Ogden's Basic English
10. Basic English Compiled
by Julia E. Johnson
Discussion Opposed to Basic English
One of the important discoveries of the present century is that English is already a world speech, an international language. One might go further and call it the world language, since no competitor for that proud title -- Spanish, French, Esperanto, and the rest-comes anywhere near English in numbers or in extent of distribution. In the Fourth (1936) Edition of his brilliant book, The American Language, Mr. H. L. Mencken estimates that no fewer than 211 million living souls use English as a native or acquired tongue; and he refuses even to attempt a count of the hordes in every country under Sal who are occupied in learning English.
LITTLE ENGLISH 2
But another discovery of comparable importance has agitated this twentieth century, and that is the realization that English is hard to learn and very hard to teach. English, alas, cannot just be picked up and put in one's hat like a feather. Those optimists who used to call it a grammarless tongue simply did not speak the truth. And no one has ever been anything but apologetic about English spelling, English idiom, English pronunciation, and the mammoth bulk of English vocabulary.
Some one English word must be acquired first, some other English word second, and so on. Moreover, those two words must be put together in a certain sort of order, and their grammatical forms and usages must be mastered. Two words-- Simple ! But not so simple with a hundred words. And as for a thousand-- "Alors ! Alors !" despairs the Frenchman. "Djaivlar anamma," growls the Swede. "Man cannot make it !" And so another candidate is lost for international English.
True, English is easier than Russian or Persian or Eskimo; but that isn't saying much. English is cursed with a plethoric vocabulary, a complicated and utterly irrational idiom, an incredible spelling, and a whole Milky Way of oddities and exceptions. To illustrate just one vagary of idiom, notice how we say full of but filled with, a victim to but the victim of. For a taste of spelling, see us rhyming work, lurk, jerk, and shirk, but using four different vowels to spell them with. For extent of vocabulary, look in the thesaurus and learn the hundred separate words all meaning ugly. And to illustrate the incomprehensibilities of English phrase making, take the three little words up, with and put, scramble them together, and see whether by any stretch of the imagination you can get the idea tolerate. Yet English does get just that thing.
In the light of these and other considerations it has been proposed to simplify the English language so as to make it an easier and more digestible morsel for the foreign palate. Indeed, the proposal was made by Jeremy Bentham well over a century back, but was not acted on until recently. It is contended that if English could slough off about 99.7 per cent of its superfluous words and a lot of its unnecessary, parallel ways of saying things, so that we had at last an English stripped to its very gym shorts, easy to master, and yet comprehensive enough to cover every wanted idea, here would be a language which would practically teach itself to the population of the earth.
With such a simplified English the citizen of whatever country might. talk and write to the countryman of anywhere else. He would solve completely two of the four problems in language learning, which four problems are speaking, writing, reading, and hearing. He would be able to make himself readily understood in talk and on paper, and he could also read and listen intelligently to English within his limits of knowledge. He could either stop learning at this point or go on to build up a more extensive reading-hearing vocabulary, also a grasp of the less essential idioms and constructions ! The simplified English could thus be used as a language within a language--as something fairly complete in itself and yet indefinitely expansible.
It is this concept which lies behind the pioneer attempts at simplifying the English language for world use. Basic English, the invention of C. K. Ogden, is in its essence a selected vocabulary of approximately a thousand words (counting extra words, "internationals," etc.) with a minimum of grammar. Not only is Basic the first, but it is by far the best known, of the simplifications. It has aroused worldwide interest and has developed a fairly extensive literature, of which perhaps the best sample is The System of Basic English, published in 1934 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York.
But Basic is by no means beyond the reach of criticism. As we run over its wordlist we are struck by a number of omissions
--words like want, can, and must, little simple everyday words such as seem to slip out of our lips almost of themselves. Can Basic--or to speak Basically, is Basic really able to--be serious in suggesting we substitute the clumsy, circumlocutionary have a desire, for for want, one of the first words any immigrant requires in an English-speaking country? Can we picture the foreigner talking Basic and saying, instead of "Maybe you want what you can get," "It is possible that you have a desire for what you are able to get"? That second sentence is able to be--in fact it is--good Basic, but is it able to be good English? These are not isolated instances; the flavor of writing in Basic is a different thing from the flavor of good English, largely because of the circumlocutions on which the Basic system is built.
