logoOgden's Basic English

11. Basic English Compiled

by Julia E. Johnsen

Discussion Opposed to Basic English


    We are not concerned here with the theoretical background of Mr. Ogden's proposal or the feasibility of a universal language. As long as "Basic" has not yet become the universal language of the world, and is not likely to become (in the near future, at least) the recognized literary or conversational medium
    even in Anglo-Saxon countries, it cannot possibly have any cultural value to the foreign teacher or learner of English. So much for the recognitional, or "passive," knowledge of "Basic."
    As to the functional knowledge of "Basic," its value cannot be entirely overlooked by the foreign teacher or learner in so far as conversational "Basic" is really no great departure from ordinary idiomatic spoken English. The question arises how to master it, and it is here that the most startling discoveries in the field of modern language methodology have been made by the founder of the system. If the theory advanced by Professor Ogden holds good as regards "Basic" English, it must necessarily hold as regards "Basic" French or any other language in the world (as far as its oral aspect is concerned), thus being of some interest to the modern language teacher of the rank and file who is "in the thick of it" so to speak.
    We are unable, through lack of space, to enlarge upon the subject in question and will content ourselves with considering the chief points.
    To begin with the phonetic aspect of the problem. In spite of the fact that the pronunciation of English constitutes one of the main difficulties for the foreign learner, it is treated in a rather off-hand manner in the system, thus contrasting unfavorably with the thorough treatment of Palmer.
    The gramophone records giving the pronunciation of the 850 words of the system are supposed to supplement the work of the teacher, but the gramophone itself, being simply an auxiliary mechanical device, cannot obviously be regarded as an integral part of the system, and merely accentuates the inadequate treatment of the whole subject of pronunciation.
    The simplification of grammar in the "Basic" system is based upon the "analytic" tendencies of English supposed to be of help to the foreign learner whose mother tongue shows similar tendencies. Another brilliant discovery for the poor unsuspecting and short sighted modern language teacher who never dreamt what a load that would take off his shoulders. But the hard facts of everyday teaching experience obstinately refuse to be explained by this arm chair theory. Otherwise why should, say, a Russian student whose, mother tongue exhibits strong "synthetic" tendencies find English as a rule easier to learn than German with a similar grammatical structure? Besides, grammar, we are told, plays practically no part in the acquisition of oral habits in a modern foreign language. These are "basic" facts of modern language methodology supported by classroom practice.
    Even if we concede, for the sake of argument, that the theory advanced by Mr. Ogden is substantiated by classroom experience, that does not solve the problem with regard to those students whose mother tongue differs from English in structure. What is to be done in their case?
    This difficulty is likewise summarily disposed of in the following laconic answer: "The needs of foreigners with language structure differing greatly from our own must receive special treatment."
    The difficulties of vocabulary and idiom are supposed to be reduced to a minimum by limiting the vocabulary of the system to 850 words and practically dispensing with the verb. But it is a time worn truth and one that need hardly be repeated here that by reducing the vocabulary and simplifying the grammar of a language one does not really make it any easier for the learner, if the language has become idiomatic in consequence and speaking is the principal aim.
    And such is "Basic." There are only two ways of mastering it (as any other idiom): either by prolonged aural and oral practice, or by dint of a supernatural ability of combining a limited number of words into new phrases and sentences, idiomatic at that !
    As to the first way of mastering the language (in this case "Basic English"), the bewildered modern language teacher learns to his amazement that he need not really waste so much time on it as . . . 'it can be mastered . . . in the most unfavorable circumstances in a month" [sic]. When he tells himself that such a miracle could not possibly be accomplished unless one assumes the supernatural gift of linguistic conjury mentioned above, he finds to his utter bewilderment that it is precisely what the founder of the system means. "Anyone," we read . . . "who has learnt the Basic vocabulary with its nearest equivalents in his own language can proceed to put the words together in sentences."
    It is easier said than done, as the anti-verb campaign of the compilers of the list has been carried to the extreme of abolishing such words as "read," "write," "can" and "must" so that, although there is a "book" and a "letter" in the Basic vocabulary, you can neither "read" it nor "write" it (if one strictly adheres to the "Basic" list), in spite of the fact that all of the words in question enter into the first 500 words of the Thorndike list according to the frequency of their occurrence.
    As to the idiom-hunting to which this anti-verb campaign inevitably leads, it is hardly to be justified in the initial stages. of language learning. Henry Sweet, in his "Practical Study of Languages" writes: ". . . There are thousands of idioms which, although quite unobjectionable in themselves, are superfluous to a beginner, because they express ideas which could be expressed just as well by a normal and unidiomatic combination of words. Thus in English 'I must be off now' can be expressed just as well by 'I must go now.'" That is why any beginning foreign student of English will doubtless find that "to ring the bell" in standard English is easier to learn than "to give the bell a pull" in "Basic," or "to pay" is preferable to "to put one's money down." The same is true of many similar expressions put forward for the sole purpose of artificially suppressing the normal function of the verb, in order to fit the human speech and thought into the Procrustean bed of 18 verbs.
    To sum up:
    1. "Basic English" (as well as "Basic French," etc.) has no cultural value from the recognition point of view, which alone could justify its inclusion in the school curriculum.
    2. The functional knowledge of "Basic" is as difficult of attainment for a foreigner as that of standard English. The same applies to "Basic French," "Basic German," etc.
    3. Neither have the "Basic" principles any value as a means of mastering standard literary English, or any other language, from the point of view of method.


