looks like A. Conan Doyle’s description of Prof. Challenger if Prof. Challenger had shaved his beard. Dynamic character. You may not like him personally, but he’s at least as great a man as Einstein – at least – because his field is broader. The same kind of work that Einstein did, the same kind of work, using the same methods; but in a much broader field, much more close to human relationships. I hope that some of you will be able to hear him. I said that this will be one of the last chances, because the old man’s well over 70 now; as he puts it, “I vill coagulate someday, I vill someday soon, I vill coagulate” – which is the term he uses for dying. (3) He speaks in terms of colloidal chemistry. Properly, it’s appropriate. He won’t last much longer, in the meantime he’s done a monumental piece of work. He has worked out in methodology the same sort of important work that HG Wells did in the matter of description; and the two together are giants in our intellectual horizon, our intellectual matrix today, that stick up over the rest like the Empire State Bldg. (4)

Heinlein wasn’t the only futurist who expressed admiration for Korzybski’s general semantics.

  • A.E. Van Vogt’s series of Null-A novels was rooted in general semantics and provided many serious students their first exposure to the subject.
  • Aldous Huxley (Brave New World): “A man who knows that there have been many cultures, and that each culture claims to be the best and truest of all, will find it hard to take too seriously the boastings and dogmatizings of his own tradition. Similarly, a man who knows how symbols are related to experience, and who practices the kind of linguistic self-control taught by the exponents of General Semantics, is unlikely to take too seriously the absurd or dangerous nonsense that, within every culture, passes for philosophy, practical wisdom and political argument.” (5)
  • Alvin Toffler (Future Shock and The Third Wave) “… all of the questions that are raised by Science and Sanity are inherent or should be inherent in the work of any thinking writer or communicator.” (6)
  • Robert Anton Wilson (Prometheus Rising, The Illuminatus Trilogy, and Schrodinger’s Cat) “All the events in the world that are going on I tend to see through a Korzybskian grid. He made a bigger impression on me than just about any writer I ever read.” (7)

I must admit that I’ve never been a big science fiction fan. My naïve impression has been that most futurists or science fiction writers tend to focus on imagining how future technologies, alternative life-forms, or distant universes will be invented, evolved, or discovered.

However, among the authors who claim Korzybski as an influence, I find a common interest in describing or developing human capabilities to their potentials. They seem to delve into positive speculations about what we as humans could become, were we to actually manifest the extensional orientation of perceiving, evaluating, and behaving as prescribed in Science and Sanity. Of course, the rocket ships and aliens are still featured aspects, but there is, to my limited reading, an attempt to imbue their characters with an abundance, or absence, of defining characteristics that can be related back to Korzybski’s “semantic man.” I’d like to give you the briefest of introductions to the subject by discussing just four of what might be referred to as fundamental premises of general semantics.

1. The first premise is that our human abilities to perceive and sense what goes on in our continually-changing environments are limited and differentiated. As members of the human species, our abilities to see, hear, taste, touch, and feel are limited. For example, we know that there are limits to the frequencies humans can hear. We know that humans can’t see certain wavelengths of light. We can extend our sensing capabilities through the use of tools and instruments, such as microscopes, telescopes, microphones, amplifiers, etc. Although we as humans share these general sensing potentials, we vary in terms of our actual individual capabilities. We each have a different combination of visual, auditory, and other sensory acuities. Therefore, presented with the ‘same’ event or stimulus, we will each perceive the event or stimulus according to the limits of our senses and nervous system processing. We will each abstract something different, to some degree, than anyone else and we will then individually construct our experience, awareness, and ‘meaning’ of the stimulus.

2. A second fundamental premise upon which general semantics is based may be best stated by quoting from the linguistic anthropologist Edward Sapir:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (8)

In other words, the culture and language in which we are raised will shape or influence how we construct the ‘realities’ of our experiences, given the peculiarities of that culture and language. This has become known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Similarly, Korzybski posited in Science and Sanity:

… every language having a structure, by the very nature of language, reflects in its own structure that of the world as assumed by those who evolved the language. In other words, we read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use. (9)

We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of semantic reaction and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us. (10)

3. Another fundamental premise of general semantics is that humans have the ability to respond conditionally to verbal and non-verbal stimuli. In his famous experiments, Dr. Ivan Pavlov trained his dog to manifest a conditioned response behavior. By ringing a bell at the same time he fed the dog, Pavlov conditioned the dog to associate, or identify, the sound of the bell with the food. When the dog heard the bell, it expected food and began salivating in anticipation. Therefore the dog’s behavioral response (the salivating) resulted directly from the stimulus of the bell; when Pavlov rang the bell, the dog salivated. Humans, however, have the ability to respond more appropriately in less conditioned ways — conditionally  rather than conditioned. We may talk in terms such as “he really pushed my buttons,” but in most cases we have some degree of control over our responsive behaviors, regardless of which button is pushed. If we don’t exercise that control, if we immediately react without pause and without regarding the situation and the consequences, then we can rightly be accused of exhibiting more animalistic, rather than more human, behaviors.

