BASIC ENGLISH Compiled by Julia E. Johnson
THE BASIC FRAMEWORK 2
For those who are meeting Basic English for the first time, we give here a short outline of the system. A full general
account for readers of English is given in the book, Basic English, and a more detailed one for learning purposes in The ABC
of Basic English. The last named may now be had in most of the chief languages of Europe—French, German, Spanish,
Italian and Dutch—and will in a short time be ready in all.
Basic is English made simple by limiting the number of words to 850, and the rules for managing them to the smallest
number necessary for the clear statement of ideas as conditioned by the structure of the language. That with so small a
wordlist and so little apparatus it is possible to say anything desired for the purposes of everyday existence is the outcome of
the special "Panoptic" system of word selection, together with the great step—a step based on a natural tendency of English,
and possible in no other European language of the present day—of cutting out "verbs."
The 850 words are in three groups—600 names of things, 150 names of qualities ("adjectives"), and 100 "operations" by
which the system is, so to say, put in motion. Of these, 15 are the names of simple acts, such as put, which with be, will, and
may are the only "verbs" in Basic, others being covered by the use of one of these with some limiting word, chiefly the name
of a direction or position ("enter," for example, becomes in Basic "go in"). These 18 "verbs" are used as in normal English,
undergoing whatever changes of form are necessary in different relations. The same thing is true of the "pronouns," I, he,
you, this, and that. As in normal English, the addition of s is made to the names of things as a sign that more than one is in
question, and of -er and -est to the names of qualities as a sign of degree. "Adverbs" are formed by putting -ly at the end of
-- Basic Table --
names of qualities; opposites, by putting un- in front; 300 of the names of things may take the endings -er, -ing, and -ed,
producing two more names of things and two names of qualities, whose sense will give no trouble.
Every word has a root sense, which may give birth, by simple expansion, to one or more further senses having a clear
connection with it, or may have a special, limited use in addition to its more general one. All these are made clear in The
Basic Words, where are printed, further, 250 fixed word groups, or "idioms," which are of value chiefly in making the
English of Basic smooth and natural. The expansions and idioms possible in Basic are limited to those listed, and the fact that
a word is in the Basic 850 is not to be taken as a .sign that it may be used in all the senses and ways come across in wider
English. Fifty international words, about which the experts are in agreement, together with the English names of the days and
months, are, like the number system, looked on as a ready-made addition to the Basic store.
So much for Basic as an international language for everyday use. For the
purposes of science, the framework is, naturally, the same, and science for the
general public has need of nothing more, as may be seen from the examples
given in this book. At that level, if special science words are necessary, they are
made clear as they come in—a process which is of great help to the reader, and
is made simple for the writer by the fact that the Basic words are those of special
value in making clear the senses of others. But in writings designed for those
trained in science, the wordlist is increased by another 100 words covering the
general language of science, and 50 more for the needs of any special branch.
For writing or reading biology, for example, it will be necessary to have a
knowledge of 1000 (850 plus 150) English words.
As we have said, for the expert there are thousands of international words which may be used more or less freely. At this
level Basic is, before everything, an instrument by which special wordlists, most of them international, may be put into
The general science list has two chief purposes. The first is to make the addition of certain general words—names of
processes, conditions, and so on—which, though it is possible to do
without them for everyday purposes, are so much used in science that to have to give their senses in other words would be a
trouble to writers and a waste of space—a very important point for science papers. The greatest argument for these words is
that they put common ideas in a short form; but we have to give some attention, in addition, to the feelings of the man of
science, who, though he may have little interest in the details important to the man of letters, has a certain respect for the
regular way of saying things. There are about twenty words in the 850 which have a like value for general purposes; the
general science list gives the further words of this sort most needed by science. The second purpose of this list is to take in
words which are common to
two or more sciences, and so make it necessary to put them in more than one list.
2. By Charles Kay Ogden, Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge University,
England; Director of the Orthological Institute in England; Originator, with Ivor
Armstrong Richards, of the system of Basic English. From his book Basic for
Science. Kegan Paul. Trench. Trubner and Company. London. 1942. 514p.