    Most discussion of Basic English has been either eulogistic or carping. The friends of the system have prophesied an era of clear thought and international friendship; the critics have grown indignant over side issues: the accuracy of the figure "850," the ethics of copyrighting an international language, and the stylistic effect of Basic English as compared with that of the King James Bible.
    The time has come when a calmer analysis is needed. Basic English is more and more being used to teach standard English to foreigners in the United States, and a small but increasing number of colleges is trying to encourage "accurate thinking" in native American students by having them write in Basic English. Before anyone can decide whether these uses are desirable, the grammar of the language must be looked into, and compared with that of standard English. Even apart from pedagogical considerations, Basic English is so original an experiment that a descriptive analysis of it has linguistic interest.
    This article is confined to the verbs and verbal phrases of Basic English. The extreme brevity of the Basic English word list comes largely from the virtual elimination of verbs. Only eighteen verbs are taken over from standard English into Basic English: come, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, seem, take, be, do, have, say, see, send, may, will--with, of course, all the inflexional forms that these verbs have in standard English.
    In addition, there are many words in Basic English which can be used in certain verb-like functions but are restricted by the rules of the system from some of the uses found in standard English. Since these words constitute a syntactic twilight zone, they will be taken up later. Meanwhile, it should be remembered that only the eighteen words listed above can be used precisely like ordinary English verbs.
    Of these eighteen verbs, ten are singled out under the name of "operators" (came, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, take, do,) and are put to work in many ways to reduce the length of the Basic wordlist. They are combined with prepositions, adverbs, nouns, etc., in the various ways that are permitted in standard English. Interject is not needed, since it can be replaced by the phrase to put a word in; instead of planting seeds, one puts seeds in the earth. The verb break does not exist in Basic English, but one of its uses is replaced in go against the law. Sometimes a noun object is employed, as in they put him to death, the Basic English equivalent of they killed him.
    To find the relative frequency of the most common verbal constructions in standard English and Basic English, I copied the first sentence from each page of the Basic English version of Japanese Stories and the last sentence from each page of the Basic English version of International Talks. I then chose at random sixty-five of these sentences--containing a considerably larger number of clauses—-and classified the verbal constructions found in the standard English originals and the Basic English translations. The passive, being rare, was omitted to avoid complexity, and a few very uncommon constructions were disregarded, but otherwise the figures should give a reasonably accurate idea of the way verbal ideas are expressed in the two forms of English:
    The first three constructions are more common in standard English than in Basic English. Of these, Type 2 (with a modal auxiliary) is especially difficult in English, because some modal auxiliaries are “defective verbs” or have peculiar idiomatic meanings. Probably a foreigner would be grateful to Basic English for making these words less frequent.
    Constructions 1 (the verb in all its tenses) and 3 (verb plus infinitive) are paralleled in the familiar languages of Europe.
    Constructions 4-9 are much more common in Basic English than in standard English—-in every case at least twice as common, and in one instance eight times as frequent. Evidently it is here that Basic English finds ways of replacing the forbidden verbs of standard English.
    Type 4 (I put the question) is a familiar construction in many languages, as is seen by the German (ich habe eine Frage gestellt and the French j’ai pose une question.
    Type 5 (I do damage to . . .) has a more idiomatic twist; a foreigner might find it hard to decide whether one does damage to, at or against a building. The preposition at occurs, for example, in I had a look at him. Any construction that involves prepositions is likely to differ bewilderingly from language to language. This construction occurred eight times in Basic English to once in standard English.
    Type 6 (I put [him] to death) also involves a preposition which has to be learned separately for each such phrase.
    Type 7 (I gave out) is twice as common in Basic English, and unfortunately it is peculiarly difficult to Frenchmen and other speakers of Romance languages. Most such combinations cannot be analyzed by “logic.” A foreigner would have to learn give up and give out as separate words. English has an increasing tendency to develop these combinations, and the idiomatic difficulties are heightened by the multiplicity of unrelated meanings. Some of the Basic English manuals for foreigners have two pages of pictures to explain the literal and figurative uses of put up (I put up with him can mean “I lodged with him” or “I tolerated him”). There is no lessening of the burden of learning when an unanalyzable verb is replaced by an unanalyzable combination of verb and adverb.
    Type 8 (I got ready, I made [things] hot) is three times as common in Basic English as in standard English. Here, again, the foreigner pays for having only a short wordlist to learn. Such phrases are extremely idiomatic. I made things hot for him, if not carefully explained, would suggest the care given to a sick person. The great frequency of get in the sense of ‘become” in Basic English is also confusing, since the word retains its other uses (“acquire,” etc.).
    Type 9 (I am able to sing) is three times as common in Basic English as in standard English. Since this is the way modal auxiliaries (except may) are usually replaced, there is a gain in simplicity.
    To sum up: Basic English largely avoids modal auxiliaries, replacing them by a simpler construction. In every other case, the more difficult constructions a~re favored by Basic English. The idiomatic nature of English—-a stumbling block often commented on by foreigners-—is intensified to such an extent that a large number of phrases must be memorized as though they were separate words.
