The E-primitive Thought Experiment


E-prime (or english-prime) refers to using the english language without the verb “to be.”

After living in a several thousand year old sedentary culture, our language has changed quite a bit. No indigenous languages have a verb “to be.” To Be attempt to fix and tame the constantly changing world. This is that, for example. I believe that the verb To Be originated from this culture from our perception of masters over the planet. Gods. Only gods get to decide what “is” and “isn’t.”

Indigenous languages have a shape and form that flows like the land. Can we ever change our own language to match this flow? I believe using e-prime can help. Willem has studied various indigenous language and how they structured their sentences. He has added this structure to e-prime and calls it e-primitive. I like that a lot… but I still don’t quite grasp it.

Willem, won’t you share your studies with us?


First some ramblings - the following comes from my own personal study. I claim no expertise and welcome questions, comments, other perspectives, etc.

English - the language of Commerce

The language we speak 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 backstory 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.

Whereas animist languages 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 nomadism).


Animist languages - Languages of Place

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 “talêpês”, which means coyote, sneak, move furtively, slink, creep, etc. all at the same time.

Patterns of Behavior/Movement/Activity

Animist languages seeks 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 “talêpês” means most properly “to act like a coyote”. So in English, I can describe this as “the word coyote does not describe a thing, but a pattern of activity - I must denote a coyote by saying that it “acts like a coyote”. I cannot point out a coyote itself.” In an animist language I’d find it difficult or impossible to say what I 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.

Verby, Not Nouny

This means that animist languages commonly see the word in terms of verbs, and rarely (or not at all, depending on the particular language) see 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.

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.


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 langues, hisses, clicks, pops, gutterals, 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.

Rewilded Mimicry

This also points to how easily we can resurrect animist language. 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).

Rewilded Verby-ness

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?

Abandoning 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?

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?

Abandoning the Prison 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 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…”

Civilized people require “facts” to feel safe and to go about their day-to-day lives. To animist peoples, 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.


I found this very inspiring! My head has spun around a few times even though we talk about this everyday. I like seeing it nicely spelled out like that. Could you write a few paragraphs about say, your daily routines, in e-primitive?


I like the Seneca name for baptist: he-dunks-them-in-the-water.

The mimicry section reminded me of a game Nick and I play. When we don’t know where one another is in the house we do companion bird calls. He steps out of the shower: pheee-bee. I reply from the living room: Pheee-bee.


really reminded me of buddhist and bon ideas and, peculiar, plato.
excellent thread.


A great book for looking into the origins of language and how it reflects our relationship with the animate world is “The Spell of the Sensuous” by David Abrahms. Check it out.


Wears-the-helmet-of-the-gods (AKA Willem),

Can you think of an exercise(s) that one could do to help learn E-primitive?

I just keep thinking how crazy it seems to attempt to re-verbize english. I mean, the more words we change, the longer and crazier sentences become…

I really want to grasp this… but I feel troubled by it. This may sound stupid, but whatever…

Say I wanted to say, “I traveled to the store today,” in E-primitive.

If the word “traveled” changed to “leg-lifted”

“Store” changed to “lot’s-food”

and “today” changed to “sun-in-sky.”

I could say, “Scout leg-lifted lot’s-food sun-in-sky.”

But we take it further. What if

“Food” changed to “goes-in-mouth”

What if “sun” changed to “fire-ball”

“Sky” to “blue-above”

Then it may sound like this, “Scout leg-lifted lots-goes-in-mouth fire-ball-in-blue-above.”

What if “mouth” turned into “hole-in-face”

“Scout leg-lifted lots-goes-in-hole-in-face fire-ball-in-blue-above.”

And on and on. Although I don’t see anything I wrote above as E-primitive, or even remotely close, it does make me realize why they had layered words and metaphors. Things could get pretty complex when you try to spell everything out in one run-on sentence.


I just got Spell of the Sensuous in the mail, per Willems recommendation.


Ha ha. Fun stuff, Scout and Penny. And I agree, animalhands, that it looks very similar to the whole buddhist nonduality paradigm. Don’t get me started on my anti-buddhist rant though! Just kidding. Sorta.

To tell you the truth Scout, I think you deconstructed English too much. You run into a problem here, that conventional English has a rhythm and sound that pleases the native (non-indigenously - I mean someone born into it) speaker’s ear, and if you change it, it “clangs”. For example, no one has to teach you grammar, you know it instinctively. Ebonics has a very consistent grammatical system, even though we consider it “dumbed-down english”.

Just look at “nouns” as “verbs”; re-verbify them. I should have said in my last post (for example), not that ‘talêpês’ means 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’.

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.

Actually, that demonstrates some unconscious brilliance on their part. Never thought of that before.

To change “traveled” to “leg lifted” doesn’t make it more accurate, in my mind. One lift’s one leg to pee (dog), to do excercises (leg lifts), to put one’s pants on, to step over things. I would imagine that if you wanted to make “traveled” more descriptive you could either use more involving verbs like “ambled” “strolled” “jetted” “trotted”. Think about it in terms of tracking…how exactly did you travel to the store? In what “gait”? That might rewild it a little bit.

Changing “sun” to “fire-ball” just changes it from one noun to another. To verbify it you could say “it shines”, but really, you could also just use sun as a verb. We already do it. “The cat sunned himself on the porch”. I wouldn’t change today anyway…it acts more as a time marker than a usable noun.

Not to criticize what you wrote, of course. The play of it makes it worth while. The most important game I play:

Whenever I track, or observe, I look at the world in terms of its activity. Like David Abram says in Spell of the Sensuous, colors beckon and grab my senses, inspire feelings. Dirt doesn’t just sit inertly on the ground, it consists of living tissue, quite literally. Concrete doesn’t just lay there, it holds-me-up, it sweats moisture.

I’ve got an idea: every time you notice yourself looking at something as if it just “exists”, as an object, I 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.

And funny how quickly this way of observing/interacting takes you right into the heart of animism.


Thank you for sharing with us, Willem!

I have a question for you: what does e-primitive language mean for possessive terms such as my, your, our, his, hers, Willem’s, Dandelion’s, etc.?

Also, as Hotspring has helped remind me in another posting, we can learn a lot about our beliefs by our language and what we spontaneously say/write. By examining our language, we grow as people.

Another interesting phenomenon: today’s people seem to forget (or conveniently alter) at an accelerating rate what words originally stood for and/or do not understand the origins of words. Our words don’t ground us in place, they are transportable over time and space, meaning new things to new people, as it serves them, further alienating us from our real experiences.

We throw words around and down (on paper/screen) freely without really taking the time to craft them. I know I do that. Did/do native peoples speak differently? Less quantity more quality, if you know what I mean?

This discussion fascinates me.


Willem, you have great genius.

Thanks for your deconstruction and answers; just what I sought.

I began to think in terms of gaits. I didn’t “gallop” to the store. Or “diagonal walk.” Then I began to think about how animals move, and which animal I could say I moved like. Then I remembered that I rode my bike, and that’s when I used a noun-verb to make this sentence e-primitive:

I pedaled to the store today.

See! I can do it!


Yay! I like it. Have you tried the experiment of seeing “objects” as active subjects yet?


Wow. Willem, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here. Beautiful!


[quote=“dandelion, post:10, topic:91”]Thank you for sharing with us, Willem!

I have a question for you: what does e-primitive language mean for possessive terms such as my, your, our, his, hers, Willem’s, Dandelion’s, etc.?[/quote]

Excellent, excellent question, one I think about a lot.

I bet you can guess my personal first instinct…Rewild the noun! 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 or not? A word which 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”.

I’ve played with our local trade jargon and speak it with all nouns as reflexive verbs as much as I can. Example: “We-family-ourselves”, “Nêsmêstilikêm” – “Our family”.

Also, as Hotspring has helped remind me in another posting, we can learn a lot about our beliefs by our language and what we spontaneously say/write. By examining our language, we grow as people.

I believe this very firmly.

I can’t recommend enough the following books if animist languaging fascinates you:

Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram
Wisdom Sits in Places, Keith Basso
Any book by Martin Prechel
Animism, Graham Harvey
the Hobbit Companion, David Day

And of course, dip into any traditional (not neo-evangelical, a common problem with indigenous grammars) indigenous language teaching guide for loads of fascinating tidbits.

It really excites me that this interests so many folks here. Thanks for expressing it. If you don’t know already, I write about this all the time at the website listed in the sig below.

I bet you can guess my personal first instinct...Rewild the noun!

Thank you for answering my question. Funny that you chose “mothering” as one example. I just love that word…

Just thinking how much nicer “he/she-loves-me” sounds than MY lover… leave the possesion out of it.

It really excites me that this interests so many folks here. Thanks for expressing it. If you don't know already, I write about this all the time at the website listed in the sig below.

Oh, great… more books to add to my list… :wink: I’ll have to check out your website, too.


Here are some examples of native language I ran across today describing an Onieda business in Wisconsin for selling their corn products:

-The traditional Oneida farm is called Tsyunhehkwa (“Life Sustenance,” or more literally “It provides life for us”).
-The Production Division is termed Agricultural and Community Services, or Shakoh^ta?slu.níhe? (“He prepares the fields for them”).
-The Processing Division is based in the Community Cannery, or Tsi?tkutekhwa.y^hé (“Where they put the food away”).
-The Distribution Division is termed Retail and Community Services, or Lutunhetsla?nikulale? (“They look after all living things”).


Notice how much friendlier and life giving the native translations sound as compared to the white business language. Imagine if instead of having a customer service representative you had something like “she loves to help you”.


And something else: “In England, the word “bramble” is used as a verb; the expression ‘going brambling’ means going Blackbery picking.”
-A City Herbal, Maida Silverman



Ha ha. Yeah, I like mothering a lot. Funny how “fathering” connotes just insemination, but “mothering” connotes ongoing nurturing, rather than just giving birth or carrying to term.

Penny Scout:

Beautiful examples! So true, too. They feel so vital, and simple, and alive, and the English translations so jargony, technical, and life-less. Who really wants to belong to an ‘anarcho-syndicalist commune’? But who wouldn’t want to belong to a ‘they-cherish-each-other-together’, or a “they-celebrate-eat-sleep-in-family-together”?


Can anyone think of a “wilder” word for cool, awesome, sweet, etc.? If so I would start using it. I guess in some instances “wild” is synonymous with cool but I was thinking of more like Lord of the Flies where the boys call neat/good/cool things “wizard”. Except not wizard but coyote or something.


I think “coyote” is a good word for clever things and for being tricksy.

“I don’t know how the hell that coyote coyoted his way into our stash. I thought we’d hid it pretty coyotily. Oh well, I guess it’s pretty tough to out-coyote a coyote.”