THE PROBLEM OF A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE 4
The record shows that the urge for a simple language, easy to learn, and the desire to communicate with people speaking
a foreign language made themselves distinctly felt about three hundred years ago. Since then, some scholars, but especially
persons not directly connected with the teaching of foreign languages, have
speculated on the possibility of creating and adopting a universal language; however, it was soon realized that
such a goal would be almost impossible to reach, so they set about inventing an international auxiliary
language which was to serve the leading nations of Europe. To get the two billion and odd inhabitants of the
earth who now speak about three thousand different languages and many more dialects, to speak one tongue as
they used to do according to the eleventh chapter of Genesis, was considered utterly futile even by the most
Now the goal seems to be to invent and adopt for international use a second or auxiliary language which would be easy to
master by a European of average education and intelligence. People who stay near home and do not want to trade or travel
abroad or to disseminate their ideas widely or who will not have any dealings with foreign-speaking people at all would have no
use for an auxiliary language. This new language should be "neutral, euphonious, phonetic, flexible,
unambiguous, logical, regular, adaptable, and tested by long-continued practical use on a large scale."
(Encyclopaedia Britannica.) The demand for such a language comes chiefly from exporters and
importers, scientists, tourists, diplomats, and radio broadcasters.
Not only our students and these people, but also educationists and school officials often feel, and do not
hesitate to say, that too much time and effort is lost in acquiring difficult foreign languages. In short, it
costs too much. Some, no doubt, regret that there was a confusion of tongues at Babel, and that Greek
and Latin, which were once widely used, became obsolete. It is interesting to note that very few of the
two hundred and odd schemes and projects for a world language have been put forth by philologists and
linguists. Jespersen's Novial is an outstanding exception. The author of Volapük was the priest Schleyer;
of Esperanto, the oculist Zamenhof, while among other authors were bishops, -ship surgeons, engineers,
mathematicians, humanitarians, chemists, editors, physicists, geographers, astronomers, and zoologists.
Dr. Max Talmey, who has contributed a series of articles since 1929 to the Modern Language Journal, is
considered by the British Esperantist Butler to be the leading grammarian of Ido, an international
scientific language. In linguistic experiences, the lives of Drs. Zamenhof and Talmey form interesting
parallels. Among the noted scientists interested in the international language movement are Louis
Couturat, Richard Lorenz, Wilhelm Ostwald, Louis von Pfaundler, Leibnitz, and Descartes. Among
philologists who consider an international language feasible are Max Muller, Jakob Grimm, Hugo
Schuchardt, and Otto Jespersen; and Dr. Talmey reports that his improved Ido, later called A(uxiliary)
R(ational) U(niversal) L(anguage), (= Arulo), and still later Gloro, is endorsed by Grand-gent, Fife,
Vizetelly, and Einstein. Brugmann and Leskien have grave doubts about the success of any artificial
It has been suggested that the best plan to get a world language adopted would be to have some great
living language, for instance English, absorb all the surrounding ones, since English is already the native
tongue of about 200 million people. It might also be German or Spanish, each of which is the native
tongue of about 80 million people, or Russian, Italian, Portuguese, or French which served as an
international diplomatic language for about 500 years. Someone even tried to resuscitate Sanskrit. But
each of these languages has its peculiar difficulties.
English, for example, has a fairly simple grammar, but its
pronunciation and spelling are notoriously irregular. Some
internationally minded people have suggested that the leading
nations of Europe agree on a common auxiliary language, but
nationalism and racial pride are insuperable obstacles. Another
plan is to create a language ad hoc, a plan already suggested by
Descartes in a letter of November 20, 1629, and later by Leibnitz,
but a practical start of large proportions did not begin until
Schleyer initiated Volapuk in 1879.
W. J. Clark (International Language, p. 93) says about its origin:
"On the night of March 31, 1879, the good Roman Catholic Bishop
Schleyer, curé of Litzelstetten near Constance,
could not get to sleep. From his over-active brain, charged with a knowledge of more than fifty
languages"—some say eighty-three—"sprang the world speech, as Athene sprang fully armed from the
brain of Zeus. At any rate, this is the legend of the origin of Volapuk." It spread rapidly and soon there
were hundreds of Volapuk clubs, a dozen or more periodicals, and 300
to 400 publications in ten countries. Three international congresses were held and, according to
Schleyer, 2,500,000 people were interested in it, but the boom suddenly collapsed. Schleyer remained
adamant to any suggestions of reform and his followers left him; however, a committee proceeded to
revise Volapuk, and under the leadership of the Russian engineer Rosenberger, it became "Idiom
Neutral," which in turn became "Reformed Neutral," an extreme a posteriori language that was
predominatingly neo-Latin. Thus Volapuk was born in 1879, reached its peak in 1888, and was
practically dead in 1890. It has an ingenious grammar but an artificial vocabulary. Some other artificial
languages which either corrected or exaggerated the defects of Volapuk are Spelin, Dil, Dilpox, Balla,
Orba, Tal, and Pankel.