4. The fourth premise I would mention in this condensed introduction is related to perhaps the most familiar metaphor associated with Korzybski — the map is not the territory. Our ability to achieve “maximum humanness” and evolve to our individual potentials is at least partially a function of how accurately our language behaviors reflect and are consistent with what we ‘know’ about our world. In other words, our verbal ‘maps’ ought to be congruent with and structurally similar to the facts of our non-verbal ‘territories.’ The world of words we put inside our heads ought to be related to and similar with the world of non-words in which we live.

Abraham Maslow, in his study of what he called self-actualizing behaviors, wrote of individuals whose internal ‘maps’were in synch with their external ‘territories’:

One particularly impressive and instructive aspect of this superior relation with reality…was [their ability to] …distinguish far more easily than most the fresh, concrete, and ideographic from the generic, abstract, and rubricized. The consequence is that they live more in the real world of nature than in the man-made mass of concepts, abstractions, expectations, beliefs, and stereotypes that most people confuse with the world. They are therefore far more apt to perceive what is there rather than their own wishes, hopes, fears, anxieties, their own theories and beliefs or those of their cultural group. (11)

Please note that these four premises do not constitute all of the premises of general semantics. Some might claim that these do not even constitute premises as much as they represent derived extrapolations from other, more fundamental, premises. But in the context of this Heinlein Centennial, I hope they provide a basis for re-examining Heinlein’s work — particularly his characters — from a general semantics perspective. I suspect that, in addition to his “discovering the future” of interplanetary travel and intergalactic communities, Heinlein has revealed through his fictional characters what we, the readers, might one day become.

And that, to quote the Grand Master, “beats spaceships.”


  1. www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/history/GeneralSemanticsInfo.html
  2. Heinlein refers to the Second American Congress on General Semantics held at Denver University in August 1941.
  3. In 1941, Korzybski was only 61 years old. He died in 1950 at age 70.
  4. Heinlein, Robert A. (1941) “The Discovery of the Future.” Speech delivered as Guest of Honor to the 3rd World Science Fiction Convention, Denver, CO. July 4, 1941. Recorded on discs by Walter J. Daugherty. Transcripted by Assorted Services. Presented by Forrest J. Ackerman. A Novacious Publication.
  5. Huxley, Aldous. (1963) “Culture and the Individual.” Playboy Magazine, November 1963.
  6. Toffler, Alvin. (1991) “The Relevance of General Semantics.” Thinking CreAtically, Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  7. Wilson, Robert Anton. (2001) “The Map Is Not the Territory: The Future Is Not the Past.” Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, 1997. The General Semantics Bulletin Numbers 65-68.
  8. Whorf, Benjamin Lee. (1956) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf edited by John B. Carroll, p. 134. The M.I.T. Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Reprinted from Language, Culture, and Personality, Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir, edited by Leslie Spier, Sapir Memorial Publication Fund, Menasha, Wisconsin, 1941.
  9. Korzybski, Alfred. (1933) Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.59-60, Fifth Edition (1994). Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  10. Korzybski, Alfred. (1933) Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.90, Fifth Edition (1994). Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, New Jersey.
  11. Maslow, A.H. (1954) Motivation and Personality, p. 205. Harper & Brothers, New York.

Response Side Semantics

ETC Cover 63-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Volume 63 No. 1, January 2006)

From the July 1, 2005, National Public Radio broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show:

Diane: Here is an interesting email from Steve, who’s the Executive Director for the Institute of General Semantics. He says: “These kinds of panels invariably concentrate on the supply side of political talk — the spin, the propaganda, the doublespeak. Seldom does anybody bring up the listener’s or reader’s individual responsibility to critically, sometimes skeptically, evaluate the messages they hear and read. Why isn’t there more emphasis on educating people as critical thinkers and evaluators?” (1)

The distinguished panel that prompted my question consisted of: Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University (2), William D. Lutz, Professor of English at Rutgers University (3), and Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich. The topic for this program concerned “Political Language.”

Responding to my question, Leibovich commented:

I think that’s a fantastic point. I mean, I think it’s one thing to talk about responsibility, it’s another thing to talk about ability. Quite frankly, you really, really need to think and listen hard to actually see and recognize a lot of the rhetoric that is coming your way. (1)

Lutz responded that he dealt with the question in the last chapter of his Doublespeak Defined book. The discussion moved on.

Is the premise of my question valid, that virtually all the focus is on the “supply side” of the communication process, implying that the reaction or response to the message is inevitable, pre-determined, or presumed?