    The “progressive aspect” (-ing form) of the verb is slightly more common in Basic English than in standard English. There is a tendency, for instance, to say he was living there instead of he lived there. This peculiarity brings up the most interesting way in which Basic English grammar differs from that of standard English and other familiar languages.
    In standard English there is a formal relationship between the simple and progressive forms of the verb: I come, I am coming; I came, I was coming. If a foreigner knows the infinitive, he can form any progressive aspect by using the right form of the verb to be plus the unmarked infinitive with -ing added (i.e., the present participle). In similar .fashion, there is a formal relationship between the active and passive voices: I see, I am seen; I saw, I was seen, etc. Here the past participle takes the place of the present participle. The problem confronting a foreigner in these cases is one of grammar, not vocabulary. If he knows the principal parts of an English verb, he can form the progressive aspect or the passive voice. The formal relationship is maintained in English even when verbal phrases replace simple verbs: I gave up the job, the job was given up by me, though considerations of style sometimes discourage the more cumbersome constructions.
    In Basic English, a foreigner has both a grammatical and a lexical problem to solve. In some cases, the formal relationship of standard English is maintained, but in a very large number of cases a completely different word must be used in certain constructions. A descriptive grammar of Basic English would have to recognize at least four verbal paradigms corresponding to the type already described for standard English:
    Paradigm 1. Twelve of the eighteen Basic English verbs are capable of taking an object, and the constructions are exactly as in standard English.... These twelve verbs can be combined with other words into verbal phrases, just as in standard English....
    Paradigm 2. A very large number of standard English nouns can be converted into verbs by “functional shift”; for example, reply (I gave him a reply) and to reply (I will reply to him). This is becoming increasingly common. To a limited extent it is permitted in Basic English. Any of the six hundred Basic English nouns can form a verbal noun or an adjective by adding -ing, if the resulting word already exists in standard English: detail, detailing; move, moving. Mr. Ogden apparently considers that these -ing forms are always nouns or adjectives, though in uses like I was detailing my ideas the ordinary grammatical analysis of standard English would regard detailing as part of a compound verb, since an object follows it.
    The six hundred nouns can also add -ed, when standard English permits this, and the form thus produced is called an adjective. In Basic English it is permissible to say my ideas were detailed by me, but never I detailed (or have detailed) my ideas, for there the verbal function of the -ed form is obvious. Its use would be a clear abandonment of the rule which permits only eighteen verbs. . . .
    Paradigm 3. A number of past participles are included in the Basic English list of adjectives, but the underlying verb is
    lacking in the 850 words. For instance, married is given but marry is not.
    The past participle can be used for what in standard English are commonly called passive constructions, but all active constructions require a phrase to avoid the underlying verb.. Paradigm 4. Finally, there are a few present participles among the Basic English adjectives, but the other forms of the underlying verb are lacking. An example is boiling (as in boiling water), which is permitted, while boil and boiled cannot be used. The result of this is that the progressive aspect of the active voice may be expressed, as in standard English, but all other situations require a phrase. . . .
    This article has by no means been a complete analysis of the Basic English verb system, but enough material has probably been examined to justify several conclusions:
    1. Admittedly, the use of phrases instead of verbs greatly reduces the number of separate words which a foreigner must learn. If it were not for this feature of Basic English, the wordlist would have to go considerably beyond 850 words.
    2. The reduction of the learning burden achieved in this way cannot be taken at its face value. The phrases which replace verbs are often extremely idiomatic, and have to be learned as though they were compound words. A foreigner would probably find it easier to remember damage the house than do damage to the house. Phrases of the verb-plus-adverb type, such as give out and put up with, run counter to the language habits of Romance speakers, and the frequency of such constructions in Basic English accentuates one of the most difficult parts of standard English grammar.
    3. The, most perplexing feature of Basic English grammar, and the one hardest to justify from a common sense viewpoint, is the system of four paradigms already described. If functional shift is going to be permitted at all, it should be allowed as freely as in standard English. The complicated set of rules which regulate its use establish wholly unnecessary difficulties. Because of the rule excluding all verbs except the eighteen on the Basic list, clear-cut functional shift does not occur, but a limited application of it is made in the case of the words which can be formed in -ed and -ing from the 850 words. This practice makes Basic English sound as much like standard English as possible, but constitutes a very confusing borderline zone of grammar.
    The idea of a nucleus wordlist to be used as an introduction to standard English and as a defining vocabulary has much merit, and we should be grateful to Basic English for helping to develop the method. But we can also learn from the mistakes of Basic English. The ideal system of teaching English to foreigners will not create difficulties which are lacking in standard English. On the contrary, it will emphasize the normal grammatical patterns, and will eagerly take advantage of useful devices like functional shift. By carefully teaching this feature of English grammar, the productivity of a minimum wordlist could be enormously increased, and the foreigner would get a feeling for one of the most basic patterns of the language.

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