The best known and most successful of the artificial languages is Esperanto instituted in 1887 by the
young Jewish oculist Louis L. Zamenhof, a native of Bialystok, Poland, where Jew and German, Pole
and Russian jostled each other on the
THE REFERENCE SHELF
street and spoke mutually unintelligible languages and differed
further in religion and customs. His brochure published in 1887
was signed "Dr. Esperanto" meaning Dr. Hopeful. Esperanto
spread rapidly throughout Europe and the world; about 4,000
books and 100 periodicals were published in it. Twenty-seven
European broadcasting stations were using it in 1927, and
several world conferences were held including one at
Washington at which it was spoken. J. W. Clark reports that in
1907, 100 Massachusetts Institute of Technology students were
studying Esperanto, and more than fifty were studying it at the
Roxbury Latin School. Colonel Harvey published several articles
in the North American Review in Esperanto. The World War
gave it a serious setback but it still has strong support especially
in France and England.
Critics say it has too many circumflexed or hooded letters, too
many sibilants or hushing sounds, an unnecessary accusative
ending, and is too Russian in character. Furthermore, many well
known words are mutilated, its correlatives are obscure,
Zamenhof's translations are inaccurate and his method of com-
pounding words is illogical. Others say it looks like spoiled Latin
and not unlike a travesty on Italian.
The main descendant of Esperanto is Ido, an
international scientific language based on the leading
languages of Europe; its chief protagonists were Dr.
Couturat and M. Beaufront. Ido corrected the main
defects of Esperanto, but according to Dr. Talmey, it
began to degenerate in 1914 when an ill advised ten-
year period of stability was decreed. In that same year
its able advocate, Dr. Couturat, died, and no competent
leader arose to fill his shoes. Dr. Talmey eventually
revised it, and it became Arulo and later Gloro. Ido had
an able advocate in the noted chemist Ostwald who also
lectured on it in the United States. It has ceased to
prosper, although over fifty schemes for a reformed
Esperanto or Ido have appeared, and since 1907 a yen-
table "stream of experimental projects and literature has
issued from" Professor R. de Saussure's language
As stated before about 200 schemes and projects have appeared
but none has attained a great and lasting popularity or importance.
Professor Albert L. Guérard, who gave a course on international
languages at Stanford University at the suggestion
BASIC ENGLISH 33
of David Starr Jordan, thinks that Romanal, initiated by A.
Michaux, a lawyer of Boulogne, is the best scheme of today.
The various schemes for an artificial language may be
classified in three groups : a priori, a posteriori, and a mixture
of both. The a priori or philosophical type dates back to
Descartes (1629), and its roots go back to medieval times
when philosophers strove to classify, divide, and subdivide all
knowledge. Each idea was to have a label and words were to
become mere formulas similar to chemical formulas or the
Dewey system of labeling library books. Descartes foresaw
such a language but considered it a matter for common minds
to solve, something beneath a philosopher. Leibnitz (1646-
1716) thought that "all complex ideas are compounds of
simple ideas" . . . and "numbers can be compounded ad
infinitum, and if changed to pronounceable words, these words
can be compounded to express all ideas." . . . For instance, the
Scotchman Dalgarno (1661) represented the seventeen main
classes of ideas by seventeen letters, and this scheme is further
developed by Bishop Wilkins (1668). The musician J. F.
Sudre (1817) based his language Solresol on the seven of the
musical scale. Vidal (1844) developed a curious system of
letters and numbers. In 1912 Rev. Foster of West Virginia
published his scheme called Ro.
The second type of artificial language, the a posteriori
type, is based on existing natural languages. Among these are
Faiguet's Langue nouvelle (1765) published in the Diderot
and d'Alembert Encyclopedia, De Rudelle's Pantos-Dimon-
Gldssa (1858) based on ten natural languages and especially
upon Greek and Latin, Pirro's Universalsprache (1868) based
on French, German, English, Italian, and Spanish, Steiner's
Pasilingua (1885) modelled on Pidgin-English, Molenaar's
Panfoman (1903) called Universal after 1906, Professor
Peano's Latino sine Flexione, and many more based chiefly on
Volapuk and its descendants are the chief representatives of
the mixed type. Among them are: Th. v. Grimm's Programme
(1860), Verheggen's Nal Bino, and Bollack's Bolak or Blue
Language. All these are a type of quasi-artificial language
with amalgamate vocabularies and grammatical systems.