  • How many hundreds of colleges have programs in advertising and public relations? How many colleges have even one course that deals with how to intelligently evaluate and respond to advertising?
  • How many billions of dollars are spent around the world on campaigns to stimulate demand, desire, and support for products, services, political agendas, and religious causes? How many dollars are spent to inform and educate individuals as to the manipulative means used by media advertisers, politicians on the stump, and preachers in the pulpit?
  • It’s not uncommon to hear a remorseful person caught in the media’s crosshairs issue an apology such as, “I apologize to anyone who might have been offended by what I said.” How often does anyone challenge those who choose to take offense? Why is the burden on the speaker to not say something that might offend, rather than on the listeners who seem to seek opportunities to find offense?
  • Do we spend more time teaching children about “bad” words, images, and thoughts that should not be used, or do we teach them how they might react if they encounter such “bad” things?
  • Could there exist a more glaring prejudice against the notion of responsibly reacting and responding than the linguistic lunacy that underlies the pervasive term proactive? By what tortured logic should the act of reacting be de-legitimatized in favor of the false-to-fact folly that someone can be proactive, without benefit of any stimulus, prompt, or need? (As a public service, I offer the beginning of an indefinitely long list of topics about which it is now impossible to be proactive: terrorism, airport security, drugs, gangs, the budget deficit, the environment, urban sprawl, inflation, and — no offense — your weight. I’m sorry, but those and all other known issues are already out there, and it’s too late for anybody to be proactive about them.) (4)

In the early 1960s, Ernest Hemingway opined that the essential attribute of a great writer was to “have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.” (5)

In 1933, Alfred Korzybski warned that “those who rule the symbols, rule us.” (6)

As 2005 turns to 2006, I suggest that the burden for detecting crap now falls squarely on those who must continually respond to the accelerating and accumulating supply of crap generated by the growing hordes of symbol-ruling-wannabes.

Therefore I propose to introduce a new term to the general semantics lexicon that acknowledges the much-neglected response side of the communication relationship: Response Side Semantics.

A Metaphor Inspired by Economics and Behavioral Science

During the 1980 U.S. Presidential election campaign, Ronald Reagan promoted the economic theories of Arthur B. Laffer, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. Laffer’s theory regarding taxation maintained that an economy required an optimal rate of taxation to generate the maximum revenue. Beyond that optimal rate, revenue actually decreased, which meant that, on the back side of the curve, tax rate decreases actually resulted in increased tax revenue. (7) In the political campaign language of 1980, the policy was referred to as “supply side economics.”

Laffer predicted that as tax rates were lowered (presuming, of course, that the current rate was beyond the optimal rate for maximum revenue), producers and manufacturers would apply their tax savings to produce and manufacture more goods and services, increasing the overall supply of goods and services. As the available level of supplies went up, prices would go down, consumers would buy and demand more, and the general economy would expand such that the same (or ever lower) tax rate would produce more actual revenue dollars. The rising tide of revenue would lift all economic boats. Supply rested on one side of the relationship, demand on the other; demand was a function of supply.

Supply Demand


Demand Supply

The supply side is like a dog, and the demand side is like the dog’s tail. Manipulating the supply controls the demand. The dog wags the tail.

Ivan Pavlov, the 19th-century Russian professor of chemistry and physiology, had a real dog. Pavlov’s dog became famous not for wagging its tail, but for salivating. Pavlov conducted experiments with the dog that illustrated he could train (or condition) the dog to salivate at the sound of a bell when the bell was substituted for actual food. Inducing a response (saliva) by manipulating the stimulus (food, then bell) illustrates the physiological action known as a conditioned reflex, or in behavioral studies, a conditioned response.

The response can be controlled by manipulating the stimulus, therefore the response can be expressed as a function of the stimulus.

Stimulus Response


Response Stimulus

Now we have two sets of metaphors, each representing a function in which the manipulation of the left side of the relationship results in a (to some degree) predictable change on the right side of the relationship:

Combining the two, I’ve created a third metaphor to suit my purpose:


The “Response Side” in General Semantics

Alfred Korzybski offered a general theory of human behavior that focuses on matters of evaluation. Korzybski used the term evaluation in a much broader sense than we normally use it today. He considered evaluation to include the total response (physiological, neurological, psychological, linguistic, etc.) of an individual to a given event in a specific environment, to include the individual’s awareness of the response. He considered the domain of his studies to include all fields related to how humans sense, experience, and perceive what goes on in their environments (including what he termed their neurolinguistic and neuro-semantic environments), and how they evaluate those goings-on in terms of their subsequent significance, ‘meanings,’ and consequences.

Coincidentally, Korzybski also used a dog (“FIDO”) to illustrate two important differences between humans and animals: 1) Humans have an almost limitless capacity to manipulate symbols, to make one symbol ‘stand for’ many things, or to have many symbols ‘stand for’ the same thing; and 2) Humans have a greater potential capability to temper their susceptibility to the conditioned response. In other word, we have the potential capability to respond conditionally to symbol stimulation.

Indeed, the late Ken Johnson recognized this as the core of general semantics when asked the question, “How would you describe general semantics in one word?” His answer: Conditionality. (8)

Clearly, general semantics already encompasses both sides of the Supply Side — Response Side relationship.

