E-primitive: Rewilding the English Language
I owe almost everything I know about rewilding language to my friend, author and teacher Willem Larsen from the College of Mythic Cartography, from the day he introduced me to “ePrime” to more currently as his obsession with animist languages sends reverberations through the rewilding community with his invention of “ePrimitive” an even further in depth attempt at rewilding English. No one has done a more thorough investigation and experimentation into this than Willem Larsen. No one. We all owe him a great deal of gratitude. I feel honored to have helped Willem get his thoughts in this first ever accumulated work.
The College of Mythic Cartography & The Adventures of Urban Scout Present:
E-primitive: Rewilding the English Language
By Willem Larsen, with Urban Scout
(Reposted from The College of Mythic Cartography)
Does the language we speak blind us to the way the world works? Can we make better observations, and therefore better choices, by changing the way we speak?
English, a language of commerce, exists as an amalgam of countless languages – latin, greek, germanic, french. It embodies the spirit of a homeless, rootless culture. As it evolves, it acquires more and more words, getting more and more specific.
As a language of commerce, the strength of english lies in its low-context, highly technical/specific capacity. “Low-context” means you don’t have to know back-story or belong to a specific subculture to understand english the world over. Business english stays the same globally, along with software/IT english, agricultural english, oil/petroleum/geologic english, etc.
Conversely, animist languages (those that come from indigenous cultures deeply connected to their place) can barely keep it together to stay consistent from one side of the valley to the next. Why? Because they base themselves entirely on connection to place. Their specificity lies in nonverbal experience of a specific, unique place, or cycle of places (in terms of nomadicism).
Language determines how we communicate our experiences of the world. Therefore, it also limits what we can see and how we see the world. You could say that language works as the lens of our cultural eyeglasses. In sustainable cultures, language extends beyond humans to the landscape and the spirit world. In unsustainable cultures the language abstracts the culture from the land, holding its members hostage, forcing the people to continue a destructive lifestyle, even to death.
As members of civilization, perhaps the most unsustainable culture ever, we can assume that our language and therefore thoughts, serve to separate us from the land. If we want to free ourselves from the destruction, we may alleviate the process by digging our way back in time through English, and studying the remnants of animist languages, we can find a more indigenous origin point with which we can carry forward a more realistic view of our world.
What came first, the chicken or the egg? Often when philosophizing about thought, language, and actions the question comes up; “did changing our way of life to farming come from a deceived perception of the planet, or did our deceived perception of the planet come form farming as a way of life?” We can’t answer that, but we can tell you that to us, it feels like a little of both. So why not rewild the way you talk, while you rewild the way you walk? It becomes easier to walk your talk if your talk can help you walk. Get it? We feel it has worked for us, and maybe it will for you too.
To Be: Masters of the Universe
Though civilization had long abstracted its language by this time, our personal linguistic adventure began with Aristotle’s writings. No animistic indigenous cultures have the verb “to be.” We don’t know when this verb came into popular use in civilization but we do know that we first see the foundations of “to be” expressed in Aristotle’s “Laws of Thought,” which contain three basic principles.
1. That a thing is what it is: A is A. This became known as the premise of identity.
2. That anything is either A or not-A. This became known as the premise of the excluded middle.
3. Something cannot be both A and not-A. This became known as the premise of non-contradiction.
Some 2 millennia later, the “is” of identity has dominated the English language. So much so, that it seems nearly impossible to speak without it. Go ahead. Try speaking for five minutes without saying is, was, are, am, were, be, been.
Many problems occur when adapting to the Aristotelian Orientation of English. “To be” supposes that the world never changes, but remains in a fixed state. It casts the world into separate parts: black and white, good and evil. This “is” that. A man can only love a woman. A woman can only love a man.
The development and enhancement of the verb to be reflects civilizations quest for absolute control of the cosmos. To label things as fixed in time, you attempt to undermine the very essence of this universe: change. In a world where nothing can remain fixed, it seems a bit psychotic to perceive it as such, though I think you can probably imagine how a verb like this would have had an easy time developing in a sedentary, civilized culture. Civilization itself a product of agriculture, and agriculture an attempt to resist the changing world, to control the food supply. The unpredictable nature of change seems like the biggest threat to an agricultural based culture. They cannot move with the land, so they feel they must control it.
Without the verb to be, civilizations prized philosopher Descartes could not have made his famous addition to civilized thought, “I think, therefore I am.” Nor could civilizations prized play write Shakespeare have written his famous line, “To be or not to be? That is the question.” Nor could civilizations prized pacifist Gandhi have said the famous line, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” None of these statements make any sense in a real, constantly fluctuating world.