Pidgin English, i.e. "Business English," is a type combining an
English vocabulary with the Chinese grammatical system.
Such eminent philologists as Brugmann and Leskien dismiss an
artificial language as a fad and a dream, and Bréal and Sweet are
not enthusiastic about it, but Jespersen, Schuchardt, Ostwald,
Couturat, and others are very sympathetic. The objectors say that
a language cannot be created full grown; it must grow; that a
natural language has developed from the mutual reactions of
many minds through long periods of time. An artificial language
would have no home, no norm to draw from, and only its few
creators to judge it. Furthermore, there is no sufficient incentive
to learn and use an artificial language at home and only a few
would use it elsewhere; its pronunciation, vocabulary, and
grammar would soon be corrupted and approach the native
tongue. They ask who will translate all the literature into the new
tongue required for study and research; how many busy
scientists and others will want to spend the time and effort to
learn the new tongue? Leskien found that it was very difficult to
learn Esperanto, in spite of what its advocates say. They say that
languages are affected by the spiritual life of a people and cannot
be introduced like the telephone, the automobile, or Burbank's
plumcot. Language is not a mere code; it is an evolution and not
Professor Guérard asks if automobiles have replaced horses,
refrigerators do the work of natural frost, and plumcots have
combined plums and apricots, why could an artificial language
not replace a natural one? Language must grow away from blind
custom and be made to order along scientific lines. Chemistry
has been able to create a symbolic language, so has music, and
sailors have their marine signal code. Ostwald thinks that it is
absurd that linguistics devote so much time to the accidental
phenomena of a natural language which has grown up in such a
haphazard~ and cumbrous way. Many grammatical rules simply
legalize the accidental mistakes made by our forefathers. Some
of the most used verbs, for example, are the most irregular;
many of their forms could be eliminated without loss. Grammatical
gender has little if any rhyme or reason. Why so much
useless inflection and so many homonyms? Why must many
linguistic traditions and fossils be preserved? Ostwald further-
more maintains that the systems of ideas are much more important
than the accidental symbols of a natural language. Language
is, after all, only a technical means for communicating ideas and
is not something supernatural and mysterious that we dare not
A step in the right direction would be to simplify the natural
languages as much as possible, since it is quite unlikely that any
international auxiliary language will soon be adopted, in spite of
all the difficulties and defects of natural languages. Powerful
emotions of discord are at work among nations and peoples, and
nationalistic aspirations and illogical racial prejudices bar the
way; besides there are many practical difficulties to overcome.
4. By William F. Kamman. Carnegie Institute of Technology. Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania. Modern Language Journal. 26:177-82.
THE FUTURE OF THE LANGUAGE 5
The huge English vocabulary is likely to make the foreigner
uneasy, but he soon finds that nine tenths of it lies safely buried
in the dictionaries, and is never drawn upon for everyday use.
On examining 400,000 words of writing by 2500 Americans Dr.
Leonard P. Ayres found that the 50 commonest words accounted
for more than half the total number of words used, that 250 more
accounted for another 25 per cent, and that 1000 accounted for 90
per cent. That the language may be spoken intelligibly with even
less than 1000 words has been argued by Dr. C. K. Ogden, the
English psychologist. . . .
Whether Basic will make any progress remains to be seen.6
It has been criticized on various grounds. For one thing, its
vocabulary shows some serious omissions—for example, the numerals—and
for another, its dependence upon verb-phrases may
confuse rather than help the foreigner, whose difficulties with
prepositions are notorious.7 There is also the matter of spelling,
always a cruel difficulty to a foreigner tackling
English. But Dr. Ogden waives this difficulty away.