However, in my judgment, far too much well-intentioned attention has been placed on the supply side, or stimulus side, or sender side, of general semantics. We have extolled the benefits of general semantics as applied to “effective communication” (which translates primarily to writing and speaking) and “talking sense” with more clarity, precision, and less likelihood of being misunderstood. But our speaking, writing, and thinking-feeling depend first on our evaluations of our experiences. Just as Wendell Johnson said that we “can’t write writing” (9) (i.e., we must write about something), we do not speak or write unless prompted in some way as a reaction or response to some stimulus, need, prompt, or ‘thing.’ What we humans do, in the most general sense, is respond to our non-verbal and verbal evaluations.

Korzybski’s focus on evaluation (or the response side) has not received the emphasis that it deserves in differentiating general semantics from other disciplines like linguistics, philosophy, psychology, etc. I propose, therefore, that it’s time to acknowledge and emphasize the response side of general semantics, or Response Side Semantics — especially in light of two clear and present threats coming from the supply side.

Threat 1: Supply Side Saturation — Advertising

That we in 21st-century America approach a saturation point in terms of “semantic supply” is, I would argue, inarguable. Milton Dawes notes the millions of instances of “cultural conditioning” to which we’re exposed throughout our lives. (10) Gregg Hoffmann refers to the pervasive influence of the “mediated world” that surrounds us and unavoidably influences our thinking, attitudes and behaviors. He points out that most of us will be confronted by an onslaught of “mediated messages” within the first hour or two of waking up in the morning … the alarm clock radio, the newspaper, TV, talk radio in the car, billboards, ads plastered on every conceivable surface, the Internet, email, written reports, etc. (11)

Many of these mediated messages attempt to persuade us — some might say condition us — to think, feel, behave, and act according to the specific wishes of the suppliers of the messages. Do this, don’t do that, stay tuned, vote for me, rent this space, check our website, don’t touch that dial, act now, repent now, buy now.

In the excellent PBS Frontline documentary “The Persuaders,” Mark Crispin Miller of New York University notes the growing level of advertising “clutter” in our environment. The fundamental challenge of advertisers is to break through this ever-increasing clutter, yet each attempt to break through the clutter, adds more clutter. He warns that we’re on the verge of becoming acclimated to the pervasive effects of all this advertising clutter: “Once a culture becomes entirely advertising-friendly, it ceases to be a culture at all.” (12)

The late Robert P. Pula, former IGS Director, author, and teacher, defined culture as a “shared hallucination.” In this context, we might wonder who’s supplying the hallucinogens that define our current culture.

Does Miller’s warning overstate the threat that advertising may overwhelm our individual and collective abilities to appropriately evaluate and respond — or not respond?

Consider the declared objectives of the advertising gurus themselves:

Douglas Atkin, Merkley and Partners Advertising: “When I was a brand manager at Proctor & Gamble, my job was basically to make sure the product was good, develop new advertising copy, design the pack. Now a brand manager has an entirely different kind of responsibility. In fact, they have more responsibility. Their job now is to create and maintain a whole meaning system for people, through which they get identity and understanding of the world. Their job now is to be a community leader.” Atkin observed the cult-like devotion of some consumers to their brands, such as Saturn automobile owners, Nike shoe wearers, and Apple Macintosh computer users. His quest then became to “find out why people join cults and apply that knowledge to brands.” (12)

Kevin Roberts, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi, Inc.: “You feel the world through your senses, the five senses, and that’s what’s next. The brands that can move to that emotional level, that can create loyalty beyond reason, are going to be the brands where premium profits lie.” (12)

Clotaire Rapaille, French “Marketing Guru” who claims 50 of the Fortune 100 companies as clients and was trained as a psychiatrist who treated autistic children. He discusses his approach to marketing research and how he applies the results to advertising: “We start with the cortex because people want to show how intelligent they are. So give them a chance. We don’t care what they say … It’s absolutely crucial to understand what I call ‘the reptilian hot button.’ My theory is very simple. The reptilian [brain] always win. I don’t care what you’re going to tell me intellectually, give me the reptilian.” (12)

These three industry leaders, who influence the supply of millions of dollars of targeted advertising messages every year, have proudly and unapologetically announced their intentions to:

  • Create a “meaning system” for consumers by learning what cults do, then applying similar techniques to develop cult-like responses to their clients’ products and brands.
  • Generate “loyalty beyond reason” among their clients’ consumers.
  • Appeal directly to the ‘emotional’ or reptilian brain “hot buttons” of their client’s consumers, bypassing altogether their intellectual reasoning capabilities.

So … what’s in your hot button?

Now, I am not so naïve as to presume that these objectives are something new in the world of advertising. However, to hear this in such blatant, matter-of-fact terms in the presence of such overwhelming evidence that advertisers are already well on their way to successfully achieving these objectives, causes me concern.