The term E-prime (short for English-Prime) refers to a version of English without the use of the verb “to be.” Basically a group of scientists studying quantum physics began to realize that “to be” and a lot of English does not reflect the nature of the universe. The General Semantics Movement began with Alfred Korzybski in his 1933 book, Science and Sanity. His student, David Bourland took the movement further by coining the phrase E-prime and abolishing the verb “to be” altogether. A common e-prime example shows us that an electron appears as a wave when measured with one instrument, and appears as a wave when measured with another. This defies Aristotelian English. E-prime mostly has its roots in scientific inquiry. Though we hate most scientists and scientific inquiry, we agree that the verb “to be” presents an inaccurate view of reality. As animists inspired by e-prime, we have taken it even further and in a new direction, to create what we call E-Primitive (short for English Primitive).
Animist languages stem from people who have lived as close to the land as humanly possible. Their languages have shifted with the land for millions of years. They present maybe the most accurate and deeply perceived connection to the world. In order to help shape E-Primitive, we must look at the how animist languages work.
Developing & Using E-primitive
1. Make Some Noise
Animist languages begin with sound and mimicry. If you know birds, then someone imitating bird calls will immediately bring that bird (and everything it relates to – habitat, season, myth, coloring, survival use, edibility, character) to mind. The brilliant flowering diversity of mouth-sounds in native languages, hisses, clicks, pops, gutturals, reflects the astounding variety of sounds that hit the human ear. As languages lose their animism and become civilized, they round out, lose sounds, and shrink. You can find exceptions to this (Mohawk only has a little over a dozen sounds), but this works well as a general rule.
Simple playful mimicry will over time rewild your language. To make a game of referring to birds by their song or alarm calls makes a good beginning, rather than signifying through the name of the british naturalist who “discovered” them (Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcrack, Bewick’s Wren, blah blah blah).
2. Patterns of Behavior/Movement/Activity
Animist languages seek to describe patterns of activity, and to connect similar patterns to each other. To separate the way of the coyote away from words describing sneaky behavior, destroys connection, destroys layering. In fact, to use the word “coyote” also means to “act like a coyote”, “to sneak”. In fact, the word “talapas” means most properly “to act like a coyote”.
So in English, we can describe this as “the word coyote does not describe a thing, but a pattern of activity – we must denote a coyote by saying that it “acts like a coyote”. We cannot point out a coyote itself.” In an animist language we’d find it difficult or impossible to say what we just said. English intrinsically looks for Aristotelian essences, inner natures, fixed realities, whereas native trackers know that a set of tracks may match the pattern of coyote activity, but that does not mean that “a coyote” made them. In quantum mechanics: “is it” a particle or a wave? Pointless question that creates a paradox. In animist language, “does it move” like a particle? a wave? Effortless conceptualization of a former paradox created by the actual structure of a language dedicated to enslavement according to rigid classes and conceptions.
Try this exercise in e-primitive: every time you notice yourself looking at something as if it just “exists”, as an object fixed in time and space, we want you to come up with all the ways that it actively interacts with the world. For example, a glass cup not only contains liquid, or air, but the glass that forms the cup oozes downward at an imperceptible rate (those who’ve studied chemistry will know that glass behaves as a liquid). Also, the glass may have fingerprints on it, or scratches, that slowly age. Also, it refracts light in diverse ways. Old glasses will have more character than young, freshly crafted ones. Etc. Remember, if you hold the glass, it pushes back with an equal and opposite reaction. The glass literally vibrates at an atomic level. Everything enacts patterns of movement.
Just play with looking at the world in this way. It’ll totally screw with you, but it’ll shoot your tracking through the roof. Funny how quickly this way of observing/interacting takes you right into the heart of animism.
3. Metaphorical Layering
Animists speak high-context, low specific/technical languages. One word serves for many, many meanings, mediated on context. You could call this “metaphor”, layering, poetry, etc., whatever, animist languages do it intrinsically. For example, apache trackers use the same words for the geologic landscape (cliffs, valleys, ridges, canyons) as they do to describe the microcosm of the inner world of an animal track. Or, in english, to describe stealthy activity, we could say “sneak, slink, creep, tiptoe, move furtively, etc.”, while in the Chinuk wawa speakers would just say “talapas”, which means coyote, sneak, move furtively, slink, creep, etc. all at the same time.
