A View of NLP from Outside ENGLISH

Jon Patrick

This article appeared in Anchor Point, April, 1994, V8, no1, pp 3-8.

The delightfully provocative article by Michael Hall on "Abstracting" (Anchor Point, January 1993) addressed the importance of our linguistic grammatical structures in framing our sense of reality. His article was founded on the treatise of Alfred Korzybski, "Science and Sanity" published in 1933. Hall clearly shows that Korzybski preceded Bandler and Grinder in identifying some of the linguistic mechanisms of abstraction that we use in English to modify our sensory information to define our reality map. In this article I would like to alert you to another language, Euskara (pronounced (ay--ush- kar-da) the language of the Basque people, which has some features that significantly assist in providing a more effective (less illusory?) representation of reality. Indeed Euskara contains some of the structures Korzybski (and Hall) consider to be lacking in language (although I'm sure they mean English).

I have been learning Euskara for 2 years and lived in the Basque country for 7 months in 1991-92 and two months in 1993. For this second trip I lived in a residential language school for learning Euskara most of the time and with native Euskara speakers otherwise. I have completed a beginners course (about one quarter of a complete program) so my standard of Euskara is such that I can read books for about 8-10 year-olds, hence I have much more to learn. Nevertheless, what I have learnt so far has been extensive in giving me a very different sense of the competencies of languages and helped me tap into a whole new set of perspectives on reality. Although I present in this paper descriptions of features in Euskara I do not wish to imply they are not present in other languages that I am not familiar with.

My motives for learning Euskara are many, and one is that I believe it is important to appreciate that our reality is strongly shaped by our language of origin so that we strive to elude that limitation on our life experiences. In terms of NLP and a psychotherapy practice I have always believed that to assist people who lived in uncertain and uncomfortable realities one had to step into those realities so as to look for the useful directions to lead them towards. Such a challenge to me required the development of skills to aid reality shifts. I have always believed in the limitation of language just as Korzybski has said, "... it must be admitted that they (people) are handicapped in the knowledge of their own language by being born into it"(p.22). Hence, to step into a radically different language seemed to offer me the opportunity I needed to learn how to make large spontaneous reality shifts on demand.

The Basques are considered by some scholars to be the last remnant of the indigenous Europeans who were present before the Indo-European migrations swept across Europe starting around 5000 years ago. Some basque scholars claim continuous occupancy of the Basque country back to the cave painters of the Paleolithic between 10-20,000 years ago. One of the great values of Euskara is that some historical linguists classify it as unrelated to any other language spoken on the planet. When I was given an opportunity to spend some time learning Euskara, especially after I was introduced to some of its special features, I couldn't refuse. Basque is probably the oldest language in Europe and in part may well represent the reality maps of paleolithic and neolithic peoples. To take the opportunity to learn this language seemed like the ultimate trip into alternative realities that one could achieve.

Korzybski's hierarchical level of abstraction begins with sensory experience described as "pure, unspeakable experience" and increases in level of abstraction to the "linguistic level of experience". This is our usual level of using words which is increased in level of abstraction when we speak abstractly about those words, and then we can endlessly increase levels of abstraction by speaking abstractly about abstract words and statements. Hall directs us to Korzybski's issue that a major abstraction fallacy we make is "the `IS' of identity", that is, when we abstract, for example, a quality about someone we identify it as intrinsic to that person such as "his talk is abusive" and behave as if that person "is abusive". We have confused our abstraction and the emotional reaction we have pinned to it with the real object in the external world. Given that this situation has been created it is then difficult to escape to a less limiting mental space. Korzybski argues that if we maintain a "consciousness of abstraction" we will avoid this misidentification and so function more effectively.