And it apparently concerns Douglas Rushkoff, the co-writer and correspondent of “The Persuaders.” He asks the $64,000 question to Rapaille, echoing the sentiments I posed to Diane Rehm’s panel:

“What about the environment? If the lizard [reptilian brain] wants the Hummer, and the lizard’s not going to listen to the environmentalist then isn’t it our job, as aware people, to get the reptile to shut up and appeal to the cortex, to appeal to the mammal?” (12)

Right on, Brother Rushkoff!

But … whose job is it, anyway? Who volunteers to appeal to the mammalian cortex, to go toe-to-toe (or synapse-to-synapse) against the billions of dollars spent worldwide to supply our reptilian brains with delicious morsels of loyalty, devoid of any nutritional reason?

Is there any market for an antidote to advertising?

Threat #2: Supply Side Pollution — Politics

In the political arena of persuasion, Rushkoff’s documentary features the work of Frank Luntz, the consultant who constructed much of the language that has been so effectively used (progressives might say “abused”) by conservative politicians since the early 1990s.

Nicholas Lemann profiled Luntz in 2000 for The New Yorker in an article titled, “The Word Lab.” (13) Luntz worked with House Republicans in 1994 and is generally credited as the verbal craftsman for the “Contract with America” that swept the Republicans to victory in the 1994 mid-term elections.

Lemann describes the process Luntz uses to supply the words and phrases that work to get the desired response from voters. He notes that the purpose of Luntz’s “word lab” is not necessarily to find the most informative, accurate, or clarifying terms, but to research which terms most often result in the aims of the client — usually, election, or approval. Therefore, the point of Luntz’s work, according to Lemann, is “to find out what voters already think and then design rhetoric to persuade them that politicians agree with it.” (13)

Lemann credits Luntz with advising “his clients to say Department of Defense instead of Pentagon, opportunity scholarships instead of vouchers, tax relief instead of tax cuts, and climate change instead of global warming.” (13)

In “The Persuaders,” Luntz allows Rushkoff’s crew to film one of his research focus groups for a Florida utility company that wants to “build public support for a change in how it’s regulated on the environment.” (12)

Luntz describes his challenge:

I know that the public is very down on corporate America in general and they’re down on power companies. So what is the language, what is the information, what are the facts, what are the figures that would get Americans to say, “You know what? My electricity company, it’s OK.” (12)

However, based on what we observe in the documentary, the focus group isn’t presented with “information, facts, or figures” intended to educate. Instead, they’re subjected to language prepared by the utility company that promotes its scripted objectives. Through one-way glass, Luntz watches the subjects react and measures their responses on an electronic recorder. He looks for the language that most noticeably evokes the desired response from the subjects.

He (Luntz, not Pavlov) knows it when he sees his subjects (not his dog) react to it (sans saliva). “If the language works, the language works.” (12)

What’s his secret? What is Luntz paying attention to that others are missing? He states:

80 percent of our life is emotion and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. How you think is on the outside, how you feel is on the inside, so that’s what I need to understand. (12)

One of Luntz’s most notable successes was to gain popular support to repeal what has been known historically as the estate tax.

Here’s a brief description from the IRS website, which still refers to “the Estate Tax”:

Presently … only total taxable estates and lifetime gifts that exceed $1,000,000 will actually have to pay tax. In its current form, the estate tax only affects the wealthiest 2% of all Americans. (14)

Now, if you’re outraged that this tax is on the books, let me hear you yell “This is an outrage! Pishahhh!”

I didn’t think so.

But Luntz came up with a simple approach to rally the masses against a tax that only applies to the wealthiest 2% of Americans. According to Lemann, Luntz first asked a focus group “what they most want to eliminate: an estate tax, an inheritance tax, or a death tax.” The death tax came out first because the perception was that the government should not tax your family after you die. Then he asked them to guess how much money could be passed down before the “death tax” kicked in. Except for the accountants who knew the answer, everyone else in the focus group guessed way too low. Even with the subsequent information that you had to leave an estate valued at a minimum of $675,000 (the figure in 2000, subsequently raised to $1,000,000) before your heirs were subject to “death tax” consequences, the majority of the focus group still supported its repeal. And today, according to Luntz, 75% of Americans support permanent repeal of the “death tax.” (12)

Yes, world … we are indeed that stupid.

In “The Persuaders,” Luntz defends his semantic gymnastics on behalf of the death tax:

Look, for years, political people and lawyers — who, by the way are the worst communicators — used the phrase estate tax. And for years, they couldn’t eliminate it. The public wouldn’t support it because the word estate sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it’s not an estate tax, it’s a death tax because you’re taxed at death. And suddenly, something that isn’t viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people. It’s the same tax, but nobody really knows what an estate is, but they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die. I’d argue that is a clarification, it’s not an obfuscation. (12)

Challenged, Luntz continues:

I don’t argue with you that words can sometimes be used to confuse, but it’s up to the practitioners of the study of language to apply them for good and not for evil. It is just like fire. Fire can heat your house or burn it down. (12)

Is it just me, or is it getting uncomfortably warm in here? Is that smoke I smell?