Aside from many necessary but omitted words, Basic contains many words we might easily spare, such as kiosk (brought in as "international"and hence not counted in the 850). Sex is not necessary if you have male and female, and surely either boot or shoe might be booted out of the vocabulary. Mr. Ogden himself recently and wisely threw out mesh, lung, and spider, all of which figured in his earlier lists. Probably at least two or three hundred Basic words can easily be defined in terms of the others, and hence fail to justify. their existence in a simplified English. But this is a large share of the vocabulary. Eliminating them would mean practically starting over again from the beginning.
It is not only in words, but in the use of words, that Basic shows itself deficient. No practical teacher of English would dare to say that five rules will suffice to cover English grammar; it simply isn't so. Basic grammar is for the most part English grammar, which is to say that it alters plenty of complication. Mr. Ogden has scarcely touched the grammar problem with the five "rules" he gives out as covering the entire subject.
And where Basic grammar does try to improve on English grammar, the results are far from satisfactory. The core of the Basic grammatical system is the thing Mr. Ogden calls the elimination of verbs. He includes eighteen of the most difficult English verbs like be, seem, say, and keep, which he calls "operators" and conjugates fully. Then there are some 300 other words like attempt, rain, and sleep, which are called "names of things." To these "names of things" may be added the endings ed and ing-but still they are not verbs--attempted and raining are not verbs--because you are allowed to use them only in the passive, progressive, and other periphrastic forms. This means that you may say, "Tomorrow the flight will have been attempted," but you must not say "He attempts (or attempted) the flight." You may say "It had been raining" but not "It rained." Thus Basic lets in all the difficulties and complications of the English verb while claiming to eliminate verbs through the elimination of the simple, easy, natural present and past tenses. The whole concoction shows Mr. Ogden as a sort of Pandora releasing all the troubles from his box of tricks, and shutting away only hope.
Among the early challengers of Basic was Dr. Michael P. West, author of the New Method Readers, an extremely successful textbook series used in the schools of India and other countries. Dr. West issued a bulletin called A Critical Examination of Basic English (Department of Educational Research, University of Toronto, 1934). H also began experimenting with vocabularies which should be improvements on Basic, and even evolved a definers' list of some 1400 words by which he succeeded in defining every word in a dictionary of 25,000 items. (New Method English Dictionary, Longmans, Green, 1935).
Dr. West, like most of Mr. Ogden's critics, saw the problem as largely pedagogical rather than linguistic or political. His aim was to improve the teaching of English to foreigners, rather than to impose a new, "little language," on humanity. This same aim motivated Harold E. Palmer, Educational Adviser to the Japanese Government, who also made selected vocabulary lists.
Basic English is not postulated upon the comparative frequency of English words; it does not include any word merely because it happens to be one of the hundred most commonly used in speech and writing. But certainly word frequency is a factor to be reckoned with, and it is frequency which governs the choices in a list of some 1500 English words put out by Lawrence Faucett of the London University Institute of Education, as well as the Comparative Frequency List issued by Miss Helen T. Eaton of New York. The last named list consists of 744 words found to be among the thousand commonest words in English, German, French, and Spanish.
But the list of vocabulary simplifiers does not stop here. The 900-word list of Miss Elaine Swenson, head of the Language Research Institute, New York University, should also be mentioned. For several years this list has been the medium for a weekly sheet called The American News, which has enjoyed wide circulation in classes of English for foreigners, C.C.C. camps, and the like.
Yet another attempt at selecting the most useful words in the English language is the author's "Little English," an uncopyrighted list of 800 words with a supplementary list of 250, available at Columbia University. "Little English" is based mainly on a synthesis of the other lists.
