logoOgden's Basic English

4. Basic English Compiled

by Julia E. Johnsen

EXCERPTS -- General Discussion

    Television is apparently above the horizon and a probable reality of this decade. If we suppose there is to go with television, as seems likely, telespeech, then all countries and peoples are brought to our doorstep, and we may live with Germans and Frenchmen as next door neighbors. Such a consummation must surely mean much for world peace and understanding. It makes a world language a necessity.
    -- Henry S. Curtis, formerly Director of Physical Education, State of Missouri. Education. Mr. '35. p.438.

    Two interesting experiments-one native and the other foreign-are being made to simplify English for use as an international auxiliary language. The native experiment is known as Basic English, and is the result of some ten years of research carried on at Cambridge by Mr. C. K. Ogden of Magdalene. . . . The foreign experiment is Anglic, the name given to the simplified form of English spelling used in Sweden for teaching English.
    Several prominent business and academic men in Sweden have decided to lend their support to the movement for making English the international auxiliary language, and a fund has been established for the purpose of furthering the movement. English is to be taught not only in the schools of Sweden, but in evening continuation schools that cater to adults. Lessons are given daily in some of the Swedish newspapers, and gramaphone records of modern English speech, made here in London, are used, as they are universally used nowadays in the teaching of languages, to reinforce oral instruction.
    The movement is not merely a step toward a more extensive study of English in Sweden; it goes further. The Swedes say that English spelling is a hindrance to the study of English, and here most modern well informed opinion seems to be on their side; therefore, they are using a reformed or simplified spelling in order to get their students more rapidly over the initial difficulties of pronunciation. The task of revising the spelling was entrusted to Professor Zachrisson of the University of Upsala, who, in view of his knowledge of our language, both ancient and modern, is conspicuously qualified for the task. The scheme originally put forward was submitted to representatives of both English and American societies interested in the question of spelling reform, and Professor Zachrisson brought his original proposals into line with the suggestions of these societies. The result is that the simplified spelling now being used in Sweden as a teaching device is one that can be supported both in this country and America.
    -- A. Lloyd James. Spectator (London). Ag. 15, '31. p.208.

    It is really remarkable what can be done with this apparently meager equipment and equally remarkable how easily it can be learned by one having no previous knowledge of English. As a possible "universal language"--that is, a second language for use in international intercourse by those whose native language is other than English--it has, in our inexpert opinion, more to recommend it than Esperanto or Ido or any of the many other ersatz languages which have been constructed on strictly scientific principles. Its one disadvantage for the purpose indicated is that it is English. It is conceivable that there are a good many people in the world who don't want to speak English, no matter how easy it is made, and who especially do not want to speak it in negotiating with those who know more English than they do. It would be like playing every game in every kind of diplomatic world series on our home grounds. For this reason Mr. Churchill's speech, which certainly had wide radio dissemination in all countries, may quite possibly be more a hindrance than a help to the promotion of Basic English as a world language. Those whose native language is French, or German, or Italian, or Spanish, or Russian, or the neutral Swedish—all of which languages are easy to those who learn them in the cradle, and could be made easy for everybody by reducing them to “Basic”—may suspect, not wholly without reason, that the Prime Minister’s sudden enthusiasm for Basic English veils a subtle scheme for Anglo-Americanizing the world of international business, culture and diplomacy. With no such sinister intentions, and perhaps Mr. Churchill had none, we could wish that some “Basic” language might find universal acceptance; and, since Mr. Ogden and Mr. Richards thought of it first and applied the method to English, it might as well be Basic English. But a campaign for that end would perhaps meet less sales resistance in Europe, Asia and South America if it were launched by someone other than a British Prime Minister.
    -— Christian Century. S. 22, ‘43. p.1060-i.