Just like his advertising and marketing counterparts, Luntz makes no secret that he’s not out to inform or educate or appeal in any way to rationally-thinking mammalian brains. Like Rapaille, Luntz is after the lizard. And like Rapaille, he’s found it.

The success of Frank Luntz and his Republican benefactors has not gone unnoticed. As Matt Bai describes in The New York Times Magazine, some Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, think they’ve found their own progressive version of a semantic alchemist in George Lakoff. (15) Lakoff, linguistics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, supplied the metaphor of frames and pitched it into the cauldron of political constructions.

Bai credits the Democrats embrace of framing as the key equalizer in their “victory” (some might say “standoff compromise”) earlier this year in defending the Senate filibuster. He describes the approach taken by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin:

Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations, paid for by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups. He was looking for a story — a frame — for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives. Democratic politicians assumed that voters saw the filibuster fight primarily as a campaign to stop radically conservative judges, as they themselves did. But to their surprise, Garin found that making the case on ideological grounds — that is, that the filibuster prevented the appointment of judges who would roll back civil rights — was the least effective approach. When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were “changing rules in the middle of the game” and dismantling the “checks and balances” that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.

Garin then convened focus groups and listened for clues about how to make this case. He heard voters call the majority party “arrogant.” They said they feared “abuse of power.” This phrase struck Garin. He realized many people had already developed deep suspicions about Republicans in Washington. Garin shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid, the minority leader. Reid, in turn, assigned Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry’s spokeswoman last year, to put together a campaign-style “war room” on the filibuster. Cutter set up a strategy group, which included senior Senate aides, Garin, the pollster Mark Mellman and Jim Margolis, one of the party’s top ad makers. She used Garin’s research to create a series of talking points intended to cast the filibuster as an American birthright every bit as central to the Republic as Fourth of July fireworks. The talking points began like this: “Republicans are waging an unprecedented power grab. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game and attacking our historic system of checks and balances.” They concluded, “Democrats are committed to fighting this abuse of power.” (15)

Displaying unusual solidarity, the Democrats kept driving home the “abuse of power” frame and eventually succeeded in forcing a compromise with seven Republicans that ‘saved’ the filibuster as a procedural option available (as of this writing) to the minority party Senators.

So, what’s in a frame ? According to Bai:

Exactly what it means to frame issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. In the months after the election, Democratic consultants and elected officials came to sound like creative-writing teachers, holding forth on the importance of metaphor and narrative. (15)

From the promotional blurb for Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate:

Author George Lakoff explains how conservatives think, and how to counter their arguments. He outlines in detail the traditional American values that progressives hold, but are often unable to articulate. Lakoff also breaks down the ways in which conservatives have framed the issues, and provides examples of how progressives can reframe them. (16)

So welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Great American ‘Debate,’ 2005-style:

In this corner we have the Republican proxy Frank Luntz, armed with the jabs and punches practiced in his word lab.

And in this corner here’s George Lakoff, the Democratic “Great Linguistic Hope,” who’s learned his clinching and counter-punching technique in the basement of his framing franchise.

And all over the arena we have wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling advertising specifically designed (or devised?) by Rapaille, Roberts, and Atkin that gives our lizard brains a meaning system for loyally buying everything that the most effective lizard-pleasing persuaders can offer.

Let’s get rrrready to … what, exactly?

A Response to the Threats — Response Side Semantics

We live in two worlds, the verbal world and the non-verbal world. Wendell Johnson wrote, “The worlds we manage to get inside our heads are mostly worlds of words.” (17) Our daily challenge is to appropriately integrate these two different worlds in our evaluations, responses, attitudes, behaviors, actions, decisions, etc.

As the “supply” of words, images, and symbols exponentially grows, our individual and collective abilities to adequately evaluate and respond (or not respond) to the narrowly-interested symbolic stimulants targeted against us must also rise commensurately, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Otherwise, we risk lapsing into a state I call verballucination, defined as “a delusional state of uncritical unawareness in which individuals and groups can no longer discriminate words and symbols in any coherent way.” We are not ‘brainwashed’ so much as we are ‘mind-muddied.’ When we’re in this state we are especially vulnerable to appeals for “loyalty beyond reason,” to blindly accept the symbols offered by our rulers, to buy into the “meaning systems” sold by the suppliers.

I introduce this notion of response side semantics as simply a label that might help us more readily acknowledge the threats to our individual and collective sanities. We cannot simply acquiesce allegiance and responsibility for our actions, decisions, votes, and purchases to the lizard-loving manipulators on the supply side. Action must follow awareness.

And action, in this case, cannot be laying claim to another corner ring and creating another paradigm for semantic pugilism. We need to educate individuals and groups that we have the mammalian means to detect the crap, to resist the cult-like advertising indoctrination, to subvert our loyalties to our reasoning. We’ve known how to do it since 1933 when Korzybski’s Science and Sanity came out.

It’s time for us to clean up, not clutter up, our neuro-semantic and neurolinguistic arenas.

