Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
Following in Theurj's recent mention of RAW's E-Prime, I was inspired to resurrect an old blog on my own creative language experiments, and perhaps to start a new discussion.
I used to feel quite alone in this odd conlang obsession, but two other Integral writers have recently been writing and publishing on this topic. Stuart Davis has created an artificial language, and according to this blog entry, he apparently has been collaborating with Wilber in its further evolution. And Joe Perez, well-known Integral blogger and writer and a member here at IPS, has created a universal constructed language that he calls Lingua-U. In this blog, he discusses the cognitive (perspective-stretching and loosening) benefits of learning / exploring constructed languages, which is a point I also made in the very first "workshop" I ever gave (on Creative Language Evolution, in which I introduced my constructed language and argued for the benefits I felt I'd derived from creating it and from exploring very alien natural languages, such as Navajo and Lakota).
I would like to open a discussion on creative experimentation with language forms, particularly as that might relate to the “postmetaphysical” project.
Often, in exploring “postmetaphysical” and “enactive” approaches, we concentrate on the content of particular visions. But to realize the potential of these visions, might it not be important also to consider the forms of our natural languages – to explore the metaphysical presuppositions that underlie our grammatical systems, for instance; to deconstruct them and possibly reconstruct something new?
Benjamin Whorf was one of the early thinkers to raise the question of the relationship between language and thought:
We are inclined to think of language simply as a technique of expression, and not to realize that language first of all is a classification and arrangement of the stream of sensory experience which results in a certain world-order, a certain segment of the world that is easily expressible by the type of symbolic means that language employs. In other words, language does in a cruder but also in a broader and more versatile way the same thing that science does..... We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds through our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language (Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality).
Although strong linguistic determinism or relativism no longer holds water, neither does the universalist rejection of it: the influence of language and grammar on thought, perception, and behavior is an accepted fact in linguistics, and the debate now centers around the extent of this influence. Is this something that merits exploring? How can we approach it?
David Bohm took up this question in his book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order. He was concerned, in particular, with the limitations of the relatively static subject-object structure of Western Indo-European (WIE) language, and suggested experimenting with a more verbally centered grammar:
We can ask in a preliminary way whether there are any features of the commonly used language which tend to sustain and propagate this fragmentation, as well as, perhaps, to reflect it. A cursory examination shows that a very important feature of this kind is the subject-verb-object structure of sentences, which is common to the grammar and syntax of modern languages. This structure implies that all action arises in a separate entity, the subject, and that, in cases described by the transitive verb, this action crosses over the space between them to another separate entity, the object… Is it not pssible for the syntax and grammatical form of language to be changed so as to give a basic role to the verb rather than to the noun? This would help to end the sort of fragmentation indicated above, for the verb describes actions and movements, which flow into each other and merge, without sharp separations or breaks. Moreover, since movements are in general always themselves changing, they have in them no permanent pattern of fixed form with which separately existent things could be identified. Such an approach to language evidently fits in with the overall world view discussed in the previous chapter, in which movement is, in effect, taken as a primary notion, while apparently static and separately existent things are seen as relatively invariant states of continuing movement (e.g., [as in] the example of the vortex)…
One way he explored this was through the creation of an experimental, more explicitly verbal mode of English, which he called the rheomode. According to Bohm, "One of the best ways of learning how one is conditioned by habit (such as the common usage of language is, to a large extent) is to give careful and sustained attention to one’s overall reaction when one ‘makes the test’ of seeing what takes place when one is doing something significantly different from the automatic and accustomed function." His experiment, in other words, was to attempt to explore the enactive potential of language by altering its present structure and examining the results, rather than simply (or primarily) promoting an idealized form of language. The goal of the new structure was to create a grammar “in which movement is to be taken as primary in our thinking and in which this notion will be incorporated into the language structure by allowing the verb rather than the noun to play a primary role,” but his approach to this was open-ended and exploratory -- "making the test" and seeing what happens.
