On Language

Module 1 Pages

What is GS? | Alfred Korzybski | Consciousness of Abstracting | Language | In Their Words
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources

Authored by Steve Stockdale

Now let’s look at some of the implications of all this abstracting, evaluating and consciousness of abstracting on our language behaviors.

Scientific Orientation Toward Language

I want to emphasize that the the system or methods of General Systems, including the language habits and behaviors which are espoused in this course, are not random tips, hints, secrets, or common sense aphorisms. These methods and recommendations flow from the premises and logical consequences that are consistent and integrated throughout General Semantics.  Again, we want to reiterate that GS begins with a scientific orientation.

The application of a scientific approach or method has proven to be the most effective problem-solving process yet created by humans. Therefore it makes sense to apply a scientific approach in our evaluations and judgments about ourselves and our experiences — including how we think-talk-write-reflect on those experiences, and how we listen-read-interpret-reflect on others’ experiences.

This means that we should continually test our assumptions and beliefs; continually gather new facts, data, and observations; revise our beliefs and assumptions as appropriate; and then hold our conclusions and judgments tentatively, in accordance with our own experiences, pending the possibility that new data, new experiences, might necessitate new theories or new assumptions to be tested.

Scientific Method
One Portrayal of the Scientific Method

Unstated or hidden assumptions of which we are unaware can often drive our behaviors and attitudes. One of the oft-repeated “conventional wisdoms” we hear is the admonition to avoid making assumptions. The joke goes, “You know what happens when you assume, right? You make an ASS out of U and ME!”

This aphorism is problematic from my GS perspective, in addition to just being lame humor. Making assumptions and inferences is not only unavoidable, but a vitally-important human capability. Some of our most intelligent and productive human behaviors depend on our ability to intuit, correlate with past experiences, match patterns, and dozens of other activities akin to “making assumptions.” In short, we cannot NOT make assumptions.

The key takeaway is here that rather than trying to avoid assumptions, we need to make a special effort to recognize and become more aware of our assumptions, inferences, beliefs, etc. An activity to highlight how much we unknowingly infer about simple situations is the uncritical inference test.

Difference between Facts and Inteferences

This 27-minute lecture is one of six episodes of “Talking Sense,” a series presented by Northwestern University professor Irving J. Lee in 1952 on Chicago television. This lecture provides wonderful insight into Lee’s high standard for differentiating facts from inferences with several excellent examples.

Language Matters

To underscore how deeply language is ingrained as a human behavior, consider:

With language we can:

  • speak, write, read, and listen;
  • think and express our feelings;
  • analyze and solve problems;
  • establish rules, regulations, laws, policies, procedures, ordinances, and standards;
  • reach compromises, agreements, settlements, resolutions and contracts;
  • understand, to be understood, and to pass on our understandings to others;
  • dream, imagine, contemplate, cogitate, deliberate, create, innovate and ponder.

And we can also:

  • mislead, misinform, and misunderstand;
  • deny, suppress, inhibit, prohibit and limit what others do and say;
  • rule, dictate, terrorize, intimidate, indoctrinate and alienate;
  • generalize, categorize, stereotype, pigeonhole and profile;
  • lie, cheat, steal, quibble, libel, slander, sue and defraud;
  • perpetuate myths, superstitions, prejudices, feuds, and atavistic traditions;
  • create and exacerbate fear, anxiety, regret, guilt, jealousy, paranoia, suspicion, and hate.

(Stockdale, 2009, p. 24)

Language(s) as Map(s)

The Importance of Constructing Proper ‘Maps’

Humans can build on the knowledge of prior generations. Alfred Korzybski referred to this capability as time-binding. Language serves as the principle tool that facilitates time-binding. Language also serves as a guiding influence in shaping our world view and life experiences.

We can apply the map-territory analogy to evaluate our language habits and behaviors. As a map represents a territory, so our language symbolizes our thoughts, emotions, ideas, opinions, and experiences. To the degree that the maps we construct accurately portray the structural relationships of the territory, they serve us well.

If, however, the maps we construct inaccurately depict  the relationships among the territory of our experiences, they can result in trouble. To best serve our own time-binding interests, our verbal ‘maps’ ought to be congruent and consistent with the realities of our non-verbal ‘territories’.

On the previous page, we learned that current brain scientists agree that what we have naively believed were direct experiences of ‘reality’ we are instead experiences that we construct within each of our own brains, minds, and nervous systems.

How does this knowledge affect our language habits and behaviors?