Otherwise, we might as well go ahead and get the signs made up to post at every port of entry:

Sign Welcome to the Verballucination


  1. Audio file for the July 1, 2005, The Diane Rehm Show, produced by WAMU, American University Radio, available for download from: http://www.wamu.org/programs/dr/.
  2. Deborah Tannen is the author of: You Just Don’t Understand, That’s Not What I Meant, Talking Voices, I Only Say This Because I Love You, and Talking From 9 to 5.
  3. 3.    William D. Lutz is the author of Doublespeak and Doublespeak Defined.
  4. I contend that blame for proactive falls to the insane popularity of Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #1: Be Proactive. (If you should attempt to develop that habit, are you not reacting in order to be proactive?)
  5. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Delacorte Press, New York, 1969, pages 2-3.
  6. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 5th Edition, 1994, p.76. Available from IGS.
  7. See http://www.heritage.org/Research/Taxes/bg1765.cfm by Arthur B. Laffer, copyright 1995-2005, The Heritage Foundation. Ironically, Laffer credits Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Muslim philosopher, as the first to articulate the theory of supply side economics. Present at the first sketch of the “Laffer Curve,” literally on the back of a dinner napkin, were Laffer, Jude Wanniski, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, in December 1974.
  8. Kenneth G. Johnson’s comment as heard by the author, July 1994, IGS Seminar-Workshop at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.
  9. Wendell Johnson, “You Can’t Write Writing,” ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 1, Number 1, August 1943, pp.25-32. Society for General Semantics, Chicago, Illinois.
  10. Milton Dawes, “The VASTness of General Semantics,” http://www.miltondawes.com/md_vast.html.
  11. Gregg Hoffmann, heard by the author during a lecture at Alverno College, July 2005.
  12. “The Persuaders,” produced for the PBS Series Frontline, directed by Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin, produced by Rachel Dretzin, Barak Goodman and Muriel Soenens, written by Barak Goodman and Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright WGBH Educational Foundation. Originally aired November 9, 2004. Video distributed by PBS VIDEO. Script available online.
  13. Nicholas Lemann, “The Word Lab,” The New Yorker, 16 October 2000, pp.100-117.
  14. Internal Revenue Service website, “Estate Tax Questions,” http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=108143,00.html
  15. Matt Bai, “The Framing Wars,” The New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2005.
  16. From the website of The Rockridge Institute, http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/bookstore/elephant
  17. Wendell Johnson, Your Most Enchanted Listener, Harper & Brothers: New York, 1956.

Calling Out the Symbol Rulers

ETC Cover 62-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 62 No. 1, 2005)

Nothing illustrates the power of symbols and language quite like a presidential election. Of course, those of us who know a little bit of general semantics recognize that this ‘power’ lies not in the words and symbols themselves, but in the motivations, intentions, reactions, and evaluations of the individual human beings who speak, write, see, hear, and read the words and symbols.

Alfred Korzybski emphasized that we must vigilantly maintain an ongoing awareness that symbols (or “maps”) are not the things symbolized (or “territories”). He underscored the potential consequences of confusing symbols with their referents when he cautioned that, “Those who rule the symbols, rule us.” (1)

Who rules your symbols?

With this issue we introduce a new regular feature, “Calling Out the Symbol Rulers.” Each quarter we will highlight examples of how rulers rule by symbols, and how we let ourselves be ruled by symbols. This feature will succeed to the degree that you and other readers participate in the process by corresponding with us — we seek your responses, reactions, analyses, opinions, and examples you find pertinent to this topic.

Whom might we classify as potential symbol rulers? By our definition, just about anybody who participates in a communicative transaction could be considered a symbol ruler. We might start by carefully observing people of influence such as politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, bosses, parents, supervisors, coaches, advertisers, priests, preachers, rabbis, mullahs, commentators, columnists, reporters, etc. How do they generate, manipulate, frame, and convey their messages? What techniques do they employ to influence our judgments and decisions?

You might apply some of the principles of general semantics in your analyses:

  • Do they confuse facts with inferences, judgments, or beliefs? (And by what standard are facts differentiated from non-facts?)
  • Do they over-simplify complex issues into easy-to-understand but misleading either-or, black-or-white, right-or-wrong polarized choices?
  • Do they attempt to attribute only one cause to an event or one consequence of an action, rather than recognizing multiple causes and multiple consequences — some of which we may never know?
  • Do they generalize from one experience or one person’s anecdotal evidence as if that were the only possible or the ‘right’ universal experience?
  • Do they take responsibility for their own statements and judgments, recognizing what Wendell Johnson referred to as “to-me-ness,” or do they attempt to speak for a group or with the authority of a group?
  • To what degree are they saying something beyond the simple application of a label? (“All you need to know about him is that he’s a liberal!”)
  • Do they objectify high order abstractions such as truth, justice, moral values, security and speak about ‘them’ as if ‘they’ were ‘things,’ rather than inherently inexact, personalized, and even arbitrary notions?
  • Do they concentrate on similarities at the expense of ignoring differences, and vice-versa? Do they exhibit attitudes of allness (or none-ness)?
  • Do they fail to apply Korzybski’s extensional devices — specifically, indexing (Muslim Leader1 is not Muslim Leader2), dating (Senator Phlops views on de-regulation1980 may not represent the Senator’s views2005), and et cetera, (the et cetera, or etc., means that more can always be said; we can never know all there is to know about anything).