What has Euskara got to teach us on this point? Firstly, let's look at Korzybski's explanation for the source of this phenomenon. In discussing the origins of language he states that "the primitive semantic tendency resulted in the building of a language in which the `IS' of identity was fundamental... Thus the mechanism of identification or confusion of orders of abstractions, natural at a very primitive stage of human development, become systemized and structurally embodied in... language" (p. 372). Given the previously stated claim for the antiquity of Euskara one would expect Korzybski's problem to be perhaps more substantial in Euskara than in English. In fact the reverse is the case. In Euskara there are 2 verbs `to be', one verb represents permanent features of a person or thing, izan, and the other represents the temporary status of the current moment, egon (I am told Italian and Spanish have a similar construction but not the same usage). So I would use izan to say that I am tall or short and egon to say that I am feeling ill, or angry, etc. Whilst this linguistic structure does not go all the way to satisfy Korzybski's demands for us to be "conscious of abstracting" it clearly is different and presumably better than the processing we have do in English. If I have to talk about another person as being "abusive" and I am forced by the semantics of the language to choose between izan and egon I am clearly in a different mental space right from the instant of utterance than if I were speaking in English. Indeed one of the great hurdles in learning to speak Euskara is the substantial level of precision one has to introduce into one's thinking to say anything correctly. This precision task is one of the reasons that has lead to a commonplace opinion that Euskara is a most difficult of language to learn.

Korzybski emphasizes the claim that "primitive" languages have either no identification mechanism or it is the same as in English. In the context of Euskara, this assertion clearly leads one to the position that Euskara is more "advanced" than English and that English along with other Indo-European languages have lost functionality over time. Otherwise, we have to postulate that Euskara has arisen in a rich contemplative philosophical culture in situ long before the great Greek and Roman cultures from which we claim so much of our linguistic and philosophical heritage.

Korzybski argues that to rectify our problems with identity we need to exercise "consciousness of abstracting", that is, always be aware that in abstracting we are leaving out characteristics. Hall points out that this is akin to developing an "awareness of how we delete as we make our mental maps of the world" or alternatively one should recognize words "as creatures of definitions and optional" so that in conversation we should present the question `What do you mean?' rather than say `I don't believe you'.

The Wholeness of Time and Space

Another aspect of Korzybski's thesis is that the confusion between words as symbols and the real objects extends to delusional separations of naturally concomitant aspects of nature such as time and space, mind and body, and parts versus the whole of an organism. Euskara has a clear semantic structure that prevents this separation at least for time and space. The same verb egon, and its inflectional ending -an are used to specify time and location and as we have seen it is the same verb used to reference temporary and transitory characteristics, just like one's position in time an space. Hence, in Euskara the use of egon, is used in a consistent manner to refer to transitory states. Euskara abounds in other examples of the broad semantic application of terms but in a highly consistent manner.

From What - To What

Perhaps the best example, from an NLP standpoint, is the form for talking about causality. In English as a therapist or client we are prone to ask `why' about an unwanted feeling or thought or behaviour. Now `why' can be answered in two ways that aren't clearly delineated in English. For example; "why are you leaving me?" can be answered in (at least) two ways; "because you have treated me badly", or "because I want to get some sanity into my life". The first answer is a description of the past and the second about future expectations. The fact that two answers with such divergent cognizances is possible from a `why' question leads to unwanted and unneeded confusion in dealing with interpersonal matters

In Euskara the question notion of `why' as used in English has two forms, zergatik and zertara. In Euskara, zer- translates into English as `what'; -ga- and -ta- act as connectors, -tik means `from', and - ra means `to' as in the sense of moving from or to something or somewhere. Hence, zergatik means `from what' or `what is the cause/origin', whereas zertara means `to what' or `to what end' or `for what outcome' are you behaving in that way. Hence zergatik can be thought of as a question about the past `from where did that come' or in NLP terms `moving away from' and zertara can be thought of as going to the future `where is it going to' or `moving towards'. These constraints clearly differentiate in a manner that is only available in a wordy manner in English and therefore more difficult to set up as an automatic process. Once again the precision of Euskara automatically enforces "good" (by NLP criteria) practice in the use of language in that it makes it easier to move away from the `why' questions and move towards the `what do you want in the future' questions.