We ought to easily recognize, then, that ancient notions such as objective or absolute reality do not accurately reflect the limitations of our nervous systems as they interact with the outside world. Therefore language structures, patterns, or terms that rely on this false-to-fact notion that what I experience (or say) “is” the same as what exists “out there” in the world misrepresent, mislead, and misinform. 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. — Edward Sapir (Carroll, 1956, p. 134)

Note: We’ll cover this notion of linguistic relativity more in Module 4.

Language Misbehaviors

No language is perfect. Every language, being man-made and not inherent or inerrant, has structural flaws and cannot properly reflect the structure of the world we uniquely sense and experience. If we accept the view that language(s) shape, influence, affect, etc., how a given culture constructs the ‘realities’ of that culture’s experiences, behavioral norms, world view, etc. (Ramachandran, Sapir, and others), then it behooves us as individuals and societies to acknowledge these flaws and revise our language habits and behaviors accordingly.

In addition to these structural flaws, individuals are prone to commit errors that result from lack of awareness of the abstracting/ evaluating process, conventional language habits and usages, or careless inattention.

Some of the symptoms of language misbehaviors include:

  1. We uncritically accept our perceptions of the world ‘out there’ as complete, accurate, and “the way it is.”
  2. We fail to consider the perceptions and perspectives of others who see “the way it is” differently than we do.
  3. We confuse the word itself with what the word stands for.
  4. We act as if words have ‘meanings’ on their own, without respect to individuals and context.
  5. We mistake or confuse facts with inferences, assumptions, beliefs, etc.
  6. We simplistically consider issues in terms of either-or, black or white, right or wrong, good or bad; we do not account for “shades of gray.”
  7. We tend to look for and recognize similarities more than differences, which results in mistaken generalizations, stereotypes, biases, etc.
  8. We forget or overlook the fact that every person and every thing changes over time.
  9. We use language to verbally ‘separate’ what cannot be separated in the real world (ex. mind from body, thoughts from feelings, style from content, form from function, “pure” reason or emotion, etc.).

Developing New Language Behaviors and Attitudes

Our language habits can affect our physiological behavior; we can allow what we see, hear, say, etc., to affect our blood pressure, pulse, rate of breathing, etc. As we become more aware of our verbal and non-verbal behaviors, we can practice techniques to achieve greater degrees of relaxation, less stress, greater sense of our environment, etc.

When we respond automatically, without exercising control over our response, we allow the stimulus to condition or determine our response. In other words, we behave more like Pavlov’s dog than an aware human being when we let someone or something “push our emotional hot buttons.”

Korzybski referred to two aspects of these behavioral implications of our internal language habits. He continually stressed the importance of what he called “cortico-thalamic” integration (Korzybski, 1994, p. xxvi). By this he meant that there needed to be a balanced integration of the new brain (the cortex) and the old or reptilian brain (which in the terminology of the time he referred to generally as the thalamus – what we now understand to be the amygdala). In other words, he described how, with proper awareness, one could use the capabilities of the cortex to temper, dampen, or even override the emotional or reactive responses of the thalamus/amygdala.

He emphasized that aware humans have the ability to respond conditionally to both non-verbal and symbolic stimuli. In other words, we have some degree of control over our response to a specific stimulus.

This is the gist of what current neuroscientists and psychologists now refer to with new terms, as evidenced in this excerpt of four clips from the PBS series “This Emotional Life” with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (Sweet & Gilbert, 2010).

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimation of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. — Marcus Aurelius

We cannot command the wind, but we can adjust our sails. — Anonymous

Our ability to achieve “maximum humanness” and evolve to our human potential is a function of how accurately our language behaviors (what we do) reflect and are consistent with what we know. Therefore can evaluate our language behaviors according to criteria such as how well we:

  • maintain an ongoing attitude of “to-me-ness;”
  • hold our opinions, judgments, beliefs, and assumptions with a degree of tentativeness and willingness to change if new information or experiences warrant;
  • live comfortably with uncertainty;
  • exercise a healthy degree of skepticism and inquisitiveness;
  • strive for more description and less opinion, as approriate to the occasion;
  • strive for more unique and personal observations in our pronouncements, and fewer cliches, stock phrases, aphorisms, and conventional wisdoms;
  • look for differences among similarities, as well as recognize similarities among differences, seeing both the forest and the trees, depending on the circumstances; and
  • maintain a deserved sense of humility and minimize know-it-all attitudes.

GS as an Overlay to Evaluating

General Semantics itself can be considered a special type of map.

As the man-made invention of latitude and longitude enabled predictable navigation across (and above) the earth possible, you can think of GS as providing an overlay to guide one’s evaluating processes.

