Linguistic Phenomena

Linguistic phenomena subtly and powerfully shape our reality. Our perceptions about the world guide our decisions, and we shape our cognitive models of how the world works--or should work--partly via our interactions with cultural (philosophical, spiritual, folk, scientific or religious) ideas. 

Culture communicates ideas primarily through language. We generally express our feelings, thoughts, opinions and what we call "facts" verbally or in writing. It is not the actual content of the expression we hear, however, which determines the smooth integration of meaning in our own psyches.

In a series of rapid cognitive operations, we form hasty abstract associations in order to decode our personal meaning in the message so that it might be assimilated into our existing schema--or potentially modify it. 

Here are a few of the problems which may arise out of daily interactions:

1) The assumption of mutual understanding: here, the speaker assumes that their words clearly convey their personal implication, and the listener will interpret the meaning in approximately the same way. For example, Bill might say that Mary "is a small-town girl." His implication is that Mary is very personable and says hello to everyone she meets. What his friend might interpret is that Mary judges people based on conservative family values. 

This is typically caused by

2) The assumption of equivalency: the speaker assumes that the listener holds identical associations


3) Sticky labels: stereotypes act as mental shortcuts by clustering a keyword with several traits. However, the actual contents of a stereotype-cluster tend to be different between speakers.

4) Faulty logic: Aristotelian, linear "A is B, therefore C is not B" logic may lead to over-simplified conclusions. "All humans are animals. Therefore, all animals are humans." Or, "He's not a feminist if he supports the makeup industry."

The culprit leading to these problems can be linked to the verb "to be."

Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-American philosopher and scientist known for developing the theory of general semantics, suggested that two forms of the verb 'to be'—the 'is' of identity ("noun copula definite-noun") and the 'is' of predication ("noun copula adjective")—have structural problems in communication. For example, the sentence "The coat is red" has no observer, the sentence "We see the coat as red" (where "we" indicates observers) appears more specific in context as regards light waves and colour as determined by modern science, that is, colour results from a reaction in the human brain.

E-Prime  is a version of the English language that excludes the verb "to be."  For example, "the film was good" could translate into  "I liked the film" or  "the film made me laugh". The E-Prime versions emphasize the personal experience rather than absolutes, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.

The words "to be" may actually be received as an indication of absolute truth. Any reference to hypothetical absolutes may contribute to cognitive rigidity and eventually to extremes in judgment or valence. For this reason, Robert Anton Wilson writes that we ought to learn how to replace the word "is" with "maybe." This allows not only the listener, but also the speaker to  maintain the awareness of subjectivity, impartial observation, and the flexibility to modify existing cognitive schemas.