    The British Prime Minister’s public praise was the biggest boost any international language had ever received. Already, Churchill had persuaded the British Cabinet to set up a committee of Ministers to study Basic’s success, its value, and the advisability of government financing for its spread. Some of the things the report-—to be made in three or four months-— probably will reveal are that at the outbreak of war Basic was being taught in thirty countries; that Rockefeller Foundation and Payne Fund grants have permitted important research at Harvard by a distinguished Commission on English Language Studie.s; that some fifty books (including the New Testament in 1,000 words) have been translated into Basic; and that it is already being widely used by international organizations in foreign trade, and in international radio.
    Advantages : Proponents insist that as a world language Basic tops all other attempts because it stems from a tongue spoken by 200,000,000 people, has a background of spontaneous growth, and leads into a rich literature—none of which can be said for an artificial language like Esperanto. As the speech of the American melting pot, regular English has bridged cultures, while Basic has spread over wide geographical areas (its greatest success has been in India, and even low pidgin has spread rapidly through the South Pacific and across Malaya). Other arguments: English can be made the easiest language for learners, and sloughing off endings for simplification doesn’t mangle it as a Romance language would be mangled. Among its stanchest supporters are H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Julian Huxley, and Ivy Litvinoff.
    Disadvantages : The bitterest charge against Basic-—whose opponents come chiefly from the ranks of those who advocate another international language-—is that it represents “cultural imperialism.” (Winston Churchill said in his speech: “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” By this argument, Esperanto, or any of the other 325 projected universal tongues which do not have a base language, would be superior because they are not only impartial, but are broad enough to lend a brilliance of expression which its limited vocabulary denies to Basic. Churchill himself, like other English-speaking persons, would find the habit of leaving out words far more difficult than the learning of a new language. With singular glee, its opponents like to point to the “clumsiness” of Basic. “The officer led his soldiers against the enemy, but the enemy stood firm” would, they said, read like this: “The person in military authority was the guide of his men in the army against the nation at war, but the not-friends stood solidly upright.” But to this C. K. Ogden snapped back his own translation: “The lieutenant went in front of his men to the attack, but the other side did not give way.”
   —- Newsweek. S. 20, ‘43. p. 82-4.

    Referring to the results obtained by the use of the Cherokee alphabet of Oklahoma, the Cree alphabet of Canada, and others as proof that one can be taught to “write, print, and read his own language” in an astonishingly short time and calling attention to the fact that expert linguists, as reported by Lepsius, found “only about 50 primary vocal sounds employed in 600 languages and dialects, including those of Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere,” R. L. Owen, former senator from Oklahoma, proposes a “global alphabet” that would reduce to one speech the multitudinous languages of the world.
    Forced as we now are to communicate with nations, peoples, and tribes whose tongues we do not understand, Mr. Owen, in the twinkling of an eye, so to speak, would change all that by teaching the English language to the whole world. There would be no such confusion as now exists in the teaching of English, with its enigmatic spellings and silent letters. The 41 “phonetic” symbols of the global alphabet each representing “one inmutable sound” would cover every word in Webster’s Unabridged. The name of each letter is identical with the sound it stands for, and, according to Mr. Owen, the language that requires more than 40 phonetic letters is rare. “All the modern languages combined do not include over 58 distinct, primary, elemental, vocal sounds.” He goes on to say:
    In phonetic spelling by syllables, spelling presents no difficulty and requires only the memory of the 41 letters. . . . The phonetic spelling of the global alphabet with accurate pronunciation would stabilize speech. . . .
    In applying this system to writing a foreign language, the sounds of the letters or symbols should be expressed in terms of the words employed in the foreign language using the system. Probably every single sound in English has a corresponding sound in Chinese or Russian, . . . [but] this system has provided 16 unallocated letters which can be employed to print 16 additional, elemental sounds or tones.
    The Global Alphabet opens wide the door to illiterates.
    The Global Alphabet comprises a mechanical agency through which to make effective the dream of the great men now leading the people of the United Nations in a struggle for peace, abundance, good will, justice, and happiness. The Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter . . . could be quickly put before the world by this system.
    The experience of Turkey in changing to the Roman alphabet and then adopting a strictly phonetic spelling of Turkish words is interesting in this connection. Turkey has been remarkably successful in reducing illiteracy by this means.
    -- “Can Our Babel of Tongues Be Systematized?” School and Society. Jl. 24, ‘43. p. 52-3.