In the fall of 1934 a Conference on the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language was held in New York under the auspices of the Carnegie Corporation to consider "the selection of vocabulary as a stage in the teaching of English," Recently (April, 1936) this Conference has issued an Interim Report on Vocabulary Selection, published for free distribution by P. S. King & Son, 14 Great Smith Street, London S W 1. Here are listed some 2100 words as a proposed "general service list," selected for frequency, usefulness and general efficiency. The Conference
disclaims dealing with "the simplification of language"; it is concerned with "the simplification of teaching."
It is obviously impossible to review the Interim Report on Vocabulary Selection as though it were a treatise or a story. There are some errors and discrepancies; for example, the word vegetable does not appear on the main list, yet it is included in the "voting sheets" where readers are urged to give their opinions about the value of various words. Pattern is preferred over design. Credit, surely a word essential for business, is omitted, while both salary and wage are included. There are many semisynonymous pairs like inn and hotel, stockings and socks, decrease and reduce. Certainly a first necessity in actual practice with this Conference List (which is obviously too long for a year's course in English for foreigners) would be to break it down into sections to be learned first, second, and so on.
Perhaps the greatest, though inevitable, defect in all these wordlists lies in the fact that they are only words. They attack the easy, obvious part of the problem, leaving practically untouched the more fundamental matters of grammar, idiom and sentence construction.
The English language is like an iceberg--two-thirds below the surface. Words are what we see on a page. They are indeed necessary, but their importance is on the whole secondary to linguistic construction, pattern, or structure. Words are more easily learned than inflections or grammatical rules. The vocabularies which have been devised thus far may be likened to a steeple without a church. What they need most of all is to have a solid underpinning of grammar and construction. If English can be simplified not only in words, but also in these more fundamental respects, then we shall have a result worthy of much praise.
Five or ten years may perhaps shed some light upon the dark places in English grammar and 'enable us to fit vocabulary, structure, idiom, and semantics together into a simplified English which shall really deserve the attention of the whole world. It is an undertaking well worth the cost. It is a necessary step toward "the federation of the world."
2. By Janet Rankin Aiken, English Department, Columbia University. Journal of Adult Education. 1:11-14. June 1936.
VOCABULARY LIMITATIONS 3
The Editor of The Journal of Education has asked me to discuss Mr. Le Roi's article on Basic English. I felt, at first, inclined to refuse on the same grounds as Balaam. I am at once very sympathetic, and at the same time critical; yet, if I venture to criticize, I may be accused of bad motives. I finally decided to discuss the problem on broad lines, avoiding detailed criticism and controversy. The examples given below are not necessarily taken from Basic English.
In the first place, this matter is one for scientific examination; it is not one for journalism; it has suffered much.
Let us begin by agreeing with as much as possible of what Mr. Le Roi has said. There is need of a common medium of communication. It is unlikely that a manufactured language will meet that need. English is a good starting point for such a language. A small vocabulary in English is capable of expressing a very wide range of ideas.
To Mr. Le Roi's statement that English is an easy language we can give only qualified assent. It looks easy (which is a great thing for purposes of propaganda) but it is not as easy as it looks; its spelling is terrible and its idiom is very tricky. It produces a pseudo-simplicity by printing compound verbs separately, e.g.:
get up in the morning,
get out of the window,
get over an illness,
get your hair cut.
These are essentially different words. We have in Latin advenire, invenire, evenire, convenire, and their English derivatives, advent, to invent, an event, a convention. The vent stem in these words does not make them one word. A teacher might use the derivation in helping a class to remember advent and convention; it is questionable whether it is helpful in the case
of invent and event. We learn many words with complete unconsciousness of their composition; young children are rather bored or confused by derivations.
Now get up in the morning, get into bed, get over an illness, get your hair cut, are really as much different words as invent, event, Convention. If English were properly printed, they would be printed as getup, getout, getover (or upget, outget, overget). If upget and outget are together counted as one word, we may count forget as a part of get, and forgive as a part of give.