The rheomode project never developed much beyond the initial proposal in his book, but Bohm remained interested in the subject of language and thought up until the end of his life. Something that is not very well-known is that, shortly before he died, Bohm helped to organize a meeting between physicists, linguists, and speakers of several (highly verbal) American Indian languages. He was interested to see if these verbally centered languages might provide a more suitable medium for expressing more dynamic, holistic modes of thinking. Similar meetings have been taking place on an annual basis since then.
Based on the writings of researchers such as Levy-Bruhl and Vygotsky, however, I wonder whether Bohm might have been failing to make pre/trans distinctions. This essay, for instance, suggests that while many Amerindian and other languages from "primitive" cultures are indeed highly verbal and relational, they are also very concrete (as in concrete operational). For instance, from the essay:
Lévy-Bruhl and Pensch rightly point out that there is a close link between these dual characteristics of the language of primitive man and his extraordinary memory. The first thing that impresses about the language of primitive man is precisely the vast wealth of designations at his disposal. Concrete designations pervade such languages; concrete details are expressed by means of a vast quantity of words and expressions.
Gatschet writes, “We intend to speak precisely, whereas an Indian draws as he speaks; we classify, he individualizes.”  For these reasons, the speech of primitive man, in comparison with our language, truly resembles an endlessly complex, accurate, plastic and photographic description of an event, with the finest details.
The development of language is accordingly characterized by a gradual tendency for this enormous abundance of concrete terms to disappear. The languages of the Australian peoples, for example, have practically no word: denoting general concepts, whereas they are inundated with a huge number of specific terms, painstakingly distinguishing the features and the individuality of objects.
Ayer, referring to the Australians, says, “They have no general words, such as tree, fish, bird, and so on, but exclusively specific terms applicable to each species of tree, fish and bird.” The same absence of words for tree, fish and bird, accompanied by the use of proper nouns for all objects and creatures occurs in other primitive peoples.
From what I've seen in my amateur linguistic investigations, most modern linguists would probably argue that, contrary to the above, there is no such thing as a 'primitive language,' at least not among any of the ones spoken in the world today. The argument is that all human languages exhibit comparable complexity and expressive power – with some 'tribal' languages far exceeding (in some ways) the complexity of languages like English or French. But in making this claim, it seems to me that linguists may be looking primarily at certain grammatical elements and relationships, rather than at, say, Piagetian developmental orders of cognition. The examples in this essay do seem to strongly suggest that both the content and structure of many of these languages reflect features of concrete operational thinking. It also appears to support, however, the basic thesis that underlies this thread: the (enactive) relationship between language/grammar and thought/experience, indicating that Bohm's project (or related ones, such as %3C/span%3Ehttp%3a//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime">e-Prime or Lojban/Loglan) may have merit or be worth pursuing further.
In discovering the highly verbal, embodied/concrete languages of the Americas, I believe Bohm glimpsed, at least, the possibility, not of a return to concrete operational thinking (a pre/trans fallacy, something I believe he would have rejected had he recognized it), but an opening beyond the horizons of the presupposed structures of our thought, towards a higher-order grammar that is similarly verbal and embodied -- in post- form, not pre-.
In my discussion above, I mentioned the examples of e-Prime (a modification of English which does away with the 'to be' verb) and Lojban (an entirely new constructed language). Both of these languages were inspired by the thesis that language forms do indeed influence thinking and perception, and Lojban in fact was first created as a way of testing this hypothesis. To my knowledge, neither project has demonstrated this influence conclusively, in part because of the difficulties of actually testing this; but a number of speakers of Lojban do report that they feel the language has opened new creative vistas for them. (If you're interested in hearing Lojban, there is a several-part movie in the language which is available for viewing on Youtube, beginning here.)