4. Re-Verb the Noun
Because animists languages base themselves in movement/activity, you’ll commonly see the world in terms of verbs, and rarely (or not at all, depending on the particular language) in noun-entities. In Mohawk green also means herbs/greenery/grass, it describes a pattern of appearance, not an entity. In Mohawk, one points out a “hunter” by saying “ratorats”, literally “he-hunts”. Civilized languages innovated the professional class, thus labels like “Hunt-er”, “plumb-er”, “farm-er”, etc. “He-hunts”, “he-plumbs”, “she-farms”, etc. Notice the difference between calling someone an “artist” and saying that “they create art”. Many of us can finally let go of civilized conceptions of success once we click into this thinking…”one day, I’ll ‘be’ an artist/writer/tracker/hunter-gatherer”. Do you make art? Do you write? Do you track? Do you hunt and gather? Only that can we honestly describe. “When will I grow up? When will I feel like an adult?” Do you do adult things? Do you do activity associated with “grown-ups”?
One famous Iroquois speaker, whose name we mistranslate as “Cornplanter”, would correctly require us to call him in his native language “He-plants-corn”. Your ear has probably picked up on all the Native American names that fit this model, and the few that don’t, which we can easily explain as a similar mistranslation.
Look at “nouns” as “verbs”; re-verbify them. For example, ‘talapass’ does not mean “to act like coyote”, but rather it means “to coyote”. As in, I coyote, you coyote, he coyotes, we coyote, they coyote, ‘they coyoted across the field’. In Mohawk, familial relations work as verbs…he-fathers-me…I-grandchild-her. If you’ve ever had someone ask “Who’s this?” in reference to your mother and tried to answer in e-prime, you can see the pickle it puts you in. “Uh…she gave birth to me?” “She raised me? Really, what she does you can best describe as “mothering” you. How easily e-primitive solves the stupid (a little emotion here, heh) question, “who are my real parents?” or “You’re not my Mother!!” Does she mother you? A word that we already use that way in English from time to time. Others… A pet “isn’t a pet”, they keep you company (companion). In Chinuk wawa, you say “mitlayt kupa naika” or “such-and-such living being/’object’ sits with me”.
We do this all the time in English. He ‘fishtailed’ all over the road. I ‘cupped’ the water in my hand. Let’s ‘table’ that vote. We can just do it more and more, staying aware that the nouns speak more accurately when used to describe a pattern of appearance or movement.
So, “I traveled to the store today”, could work just fine, if you think of “store” as a verb (to “store” boxes). Think about it – those U-Store rental places actually have quite the e-primitive ring to it…they’ve named themselves after the pattern of activity that best describes their business.
Why describe those same birds according to some other person’s idea of their character or coloring (Mourning Dove, Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, etc.). Why not re-own them, and call them by the pattern you see them demonstrate? “Watches-among-the-reeds”, “Thistle-ambles-without-care”, etc.? The next time you have an argument over “is it this or that” with someone, consider stepping out of the civilized framework. Does it behave like this? Does it behave like that? If both, what third thing emerges? Do both patterns together create a new possibility?
All this goes to explain why we need not just “E-prime” (no verb to-be), but E-primitive. In E-prime I can still use professional labels, like police officer/soldier/politician, but these imply intrinsic craft-oriented natures. If I point out an accountant to you, and say they also happen to “be” the greatest painter of the age, can you feel the smoke come out of your ears? E-primitive must jettison anything that gets in the way of as close to a reflection of the world as possible.
5. Tear Down the Prison of Identity
“Is that” a woman? “Is that” a man? “Am” I gay? “Am” I straight? “Am” I good? “Am” I evil? “Am” I Christian? “Am” I Jewish? “Am” I rewilded? “Am” I a Taker? “Am” I a Leaver? “Am” I an anarchist? Who “am” I?
You can’t even construct these pointless, meaningless questions in a language that sees the world as an active, creating, destroying, celebrating process. Even to call it a “process” creates a noun-state…more accurately, you could call it “process-ing”. Do you notice how that brings it alive, makes it vibrate, to acknowledge that it hasn’t stopped doing, and may do something else at any time? Fuck the verb to be.
Saying “I hunt and gather” rather than “I am a hunter-gatherer” pretty much encapsulates the whole idea, with a little bit of an E-primitive bias. You see, E-prime enthusiasts would mostly agree with the use of -er professional labels, as in “I make a living as a hunter-gatherer”. Hence my support of the E-primitive focus.
A few examples:
“I was born in 1905,” could change to, “My mother gave birth to me in 1905”, “I entered this world in 1905”, “My birth happened in the year 1905”, etc.
“My name is Pancho Villa,” could change to, “People call me Pancho Villa”, “My parents named me Pancho Villa”, “I answer to Pancho Villa”, “Allow me to introduce myself: Pancho Villa”, etc. As you may notice, this one sounds a little clunky in English, BUT! I would suggest that clunkiness should not bar one from using it. All kinds of slang and jargonisms sound clunky at first (Valley Girl talk, anyone?), but they gain footing because enthusiasts use them. They probably gain footing so well because they also identify and mark the boundaries for a clique that does want to separate itself from the sensibilities of a larger group. So hail Clunky! Anyway…
“This is my Mother,” could change to, “She mothers me”, “She gave birth to me”, etc. Another tough one.
