Book Review of Language in Thought and Action

Book Review of Language in Thought and Action

S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa. Language in Thought and Action. 5th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. Editor’s note: S. I. Hayakawa’s book was briefly reviewed in the Summer 1990 issue. Recently, a more extensive discussion that provides a thorough historical perspective on Hayakawa’s work was submitted to the journal. It is printed below and should be of interest to all readers.

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This is in effect the eighth edition of Basic Hayakawa–in 1939 and 1940 duplicated spiral-bound editions were tested in college English classes, and in 1941 the book became the best-seller Language in Action. In 1949 it was revised extensively and expanded into Language in Thought and Action. Further editions appeared in 1964, 1972, 1978, and 1990. I first read this book in 1956, while a student in Hayakawa’s class at San Francisco State College.

My reaction at the time, and I think that of many others, was along the lines of “How come in fifteen years of school nobody ever told me this obviously important stuff about language before? ” I remember noticing in late November of that year, for example, that my previous thinking had changed to the extent that if the presidential election had been held a few weeks later, I would have voted for the other candidate. Does this book still have the kind of electric effect on its readers? Probably not.

This book and the general semantics movement as a whole do not touch off that “Wow! ” reaction anymore, partly because of their success. Many general semantics ideas now are integrated into the common wisdom and no longer strike people as new and exciting. Hayakawa originally wrote the book for introductory freshman college English classes, and it also found a market among the general book-reading public. Nowadays the book is not generally available in bookstores; you usually must go to a college bookstore to find it.

It is st01 required in some freshman and sophomore college classes. How much has the book changed over the years? From edition to edition, there are changes on almost every page–examples updated, sentences revised, a chapter moved to a more appropriate place in the book. A chapter on television and its effects was added to the 1990 editi6n, and a section included in the previous edition, on Hayakawa’s experiences in the United States Senate, was dropped. In the chapter on classification systems several adequate but worn examples (Is a harmonica player a “musician”?

Is aspirin a “drug”? Is medicine a “profession” or a “trade”? ) were replaced with a strong and timely analysis of the continuing classification problems in the debate over abortion. A relatively minor but curious change appears in the section The Blocked Mind. One sentence in the 1940 edition speaks of “hasty judgments, or, as it is better to call them, signal reactions” In 1949 the more technical term “signal reactions” was replaced by “fixed reactions” and in the new edition “hasty judgments” was replaced with “snap judgments. The continuity as well as change in the book over the years can be illustrated by one personal incident mentioned in the section on Verbal Hypnotism in the chapter “Affective Communication” The 1940 and 1941 editions read: “The writer has frequently gnashed his teeth in rage when, after he has spoken before women’s clubs on problems about which he wished to arouse thoughtful discussion, certain ladies have remarked, `That was such a lovely address, professor.

You have such a nice voice’ “(pre-LA p. 79, LA p. 188). By 1949 Hayakawa converted the teeth-gnashing to “the writer has frequently been enraged” (LTA-1 p. 118, LTA-2 p. 119). Next time around the rage subsided and the awkward third-person construction changed to “I have frequently been upset” (LTA-3 p. 103), LTA-4 p. 106). In the latest version the sexism has been eliminated by dropping “before women’s clubs” and by substituting “someone from the audience” for “certain ladies” (LTA-5 p. 75).

In the 1972 edition Hayakawa had insisted on retaining “Negro” instead of the then-newly-popular term “black,” explaining that “in spite of current fashion, in this book I shall continue to use the term `Negro/which has been dignified by centuries of struggle, suffering, cultural achievement, and a heroic will to live” (LTA-3 p. 23). He gave up on the term “Negroes” in the 1978 edition and they became “Blacks,” and “whites” became “Whites” (LTA-4), but this time they are simply “blacks” and “whites” (LTA-5, p. 2).

In the past Hayakawa had enlisted the help of a college professor or two to aid him in revising the text, suggesting changes, and writing and testing the Applications at the end of each chapter (in this new edition the Applications are grouped together in a single section in the back). This time his son Alan, who had been a newsperson for many years, was the chief assistant. Previously aides were credited only on the title page, but this marks the first time on the cover, where the author is identified as “S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa” with S.

I’s name in type three times larger to suggest he is the senior author. His daughter Wynne also contributed to the new edition. Her art appears on the cover. What is this book’s place in the field of general semantics? Or you might ask: What single book best explains general semantics? The answer, of course, depends on the needs of the reader. If you want a thorough, complex, “definitive” summation, Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity is the ticket. If you want a simplified approach suitable for children, Catherine Minteer’s Words and What They Do to You and Stuart Chase’s Danger–Men Talking! Come to mind.

If you prefer a more psychological effect-on-the-individual approach, see J. Samuel Bois’s The Art of Awareness. But for a broad view, with more information in a form suitable for more readers, I don’t think you can beat Basic Hayakawa. Hayakawa himself is scholarly, academic, and literary. He is also a practical writer who suggests everyday applications of major points. His book both meets the requirements of colleges, even fifty years later, and also has the potential to reach a broader audience than the other general semantics “classics” How does this eighth version of Basic Hayakawa compare to the original?

It’s been updated, of course, although you might argue that it may not be quite as up-to-the-minute as a young Hayakawa would write if he were creating the book now. The public issues fifty years ago involved how European dictators were misusing words and plunging the world into war, how we were unable to prevent or quickily solve a disastrous depression, and how advertisers and politicians used words to manipulate the public.

World peace, the economy, and the practices of advertising and politicians remain important issues, and we now have to cope with the changes television is producing in many areas of contemporary life. The book at least holds its own for timeliness. The general semantics movement, like the broad interests of the public, has changed over the years. Fifty years ago it was striking to point out that “The map is not the territory” Now, as I see it, a larger segment of the population has become more aware of the degree to which a “map” comes from stuff already in our head that never was part of the “territory” The old


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