You may hook up these varieties of meaning in an explanation so as to show relationships. This may make learning easier--or it may confuse. In actual practice most words are learned not by hook-up or derivation but rather in a context. Language is a response to a situation, a form of behaviour. The learning of the phrase "get out of the room" is psychologically more closely related to the learning of the best stroke with which to return a left-spinning service at tennis than to a study of the relationship of get out, get in and get over. We do not study the relationships of our different strokes in tennis; indeed the less we think the better we play, and the error of most language learning is that there is too much thinking about the language, too little slogging practice in using it, The teacher sets out the grammar in nice little boxes, but it is not really learned until those boxes are forgotten and we say rešu or amavisti as part of a symbolic response to the environment, just as Table, Twenty and Curse it! are symbols, and do this with the same unconscious skill as a stroke at tennis.
Suppose that one wanted to make a world language, one would have to get down a list of the ideas which have to be covered: colours, shapes, numbers, common articles of dress, furniture, relationships, &c., and then apply to each some linguistic symbol. We might apply to each some entirely arbitrary symbol, as in the artificial language called Ro, e.g. Ra = table, Ri chair, Ru cupboard, &c., just as we have cow, bull, ox; cock, hen, chicken. Or we might simplify and make each word serve as many purposes as possible: He-cow, She-cow; He-hen, She-hen, Child-hen; A sit-on-furniture (chair), A put-on-furniture, A put-in-furniture, sleep-on-furniture &c. The easiest language
of all to learn would be a standardized and scientifically constructed pidgin English which paid no attention at all to the conventions of normal English or the susceptibility of English people.
That would be one extreme.
The other extreme would be a covering of the set of required ideas by the most ordinary (most frequently used) English word for that idea regardless of the number of different spelling units involved. Which is commoner, to recover from an illness or to get over an illness? Recover is more frequent; therefore use Recover for that idea. We might also take into account the convenience of words -e.g. recover has a noun recovery, whereas get over has not. We might rather avoid large "stretches" of words, e.g. let us confine get to the idea "fetch, obtain", excluding its meanings of "cause" (for which we may use have my hair cut), and "go", and generally simplify the internal structure (varieties of meanings) of words rather than attempt any excessive economy in the number of words shown in the total.
Thus we may eliminate the following "stretches" of words included in our vocabulary preferring to cover the idea by a new word: happy (= apt); hit on (= find by chance); however (= but); interest (= influence); knowing (= crafty).
The resultant vocabulary might consist of 1,500 words, or more. Would it involve more (or less?) learning burden than a vocabulary of 1,000 or even 800 words with a greater lateral stretch? It would certainly be more normal, more English; and perhaps have less liability to error in use and understanding.
Any vocabulary may be set out in two dimensions, downward (number of spelling units) and sideways (varieties of meaning of each spelling unit).
1. get, = obtain, = cause, = become, = arrive, get along, on, on with, up, have got, have got to.
2. give, cause to possess, cause to have, pay, devote, produce, yield, give away, back, out, up, given (agreed).
3. go, move, attend, depart, extend, function, be contained in, become, go through (examine), go without.
4. good, satisfactory, useful, moral, kind, clever, thorough, good morning (&c.).
5. grow, develop, cause to grow, increase, become, grow out of, up.
The further we stretch sideways the less we need downward. If we stretch too far sideways we may produce an economy in "number of words" without a real or corresponding economy of learning effort. Thus given that costs perhaps just as much learning effort as let it be agreed, whereas agree|d is really more useful. Or one may produce false-cover of an idea. Thus have got to = must; but if you miss out must on these grounds, you will leave the learner without a negative--"you must not do that (which is not the same as "you have not got to do that" = you are not forced to). You may also produce false bargains
--uses of words brought in just because they look cheap but really they are useless and difficult. Thus having broad we may bring in broad daylight--an item so far removed in meaning from the parent word as to constitute a new item. If "broad daylight" were "zonk daylight" we would certainly not include zonk : the item is included only on account of its fictitious economy. Even were the relationship quite close it still is not worth inclusion. A lady living in a small flat bought a grand piano for a penny-but it was a bad bargain. We make many such bad bargains in language learning.