For one thing, he argues that his list of 850 words,
being made up mainly of the commonest coins of
speech, avoids most of them; for another thing, he
believes that the very eccentricity of the spelling of
some of the rest will help the foreigner to remember
them. Every schoolboy, as we all know, seizes upon
such bizarre forms as through, straight and island
with fascinated eagerness, and not infrequently he
masters them before he masters such phonetically
spelled words as first, tomorrow and engineer. In
my own youth, far away in the dark backward and
abysm of time, the glory of every young American
was phthisic, with the English proper name,
Cholmondeley, a close second. Dr. Ogden proposes
to let the foreigners attempting Basic share the joy
of hunting down such basilisks. For the rest, he
leaves the snarls of English spelling to the
judgments of a just God, and the natural tendency of
all things Anglo-Saxon to move toward an ultimate
perfection. Unluckily, his Basic now has a number
of competitors on its own ground,8 and it must also
meet the competition of the so-called universal
languages, beginning with Volapuk (1880) and
Esperanto (1887) and running down to Idiom
Neutral (1848), Ido (1907), Interlingua (1908), and
Novial, invented by Dr. Jespersen (1928).9 Some of
these languages, and notably Esperanto and Novial,
show a great ingenuity, and all of them have enthusiastic
customers who believe that they are about to
be adopted generally. There are also persons who
hold that some such language is bound to come in
soon or late, though remaining doubtful about all
those proposed so far—for example, Dr. Shenton,
who closes his Cosmopolitan Conversation, by
proposing that the
proponents of Esperanto, Interlingua, Novial and
the rest come together in a conference of their own,
and devise "a neutral,
synthetic, international auxiliary language" that will
really conquer the world.
But this, I believe, is only a hope, and no man
now born will ever see it realized. The trouble with
all the "universal" languages is that the Juices of
life are simply not in them. They are the creations
of scholars drowning in murky oceans of dead
prefixes and suffixes, and so they fail to meet the
needs of a highly
human world. People do not yearn for a generalized
articulateness; what they want is the capacity to
communicate with definite other people, To that end even
Basic for all its deficiencies, is better than any conceivable
Esperanto, for it at least springs from a living speech, and
behind that speech are nearly 200 million men and
women, many of them amusing and some of them wise.
The larger the gang, the larger the numbers of both
classes. English forges ahead of all its competitors,
whether natural or unnatural, simply because it is already
spoken by more than half of all the people in the world who
may be said with any plausibility, to be worth knowing.
After the late war I went to Berlin full of a firm
determination to improve my German, always extremely
anemic. I failed to get anywhere because virtually all the
Germans who interested me spoke very good English.
During the same time many other men were having the
same experience—one of them being John Cournos, the
English novelist. "Nothing annoyed me more," he said
:afterward, "than the frequency with which my inquiries of
the man in the street for direction, made in atrocious
German, elicited replies in perfect English." A few years
later Dr. Knut Sanstedt, general secretary to the Northern
Peace Union, sent a circular to a number of representative
European publicists, asking them "what language, dead or
living or artificial" they preferred for international
communications. Not one of these publicists was a native
or resident of the British Isles, yet out of fifty-nine who
replied thirty voted for English. Of the six Swedes, all
referred it; of the seven Norwegians, five; of the five Hollanders,
four. Among the whole fifty-nine, only one man
voted for Esperanto.
5. By Henry L. Mencken, Author and Editor. From his book The
American Language. p. 603-7. Copyright, Alfred A. Knopf. New
6. Among its most ardent partisans is Mr. Crombie Allen, one of the
dignitaries of Rotary International. He printed its 850 words on the
back of his New
Year's card for 1935. and says under date of May 6, 1935:
"Alighting a plane on a 20,000-mile airplane tour of Rotary Clubs
in Latin America after flying across the Andes, I found. the club at
Mendoza (Argentina) studying from my New Year's greeting."
The sharpest criticism is in A Critical Examination of Basic
P. West, E. Swenson and others; Toronto, 1934. The authors argue
that vocabulary of Basic, when all the various forms and different
are counted in, really runs to 3925 words. See also
Thought and Language by P. Ballard; London. 1934, p.
166ff. and "Basic and World English
by Janet Rankin Aiken, American Speech, December 1933. In "A New
Kind of English," American Mercury. April 1933. Dr. Aiken takes
what seems to be a rather more favorable view. The latter article is
written in Basic.
8. One is Swenson English, invented by Miss Elaine Swenson, chief
of the Language Research Institute at New York University.
Another is the invention of H. E. Palmer. educational adviser to
the Japanese Department of Education and chief of the Institute for
Research in English Teaching, Tokyo. The latter has been called Iret,
after the initials of the institute. Both are examined critically in
"English as the International Language," by Janet Rankin Aiken
American Speech. April 1954. Dr. Aiken has herself lately (1935)
put forward a rival to Basic under the name of Little English. It
has a vocabulary of 800 words, or 50 less than Basic.
9. The latest is Panamane (1954). invented by Manuel E. Amador,
P. 0. Box 1055, Panama, R.P., son of the first President of
Panama. It seems to be a mixture of English and Spanish. Here is
the first sentence of Lincoln's Gettisburgo Adress, translated by
Senor Amador himself: "Kat skori ed sept yaryen ahgeo noa
padri brenguuh foth aupan esty kontinente un floe nasione
konsibo na iibertya ed dcdiso am propossya ke tui manni son kreo
THE GIFT OF ONE COMMON TONGUE 10
Several years ago I was stationed in the Dominican Republic, where the United States was engaged in rebuilding a collapsed government. The language of that country is Spanish. One afternoon I was riding towards the town of San Pedro de Macoris, accompanied by another officer who had been in the country for about two years. As I was a new arrival I did not know my way about, but it was evident from the position of the sun that we were not traveling in the right direction. So I asked my companion to ride to where some natives were working in a field and inquire the right trail. He engaged the natives in a conversation that seemed to be a little heated, and too long for the simple question involved, so I started towards them to see what was the matter. Suddenly he wheeled and trotted back to me, saying in a disgusted tone: "Colonel, you would hardly believe it, but not one of those natives understands a word of English !" I asked if he spoke Spanish, and when he replied in the negative I rode to where the Dominicans were and asked the way. In a few seconds they pointed the right trail out to me and we proceeded on our way. Later I asked my companion if he spoke French and Haitian Creole. Of course there was no reason why "bush" Dominicans should be expected to speak anything but their own language, but the point I wish to bring out is that in that group four languages were understood, English, French, Creole and Spanish, but the two parties could not converse because none was common to them.
Much of the wastage of the world is caused by lack of understanding. In our efforts to promote peace and its arts it seems folly to overlook so simple and easy a device as agreement upon a common medium of expression. Our civilization reminds me of the Tower of Babel. This does not mean that all nations should speak a single tongue, but that it would simplify human intercourse if the nations would agree upon one tongue to be used in addition to their own. Think of the time saved in the
study of languages, and the better understanding that would follow in the interests of commerce, education, human relations and peace. Let me turn the subject over a bit, in a personal sort of way, illustrating from my own experience the needless effort and confusion due to nothing but lack of agreement.
In 1916 I was crossing Siberia, en route from Peking to Petrograd. English and French had seen me safely through Mukden, Chang Chung and Harbin. As evening drew on after leaving Harbin I became interested in the question of dinner, and eventually gathered some information by the simple process of pointing to my open mouth and then to my watch. The train conductor looked as though he were undecided whether to put me off or lock me up, but another passenger laughed and placed the tip of his finger on the number six. He then made motions of handling a knife and fork and I nodded. The look of suspicion left the face of the conductor, and some of the passengers seemed to be sorry the exhibition was over. Word must have been passed along the train that some kind of a crazy foreigner was on board because people kept passing for the obvious purpose of looking at me. After a time a swarthy individual was ushered up by several helpful passengers, and he addressed me in what was evidently Italian. I replied in English and in French, and then in Spanish. He understood that tongue as badly as I did, but managed to answer my questions and give me some information. He was an Italian who had been in business in Russia for many years. Suppose we analyze this situation a little bit. There was an Italian, translating from Russian into Spanish, for the benefit of an American ! I do not know how many other languages he spoke, but they were useless in this particular case, as were the French and German of the American. The reason for German not being mentioned before will be explained in a moment.
Several days later (it took ten days from Peking to Petrograd) a bearded individual boarded the train and was put into the compartment with me. I waited with some amusement for his first effort at conversation. After moving about and fidgeting for several minutes he faced me and spoke in Russian. I replied in English, and he shook his head and said "niet, niet!" Then
he tried another. I caught the sounds of "por Polski" and answered, this time in French, saying I could not speak Polish. He then made a series of noises that I have never been able to identify, and I copied him to the extent of shaking my head and saying "niet, niet!" But this was a fellow of resource. He looked out in the corridor and after assuring himself that no one would hear he whispered: "Sprechen Sie Deutscb ?" I admitted that I did, but mentioned the fact that there was a fine of two thousand rubles for speaking German during the war. He said that did not make any difference if nobody heard it! The point here is that our understanding was found in the German tongue, and the study of all other tongues was, so far as we were concerned, wasted effort.
A Dane traveled with us from Omsk to Petrograd. He was a brilliant sort of man. Half the passengers on the train seemed to know and like him. He was manager of one of the Asiatic offices of the Danish cable company, but had lived for years in Russia proper. His use of English was flawless, including humor and slang, but he said he was more at home in Russian because he had never been in an English-speaking country. He did not consider himself a linguist, although he was accustomed to transacting business in English, Russian, Polish, French, modern Greek, "a little Turkish," and "naturally in Norwegian and Swedish because I am a Dane," and "of course everybody has to know German." Consider the years of that man's busy life that had been necessarily wasted in fitting himself to conduct his business! And with all those languages at his tongue's end he would have been totally lost had he gone to South America where the languages are Spanish and Portuguese. Indeed the human race has too much difficulty in communicating with itself!
When the war broke out in the summer of 1914, I was traveling in Norway with some of my family. The town of Trondhjem, northern terminus of the railroad, was packed with the people of many lands, all talking at once and trying to find out how they were to get back home. After seeing to the wants of my own party I was standing in the door of the hotel waiting for time to leave. A Frenchman and two ladies attacked the head porter with a volley of language. They seemed to be in a
frenzy to get information about a certain train. But there was no mental contact. The porter waved his arms and spoke in Norwegian. He had the necessary information, and was willing to give it, but he did not know what was wanted. I stepped over and asked him if he understood German. He did. Then I asked the questions the French family had been asking. In a few moments the situation was clear. At the time this did not seem to be a complicated matter; it meant no more than a little translating. But it was complicated, unnecessarily so. In order that two people could exchange ideas and information it took three races and four languages!
A similar situation arose sometime in 1917, when I was going from Sweden to Denmark by way of Helsingborg-Helsingor. Just ahead of me in the line was a man with a Russian passport and the Danish official could not read it. He asked the man for his name, residence and occupation. I knew what the Dane was saying, and as I had learned some Russian since my Siberian experience I translated it into that tongue. Upon my questions being answered the problem was to convey the information to the Danish official. I happened to understand what he had said, but I could not speak a word of Danish. I tried him in English and French without success, but the inevitable "Sprechen Sie Deutsch" made contact. A few simple questions and answers, using the American as a clearing house, connected the Dane with the Russian by means of the German tongue. The Russian was the only one of us who used his own language exclusively. The Dane and I spoke German no more than comprehendingly. The Dane thought in his own language, translated that into German and passed it on to me. I received it in German, mentally put it into English, translated that into Russian, and passed the result to the man who needed it. He used nothing but Russian. I received his reply in that language, turned it into my own language, translated that into German, and passed the idea on to the Dane who promptly put it into Danish.
All of this recalls an incident that took place about thirty years ago and had been forgotten. It was probably the first time I was at all impressed by the complicated problems of language, and my mind reverts to it as an illustration that seems almost
impossible. I was traveling on the continent of Europe, probably in Germany. In the compartment with me were three men of whose nationality I am now doubtful. Somebody started speaking in languages none of the others understood. As I now recall it he tried to open conversation in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. That makes three languages. Another spoke in Russian, and at least one other tongue that I could not identify. That makes a total of five languages. The third man was an Italian or a Greek; he spoke, in both languages, and in Turkish, I suppose, because he kept mentioning Constantinople; he also spoke in Spanish. That makes four more languages, and a total of nine. I tried English, French and German (at that time I knew no Spanish or Russian). This makes a total of twelve languages that were spoken by four men, and they could not understand each other!
It seems to me that something is lacking in our basic civilization, or that we are building our civilization by much the same methods employed at the Tower of Babel. We struggled to rear it with all that we have except common understanding. We are bridging geographical distance but not mental distance. Whenever there is an international gathering the language must be agreed upon, and then there must be varied and assorted interpreters to see that the members get the straight of what is being said and done. The agreements, treaties, decisions, conclusions, call them what you will, must be made in the language agreed upon and then translated into every other language that is represented at the gathering. The official language for such things is usually French, but that is not the language in which the document will be presented to the United States Senate for ratification, or in which it will be explained to the American people. Will the Americans get the same meaning and sense from their translation that the people of the Argentine Republic, Japan, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany, Siam and all the confused mixture of nations and races get from theirs? And will all these receive the same understanding as the people of France, in whose language the original document was written? I do not know. I would not presume to say, but I have a working knowledge of several languages, which causes me to doubt it. But if there was one
language in which all their representatives had a common mastery dome at least of the misunderstandings could be fended against at the point where these misunderstandings had their roots- namely the meeting at which the agreement was drafted.
There are doubtless incidents of record where international complications have arisen because of a lack of common speech. Should this be the case they will probably be carefully guarded for political or diplomatic reasons until some one who is more facile in such intricacies than I can bring them to light. There has recently been, however, a spectacular event in the Capitol in Washington that will serve, to some extent, to illustrate the point. On Wednesday, April 7, last, the delegates to the Pan American Congress of Journalists paid a visit to the United States Senate,
where they were officially made welcome in a speech delivered by Hiram Bingham of Connecticut who, after some appropriate remarks made in English, and after expressing his regret at not being able to speak in Portuguese for the benefit of the representatives from Brazil, launched into a fluent and graceful address in the Spanish language. This was greeted with grateful
and probably astonished applause from the visiting Latin Americans. Later during the same day the journalists paid a visit to
House of Representatives, and were greeted by Congressman Harry M. Wurzbach of Texas, who prefaced his courteous address by saying: "Mr. Speaker, I shall now, in behalf and in the name of the House of Representatives, express a few words of greeting in the Spanish language to our most welcome guests." Mr. Wurzbach was followed by Felix C. Davila, who also spoke in Spanish. All these addresses had to be translated into English before they could be understood by any except the visiting Latin Americans, in spite of the fact that they were delivered officially from the floors of the American Congress.
There is too much room for differences and misunderstandings. Too much effort is required for the bare necessities of comprehending. Human beings cannot engage in commerce and make agreements until they understand each other, and this barrier is more difficult to overcome than the technique of the business in which they engage. In the same way that the telephone, telegraph, cable and radio bridge the physical distance
that separates man from man, so would a common language bridge the mental distance that separates mind from mind, and I think that distance is the greater and more important of the two. My suggestion is not to replace any language, but to agree upon some one language as a means of common international communication, to the end that in commerce, diplomacy, politics and society at large, there would never be any necessity for any one to learn more than that one language in addition to his own. But what language?
Although one would naturally prefer to select his own for this purpose there are some cogent reasons why I will not do so. This question would involve the entire world, and its convenience must be considered. English is too complicated, and too unreasonable in its method of spelling; it has too many words of double meaning, and too much accepted slang for that ease and simplicity of expression that is needed for profitable communication, especially among foreigners. And again, there are reasons that pertain equally in the case of French, German and Italian. None of these could be agreed upon because of opposition on the part of all the others. To select one of these might unbalance some kind of a balance, a balance of commerce, balance of power, or a balance of prestige somewhere. There seem to be a good many things to consider besides the philology involved.
From time to time the language of some politically dominant nation has, by virtue of its necessity, risen to almost international acceptance. But it should be remembered that this supremacy was due to necessity and not to choice, or to recognized need for standard communication. For many years English was the trading language of the world because the English people did more than any others to discover and develop foreign trade. Just before the Great War the German tongue was making rapid advances in world commerce, keeping pace with the expansion of German trade. Since then, however, English has regained its old importance, and possibly a little added prestige, largely because of the commercial efforts of the United States. By common agreement French is the generally accepted medium for diplomatic intercourse, although here, too, the growing political power of the English-speaking nations has caused their language to
menace French. The point I wish to make clear is that the rise and fall of any language has always been due to the political and commercial power of the country to which it was natural, and this shifting condition will continue to an increasing confusion until the use of some common language is sensibly agreed upon by a majority of nations.
This problem is by no means a new one. There have been at least three efforts made to solve it by means of constructed or artificial languages such as Volapük, Esperanto, and Idiom Neutral. But all efforts along artificial lines, no matter how excellent they may have been, have, nevertheless, proven fruitless. It is hard to obtain the barest information concerning them. . . . Three years of my service in the Marine Corps have been spent as an attaché to diplomatic offices, the embassy in Russia, and the legations in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. In addition to this my travels and experiences, both official and personal, have been decidedly varied, but I have never heard of any of these languages being of any use to anybody. I have never known anybody who knew anything about them, and I have never heard them discussed as a possibility for facilitating international communication. Such meager information as I have on the subject has been acquired by reading, for the purpose of gratifying my personal curiosity. In an effort to agitate the question of a common language I therefore eliminate the artificial languages in favor of some one already in natural use.
10. By Colonel J. C. Breckinridge, United States Marine Corps,. Survey. 56:
492-4. August 1, 1926.
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