Threesology Research Journal
Page 3 of 3

(The Study of Threes)

  1. The Number Three in the American Culture pg. 1
  2. The Number Three in the American Culture pg. 2
  3. The Number Three in the American Culture pg. 3

Still another time trichotomy stems from regarding noon as a midpoint. Time is denoted in reference to noon inasmuch as A.M. and P.M. are before and after noon respectively. In the same fashion, historical time in American culture is measured with respect to the birth of Christ. Years are either B.C. or A.D. However, the initial points of reference are separate from the periods of "before" and "after," just as the present is in theory distinct from the past and the future. Thus noon is neither A.M. nor P.M. Twelve o'clock is ambiguous and one is required to say twelve midnight or twelve noon. It should be noted that in Europe generally, an unambiguous four- digit time indicator system is employed. The practical advantages of a four-digit symbol such as 1530 over a three-digit 3:30 are obvious---there are two three-thirties daily---and this is probably why the American military has adopted the more efficient four-digit system. Incidentally, a possible mathematical-logical analogue for the "before" and "after" terms in reference to an initial point us provided by the usual ways of relating one term to another. Either a equals b; a is less than b, or a is much less than b are not culturally defined as relevant or significant. There are only the three possibilities. Similarly we have three ways of relating man to nature, man subjugated to nature (less than); man in nature (equal); and man over nature (greater than); in interpersonal relations, an individual is inferior (or subordinate), equal, or superior (superordinate) to another.

The discussion of time is in part a discussion of the terminology of time and is thus a discussion of language. In any case, the very nature of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would make one suspect that if trichotomy were a pattern of American culture, it would also be found in American English. However, the greater part of Whorf's own consideration of English suggests that English has primarily binary features. Whorf emphasizes that there are basically nouns and verbs (1964:215), with the nouns of two sorts: individual nouns and mass nouns (1964:140). Whorf also draws attention to the fundamental categorical distinction between singular and plural. All this leads him to see some of the linguistic correlates of the strong tradition of philosophical dualism in Western civilization and he cites the example of the dichotomy of form and substance (1964:141). (He might also have cited active/passive, mind/body, spirit/flesh, and many other polarities.) While Whorf is undoubtedly correct in his fundamentally binary analysis, there are some trinary features besides the three-tense system which he might have mentioned. The pronouns are first person, second person, and third person. (The names of these distinctions are themselves part of the pattern.) In modern English there are no more than three distinct forms of any one pronoun, e.g., he, his, him. Third person nominative singular is divided into he, she, and it, corresponding to the genders masculine, feminine, and neuter. Hoijer's argument (1954:97) that this is strictly a grammatical survival with no semantic correlate is somewhat beside the point, even assuming he is correct. Whether it is actually part of linguistic structure or whether it is simply part of what traditional grammarians say is linguistic structure, the fact remains that in our educational system, the distinction between the three genders is made. What members of a culture think about their language (i.e., folk linguistics) can influence other aspects of culture probable almost as much as the actual linguistic patterning. Linguists with their concern for the latter have tended to ignore folk linguistics, that is folk analytical categories. Brown (1960:342) has put the matter well in her proposition that "many of the perceptions we derive from language do not arise from anything inherent in the structure of the language itself, but as the result of what we have been taught about it." That American grammarians analyze English sentences into actor/action/goal or subject/predicate/object is important culturally, regardless of whether or not this is in fact an accurate delineation of English structure. Grammarians also distinguish simple, compound, and complex sentences. In punctuation rules, one finds three major medial marks: comma, semicolon, and colon, whose orthographic symbolism itself reflects trichotomic structuring (a, ab, and b. there are also three principal terminal marks: period, question mark, and exclamation point. The latter marks are allegedly indicators of the three major sentence types: declarative, interrogative, and exclamatory. In another instance of orthographic symbolism, one finds that ellipsis, and indefinite quantity, is signaled by the definite convention of using three periods or asterisks.

Of course, there are actual trinary structural features of English. One of the most important of these is the number of degrees employed with modifiers--- specifically, the comparative and superlative. One might even go so far as to conjecture that it is the "good, better, best" paradigm, perhaps more than any other single factor, which has encouraged the concept formation of three classes or three types of merchandise sizes, quality, etc. In a recent study, Deonna has brilliantly pointed out (1954:415) that three is in part a semantic derivative of the superlative degree and cites the roots "ter," "tri," and "tre," as evidence. In French, for example, "très" is a superlative. (In English, one might think of terrific and tremendous. Moreover, etymologies of triumph ---and trump in the game of gridge---might show that three was all-powerful, just as the origins of terminus, in the sense of limit and eternity---ternity is an obsolete form of trinity---in the sense of time without limit, or past plus present plus future, or as a synonym for the deity---who is tripartite---may stem from an archaic ur-three root.) In any event, Whorf's distinction between nouns and verbs notwithstanding, tripartition in English is an important structural feature. The division of time and history into threes would appear to be influenced by verb action tense (past, present, future), while the division of objects or object qualities into three would seem to be related to the degrees of comparison (correct, more correct, most correct.) Whether the relationship of linguistic feature to other aspects of culture is causal or only correlative, the fact that there are trichotomies of verb tense, modifier degree, pronoun category, and gender tends to support the notion that patterning underlying a culture generally will be evident in language.

That trichotomy is a cognitive category in the sense that individuals tend to perceive in threes is suggested by the results of experiments in gestalt psychology. Continua involving both sight and sound were segmented into groups of three (Köhler, 1959:83, 89). However, experiments such as the classic pioneering ones made by Wertheimer (1923) did not take the pattern number three into account. Subjects did tend to see things in threes, but Wertheimer attributed his results to such factors as organization (in terms of proximity) and the grouping of similar forms (such as three dots opposed to three circles). The results might be more a matter of "three" gestalt, an explanation which would no doubt have delighted Wertheimer. Subjects might, for example, see threes even in a continuous line of dots. In any case, it is difficult to isolate such variables as proximity and form similarity when three figures are used in the experiment.

This brings us to an important theoretical point and one of the primary purposes of the present paper. Thus far, an attempt has been made to show that the pattern of trichotomy does in fact exist as a native category in Western and, more specifically, American culture. What remains to be seen, however, is how such a native category can unconsciously affect the formation of supposedly objective analytical categories. This is the really insidious part of cultural patterning. No individual can escape his culture and its built-in cultural cognitive categories. Yet many individuals think they have escaped, and they claim to have described the nature of objective reality in culture-free terms. But often what scientists and scholars present as bona fide analytical categories are in fact ethnocentric extensions of their own native categories. While a few analysts specify that their trichotomic models are solely for heuristic purposes (and certainly a tripartite scheme would have both mnemonic and aesthetic value in American culture, one is in an excellent position to perceive the arbitrary and culturally determined nature of many of our accepted "objective" analytic schemes.

No doubt there will be those who will be offended by the implication that their analytical categories are but folk or native categories in disguise. They may claim that the analytical categories in question really do correspond to objective reality. (This would also be the argument of those defending the notion of the Trinity.) Others, with a penchant for nit-picking, will be quick to point out that some of the analytical schemes here presented have long been discarded. The point is that all of the following analytical schemes did or do have some standing in American culture. Not just Gaul, but the whole world is divided into three parts. There is animal, vegetable, and mineral. (These and other categories are so deeply embedded in our culture that it may be difficult for some to see their arbitrariness.) Yet is there an absolute difference between plant and animal life or is there a continuum? Similar examples may be taken from almost any discipline. Entomologists define insects as those members of the phylum Arthropoda in which the body is divided into three parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. The question is: are insects truly morphologically tripartite or do we simply see them as tripartite? And what of the trichotomy explicit in the metamorphic continuum of some insects into larva, pupa, and adult? Are the three stages simply a reflection of the same cultural convention which suggests that literature has a beginning, a middle, and an end or that plays commonly be written in three acts?

At least we are consistent, for all the world is conceived and perceived in tripartite terms---by us. The continuum of states of matter is neatly divided into solid, liquid, and gas. The projection of this scheme to the entire earth results in distinguishing land (solid), sea (liquid), and air (gas). These in turn are subdivided. The air or atmosphere may be broken down into troposphere, stratosphere, and ionosphere, while the earth may be divided into three types of climate zones: frigid, temperate, and torrid. (Cf. the spacial- geographical divisions such as North, Central (or Middle), and South America or the East, the Middle West, and the West.) As the world is divided, so is man. The human ear is divided into the outer, middle, and inner ear, the brain into cerebrum, cerebellum, and medulla, the small intestine into the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. Are these divisions any less arbitrary than the segmentation of human voice range continuum into soprano, mezzo-soprano, and alto (female), and tenor, baritone, and bass (male)? But the issue is not just taxonomic or classificatory. When physicians prescribe dosages in threes, e.g., one pill every three hours or three pills a day, or when infants are given a three-in-one DPT (diphtheria toxoid, pertussis vaccine, and tetanus toxoid) shot or a series of three polio shots, the question is whether this is the most efficacious procedure, medically speaking, or not. Perhaps the ritual element is in fact an additional beneficial feature.

One can pick up an elementary textbook in any discipline and find numerous instances of three-determined thinking. It is really astonishing to realize that anthropologists, students of cultural conditioning, have been so culture-bound in their theoretical formulations. Among the numerous versions of a three stages of man theory (cf. Comte, Hegel, and Vico), one thinks of Morgan's savagery, barbarism (which was subdivided into Opening, Middle, and Closing periods), and civilization, and Frazer's stages of magic, religion, and science. Other obvious examples of tripartition include Van Gennep's classic analysis of rites of passage in which he distinguishes rites of separation, transition, and incorporation.

There is just as much three-conditioning evident in the other branches of anthropology. In physical anthropology, the traditional conventional number of races is three: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid, although the inadequacy of the classification is well known. Similarly, European peoples are divided into northern, central, and southern, that is, Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean. In the study of body measurement and typology, tripartition is also found. (The folk system of measuring females in terms of bust, waist, and hips is in the same pattern.) In craniology, for example, the measurements of the various craniometric indices fall invariable into one of three categories (cf. Comas, 1960:406-12). Archaeology is even more three-ridden. The three-age system of Stone, Bronze, and Iron is still in vogue (Heizer), but more important are the subdivisions of time periods. Ages are divided into three. Thus the Stone Age is commonly divided into Old, Middle, and New, i.e., Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic. The Paleolithic can then be subdivided into Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic. The Upper Paleolithic can then be broken down into Aurignacian, Solutrean, Magdalenian. If this weren't enough evidence to indicate that archaeologists are culture-bound, one should consult V. Gordon Childe's argument that tripartition is a necessary means of establishing chronological sequences in archaeology (1956:66) and that this is true, not because of any Hegelian metaphysics or Trinitarian mysticism, but because of the very nature of the material to be seriated. The question is, of course, whether the method of tripartition is really dictated by the nature of the material or is it rather dictated by the nature of the culture of the archaeologist? If human history is a continuum, then the segmentation of a portion of that continuum into ages, stages, or levels is arbitrary.

Anthropology is typical insofar as the three-patterning of its scholarship is concerned. It would be easy to cite hundreds of examples from other disciplines. Yet anthropologists do not seem to have been aware of the pattern. Whorf, one of the pioneers in the study of the cultural conditioning of thought patterns, failed to see the influence of tripartition on his own work. His coinage of the three-word phrase "Standard Average European" is an example. His decision to compare three isolates of English---"clean," "with," "ramrod,"--- with three isolates from Shawnee would be another. (Note also his three-part figure in which he shows how one Hopi word equals three English words and how one English word equals three Eskimo words.) Another indication that Anthropologists are not aware of their cultural propensity for tripartition is found in Edward Hall's The Silent Language. Hall, in collaboration George L. Trager, developed an elaborate tripartite scheme which distinguished what was termed formal, informal, and technical levels. However, Hall, an expert on the implicit assumptions of various cultures, claims that Americans had a bipolar way of analyzing data and that "The ease with which Americans tend to polarize their thoughts about events may make it difficult for them to embrace an approach which employs three categories rather than two" (1959:66).

Having demonstrated that the number three is a folk category in American culture, a folk category which has made inroads into the various analytic categories of academic disciplines, it remains to be seen what the meaning, if any, of the category is. It is one thing to describe a cultural category; it is another to speculate about its origin and meaning. Does the category stem from the family group of father, mother, and child? Is it a reflection of the divine nature of the universe as defined by trinitarian Christian doctrine? A Whorfian would no doubt place language rather than social organization or religion at the source. Thus a Whorfian might claim that the tense system, the first, second, third person distinctions, and the "good, better, best" paradigm were the roots of the pattern. A Freudian would argue along different lines (Glenn). Freud suggested that the number three was a masculine symbol, the phallus cum testiculis. 1

Footnote: 1Freud was by no means the first to suggest that the number three might be related to phallic symbolism. See, for example, Thomas Inman, Ancient Faiths Embodied in Ancient Names, I, 89. As a matter of fact, the folk had also interpreted the number three in phallic terms long before Freud. For an example from modern Greek folklore, see Curt Wachsmuth, Das alte Griechenland im neuen (Bonn, 1864), p. 89, n. 24. Since anthropologists frequently "discover" data which is already known (to the people in the culture under study), they can understand how a modern student of symbols could "discover" an interpretation which was in some sense already known to the people who use these symbols.

This is most interesting in the light of Freud's own work: e.g., Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, or the id, ego, superego classification. Incidentally, the standard kinship notation employed by anthropologists would tend to support Freud's view. The triangle represents a male while a circle represents a female. However, the convention of three as a masculine symbol is more probably a manifestation of the traditional symbolism of Western civilization that a cause or origin of Trichotomy. Only if one were to argue that male as opposed to female thought was trichotomized and that male thought was a compensatory activity for not being able to give birth to children as females do could one make a case for a most hypothetical origin theory. The only child a man produces is a brainchild. His intellectual project serves as his "baby." His products bear his stamp, the number three, the mark of masculinity. Since the majority of Western constructs and classification schemes have been devised by men rather than women, this could account for the preoccupation with three.2

Footnote: 2One small bit of personal biographical data does support this thesis. The author first began to jot down examples of "threes" while awaiting the arrival of his third child. However, it was not until some time after the child's birth that it occurred to the author that his mentally straining to produce examples of three might be a curious idiosyncratic form of intellectual couvade!

(Alan Dundes was born in 1934, which, if he wrote this article sometime in 1967 to be published in 1968, would mean he was 33 years of age at the time.)

This type of explanation would also make clear why aspects of American culture which are exclusively masculine, e.g., the military, the Boy Scouts, baseball, are especially three-ridden. (Note also that the Christian Trinity is all masculine. This would be further evidence that three is male creativity denying or replacing female creativity.) However, like most psychological explanations, this one is highly speculative. One must conclude that it is difficult if not impossible to state with any degree of certainty what the ultimate origins of trichotomy might be.

One thing is certain though, and that is that trichotomy is a pattern of American Culture. Whether it is related to masculinity or male mental creativity or not, it is, and will probably continue to be, an important cognitive category in American (an Old World) culture. As for how individuals learn about the pattern, there are probable many sources. Three dimensions of space, the three tenses of time, and the good-better-best paradigm all exert some influence. But an American three-year-old has already been exposed to the category in folkloristic form, perhaps before he realizes the space, time, and linguistic features. For are there not three men in a tub? three bags of Baa Baa Black Sheep's wool? three little kittens who lost their mittens? three little pigs? Is not the third item called for by Old King Cole his fiddlers three? Is there an American child who has not heard the story of the three bears? This latter story is a narrative listing of trichotomies in which the mediating third term is invariable "just right." (Note that the third term is associated with the child bear rather than the mother and father bears.) The child is conditioned by his folklore to expect three and his culture does not disappoint him. Language, social organization, religion, and almost all other aspects of American culture confirm the pattern.

Trichotomy exists but it is not the nature of nature. It is part of the nature of culture. At this point, if anyone is skeptical about there being a three-pattern in American culture, let him give at least three good reasons why.


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