“This is my Son,” could change to, “He sons me (?)”, “I raise him”, “I call him son”, etc. Familial terms point out the effed up nature of our language, which fundamentally obsesses with ideas of ownership and roles, rather than relationships. Who cares if “he’s” your son, does he son you? It takes a Village, right?
“Today is the 13th of April,” could change to, “Today falls on the 13th of April”. Think about this. What bullshit to say that “Today ‘is'” anything! Today (this 24 hour period) falls on an infinite number of dates according to an infinite array of calendars, for an infinite number of planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes. Today happens today. We can’t say any more than that. According to the calendar which our American culture popularly uses, we mark ‘today’ as the 13th of April. Robert Anton Wilson, a really cool and iconoclastic author, use to mark the dates on his blog with a different calendar for every blog entry. You cannot imagine some of the crazy calendars he dug up.
“This is my friend,” could change to, “We’ve befriended [notice ‘to be’ still lurking in this one though] each other”, “I feel close to him”, “We have a close relationship”, “we partner up”, etc.
6. Break the Shackles of Factuality
Civilized peoples worship facts, reliable unchange-ables. A common defense of the concept of “fact” goes, “Well, ‘it’s” a fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. That we know.” Since I know of many Native American cultures that feel that in order for the sun to rise, they must call it up, and welcome it, and if they don’t, it may not rise that day, I know that it won’t surprise them when the Sun’s furnace goes cold, or if the earth itself gets pushed out of orbit by very real cosmic phenomena (asteroids, nomadic black holes, etc.). A civilized reaction to that would involve saying, “well, yes, our science predicts that, but you know “it’s” a fact that…”
7. Study Your Local Pidgin
The word Pidgin refers to languages that spontaneously grow from two or more separate languages as a means of communication between speakers of different tongues, and usually a simplified form of one of the languages. Pidgins work as second languages rather than native ones. By this definition, e-primitive works more like a pidgin; a mix of english and more animistic languages. It works as a means of communication between domesticated people and the wild landscape. We cannot recommend enough that you study your local pidgin or a native tongue of your bioregion, or ancestral past.
Civilized people fear change and wish to dominate and control and fixate that change which cannot remain fixed. Civilized languages mirror and perpetuate these insane actions by framing the thoughts and experiences of the people. They describe reality using fixed states of being, action-less, noun-based sentence structures, and so-called “facts” all so that they can feel safe that the world will not change on them.
To animist people fluidity forms the basis of their languages, and the ongoing change-ability and need to re-new and court the universe daily, monthly, yearly, gives life its meaning, gives life its center. They feel safe knowing the universe has moods just like us. That same notion horrifies civilized folks.
E-primitive, as the field of inquiry concerned with rewilding our language, does not intend to “fix” English, but to keep adding wildness until it squeezes out the domesticated thought-forms and structures. We suggest approaching rewilding english with a sense of play. People have asked us, “Won’t messing with english make it sound silly, like pig latin,” but of course, children still speak pig latin don’t they, and have invented countless variants, on’tday ouyay owknay? If people enjoy it and get benefit out of it, they will use it.
In some senses, this touches on the idea of taking back the source of our entertainment and social activity. We use to make languaging a central social activity, a source of prestige, excellence, and collaboration. To encourage language play takes us back to this.
We need never worry about the ‘scale’ of the E-primitive revolution. The central indigenous tenet encourages us to propagate diversity; this makes scale irrelevant. I can guarantee you more people than you think, right now, have begun playing with rewilding their language in their own regions, in their own way. We each need to simply stay true to our own landbase and ecology, and speak the language that fits this place.
Remember that E-primitive has no rules, and no end point, because language itself has no endpoint. Regardless of Webster and his dictionary, language has and will continue to adapt and drift on its own. As long as you stick to the base; that the world has a constant flux, E-primitive can change anywhere, anytime, and hopefully will take root in your particular landbases.
Everyone has a different starting point. We don’t speak 100% E-Primtively and probably never will. For us, cutting out the verb “to be” in our writing started us on this journey. Others may have a more difficult time making that leap and maybe some even strive not to use verbal communication at all. Whatever you feel, we suggest you find your own particular starting point. Go where your inspiration lies; we see no one right way to go E-primitive.
-Willem Larsen College of Mythic Cartography
-Urban Scout www.urbanscout.org
Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
Wisdom Sits in Places Keith Basso
The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun or any book by Martin Prechtel
Animism by Graham Harvey
The Hobbit Companion by David Day
To Be or Not: An E-prime Anthology edited by David Bourland