    English may become the world language after the war if recommendations of a committee composed of representatives of the Ministers of Education of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia, and of the Commissioner of Education for Fighting Forces are approved.
    The committee, which was set up on the initiative of the Netherlands Minister of Education, M. Gerrit Bolkestein, recommends:
    That English or French be introduced into the higher forms of the elementary schools of the European allies as a compulsory subject; that the teaching of English be strengthened as far as possible in all schools, in view of the part it will play in postwar international intercourse; that only English and French be used in international meetings and congresses; that all publications intended for an international public be either published in English and French or be accompanied by substantial summaries in English and French.
The report of the committee states:
    International cooperation has been greatly hampered by the linguistic conditions of the modem world. It is obvious that if there could be general agreement on the choice of an auxiliary language, the efforts to develop mutual cooperation and understanding would have a medium which so far has been lacking. It cannot, in itself, be expected to be a guarantee against conflicts. Modern history knows of many conflicts between peoples of the same language. But a conscious and purposeful effort to promote international understanding could not be fully effective if it was hampered by linguistic difficulties.
    Such an effort must aim at reaching the whole people and not only the educated classes. The auxiliary language must therefore be taught in the higher forms of the elementary schools. The introduction of a foreign language into the curriculum of the primary schools of Europe ought to be no impossibility. For many years English has been taught during the last two years of the primary schools of the towns and the populous country districts of Norway. The members of the committee felt that it would be possible to introduce an auxiliary language into the elementary schools of the countries they represented.
    It is obvious that those countries which choose English as their main foreign language will still be in need of French. It is therefore to be hoped that the teaching of French in the secondary schools of those countries will not be reduced. The committee would further recommend that the governments of the European allies impress upon the governments of the English-speaking cojlntries the desirability of having French introduced into their primary schools. Unless this is done, future international cooperation will be a too one-sided affair.
    The committee studied the question of a world language, not with the intention of substituting existing languages, but with, the object of reaching agreement on an auxiLiary language which should be carefully selected by each government in its own country and made compulsory for all students in all educational establishments.
    —- Times (London) Educational Supplement. Jl. 31, ‘43. p. 364.

    As compared with most other languages English has the enormous advantage of grammatical simplicity. There are no genders for nouns, and an adjective takes the same form whether applied to a male or a female. The conjugation of verbs is also extremely simple. As a result the student of English has practically no grammar to learn. In addition, from the European point of view, English has the great advantage that it more or less represents an amalgam of languages. It is largely Scandinavian in origin, but also embodies a vast number of words directly derived from Latin, and many others coming to us from France and Italy, besides not a few coming from Germany. This language, thus built up from widely varying European sources, possesses a magnificent literature, unsurpassed by that of any other language in the world.
    From [various] points of view English is an ideal language as an international medium. The trouble lies solely in the fact that our spelling and pronunciation have practically no relation to one another. Attention was called to this fact by the late Lord Cromer in a poem published in the Spectator of August 9th, 1902:—
The last two lines concisely sum up the whole trouble. It is impossible for the foreigner to guess in advance the pronunciation of an immense number of English words, and the same consideration applies to the English child. Of recent years several English teachers have made experiments with phonetic alphabets, and these experiments show that if a child is first taught to read the English language in a phonetically printed form it can very quickly pass to English as ordinarily spelt, and the double process takes less time than the single process of teaching our bad spelling. It may safely be assumed that foreigners would equally profit if they were provided in their first study of English with books phonetically printed.
    The framing of a scientific alphabet is not really so serious a matter as it sounds, for we already have in the Oxford English Dictionary an excellent basis to work upon. Indeed, that alphabet, with comparatively few modifications, might admirably serve the necessary purpose. The suggestion here made is that the Government should appoint a commission to consider and sanction a scientific alphabet for use in English schools, in order to teach English children the proper pronunciation of their own language and also to assist them in learning to read English more rapidly than they can learn at present. Such an alphabet would automatically become available for the use of foreigners, and the strides that the English language is making on the Continent indicate how greatly it would be valued.
    It would be of immense service in India, where English is the only common language available for 300 million people. The proposed scientific alphabet for English could also, with the addition of a few extra letters, be used to represent in Roman characters the various indigenous languages of India, now written in scripts, each of which is entirely unintelligible to the users of other Indian languages. The same alphabet with one or two additions could be used for teaching correct pronunciation of the different European languages. But the greatest gain from the establishment of a scientific English alphabet would be that the English language would then become easy to learn by the peoples of all countries. The world would thus acquire an international medium of communication which, would be of immense commercial and social value both to ourselves and to other nations.
    -— Harold Cox, British Journalist. Spectator (London). My. 10, ‘30. p. 775-6.