Remember … these same principles that you apply critically to others, you can apply to yourself. And we want to emphasize that in general semantics we are not so concerned with the words as we are with the underlying human thinking-feeling and evaluating processes, judgments, perspectives, etc., that are conveyed by the words.


  1. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.76.

Eating Menus

ETC Cover 61-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 61 No. 1, 2004)

This issue of ETC marks another transition in the organizational evolution of a discipline. Published from 1943-1948 by the Society for General Semantics, then from 1949-2003 by the International Society for General Semantics, ETC now falls under the stewardship of the Institute of General Semantics.

Twenty-seven years ago, this journal experienced a different type of transition. The late Neil Postman, remembered in the previous issue of ETC, began his 10-year editorship of this journal with a clearly articulated point of view in the first of his ‘themed’ issues, “The Roots of Fanaticism.”

He diagnosed that, in 1977, there existed a “state of mind which banishes reason and generates frenzy, [that] has accompanied mankind throughout our history and gives no sign that it is wearying of the journey.” He observed that this “state of mind” had produced “the odor of a kind of intellectual decadence that some of us have smelled before.”

Postman predicted that “the study of symbolic processes will be a pre-eminent intellectual enterprise for the remainder of this century.”

To whatever degree ‘we’ have, since 1977, engaged in “the study of symbolic processes,” it doesn’t appear to me that we’ve succeeded in diluting what Postman sniffed as the “odor of a kind of intellectual decadence.” Indeed, I contend that this ‘odor’ lingers, wafts and seeps even more persistently and pervasively in 2004 than in 1977.

Consider the issues that, on a given day, dominate our national interest as evidenced by newspapers, media talk shows, and the Internet. Many of these current (March 2004) issues represent deeply-rooted conflicts that concern “symbolic processes” and the “intellectual decadence” of rulers and/or the ruled, who lack the means to differentiate symbols as symbols, rather than things, values, or truths.

  • A piece of paper generated by a local government official that symbolizes a societal practice that, in English, we call marriage has become a touchstone issue for the 2004 elections, undoubtedly to affect every level of elected office.
  • The issuance of the piece of paper that, in English, we call a marriage certificate has become the object of a movement to generate another piece of paper that, in English, we refer to as an amendment, that will change another piece of paper that we, in English, call the Constitution of the United States of America. The intent of this amendment is to define exactly what marriage is, and by extension, what it most definitely is not.
  • The cultural buzz focuses on the recent release of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. This film presents his (Gibson’s) creative interpretation of the Apostles’ descriptions of their recollections of the events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. Much of the buzz deals not with the film as a film, but with Gibson’s motivations, with what some perceive as his anti-Semitic point of view, and with the question of “Truth” in his creative depiction—is it indeed “as it was”? (Except for the special effects, of course—I assume no actors actually suffered or were subjected to inhumane treatment during the filming.)
  • The French National Assembly has voted to ban clothing and jewelry that constitute “ostensibly” religious symbols from that nation’s public schools.
  • The ramifications of the “wardrobe malfunction” that revealed part of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime continue. Some major media conglomerates have taken actions to curtail or terminate indecent and obscene programming, even prior to governmental direction or market demands.

It seems to me, then, that our susceptibility to all things symbol-related, and our vulnerability to those who manipulate the symbols (and labels, words, morals, attitudes, beliefs, etc.) has not ameliorated significantly in the quarter century since Postman’s editorial. We still, as individuals, groups, and cultures, exhibit behaviors that amount to “eating the menu,” so to speak. We still confuse flags with freedoms, bumper stickers with beliefs, and appearances with ‘realities.’

So what, then, about the relevance of general semantics? Does our discipline bring anything to the table of “intellectual enterprise” for this 21st century? You may correctly presume that I, as the new Executive Director of this ‘new’ organization, would answer in the affirmative.

Twenty-seven years ago, Neil Postman wrote about the consequences of the “symbolic stench” (my term) that pollutes what passes for contemporary cultural, political, and social discourse. Alfred Korzybski warned us over seventy years ago that “who rules the symbols rules us.” The current ‘issues’ that exist on verbal and symbolic levels will divide us politically in this election year, even as our living existence is threatened on quite visible non-verbal levels in New York, Baghdad, Madrid and other cities inevitably to be named later.

Our challenge as students, practitioners, publishers and advocates of an extensional, scientific orientation is to forthrightly address the threats to sane, time-binding behavior as we can, using the methods and tools at our disposal.

Otherwise, we will continue to be fed menus, and eventually not object to the taste.