Latitude and Longitude

Map of Latitudes and Longitudes provided by World Atlas with permission.

Map with Latitude and Longitude Lines

In other words, you can apply the GS principles to:

  1. making better verbal maps;
  2. evaluating the maps that others make;
  3. evaluating your own evaluations.
GS Overview

Maps without Territories

In his Your Most Enchanted Listener (Johnson, 1956b), Wendell Johnson explores the special kind of talking we do with ourselves. He called this “inner speech” and observed that, “The worlds we manage to get inside our heads are mostly worlds of words.”

As we have emphasized throughout this first module, we can evaluate our language behaviors in the way we can judge the effectiveness of a map – do our behaviors properly and appropriately reflect the ‘territories’ of our lived experiences?

Johnson’s observation begs the question, what happens when all we put into our heads are words? When those words/maps have no corresponding experience/territory, what then?

The examples on this page illustrate that we are prone to certain kinds of evaluations and behaviors in the absence of any “out there” stimuli.

1. Higher levels of abstracting

From the PBS Series “The Human Spark” (Lipworth & Chedd, 2010) narrated by Alan Alda featuring Daniel Povinelli discussing differences between humans and chimps to evaluate highly-abstract thoughts and concepts … like “heavy” and “light.”

2. Inventing the unobservable

From the same documentary, Povinelli discusses one difference between humans and chimps that may not always be productive. Can you think of some examples?

3. Attention hijacking

Daniel Goleman, in a radio interview with Diane Rehm on National Public Radio, describes one example of how we can let the words in our heads, in partnership with our brain’s older structures, create worlds of their own.

from the online transcript:

GOLEMAN: Well, here’s the problem. The way the brain was designed worked very well in ancient days when we lived in jungles, and we, you know, there was a Saber-tooth tiger and we had to have this radar for threats called the amygdala on watch all the time because you never know when that rustle in the leaves is going to mean you better run if you’re going to survive. Today that same brain mechanism is looking for threat constantly, and it reacts to symbolic threats as though they were real biological ones.

REHM: Give me an example.

GOLEMAN: For example, someone doesn’t answer your email. You’re expecting something right away and you start obsessing about it, and in fact you start to review everything that’s happened in the relationship for the last week and what you may have done wrong that made them mad at you. In other words, you make the assumption that there’s an emotional emergency and what happens is the amygdala can hijack your attention so that you’re thinking about that instead of, you know, the work you’re supposed to be doing or the person you’re with, whatever it is. But that’s the way our brain is wired.

Questions to ponder:

  1. Is there a difference between Goleman saying “the way the brain was designed,” as opposed to him saying, “the way the brain has evolved”?
  2. What are the limitations of using the metaphor that our brains are “wired”?
  3. Can you think of examples that illustrate this ability to create highly abstract evaluations can reflect both the best, and the worst, of human thinking?
  4. Do the above comments of Daniel Goleman support or refute the sentiments in the clips from This Emotional Life?

Language-Behaviors That Matter

What is a ‘weapon’? (the perils of zero-tolerance thinking)

Taylor Hess photo

As maps are not the same as territories, so are words not the same as the objects, things, or life events they represent. When we act as though the words have priority over the things the words stand for, we often cause problems for ourselves, or others.

In 2002, a 16-year-old high school honor student at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, TX, was expelled from school for a year and sentenced to the Tarrant County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program.

His offense? He had helped his parents move his grandmother’s belongings on a Sunday afternoon. The next Monday, while his pickup truck was parked in the school parking lot, a security guard found a bread knife in the bed of the truck.

Local newspapers reported that the school district administration insisted that the young student had been expelled for bringing a “weapon” onto campus. In the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School murders in Colorado, a Texas Education Code statute mandated a “zero tolerance” one-year expulsion from school. The law explicitly defined by statute what constituted a “weapon.” The bread knife, the common tableware type of knife, met the statute’s definition of a “weapon.” Therefore, by the school district’s interpretation of the state statute, the student “brought a weapon onto campus.”

Not only did the student bring a “weapon” (by definition) onto campus, but according to one school district official, by the very act of bringing the “weapon” onto campus (in the bed of his truck in the student parking lot), “I do feel he put students at risk, whether he knowingly did that or not.” Of course this benign bread knife, hiding in the bed of a pickup truck in the far reaches of the sophomore parking lot, posed a “threat” to campus students — by definition.

Perhaps so in the verbal world of carefully scripted legislated words written on papers collected in notebooks stacked on shelves in offices in the state capitol. But in the ‘real world’ of real weapons, real threats, and real harmful intentions, this benign bread knife posed no threat … other than to the future education and life for a 16-year-old honor student.