    Among the important problems of an international kind to be promoted now and after the war is that of a means of expression in a language easily learned and used by all civilized peoples of the world. The International Morse Code of signals is an example of an accepted system of alphabetical and numerical communication, and what is wanted now is an auxiliary vehicle of language which will be as widely understood. The subject of an international auxiliary language has long been under discussion, but we seem to be no nearer agreement as to what this language should be than we were after the last war. In 1921, the British Association published a careful and comprehensive report on this subject, prepared by a committee representing humanistic as well as scientific interests, and in collaboration with the chief associations concerned with classical and modern languages as well as by consultation with a number of learned societies.
    The British Association Committee was appointed after the International Research Council, at a meeting in Brussels in 1919, had taken up the question of an international auxiliary language and recommended the formation of an international committee to inquire into the position and outlook of the subject. It was hoped that a central international organization would be formed, under the League of Nations, and be empowered to make the final selection of the international auxiliary language, if feasible, and to take measures to insure for it the greatest possible degree of stability. Chairmen were appointed to represent national committees for France, Italy, Japan and Belgium, and the chairman of the British Association Committee undertook to represent Great Britain on the Committee of the International Research Council.
    The desirability of an International Auxiliary Language having been unanimously approved by the British Association Committee, attention was given to the advantages and disadvantages of the following three types:
  1. A dead language, for example, Latin;
  2. A national language, for example, English;
  3. An invented or artificial language, for example, Esperanto and Ido.
    The claims for the use of each of these languages as an International Auxiliary Language were justly and concisely stated by their own specialists in the report of the Committee. After careful consideration of this and other evidence from high authorities at home and abroad, the Committee found itself unable to pronounce judgment in favor of a particular auxiliary language for international use. The conclusions reached may be expressed as follows:
    1. Latin is too difficult to serve as an International Auxiliary Language, and its advantages are outweighed by its disadvantages.
    2. The great international languages of the past have all borne the marks of imperial prestige which prevented them from being welcomed by alien races. The adoption of any modem national language by the common consent of the chief nations is therefore unlikely, as it would confer undue advantages and excite jealousy, however impartial the promoters of the language might be.
    3. Invented languages constructed on scientific principles and adaptable to many diverse requirements are practicable means of international communication. They are neutral and have advantages of simplicity not possessed by most national languages. What auxiliary language of this kind will meet with general approval remains to be decided by international agreement.
    In the interest of international communication and the free expression of ideas, it is to be hoped that academic as well as scientific and commercial organizations will assist in the movement towards an agreed auxiliary language. A committee of the British Association on Postwar University Education has dealt with the subject recently in one of the sections of its report. It recommends that apart altogether from the academic study of language and literature, every university should require its students to be able to make themselves understood, by speech and writing, in an auxiliary international language. The Committee suggests that the Universities Bureau of the British Empire, in consultation with the American Universities Bureau and the Association of University Professors and Lecturers of Allied Countries in Great Britain, could take up the subject very appropriately and prepare a report upon it. There is no better way of promoting interrelationships between the peoples of the world than that of a simple common language; and the construction of such an instrument should not be beyond the powers of responsible authorities—literary, scientific and commercial— working together in a common and needful purpose.
    —- Sir Richard Gregory, Bt., F.R.S. Association of Special Libraries and In formations Bureaux. Report of Proceedings, 1942. p. 18-19.

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