The Role of Passive Voice in Deleted References

A form of linguistic structure which I believe is of importance in English language usage, but unattended in NLP literature is the use of passive voice. The use of the passive voice is a weaker form of the Deleted Referential Index; for example, a client enters the consulting room with a black eye and is asked the question "What happened?". The client can answer in at least 3 ways:

(i) I was hit

(ii) I was hit by him

(iii) He hit me.

The third form is a clear description of subject and object with no deleted references. The first form clearly has a deleted reference, so what are we to make of the second form. The difference between the first and third forms is that they are in the passive and active voice respectively. Hence the key linguistic structure that allows the removal of the referential index is the passive voice form. Therefore, the passive voice even though the referential index is present, as in example (ii) needs to be considered as a key linguistic form for creating deleted references.

What then do we make of statements in the passive voice without a deleted reference? My interpretation is that it indicates an individual is realigning responsibility of the action to him/herself in some way. The client is saying that he/she is at least contributing to the cause of the actions (or in Euskara he/she is part of the "from what", the zergatik). To eliminate the subject of the action entirely is a more extensive identification with their own causal contribution. It is possible to assign their contribution to the event in at least two ways: (i) they were actively promoting a conflict (and the black eye is one of hundreds of possible outcomes); (ii) they believed they deserved that outcome or something similar because of their own self-assessment, independent of the actual course of the conflict, that is they are exercising a form of self-denigration. These two explanations require quite different interventions on the part of the therapist, so it is important to determine a satisfactory explanation for the particular form of words used by the individual.

In Euskara there is no mechanism for passive voice and for other reasons it is not possible to delete a referential index. In a statement that references say, for example, `you' and `me', a conjugated auxiliary verb holds the two referents, zaidazu where zu is `you' and da is `me'. So the sentence `you hit me' is `jo zaidazu' (jo means `hit'). The auxiliary verb is indivisible and hence referents cannot be deleted. As an extension of this auxiliary verb structure the notion of talking to yourself in terms of language structure is not possible. Indeed in Euskara there are NO words for the reflexive pronouns `myself/ yourself/himself/herself' although there are the standard possessive pronouns.

Abstraction as an Abstract Process

Korzybski asserts that man is different to the animals because he is capable of successively higher levels of abstraction of anything he wants to be abstract about. There is a grammatical equivalent to this thesis in Euskara that we only have in a reduced form in English. The abstract notion of the quality of something can be expressed in one form by the suffix `-ness', in English., so we can say "goodness". However this rule is not universal (we can't say'loveness') and it is not extendable. This is not the case in Euskara where one can continually add suffixes to capture higher levels of abstraction. The only limitation is one's own perceptual capabilities and that of the listener. For example maite means `love' and maitesuna means `the quality of love' and maitesunaz means `about the quality of love'. This feature, along with many other grammar structures not touched on here, means that Euskara is a highly creative environment in which to think, and for that reason all the more exciting. Many people who have learned Euskara find its greatest attraction in its creative mechanisms. Generally it can be said that Euskara has a limited vocabulary but a comprehensive set of grammar rules that makes language generation a highly constructive/creative act, whereas English relies on an extensive vocabulary to provide a breadth of expression. To my mind this feature makes Euskara a more powerful language than English, for example, one word in Euskara can have up to 458,653 different forms just using up to 2 levels of recursion of the standard suffixes.

One final question must be asked; "Does speaking Euskara lead to a mentally healthier society?". I can't answer this question but I know that there are many aspects of Basque society that are healthier than my own Anglo-Australian society and other English and Latin speaking communities I have been exposed to.


There are many aspects of Euskara and of basque life in general that illuminate the tenets of NLP and enable us to clutch at and travel in a more expanded reality. Some of these aspects I'm sure appear in other languages. The greatest rein on NLP is its strong containment within an English speaking environment. I challenge Korzybski's thesis that modern languages compared to primitive languages suffer less from the identification problem, however at the same time I agree with many of his concepts. NLP will make even greater leaps than in the past if we look into other languages for different perceptions of reality, for by only looking from the outside in can we learn what others have that we don't.


Jon Patrick is a psychotherapist, professor of Information Systems and NLP trainer with a strong interest in the use language and a great love for the Basque country.