Questions to ponder:

  1. Do “zero-tolerance” laws and regulations serve a productive purpose in societies?
  2. In the case of a law such as this one, is it better to leave “weapon” undefined, or to explicitly define it as specifically and descriptively as possible?
  3. Do you agree with the evaluation of the school district official that Taylor, whether he intended to or not, did “put students at risk”?

Was Uncle Bruce a Nazi? (or, the meaning of symbols)

A second uncle of my great-grandfather became a graphic artist and moved to New York City as a young man. While perusing my family mementos, photos, and scrapbooks one day, I found a handmade Christmas card that “Uncle Bruce” mailed to my great-grandparents in 1924.

Handmade Christmas card with swastika

The card features a silhouette of a family in their decorated home, seen through the grill of a frosted window. Hanging in the window frame are several different seasonal ornaments and symbols. Featured prominently in the center of the window, I was taken aback to see an unmistakable … swastika!

Cover Rudyard Kiplings Verse

Well, no. After just a few minutes of online research, I discovered that, prior to Hitler’s German National Socialists party appropriating the swastika symbol for its own branding, the symbol had been used as an expressive symbol for good fortune, good luck, good wishes, etc., for centuries.

In fact, Rudyard Kipling featured the symbol prominently on the front covers and title pages of several early editions of his books, at least through the 1920s. Was Kipling a Nazi? Even before there were Nazis?

We need to remember that every symbol — every word, sign, icon, code, etc. — was created by humans. Just as there is no, to my knowledge, piece of music or art that spontaneously emanated with inherent (and inerrant) ‘meaning,’ there exists no symbol with inherent and inerrant ‘meaning.’ As the American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce is attributed with saying: You don’t get meaning; you respond with meaning.

Swastik in Ahmedabad, India

While traveling in India in 2007, I learned there is a neighborhood known as “Swastik” in the ancient city of Ahmedabad, home of Gandhi’s Ashram. From a professor at a city university I heard a story that the swastika symbol, according to Indian tradition of more than three thousand years, depicted the life-sustaining image of a water wheel.

From my standpoint, I’m not particularly interested in where or when the symbol originated. I find it important to remember that the symbol we recognize and call a “swastika” can convey — or, perhaps more appropriately, can evoke — different meanings among different people in different contexts. The symbol itself carries no inherent meaning or sense of goodness or evil or luck.

As George Carlin said of “dirty words” … they’re innocent! It’s the people who use the words or symbols that you have to worry about (Carlin, 1990).

Questions to ponder:

  1. Can you think of any examples of words or symbols whose meanings have evolved over the years?
  2. Can you predict what current word or symbol usages might change over the next 20-30 years?

Driving with an old map

St. Louis Map

In 1999, I drove from Texas to Chicago. While passing through St. Louis, I called some friends to meet for lunch. They gave me directions to a particular expressway intersection. I looked at my road atlas — the atlas I had owned for 20 years, the one that I’d used to drive all over the western United States.

The atlas of highway maps that had all kinds of notes and mileage and phone numbers scribbled on it.

The one I would never even think about leaving at home when I traveled.

But there was a problem. The expressway intersection to which I had been directed by my friends wasn’t on my map. One of the expressways did not exist when my map was published — it had only recently been constructed. My map was out of date. The freeway system (or territory) had changed, but my map hadn’t. I needed a new map if I wanted to meet my friends for lunch.

Too often we rely on static, outdated ‘maps’ that don’t fit the current situations, circumstances, conditions, or ever-changing ‘territories’ of our daily lives.

Questions to ponder:

  1. Do any of your ‘maps’ need to be updated?
  2. What kinds of attitudinal maps have you changed over the years?

Any language, to be most effective, must incorporate what we know (from scientific investigations) about the world around us and what we understand about ourselves. Therefore it’s important to discern the world “out there” (beyond our skin) from the world “in here” (within our skin).

  • Our awareness of ‘what goes on’ outside of our skin is not the same as ‘what goes on.’
  • Our ability to experience the world is relative, unique to our own individual sensing capabilities (or sensory acuities), past experiences, and expectations.
  • Every person abstracts and evaluates their life experiences differently, based on their prior experiences, genetics, their their environments.
  • Our environment, the world around us (including ourselves), is ever-changing. We never experience the ‘same’ person, event, situation, or thing more than once.
  • We have limits (due to evolution, genes, physics, etc.) as to what we can experience.
  • We can never experience all of what’s to experience. We abstract only a portion of what we can sense. We experience incompletely on all levels (macroscopic, microscopic, sub-microscopic, cosmologic, etc.).
  • We sense and experience on silent, non-verbal levels, from which we speak, think, infer, etc.

