The Language of Clear Thinking

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Alfred Korzybski famously said that the map is not the territory. This is the key point of his general semantics: we should be conscious of the abstractions we use.

If we try to reason from the “essence” of something, in true Aristotelian style, we might abstract away meaningful complexity. If we apply binary logic, we may label things true or false when they are largely true or largely false, or likely true or likely false. Korzybski thus recommended what he called null-A, or non-Aristotelian logic.

The language we use also introduces many questionable abstractions, and Korzybski believed that ambiguous language lent itself to unclear thinking. Most infamously, he railed against unclear use of the verb to be, which led a former student of his to suggest a modified form of English, E-Prime, which eliminated to be entirely:

To exist or not to exist,
I ask this question.
— modified from Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Proponents of E-Prime believed that it would do more than clarify communication; they believed it would clarify thought. This is an example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language influences thought, and that some languages might lead to clearer thinking. That was the rationale behind Loglan, the logical language, with its grammar based on predicate logic.

These ideas soon found their way into Golden Age science fiction. A.E. von Vogt had his protagonists overcome their totalitarian foes through clever use of intuitive, inductive logic in The World of Null-A. (Peter Chung’s animated Æon Flux shares many motifs with The World of Null-A.)

Robert Heinlein also embraced many elements of general semantics, especially the notion of languages designed to improve thinking. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the self-aware computer receives its precise instructions in Loglan — which makes Loglan sound like a variant of Prolog. Heinlein took the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis much further in his short story, Gulf, which posits a new language used by a race of supermen. The language, Speedtalk, uses every phoneme (sound) used in any human language, not the small subset that belongs to any one language, and maps every word in Basic English to its own phoneme.

Basic English also shows up in H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come as the lingua franca of the future. Similarly, it inspired the Newspeak of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. (It doesn’t take much to turn Wells’ utopian ideas upside-down.)

Nyrath has much more to say about future languages, but I thought I’d end with this amusing bit of geekery:

Raphaël Poss (AKA “Kena”) took the obvious step and adapted the Tengwar alphabet to the Lojban set of phonemes. As Mr. Poss puts it: “…it is far more natural to write Lojban with a logical writing system…. the tengwar system inherently contains some main Lojban morphology rules, making Lojban easier to learn when it is written with tengwar.”


  1. Ummbrarchist says:

    What!? No reference to this: The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase.

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