When I first read Whorf's and Bohm's writings on thought and language, which was about 20 years ago, I was inspired to experiment with this myself. The task I set myself, after Bohm, was to create a more verbally centered, process-oriented mode of speaking and thinking. Although I did end up creating a fairly workable (though imperfect and incomplete) language, with a new grammar and writing system and about 500 words of vocabulary, I think the value of the experiment was more in the doing than in the final product. It forced me, over the course of several months of reflection and inquiry, to face some of the deep presuppositions that underlie my habitual modes of thinking, of organizing and languaging experience. In the process, I found the quality of my perceptions and even the nature of everyday experience would momentarily shift into new, more open and flowing states.
Perhaps one reason for this was I had set myself a nearly impossible task: how to think and speak without nouns and pronouns (using verbs and other structures instead).
If you're interested, here's an example of the language I created:
Om-alu yε deoš amas ymer undεš mal šai uĵerište.
Le amεš ðirymer de'ilustote, aiu ymer ilustütu, le unas yð-ilist'auluš.
Le emas aĵ-ilus'emyš, aiu le an'yð-ilust-emüš erεgai.
Om-erĵuš ram ĵui emb-ur'emuš virðai, aiu ram ĵas yð-elθuš yr-aumai.
Le amεš čeu sumai, yð-daur'auluš, aiu yð- auluš ram de'uĵerošte ymer gelašte.
The straightforward English translation of the first sentence is as follows: “We ask you, God, to be with us here in our house this morning."
And the literal translation of the first sentence runs something like the following: "Speaking to request: Divine Presencing (first-person plural experience) here where sheltering (first-person plural experience) while now dawning (first-person plural witnessing)."
An interesting consequence of the experiment -- of avoiding my habitual English habit of appealing to nouns and pronouns -- was that, not only did the language end up being process centered, but perspective-taking came to fore. Instead of using pronouns, this language allows you to modify verbs according to a wide range of perspectives. With the emphasis on perspectives and holistically unfolding processes in AQAL theory, I am interested in exploring how I might retool my language to be even more consonant with the emerging Integral vision...
Here's an example of my script. (It says, "Bruce is a geek.")
Who would take the hard position that I do? That is almost half the reason to take it!
People today are understandably hesitant about all aggrandized boundary-declarations. And I love them for it. But because they are reluctant I will do their dirty work, ironically, with a soap box, by telling them NOT to do it!
We are agreed (however, obviously, predictably) that their value is in the not-doing and doing differently. I spent a whole year confining "known words" to ideas and using only spontaneous tonal syntax for emotions. I grew up Tolkeining my own new languages and trying to fuse the English and French on the backs of Canadian cereal boxes. And on. And on. So I am a great friend to such experimentation.
As my remarks in the previous remark indicate I am 100% in favor of whatever anyone can develop for themselves, and others, through experimentation with para-linguistics, neo-linguistics, inter-linguistics, intra-linguistics, meta-linguistics, asterix, obelix, chief vitalstatistix, et al.
But I am 1000% against the idea that there is any general cultural utility or important theoretical position for newly developed alternative languages!
After putting a lot of time and effort into such a project (when I was 20 or 21, I believe), I emerged also feeling that the creation of a new language was not necessary -- but felt that it was a fruitful vehicle for self-exploration, opening and shifting perspectives, etc. As I said in my comments to Tom earlier in this thread: its primary value for me was as an exercise in not-doing, and in doing differently.
With that said, though, I wouldn't take the hard position you do and stand in opposition to such exercises. Who knows what can grow out of them, for those who are pursuing these things in depth? Having enjoyed the exercise myself, and admiring the aesthetic and conceptual surprises in others' creations, I would never stand on a soap box and tell folks not to do it.
I was editing my previous post while you were writing this one, it looks like. I added a few more thoughts ... which are not really that different from yours ... But I'll let you be the mean guy who tells people their conlangs are 1000% a waste of time, cultural-transformation-wise. :-)
(Groucho singing "Whatever it is... I'm against it...")
Ah, the hovercraft of eels! The ultimate surreal TV mistranlation!
Unless of course we count the cryptic, interdimensional backspeak from the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks...