“Senator Sam”: Semanticist and Hero

January 4, 2010

I’m still having trouble replacing the “09” with “10”  as I write the year.  But that is a small matter.  Let’s instead permit our bigger minds to consider the topic of S.I. Hayakawa:  Japanese by ancestry, Canadian by birth, American by citizenship and a resident of Planet Earth,  valuable in particular to the English-speaking and English-writing dwellers of this world.

I don’t know if you know much about Mr. Haykawa.  He was a college Professor of English,  a President of San Francisco State University,  a scholar in cultural anthropology, psychiatry,  and contemporary jazz.  Most of all, he was a semanticist,  a student of how and what and why words mean.  His book “Language in Action” and later “Language in Thought and Action” belongs on every list of the greatest books of the twentieth century.

Improbably, Mr. Hayakawa became Senator from California and served from 1977 to 1983.  He became the most prominent and ardent supporter of the proposition to establish English–and only English–as the official language of the United States.  I wrote a tribute or memorial to Mr. Hayakawa that was printed as “Hayakawa’s Legacy” in the “Observer-Times” in 1992.  What follows here is the verbatim transcript of that letter:

“Yesterday afternoon,  as I was driving to the campus of Pembroke State University and mulling over what I would be doing that evening in my graduate course in ‘Issues in Contemporary American English,’  I heard on the 4 o’clock CBS News (WFNC-AM) that S. I. Hayakawa had died at the age of 85.

“The announcer made mention of his having gained fame in the 1960s as acting president of San Francisco State University who refused to let student demonstrators disrupt the academic environment at that institution and who then later was elected to the Senate from California.

“It was a matter of rare coincidence that our graduate course was using Mr. Hayakawa’s ‘Language in Thought and Action,’  Fifth Edition, and that very evening we were reading the last two chapters.  So, as class began, we reflected on Mr. Hayakawa’s career and what his work in semantics has meant to us in academic life and what, even more importantly, he had to say that will, through the now fifty years’ history of that text (first used as a freshman English text at the University of Wisconsin and, most remarkably, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in December, 1941,  continue to mean to those who will listen and take heed; that is, to those still able and willing to attain full literacy and to maintain intellectual (and maybe even spiritual) sanity in an age when despair, anxiety, and neurotic self-absorption seem to have become cultural norms.

“Contrary to what the sound bites on radio and TV might have said in marking the death of this Japanese by ancestry, Canadian by birth, and American by naturalized citizenship, it seems likely that the greatest legacy that Mr. Hayakawa will leave to us is not his leadership of a troubled university or his (largely undistinguished) career as a United States Senator, but rather the important lessons to be found in his classic study of language, propaganda, and meaning.  While Mr. Hayakawa’s teachings are not as familiar and basic and eternal as Robert Fulghum’s (‘All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’),   they are necessary to the kind of linguistic and cultural health that he and Stuart Chase (‘The Tyranny of Words’),  as disciples of Alfred Korzybski (‘Science and Sanity’),  relentlessly promoted.  Here, excerpted from the fifth edition of Hayakawa’s text (co-edited by his son Alan) are some relatively easy-to-learn and easy-to-remember precepts or maxims,  al from the final chapter, ‘Towards Order Within and Without’:

”’A map is NOT the territory is stands for; words are NOT things.  The meanings of words are NOT in the words; they are in us.  Contexts determine meaning.  Beware of the word “is,” which, when not used simply as an auxiliary verb (“he is coming”), can crystallize misevaluations.  Don’t try to cross bridges that aren’t built yet.  Distinguish between directive and evaluative statements.  Distinguish at least four senses of the word “true” [illustrations are given].  When tempted to “fight fire with fire,”  remember that the fire department usually uses water.  The two-valued orientation is the starter, not the steering wheel (seek the multi-valued orientation).  Beware of definitions, which are words about words.  Think with examples rather than definitions whenever possible.  Use index numbers and dates as reminders that no word ever has exactly the same meaning twice.

‘If these rules are too much to remember, the reader is asked to memorize at least this much:  Cow No. 1 is not Cow No. 2 is not Cow No. 3 . . . .’

“We have lost a legend, maybe even a giant, in our profession.”

Let’s have some comments!



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