What Happens ? What I Sense ? How I Respond ? “What It Means”

  • These facts lead to the inevitable conclusion that, for our language behaviors to be most effective, they must reflect our knowledge about ourselves and our world. We must apply all of our knowledge to our language habits, evaluations, and how we view ourselves in our world.

On the “Power of Words”

We get impressions and insights from the entertainment world about the power of words and language generally. Some of these depictions are more helpful than others. What do you take away from the four clips here?

As of 14 Nov 2020, this video is temporarily unavailable due to webhost migration. Please check back soon.

The Tyranny of Categories

During their reporting on Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Weather Channel’s on-air presenters and remote reporters faced a peculiar linguistic dilemma.

They, and their viewing audience, have been trained to communicate about the power of a hurricane based on a system of five categories. The sole, and arbitrary, basis of the five categories is sustained wind velocity.

Watch what happens when Ike’s sustained winds persist at the 110 miles/hour (177 km/hour) reading, which happens to be the arbitrary dividing line between Category 2 and Category 3.

  • Does it really matter to the audience whether or not the storm is Category 2 or 3?
  • Does it matter to the hurricane?
  • Can you see how these human-created categories (or labels, genres, classes, etc.) can sometimes take on a life of their own in terms of how humans react to them?

You may want to turn your volume down for this one, it’s pretty loud.

Uncritical Inference Tests

These two uncriticial inference tests are based on the work of William V. Haney.

Carefully read each brief story that follows. Assume that all of the information presented in the story is true and accurate. Next, read the statements following the story. If the statement is definitely true based on the information presented in the story, mark it as TRUE. If the statement is definitely false based on the information presented, mark it FALSE. If the true or false answer cannot be determined based on the information presented, indicate NOT SURE. You may refer back to the story whenever you wish. But you must answer the questions in order, and once answered, you can’t go back and make changes.

Stephanie’s CD (by Steve Stockdale)

Stephanie and her friend walked into the music store after lunch. Stephanie wanted to buy the new CD by the group, “No Girls Allowed”. There was only one other person in the store when Stephanie and her friend arrived. Stephanie asked, “How much is this CD?” Stephanie’s friend said, “Here, let me see it. I don’t think he heard you. This tag says it costs $11.99.”

  1. Stephanie wanted to buy a CD.
  2. Stephanie and her friend ate lunch together.
  3. Stephanie owns a CD player.
  4. There was only one boy in the store.
  5. Two girls walked into a music store.
  6. There are no boys in the “No Girls Allowed” group.
  7. Stephanie and her friend are teenagers.
  8. The store’s owner didn’t hear Stephanie because the music was too loud.
  9. Stephanie had enough money to buy the CD.
  10. The “No Girls Allowed” CD cost $11.99.
  11. The owner of the store is a woman.
  12. Stephanie wanted to buy a CD as a gift.
  13. One of the CDs costs $11.99.
  14. There were two boys in the store.
  15. The clerk was hard of hearing.

Hospital Grand Opening (by Andrea Johnson)

It was the grand opening for Saudi Arabia-Mayo Hospital when AJ Jones entered the administration office. Jones walked from desk to desk pleasantly greeting the new employees.  One person sat at her desk with her back turned to Jones.  She didn’t acknowledge the greeting; in fact she kept her eyes cast downward.  Jones looked at her desk nameplate, which said “Raheena,” frowned and walked briskly out of the office.

  1. Jones is the new hospital administrator.
  2. Raheena doesn’t speak English.
  3. The new hospital is connected to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
  4. Jones greeted new employees as he walked from desk to desk.
  5. AJ Jones entered the administrator’s office.
  6. It was the grand opening for Saudi Arabia-Mayo Hospital.
  7. Raheena hates Americans.
  8. Raheena is shy and a little hard of hearing.
  9. Raheena did not acknowledge Jones’s greeting.
  10. Jones made an inference about the woman who did not acknowledge his greeting.

Pretty easy? Did you notice how you projected information into these simple stories that wasn’t stated as ‘fact’? In every encounter or situation we face, we bring our past experiences to it in the form of unstated, usually unconscious assumptions and premises. We draw inferences based on these assumptions about the situation as if they were fact. Many times we cause problems for ourselves and others when we confuse our inferences with the ‘facts’, and when we don’t recognize our projections as projections.

Module 1 Pages

What is GS? | Alfred Korzybski | Consciousness of Abstracting | Language | In Their Words
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources