Ogden's Basic English
INTERVIEW NOTES for a BBC Show
How Many Words?
SCRIPT (actual was different, but I don't have a copy.)
How many words?
BBC - What is the minimum number of basic words that you could survive with in the English language?
BEI - I am sure you have discussed the large number of words available in English -- upward from 600,000 -- our language is very rich and expressive.
First we have to decide what "a word" is. It is obviously a unit of speech or writing that represents an idea.
To "Walk" is an idea meaning "to go by foot."
How about Walk-ing, Walk-ed? [continuing and past tense of the root idea] One word or three?
Walk-er -- one who walks, He takes walk-s, plural.
These are one root word-idea with a few general conventions..
The near synonyms, redundancies, are certainly not "required" -- amble, stroll, trudge, step-out, march, tiptoe ....?
Is the word "walk" itself required? In most cases one can simply say "Go to - someplace."
BBC - What if a word has different meanings for the same spelling and pronunciation.
BEI - This confuses the issue of what is a word.
A walk is also a paved trail.
A walker is also an aid to the handicapped.
A noted international linguist writing in English uses words not it the dictionary by applying the normal rules of compounds and suffixes.
What I am saying is that a dictionary word-list does include all the word usages that are possible. Yet are understood without being "official".
BBC - How many action words, verbs, are required?
BEI - to be, to have, do, say, go, see, and know are in the list of top 50 words in all of English usage.
Basic English says we can get by with 16 verbs which, when combined with directions, can accomplish everyday living.
Words like "climb, ascend, clamber" are simply "go up".
Our most necessary verb is "to Be". But English verbs are mostly irregular.
"Be" is make up of : "be, is, was, am, are, were, being, been" and contractions apostrophe -"s" for "is", " 're" for "are", and " 'm" for "am".
Usage frequency counts can get complicated. For word counting purposes, we consider them all as various spellings of the same word-idea.
BBC - We need to agree on what is the number "needed".
BEI - A chimpanzee can survive with "auh, auh, auh" and pointing. [Well, add "eee, eee, eee" if it sees a leopard.]
I counted a nervous interviewee used 'aah' 96 times on a radio program before I lost track counting.
When 'aah' is the article 'A', it comprises 2-1/2% of standard English usage.
Is "an" a separate word or just an alternate spelling? The most used word is 'the"; these, "articles:" "a, an, the," make up 8-1/2% of all English usage.
Only fifty words make up 43% of all English usage. This list includes the possessive, apostrophe S, as the 28th "word" at point 4 % of usage. [0.4%]
When we talk about frequency, we need to agree on what makes up our base of usage -- newspapers, talk shows, scholarly journals, emails, or what?
Tweets get us into the realm of spelling, not new words.
Also, language content changes over time and place. ["Cool" used to mean good, now, so does "hot." "Brilliant" is British for good while in the Colonies it is an intensity of light.]
Also word popularity, that is, frequency count, does not tell us about what it is necessary -- redundancies contribute little.
BBC - What about nouns, the names of things?
BEI - Personal pronouns make up much of our usage, "I, me, my, you, they, he, she, it, etc." make up 9 of the "word ideas" on the top 50 list and are 7.4% of usage.
But, the top 50 word usage in English contains NO common Nouns. Obviously a person needs the names for everyday things.
C.K.Ogden, the originator of Basic English, identified 600 noun-things and 150 qualities which may be combined to help clarify things to be able to get by comfortably.
Note that proper nouns, the names of specific things are external to any word count. Thus London Charing Cross Station and Mormon Tabernacle Choir are not included in word-counts. Neither are abbreviations -- MI5 and USA are treated as proper nouns.
BBC - What we say and what we can understand are different.
BEI - There is an Active vocabulary of what is spoken or written by us everyday.
There is a larger, Passive vocabulary that we understand, specially when aided by clues in the context of the usage, by tone and gestures, or by pictures.
A politician this morning used the expression "... or fall into rancorous discourse." A person does not need to know these somewhat unusual words to understand the speaker means "something bad" concerning those who differ with him.
BBC - Each additional word adds a smaller and smaller portion of a vocabulary.
BEI - To go from 50 words to 1,000 words increases our bag of words in active usage to 72%. This twenty-fold increase of vocabulary yields less than a doubling of actual words indaily usage.. Doubling that number of words to 2,000 root words adds only 6% more to our active vocabulary. This may add richness, which is to say that there is "just the right word" to say something for literary types, that otherwise would have to be said in several common words. But, are different ways to say the same thing necessary?
BBC - So what is the minimum?
Is it one, "auh, auh", and pointing.
BEI - About 500 words or sound combinations are necessary to have a language between a closed group of people, such as a family or tribe..
We at the Institute consider 850 as the minimum to get along in everyday living with the general public.
Add another 150 words for a job orientated specialty, so we say 1,000 words is the answer.
Most other language developers come up with comparable word lists of 1,500 words, which just means more words to master for a marginally richer language.
A low average vocabulary would be considered about 2,000 words.
3,000 is about average in Active usage, with many times this in our Passive vocabulary.
A college freshman needs 12,000 usable words.
A college graduate would have 17,000 words.
Does one need to be educated to get along?
BBC - And the answer is?
BEI - For adequate living in our world, we are looking at a number of one thousand root words with
understanding of a few common conventions [ such as tense, plural, possessive]. And two thousand words to thrive.
Background -- I discovered Basic English fifty years ago and thought it was a good idea -- a minimum level version of English able to be common
to people round the earth. Later I worked on the Internet when it first came out and found no reference to Basic English in those early days and put it there. Our website has grown and now there are thousands of references. When a bunch of engineers expressed an interest in Basic English for robotics and artificial intelligence, the Basic English Institute was started to give them a place to share their research.
Expected portion of the Show.
A chimpanese can get by with one or two sounds and pointing. People are more complicated and 50 words that make up almost half of our everyday speech.
About 500 words are necessary to have a language in a closed group of people. [family, tribe]
But to get along in a normal everyday living with the general public, Basic English says you would need 850 for everyday living. Then another 150 words are needed to hold a job. So about a thousand words to exist in the world.
With two thousand words you can be considered almost normal.
- 500 to survive.
- 1000 to live.
- 2000 to thrive.
More Just in Case
600 names of common things.
150 qualifiers – size, color, shape, texture, speed, etc.
100 other words for actions, directions, time, and otherwise make the language work.
Verbs, only 16 words for actions plus a selection of 20 directions – what we call verbs and prepositions.
We are not talking of great literaure or complex philosphy. But, the entire Bible in Basic English is popular for distribution by missionary groups
at the 1,000 word level.
Notes prepared for just-in-case questions.
The Basic English Institute is a virtual organization to spread Ogden's Basic English. Basic English is an easy to learn subset of full English; it is a complete language for use as an international second language by everybody round the earth. Whereas it may take 3 years to learn English, it takes only 3 months (some say less) to learn Basic and become a participant in the international world language of English. (By contrast Esperanto will allow one to communicate with a number of hobbyists round the world.)
Because Basic is easy and complete, it makes sense to use it as a first step to learning full English to allow use of the language at an early point which encourages more learning in a growing spiral. Therefore there are two important reasons for Basic -- as a terminal language for international usage and as a vehicle to start learning Standard English.
Basic English consists of 850 root words (mostly picturable things), a few suffixes (-ed, -er, -ing, -ly) and the most basic rules of English grammar - subject, verb, object sentences, -s for plurals, apostrophe s for possessives, and un-- as a prefix to reverse a sense. That is about all there is to Grammar.
Whereas a foreign businessman may never attempt a multi-year commitment to learn English, he may well commit to a couple of months of night classes to learn Basic to enter world commerce. Children who learn Basic first are equipped to talk to anybody, anywhere. Ability to use a language, not just a few memorized phrases, encourages its use in live insances..
Basic is totally good English, there is no unlearning to proceed to a fuller English and it is totally transparent, that is, understandable by anyone who now uses English as well as those who learn only the Basic subset. For example, as an international page in a newspaper would appear totally normal to the English readers and be fully understandable by the Basic people.
World English. English is the most understood language in the world.
Whereas Mandarin Chinese has the most native speakers, English is the most taught as a second language. Total learning is about 1MM Mandarin and 1.5MM English. Therefore English has the most understood language on planet earth by half a million people.
Chinese Language is not all Mandarin -- Cantonese, Wu, Min (of the coasts), Jin (upland) and others.
Categories of words needed for everyday living.
600 Nouns - mostly picturable "things".
proper nouns - external to and used by every language.
150 qualities ( or adjectives and opposites)
100 other words - necessary to make language work :
verbs, propositions, pronouns. conjunctive, time, etc.
English has hundreds, perhaps thousands of irregular verbs. ["2,000+ Essential English Verbs" Amazon this morning] Basic selects the most useful to master, 16 verbs. Months of learning are saved.
Operators = 16 verbs plus 150 qualities ( or adjectives)
Derivatives. Consider what happens if you learn a very few common variations.
-ed = past tense
-ing = ongoing tense
-er = one who does this
-ly = adverb form -- this seems to be going away in casual speech.
-s = plural
-'s = possessive
un- = negation or reverse.
Example : “ABLE” is a Basic word that means CAPABLE or "to do".
able, abled, abling, abler, ables, ably, unable are expansions as easily recognized forms of the same word.
Learn these 7 suffixes and greatly expand your vocabulary with no additional learning.
All perfectly good English. No unlearning to progress to standard English with -- capable, competent, qualified, or inept.
Just be aware as you learn to use a bigger vocabulary, you will be leaving behind some people.
100 words for an area of interest : Science, Commerce, Verse (literature).
50 words for a specialty : geology, economics, and Bible for examples.
Work words are selected by professional societies, etc.
Total = 1,000 words. Everyday Living plus Work.
Compounds : milk + man creates a new word. But, not butter + fly.
International : Words allowed, but not required : beer, cigarette, opera, taxi, and so on.
Not enough words, specially verbs, to satisfy that critic -- forgetting Basic is intentionally made simple and has no literary pretense. It has two outstanding uses:
1. as an international second language by all – businessmen, travelers, students;
2. as in Introduction to English. There is no intention to replace any national language, including English.
Simple English and other variations are based on Basic soas to be able to express anything,
then Simple adds the most popular 1000 words, which adds redundancies
but aids familiarity and variety to sentences.
Only 320 words of the top 1,000 most popular English words are not in Basic.
High usage words not Basic include "can" = be able, or may, and
“know” = be certain about, have knowledge of
[If you define Simple English as adding 1000 top usage on top of Basic,
then the additional 680 words are from the second thousand and have more redundancy even among themselves.]
Pidgin Language? People usually consider any low vocabulary language is a pidgin or creole (2nd generation) which is a mixed language of limited usage. Basic is a full language, a subset of Standard English, totally compatible, of complete understanding, by users of the most popular world langauge. It has been proven to be very literate in the hands of a knowledgeable author or translator, hundreds of books
published in Basic -- fiction, science, and useful for business, travel, news, sports, ...
How many people speak Basic?
The Esperanto people got mad at me when I responded to that 1.5 Billion people can understand Basic English. I have no idea how many people learned their Standard English from Basic. Basic is popular in Asia. I am told that several thousand guides for the Beijing Olympics were taught Basic to aid international visitors. This shows its value and importance.
Problems with Teaching Standard English?
A full day class will be spent to differentiate and understand the proper usage of "will" vs. "shall". Basic skips "shall", which is not used in common speech anyway, and spends that day learning ten or twenty new words.
When teaching language in three years, time is spent on "How do you celibate Christmas in your country?" A night school for businessmen sticks to the subject.
In the US, a school gets paid a premium to teach English to foreign students,
So, these classes are packed full of students and retard the introduction of these young people into the main stream of school and society. Better for the students and cheaper would be to offer a summer school or semester in Basic English and allow them into the mainstream classrooms with only a year in transition.
Ivar A. Richards is often given equal credit for Basic with Charles K. Ogden.
Actually Ogden created English and his friend Richards climbed on board and helped popularize it, specifically in China, and he outlived Ogden and published some very popular books for teaching and about Basic English in many languages -- still being published today.
Other "International Languages.
Natural Language versions of English.
UnNatural Languages – seems stupid to me to avoid an existing world langauge, but politics rule.
- Basic English -- subset
- Special VOA -- news, not complete for living
- Specialized – VOA for religion
- Simple -- Basic plus most frequent other words
- Simplified – technical, Basic with expansion for each industry and company.
- Plain English – rules to make your writing easier to understand.
- Globish 1997, Jean-Paul Nerriere, -- not intended to be complete.
These all have simplied grammer of generalized European language.
- Volapük, 1879. Johann Martin Schleyer.
- Esperanto, 1907. L. L. Zamenhof , and its better off shoot, IDO
- Occidental , 1922. Edgar de Wahl.
- Novial, 1928, Otto Jespersen.
- Interglossa, 1943. Lancelot Hogben and its better offshoot, Glosa.
- Interlingue, 1951. A committee – like the others, an attempt at a pan-European language,
- Globish, 1998, Madhukar Gogate -- simplified spelling.
How to Choose a Langauge.
I spent a lot of tme with the staff of a commerce department of the State Department last year on how to
introduce English for Asian commerce. A perfect application of Basic. After most of a year, the recommendation report was submitted.
The higher-ups insisted that only full English is suitable for Embassy cocktail parties. Totally missed the chance to spread English for the masses and encouragment of international trade.
Ogden's Who's Who entry contains “1946 to 48 : bedeviled by officials". I can understand him.
To whom it may concern,
I hope this email finds you well, I’m currently a researcher on a TV
programme called “Ask Rhod Glibert” which is a comedy factual show
For BBC1 in the UK. The show focus’s on quirky questions that we try to
answer but have some fun with at the same time.
We are currently trying to answer the Question “Are there to many words?”
With follow on question’s such as:
What is the minimum/basic words that you could survive with in the English
For instance could you survive with a vocabulary of 100 words or less for
I was wondering would you be able to assist us in trying to discover the
answer as during my research
I discovered your website.
And if you where free and willing we would love you to appear on the
programme as our phone expert and give us a definitive answer on the
question if that was Possible.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Ask Rhod Gilbert
On 13 Aug 2011, at 05:09,
I would be pleased to answer questions about the number of words required
to communicate in English. Give me a couple of days to dig up some
sources that can be put into question and answer form to be forwarded to
you for your consideration on how to proceed. I don't handle surprise questions very well.
Several scholars have developed ideas, the fewer words that are able
to express the full range of needs and ideas, the easier it is to
teach and learn. I want to gather facts and examples. One source
says that a typical Yorkshire farmer can get by with 400 words. An
Oxbridge scholar may demand 20,000. That sort of thing. Our hero,
C.K.Ogden, says 850 words
and proves it with dozens of books from which over 1,000 pages written in
Ogden's Basic English are displayed on our web pages including history,
news, fiction, poetry, technical articles and everyday living. I have yet
to run into anything in Standard English that cannot be said in Basic
English. Few other language experts can get by with less than 1500 words.
One correspondent in trying to reduce the number further came up with a
five hundred 3-letter words -- this is not a language, but a code. To
qualify as a simple language, it must be transparent, be totally good
English, nothing artificial, just with fewer rich words that are replaced
with a selection of common words. For example, you might easily come up
with several score words meaning "a place to live." Ogden offers "house"
with a selection of appropriate modifiers to indicate qualities of size,
color, condition, usage, etc. Ogden considered 2,000 words as the
threshold of standard English which includes many redundancies.
Proper nouns do not count as language words, The Mormon Tabernacle
Choir is not three words of a language, it is external to (and common
to) all languages as simply a name. Eventually a listener will
catch on to the reuse of the limited vocabulary, but so what? Normal
speech is, in fact, quite limited. "How was your day? Fine. What did
you do? Nothing." I believe it was Edward R Morrow who described
proper reporting as if speaking to the Lord of the Manor while the
serving staff is listening in ; language that does not offend the
educated yet is understood by the common folk. Disembark is a word
that more simply means, "get off of a ship." Climb is "go up".
Really straight forward when you think about it.
Ask Marilyn vos Savant --
Question : When a non-English speaking adult moves to the U.S., about how
may words must he or she learn in order to be able to communicate adequately?
Answer : According to educators, a vocabulary of 500 words is enough for
limited communication of wishes and needs. Basic conversation requires
about 1000 words plus some knowledge of verb tenses.
On 24 Aug 2011, at 17:09,
Here is what, in my naive way, I envision our conversation going. It all
depends on how long you want things to go on. And what has been
discussed in the show to this point.
Let me know what you have in mind. What to cut (such as, all but the last
line) and what to add (things you find interesting).
Background -- I discovered Basic English fifty years ago and thought it
was a good idea -- a minimum level version of English able to be common
to people round the earth. Later I worked on the Internet when it first
came out and found no reference to Basic English in those early days and
put it there. Our website has grown and now there are thousands of
references. When a bunch of engineers expressed an interest in Basic
English for robotics and artificial intelligence, the Basic English
Institute was started to give them a place to share their research.
Date: Wed, August 24, 2011 11:23 am
Thank you so much for taking the time and giving me such an extensive answer.
This is absolutely brilliant.
Are you free for a quick chat tomorrow morning and I'll give you a call.
Subject: Re: Ask Rhod Gilbert (BBC1) UK How many words?
From : Peter
Date : Fri, August 26, 2011 4:57 am
My producer just wanted me to check to see if your happy for us to quote you in the following way;
"According to the Jim Bauer from the Basic English Instiute, For adequate living in
our world, we are looking at a number of one thousand root words with understanding of a few common
conventions [ such as tense, plural, possessive]. And two thousand words to thrive.
500 words or sound combinations are necessary to have a language between a closed group of people.
But to get along in a normal everyday living with the general public you would need 850.
You only need another 150 words for a job orientated speciality"
Plus may producer was wondering if you could give me us a few examples of the words that are key.
Sure I'll give you a call later today and have a chat.
There are no 'key' words that come to mind. Teaching generally starts with personal pronouns, and introduces each verb with a picturable noun. "I - You - Them," "I see them." "You see a tree." A language includes God, Good, and Gold. Perhaps "please" is the most important word in English.
All best, Jim
=== Telephone a few minutes later ==========
Show will film on Thursday Set 8. Will keep you infomed.
To some other General Queries
Back to: Ogden's Basic English or Basic English Institute
About this Page: Interview.html -- Notes for radio interview about the number of words necessary and Basic English..
Last updated August 26, 2011
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