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AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

What's in a Word?

There is almost no aspect of our lives that is untouched by language, and parenting takes a quantum leap forward when we find better ways to communicate with our offspring effectively. Thankfully, since 70% of human communication is non-verbal, we don’t need to wait for our children to develop a sophisticated vocabulary to begin laying an effective foundation for understanding each other. Eye to eye contact, open body posture and soft tones help bring any child’s focus into listening; be sure to mirror them back when your child speaks to you. Even in later years, children hear and respond to the tone of a message before they absorb any of the content, a revelation that can defuse many an argument. Even more interesting, though, is the psychology of the words themselves. Why not learn some words that could make a *very* big difference in your child's vocabulary?

Alfred Korzybski, who founded the field of general semantics, brought forward the radical idea that as the tool we use to frame our thoughts and perceptions, our language literally directs what we are able to think. Sartre, for example, couldn’t have made the philosophical leap “I think, therefore I am” if he thought in a language that didn’t put the subject before the verb in a sentence. To his mind, the subject naturally “came first.” Korzybski proposed the idea of a revised English language he called E-prime, which is basically English without the absolutism of the word ‘is’; statements about what things ‘are’ become statements about how they ‘seem.’ Thinking like a scientist, Korzybski felt we should be honest in conversation about our lack of empirical data about the universe, and you can imagine how popular the idea was by the fact that most of you have never heard of this before.

Robert Anton Wilson, another great thinker, endorses the further replacement of the word ‘all’ with the compound word ‘sombunall,’ which means ‘some but not all.’ His argument is more compelling, though: would the warfare, intolerance and bigotry our world is prone to be possible if we couldn’t make inflammatory statements like “all blacks are thieves” and instead claimed “some but not all blacks seem to be thieves to me.” Perhaps the holocaust might not have happened if the Germans of Hitler’s day had spoken something like G-prime and universal claims about Jews simply couldn’t be made.

This kind of linguistic jiggery-pokery feels pretty awkward to most of us, and I’ve thus far been completely unable to train my brain to vocalize in E-prime. Frankly, I enjoy being occasionally inflammatory. The only folk out there writing in E-prime are scientists, who tend towards it in scientific papers without consciously knowing the concept, and Wilson himself. Still, introducing words like sombunall to our children when their minds are still receptive to new concepts is literally expanding the horizon of how they are able to think. A simple three syllable tool for being more empathetic, flexible and open minded is a mental bargain.

The most astounding word I can drop here is “Po,” a term coined by Edward De Bono, probably the world’s foremost teacher of thinking skills. He claims that ‘No’ is the basic tool of the logic system, ‘Yes’ is the basic tool of the belief system, and ‘Po’ stands right up there with them in importance as the basic tool of the creative system. I can’t do his book Po: Beyond Yes and No justice here, but to paraphrase terribly, the word means “I accept that as one way of looking at things.” You can use it to defuse an argument by suggesting that both perspectives are valid, and to suggest ‘what if’ scenarios to challenge established thinking. A ludicrous statement like “Po we should all be president,” even if it’s impossible, can lead to thinking about new ways that the electorate could vote on specific issues rather than just a single leader and all the particulars of his platform, and thus take you to another less infeasible and more useful idea. Po is like the reverse gear on a car that helps you back out of a blind alley of logic or an established way of looking at things.

To me, however, the coolest use of Po is that you can use it to deliberately juxtapose two things that wouldn’t normally go together as a creative thinking exercise. Let’s say we randomly stick ‘politics’ and ‘bottles’ together and see what ideas we can come up with. I remember returning bottles for a deposit I paid on them, so what if we voted on how well we felt represented by a politician after their term and they had to return a portion of their salary relative to the electorate’s dissatisfaction? Would it change campaigning forever? If not, it’s at least a jumping off point for a short story, and a billion other ideas can come out of the same or other random groupings. Darwin’s theory of evolution was basically the result of putting the ideas of ‘species’ and ‘change’ together for the first time, while Einstein’s relativity similarly began as something like ‘space’ Po ‘time.’ De Bono argues that Po is not only basic to creative innovation, but also the root of humor, since bicycle and road are mundane together but it’s the unexpectedness of bicycle Po fish that can be funny. What’s astounding is how readily younger minds embrace this concept and run with it. As adults, we may have proceeded from ‘why’ to ‘why not’ and finally into ‘because,’ the mental stance that creates the aphorism about old dogs learning new tricks, but our children never have to lose the ability to constantly see things in new ways and learn from it. The earlier someone picks up this sort of gymnastic language, the more it becomes second nature and the easier they reap the benefits.

While our yes/no Aristotelian logic is an excellent scientific problem solving tool, it also encourages looking at the world in stark black and white terms: if it’s not friend, it must be foe. When you come up with an answer or idea using valid logic, you start believing that contradictory answers or ideas are wrong by definition, which is useful in mathematics, but dangerous in dealing with complex human values and situations. People believe a lot of contradictory things. Also, ideas that seemed valid in the past sometimes stop serving us but are difficult to challenge or change. Thus, nuclear weapons aren’t really a ‘new’ idea, for example: they’re just the problematic modern byproduct of a very old idea: make your weapons as powerful as possible, which wasn’t so complicated when we were perfecting better stone spears. Similarly, with the majority of the world’s scientists pointing at signs of climate change, a ten and a half million square mile hole in the ozone layer, smog a major public health issue, and a finite supply of fossil fuels for us to work with, governments are still bending over backwards to make it easier for lone SUV owners to guzzle gas on our roads. The civic government where I live is investing heavily in new roads while starving public transit, and the fact that Iraq is sitting on the world’s second largest oil reserves cannot have escaped the attention of pentagon invasion planners. What kind of difference might it make if even one tenth of the dollars budgeted for a war on Iraq were diverted to research into alternate-fuel automobiles and higher fuel efficiency standards, so we could be less involved with the oil producing part of the world and wash our hands of its intolerances and issues? How many fewer wacko terrorists would line up to die bloodying the nose of ‘the great white Satan’ if we provided the entire world with clean drinking water and sufficient food, at a dollar cost well below ten percent of the U.S. defense budget? Po a tenth of the $214 billion spent on the war on drugs in the last eight years, mostly to double the total number of inmates in U.S. prisons with cannabis users charged for possession under an ounce, had instead been spent on public education?

I can’t say what exactly would change if our governments looked at the world that way, any more than I can guarantee G-prime would have saved the holocaust Jews. I’m not always convinced that humanity is sufficiently evolved to live in a kinder, gentler way, but as a parent, I can hope. Hope springs eternal. Maybe a few more sombunalls and pos in the collective consciousness could spark advancements in human relations and culture to rival technology’s leaps. And if not, on a wholly selfish-gene level, I want my own offspring to have every advantage they can on the lifelong playing field. If playing word games can help them become even a bit more creative, better problem solvers, or more adaptable than the kids on the next block, sign me up.


Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh (3) and Keefe (9).  Send feedback for Michael to: poprocks@austinmama.com


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