What's the code for 'We've heard this one before'?

The de Bono Code Book
August 18, 2000

Edward de Bono, says the eulogistic blurb on the jacket, was chosen "by a group of professors" as "one of the 250 people who had contributed most in the whole history of humanity".

It is this kind of silly hyperbole, with which de Bono and his publicity agents like to surround his work, that prevents it from being taken with the degree of academic seriousness that the guru himself clearly craves. His failure to achieve it seems to be inducing paranoia, to judge by the proleptic abuse that he levels in advance at the writers of those unsympathetic reviews that he anticipates his book about language will receive.

We benighted reviewers "who do not understand such things" will react with "shock, horror and hysterical outrage" to de Bono's linguistic wisdom and thus "end up not reviewing the content of the book at all but reviewing their own peevish attitude to me". Such reviews are "an insult to their readers" and it is "a disgrace that literary editors permit such rubbish".

This review, if the editor risks the disgrace of printing it, falls fairly obviously into the category of dismissals de Bono foresees.

Language is the great reef on which many ambitious expeditions far better equipped intellectually than de Bono's have foundered. According to de Bono, although thus far language has been "the biggest help in human progress" it is "now by far the biggest barrier to human progress". But this barrier can at last be overcome thanks to a simple trick that de Bono has invented and will now reveal to the world. The programme consists in devising interlingual numerical "codes" into which all existing languages can be translated.

The groan with which this idea is likely to be greeted in most universities where the humanities still flourish is one of déjà vu . The most charitable thing that can be said about it is that it might have been worth resuscitating if de Bono had at least provided some new reasons for entertaining it or some plausible ways of getting round the most obvious objections. He does neither.

The basic flaw both in de Bono's analysis of the language "barrier" and in his "codebook" solution is that he thinks words are labels for concepts.

These lexical labels, established by long usage, allegedly blinker our minds and interfere with our perceptions of reality, making it awkward or impossible to develop new concepts that are necessary for human progress. (Linguists will here catch an unmistakable whiff of stale Whorfianism.) What is needed, the argument goes, is some way of getting out of the lexical trap. How? By establishing, under de Bono's guidance (and licence, which we must pay for), a universal numerical code to identify all the potentially important complex ideas that do not yet have words to label them.

For example, in de Bono's "mood code", item 10/15 means (in English): "I am upset and not pleased in a general sense. I am not happy with the way things are going. There is no one person or event about which I am unhappy.It is a general response to what I see happening."

On receiving the message "10/15", a Japanese or Swahili speaker is expected to look up "10/15" in the local codebook, where the corresponding Japanese or Swahili translation will appear.

Or to sort out a marital tiff, I can send my wife the numbers "13/8". This she will decode, thanks to de Bono, as: "This is just a temporary hiccup. This is a very minor problem. Don't blow it up into a major crisis.Keep a sense of perspective. Keep a sense of proportion."

What de Bono seems to be unaware of is that codebooks have been in use for commercial and other purposes since at least the 19th century, and that the problem with extending them to cover cultural needs in general (let alone all the future needs of humanity) is that beyond a certain point, soon reached, the translations themselves become question-begging. And this is quite apart from the issue of what body of international experts is to be entrusted with the culturally sensitive task of establishing these translation equivalences on which the universal communication of the future would take place.

De Bono's proposal does not take us even one step beyond the limits of language. On the contrary, communication by numbers reimposes those limits in a thinly disguised form.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford.

The de Bono Code Book: Going Beyond the Limits of Language

Author - Edward de Bono
ISBN - 0 670 88848 6
Publisher - Viking
Price - £16.99
Pages - 376

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