BASIC ENGLISH Compiled by Julia E. Johnson
Discussion Opposed to Basic English
SCIENTIFIC LINGUISTICS AND BASIC ENGLISH 10
Most scientific students of language are indifferent to Basic English. Their attitude is indicated by what a colleague said to me recently: "Basic English of course is no good. But why worry? The,y will blow it up to a certain point and then it will collapse of its own emptiness."
However, I am not satisfied to let the matter rest. If Basic
English is indeed no good, I feel the scientific linguist has a
duty to his nation and to the world to help open their eyes to a
brilliant but empty promise. Or, if Basic is really a good thing,
every language scientist should consider it a matter of pride to be able to recognize its merit and a matter of citizenship to help bring about the rapid spread of such a helpful instrument.
Do mistaken ideas collapse of themselves? I know of too many examples, in all fields of experience, of ideas and systems that have lasted in spite of their inherent worthlessness, that have grown until they became a serious destructive force and were finally eliminated only at a tremendous cost to society. If there are people whose special knowledge makes it possible for them to realize the error or falsity of a system when it first appears, they should not sit back and laugh while other people get taken in. They themselves may have to pay a price along with the rest of society.
This Basic English, for example, has received quite a lot of publicity and many laymen and educational authorities have been impressed. Now, one hears cases in which Basic English is proposed to replace all high school and college courses in English composition on the ground that Basic English is logical and teaches people to think straight. Another case: The teaching of foreign languages has been opposed with the argument "It's so easy for the other nations to learn Basic English. Why should we learn their languages ?" It does not matter that Dr. Richards himself would not subscribe to these extreme proposals. The fact remains that, if the claims he makes for Basic are accepted, then certain radical changes of quality and emphasis will be made in the teaching of English and of foreign languages. If those claims are essentially true, such changes will be beneficial and must be made. If the claims are essentially false, such changes will be disastrous.
The scientific linguist, with his knowledge of the past history of human language and his techniques for analyzing linguistic systems and testing the effectiveness of language techniques, is in the best position to determine the facts of the case. Of course, being a scientist does not in itself guarantee against the human failing of pre-judging the case and then using his knowledge and technique merely to hide the facts from himself. For this reason, I should like to offer here the results of a full as well as unbiased study of Basic English and its capabilities. However,
ever, the pressure of other responsibilities has prevented me from making an extended study up to this time. Perhaps other scholars may carry out the type of study that is called for, but, in the meantime, I shall offer some preliminary observations for what they may be worth.
The General Argument : A good conservative statement of the case for Basic English is given by I. A. Richards in Basic English and Its Uses, 1943. His general argument may be summarized as follows:
1. A common international language would be a good thing.
2. An artificially constructed international language will never be adopted.
3. English is the best language for international use.
4. It will some day become the international language anyway, therefore why not begin spreading it around now?
5. Basic English is an ideal simplified version of English, which makes it easy for the foreigner to learn.
You see at once that Richards does not imply that Basic English makes it unnecessary for us ever to learn a foreign language or that it will be generally adopted within the next few years. When people therefore express such ideas, it is that they have drawn conclusions of their own. For example, they decide that if Basic English consists of only 850 words written on the back of a postcard, why not hand out postcards and let the other fellow talk Basic to us, instead of our going to the trouble of studying French, Chinese, Russian and so forth? We will discuss this and other points later.
Another comment needs to be made. I may have stated Richards' a1gument a bit differently than he himself would. However, I have tried to get the essence of it. You can check on this by reading the book to which I refer.
Desirability of an International Auxiliary Language : The number of languages spoken in the world, some by a handful of people, some by many million, probably runs over 2000. The number spoken by at least a million people probably is about
literature are printed are at least thirty or forty. Now, no one can know so many languages. It is not hard to know two, three, or four languages, but few people ever learn more than that. It would therefore be a very good thing if we could get together and decide upon some one language that every one would learn in addition to his native language, so that every time you met someone of a tongue other than your own, you could count on his knowing the same second language. Scientific works would be translated from all languages into the accepted auxiliary language and so would be available to everybody.
A small-scale example of this is to be found in the Soviet
Union where the speakers of about 100 different tongues learn
Russian, beginning in the last few grades of grammar school.
They continue to use their native language, but they also have
Russian to use when they run across a stranger.
French has had a similar role among the educated people of a large part of Europe and the Near East, and English is used in that same way in many parts of the world. In smaller, but still extensive spheres, we find North Chinese, Hindustani, Arabic, Malay, Swahili, and other languages.
Now, the dream of a world auxiliary language consists simply in getting together on one international language for the whole world. For this purpose, some have suggested various artificial languages, such as Esperanto, Novial, etc., and some have urged the internationalization of one or another of the national languages.
Artificial or Natural Language : Artificial languages that have been invented for the purpose of becoming the world auxiliary language, are generally much simpler and therefore much easier to learn than the natural languages. Their spelling is simple; they have no irregularities. They are also supposed to have the advantage of being impartial. If everybody learned Esperanto, we would not have to learn the language of the Turks and they would not have to learn our language.
The only trouble is that while Esperanto is neither Turkish
nor English, its vocabulary is based mainly on English and the
Romanic languages (French, Spanish, Italian) so that where we
can learn it with very little effort the Turk has to struggle to remember each word. Impartiality, however, could easily be attained in an artificial language. A just basis would be to take the words from all the languages of the earth in proportion to the number of speakers of each. About 9 per cent of the words would be from North Chinese, 6 per cent from English, 4 per cent from Russian, 3 per cent from Spanish and so on. Some modification would have to be made of the words so that they would all conform to a unified and simple system of sounds. The words, however, would be sufficiently like the original so that the 300 million North Chinese would have an advantage with their 9 per cent of the language and the 200 million English-speaking with the 6 per cent corresponding to their population. All details could be worked out by an international commission of experts.
I do not know whether any artificial language will ever be adopted but it must be recognized that it could be done and that the language can be of a democratic character. Richards' arguments against an artificial language are two. The first is that an artificial language lacks something that a natural language has. He says, 'A new auxiliary language would have to be used through many lifetimes before it could offer a learner possibilities of general communication equal to those given through even an inferior handling of any of the major languages, which have been through this process and been fitted by use to human affairs"
However, Richards' objection is more imaginary than real. Those common elements which are found in human experience all over the world are readily expressed even in artificial languages. The special flavor of a natural language, furthermore, is something that cannot ordinarily be translated in any event. If you translate from Chinese to Esperanto you lose some of the original feeling, but the same thing also happens when you translate from Chinese into English. Of course, when you translate into English you can substitute an English literary device for something in the Chinese original. But such things develop very quickly in new languages, and certainly do not constitute a major factor.
Richards' other objection to an artificial language is that it can be chosen only by international agreement and he does not believe in the possibility of such an agreement. (See Basic English and Its Uses, p. 14) Now, we cannot be certain that such an agreement will ever take place, but neither can we be certain it will not take place. History has brought many surprises, and, in view of recent trends in international cooperation, I should not be astonished if the nations of the earth should attempt to solve the language problem. If they do, I know of no reason why they should not choose to adopt an artificial language.
If a natural language is used for international purposes, it is likely that a series of languages will be adopted for given parts of the world and a choice of a few for world-wide purposes. That is, the old procedure of accepting three or four languages as official at a world meeting will continue.
The Claims of English: According to Richards, of all the major natural languages, English has the best claims to be taken as the international language. He considers six aspects and decides that English wins on all six.
1. First, he says English is the language that "can be made easiest for learners." The biggest stumbling block for beginners in English is our very complicated and irregular way of spelling. So, if the aim is to make it easier for the learner, the best thing we could do would be to adopt a simplified spelling. As a matter of fact, whether or not English is to be the world language, we would do ourselves and everyone who has to use our language a great favor by reforming English orthography.
When Richards speaks of making a language easy for beginners, he is referring only to the simplications adopted in Basic, such as cutting down the number of verbs by saying things like a noise comes to my ear instead of "I hear something." The factor of orthography, he says, is "not the most important." And yet it seems to me that the learning of several sets of verb endings in Spanish is not as difficult as it must be for the foreigner to get used to rough which rhymes with stuff and through which rhymes with crew; marine which rhymes with seen or scene
and line which rhymes with sign; eye which sounds like I; write which sounds like right, and so forth.
Richards argues for English in one place because it has a large literature and in another place because it produces many sound movies, but if the "writing is not like the speaking," as all foreigners complain, these two arguments involve a contradiction.
If we ask the question as to which of the major languages requires the least learning of grammar, the answer is unquestionably Chinese, which has no irregular verbs or noun plurals or special rules for the use of pronouns, all of which are stumbling blocks to the learner of English. Richards has not offered any justification for his implicit assumption that English is easier than Chinese.
2. Richards claims that English has a greater literature than other languages. This claim is of a hair-splitting character. All the major languages have very adequate literatures, and all are growing rapidly. The best things written in one language are soon translated into another. Therefore, this cannot be taken as a crucial factor.
3. Richards asks which language is already used by the most people and, after admitting certain difficulties about getting the answer, seems to imply that it is English. He says (p. 20):
Population figures for the future must be largely guesswork. With a world revolution of such depth in progress anything may happen to recent trends. The British nations and the United States have been losing ground. Russia and some of the South American states seem~ to be due for explosive leaps as industrialization, for example, takes effect. But no one yet knows what the fundamental factors are. . . . Furthermore, few accurate figures for the native speakers of any language are available. . . . However, for what they are worth and subject to every sort of reserve, the following guesses in millions may indicate something like the present situation:
I believe Mr. Richards exaggerates the difficulty of obtaining reasonably accurate figures. Those which he gives seem all right except the one for North Chinese, which is usually estimated
at about 300 million. Has Richards shaded down the Chinese statistics to avoid having us outnumbered?
English 200, North Chinese 200, Russian 120, German 100, Spanish 100, French 75, Japanese 80, Cantonese. 60, Bengali 60, Italian 50, Portuguese 50.
Suppose we compare the number of people who speak English with everybody else in the world. For every one of us, there are seventeen people who don't speak English. Perhaps there are arguments by which we can persuade all these other people that they ought to learn our language and save us the trouble of learning a foreign language. But certainly we cannot use the argument that we constitute an overwhelming proportion of the world's population.
4. With regard to the number of those who learn the different languages in school, Richards says,
Estimates of those who have acquired languages are . . . subject to doubt. Exact figures are unobtainable. But in view of the programs, if not of the actualities, of the world's chief educational systems, it is safe to say that opportunity to learn English has been offered to more students in the last century than has been the case with any other
The figures of the last century happen to be greatly overshadowed by certain events of the last generation. In this period the teaching of Russian and North Chinese have spread at an amazing rate. As the principal language of the Soviet Union, Russian has been taught to tens of millions of people. North Chinese too has received a tremendous impulse inside China. Both Russian and North Chinese are now being taught more and more in foreign countries, including our own.
5. Richards argues that English has certain advantages of geographical spread and varied use that give it an advantage over other tongues. He says,
It has been in wider use in more different parts of the earth than any other living language. It has been an administrative language in every continent. It has been the trade language of the Pacific, and a main vehicle of the spread of commercial and financial practice for two centuries. And it has carried snorts, fashions, and modern techniques more variously and more widely than any other language. Recently the English-speaking motion picture has taken a hand in the process.
These statements are essentially correct, but one must not become so enthusiastic about them as to forget that certain
other languages are also used widely in commerce, trade and administration and that Hollywood and London are not the only motion picture centers.
6. Finally Richards claims that English lends itself better to teaching by films, phonograph records and radio than other languages. The argument is not convincing.
English as a World Language: In trying to show that English has better claims to be adopted as the auxiliary language of the world than any other tongue, Richards seems to demonstrate only that he has prejudged the matter. Five of his six criteria are either unimportant or fail to show English as superior to other languages. It is difficult to feel any confidence that the sixth factor, geographic spread, is sufficient in itself to convince the remaining seventeen eighteenths of the world that English is their best bet. It cannot be insisted too strongly that they are the ones to decide. Richards himself says (p. 11):
However desirable a common language for all the world may be, as a means of communication between peoples who in their homes speak different tongues, it neither can nor should be imposed by one nation or group of nations upon others . . . it must be clear from any threat to the economic, moral, cultural, social or political status or independence of any person or any people. It must carry no implications of intellectual, technological, or other domination.
It is important to note that, although Richards gives reasons for favoring English as a world language, he does not seem to be talking about the possibilities of a conscious choice of a common language, but only of the natural spread of languages. He says, "It must come into use freely, as a general convenience, under the urge of the everyday motives of mankind. It must be taken up because men see it to be useful to them. . . . It must spread as the automobile, the electrical light, and the telephone or airplane have spread."
However, the spread of languages cannot be compared with the spread of mechanical inventions. I think it is safe to say that some day people in every part of the world will be using automobiles, but it is impossible to say which make of auto. And it is particularly doubtful if they will soon standardize on
one make of auto for all the world. If we want to know how international languages spread, we have to study not the auto and the telephone but other historical cases involving languages, for example, the spread of Latin in Europe in former centuries.
Latin in the early period of the Christian era occupied a position in Europe that was probably even stronger than the position of English today. And yet Latin never quite became the international language of all Europe. After spreading over all but the easternmost part of Europe, it gradually receded from its old position.
In the course of the centuries, gradual changes took place in the Latin language. Since these changes went their own way in different parts of Europe, we have today a series of different languages in place of Latin, the main ones being French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Rumanian. One of these, French, is one of the important languages for international use when people of different nations of Europe get together, but English, German and Russian are also used quite widely. If neither Latin nor French ever quite became the exclusive international language of all Europe, then there is no room for certainty that English must become the world auxiliary language.
The church spread Latin through Europe. Conquest and trade spread English through the world up to its present point. Now, conquest has been declared a thing of the past. Economic and cultural relations remain. But where formerly there were only two major churches, the Latin-speaking Roman and the Greek-speaking Byzantine churches, and where these churches carried on all their activities in their official languages, today there are several major language groups as far as economic and cultural relations are concerned.
Will a language spoken by one eighteenth of the world and competing with a half dozen other influential languages, eliminate the others through normal developments of linguistic history? Well, maybe so and maybe no.. It is certainly still too soon to predict with even a slight degree of certainty.
The Claims of Basic: The claims of Basic English, as we
have seen, rest first of all upon the alleged superiority of the
English language itself. We have discussed the grounds of
superiority claimed for English and are now ready to ask what the modified form of English which C. K. Ogden invented adds to the picture.
Basic English (says Richards (p. 23)) is English made simple by limiting the number of its words to 830, and by cutting down the rules for using them to the smallest number necessary for the clear statement of ideas. And this is done without change in the normal order and behavior of these words in everyday English.
The statement about the 850 words of Basic has been many times repeated and widely advertised, and the public is rightly amazed and impressed. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the statement is not true. The books written in Basic contain many times 850 words. No one knows exactly how many, but one can get some idea from the rules given by C. K. Ogden in The Basic Vocabulary. We learn here that Basic uses in addition to the official list of 850 words the following: numerals; all units of measure; mathematical terms; so-called "international words"; additional lists of words for each science; for the translation of the Bible and for any other special purpose; names of plants and animals, words for foods and special items of living in particular parts of the world; and any additional term that it is not convenient to paraphrase.
"International words" are defined as words which are current in all parts of the world and which therefore do not have to be learned. There is really no such thing as a word used in all parts of the world. Pianos and restaurants are called by similar names in most of Europe but are known by entirely different names in Chinese. Beer is called cerveza in Spanish and peevo in Russian. The French word for beef is similar to ours, but the word is very different in Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, etc. Therefore, while these words are easier for some people to learn than are some of the other words, it is not quite right to simply decide not to count them in determining the number of words in Basic English.
As for compound words made up of Basic words, some of them are easy to learn and some are just as hard for the beginner as if they were brand new and separate words. If the beginner has learned the word "sun" and the word "light," he
will understand the word "sunlight" without any trouble. But the word "somewhat" is an altogether different story. Knowing the meanings of the words "some" and "what" does not help. When it comes to the compounds invented especially for Basic, even a knowledge of English won't help you. Would you ever guess that "drops of heat" means "sweat"?
The other types of words used in Basic and not counted in the 850 words are entirely distinct from the words that are counted. If we are to make a correct estimate of Basic, we have to know the real number and not how many Ogden felt he could write on the back of a postcard. Research is needed to determine how many are actually used, but they are without any question of a doubt many thousands.
Of course, there need be no doubt that Basic English uses less words than the number listed in the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary. Nor can there be any doubt that learning to read books written in Basic English is many times easier than reading the average book written in regular English. For this reason, Basic has been used very successfully as a first step in the learning of our language. If the. champions of Basic were content to make this claim, there would be no question about its truth.
However, in that event, it would be proper to ask whether Ogden did as good a job as can be done with the selection of a beginner's vocabulary. Various specialists in the teaching of English have expressed the opinion that he did not do too well, and I am inclined to agree with them. Several excellent systems have been devised which avoid the artificialities of Ogden's system and give an easier and more natural approach to normal English.
In the matter of "cutting down the rules for using the words," there is little difference between Basic English and ordinary English. Ogden makes much of cutting down on the use of the verb, but the English verb is difficult only in the case of the irregular ones. And Ogden has kept some of the most irregular verbs in the language. A beginners' vocabulary could easily contain a fair number of common easy verbs without being noticeably more difficult than Basic itself.
When Richards says only English is capable of such simplification as Ogden has achieved for English, the claim is definitely open to challenge. When the need was felt for a quick method for learning the different languages of the world, the American Army quickly developed a simple technique for teaching French, Turkish, Chinese, Hungarian, Finnish and many other languages. These methods are based on simplified beginners' vocabularies and devices for the easy acquisition of the natural habits of putting the words together in sentences.
Conclusions: Linguistic science provides a good approach to the question of Basic English. Such a matter as the number of words used in a language can be determined by a careful count which takes into account what is a word from the standpoint of the learner of a language. The techniques of linguistic science should also be used in determining questions of ease or difficulty for the foreign learner. All results with regard to English or to Basic have to be compared with the comparable facts for other languages. Finally, when predictions are to be made about the future developments of languages, this must be done on the basis of a study of comparable cases in past history.
Much must yet be done before a full scientific report can be given on Basic English but preliminary indications already stand out clearly. It appears that Richards' claims for the English language are extravagant and that the defect of our irregular spelling is much more important than he wants to admit. If our spelling were simplified English would have a much more reasonable claim than at present. If the choice of a world language is to be made by natural selection, English is today only one of a series of strong contenders in the early preliminaries of a competition that will last for centuries.
The simplified form of English known as Basic must be weighed against other possible simplifications. It is not to be regarded necessarily as ideal although it is undoubtedly a relatively effective means of making the language easy for the beginner. The claim that similar simplications of other languages are impossible is unfounded.
10. By Lt. Morris Swadesh, Language Section. Army Morale Services Division,
New York Branch. Paper given at meeting of Philologists and Linguists, Hunter
College, New York, January 8, 1944. 16p. typewritten. American Dialect Society.
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