The downward and the sideways development of a vocabulary must be made in relation to each other; otherwise there is needless duplication. Thus if we take agree|d there is no need of given that; if we take increase there is no need of grow =
become bigger (though we need grow in its other senses).
There are some items of relatively simple words which have no place in a small vocabulary but are legitimate in a larger one. Thus "I shall be able" is necessary even in the smallest vocabulary as the future of can, but "an able man" need not be learned before the 2,000 or 3,000 word stage. Thus a vocabulary grows and has layers downward and sideways. As we learn more words, we learn more of words which we already know.
One of the criticisms of the small vocabulary is that its sideways development tends to be out of proportion to the number of words. Order (in order) is a 1,000 level item; but order (decoration) belongs to a 2,000 word vocabulary. By checking the downward growth we may produce an abnormal and unnatural sideways development, like the image of one of those distorting mirrors. Vocabulary growth is thus like a set of steps upside down; while the pupil is learning his third thousand words he is also learning third level development of his first thousand words.
What is the ideal relationship between downward and sideways in a minimum vocabulary? How far should we extend down or stretch sideways?
What is the smallest vocabulary which is a true economy without confusion due to overstretch of a few words, or apparent economy which is not real?
What is the smallest vocabulary which is acceptable to the foreign teacher and learner as being small without skimpiness, adequate without luxuriance?
The answer is probably something in the neighborhood of 1,300-1,500 head words as counted in the Carnegie Report. But this term "words" is so deceptive. Counted one way a certain. vocabulary which I once used is about 1,000 words; counted another way it might run into thousands, counted another way it might be 800-900. We shall never get a real minimum vocabulary until we forget about words altogether and count only items--every change of use, form, or meaning, every inseparable word group (at all, for ever, &c.) is an item; every rule of grammar is an item, and every item must be picked on its sole merits, not taken because it is made up of words already on the list nor rejected because it would "make one more on the total."
Will this ever be done? Probably not for some time. There was a time ten years ago when it might have been done. Then West was studying the subject of Bilingualism at Oxford and was told of Ogden (but failed to see him), and Faucett's first readers were with the Oxford Press, but he and West and Ogden never met. I do not know how many words there were in Basic English at that time, but it would not have mattered
whether they were 850, or 1,000 or 1,500. The matter could have been considered without prejudice and the ideal minimum of items selected which would satisfy the grammarian, the textbook writer and the philosopher, and (what is more) it might have been put across without the intervention of rival publishers at a great saving of public cost and publicity charges.
These are all might-have-beens. As it is now I believe personally that Basic English is too small; and I believe that the Carnegie vocabulary is too big; but Basic English has become a creed, an enthusiasm, and behind it and the other vocabularies in current use there are large commercial interests. It is probably too late to realize easily or in our lifetimes the actuality of Mr. Ogden's dream (and my own)--a real world English. Things will go on as they are going. For those who boldly and uncritically want a least possible, Basic will serve; but by those who are rather critical and timorous of extreme economy other vocabularies will be preferred.
Until, perhaps in the year 2000, the Postwar Reconstruction Committee will take the matter drastically in hand, and make textbooks a state monopoly, publish all official reports in the Neo-Basic-Carnegie vocabulary, and generally do (at enormous cost) what might have been done ten years ago--if three people had happened to meet and been reasonable and had vision.
But such is the tide of human affairs, a story of opportunities realized too late, of needless controversy between people who really agree, and of having to do it all over again afterwards.
3 .By Dr. Michael West, Author of "A Critical Examination of Basic English" (Toronoto University. Department of Educational Research. Bulletin no. 2) Journal of Education (London). September 1939.
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