logoOgden's Basic English

5 Basic English Compiled

by Julia E. Johnsen



    There has been a growing wave of curiosity about "this Basic English" in the last few years. Newspaper and magazine articles about it, its first use in this country for international radio, and widespread interest in the Basic classes of the Massachusetts State Department of Adult Alien Education have all been responsible for this. Basic is commonly taken to be anything from a sort of pidgin English to a philologists' brew of Anglo-Saxon roots. Mention of it is often met with wrinkled brows and confusion. The writers of this report are, therefore, undertaking to answer the most usual questions without in any sense attempting to give an exhaustive account of it.
    In a word, Basic English is a selection of 850 English words with simple rules for putting them together which make it possible for a learner to build up his knowledge of English, both vocabulary and structure, from a basis of the most fundamental ingredients of the language, with the greatest possible economy of both time and effort. If he does not want to go on studying when he has been through the system, he has enough English for writing letters, for reading considerably more than he could at the end of any ordinary stage of learning English, and for making statements, either in writing or talking, about any state of affairs which concerns him-all in good, smooth English. If he does go on and wants full command of the language as a whole, the step is a natural one, and he may go on increasing his knowledge as far as he likes on the basis of what he has already learned, defining each new word and explaining each new use of an old word in terms of the Basic which was his first step. Before moving on to the rest of the language he has had practice in the effective use of a representative part of English and discovers that the rest of the words work and go together according to the patterns with which he has already become familiar.
    The three uses to which Basic is, and may logically be put, are implied in these statements. Its inventor, Mr. C. K. Ogden of Cambridge University in England, discovered in the course of his work in the new linguistic science which is beginning to be known as "Semantics," that English had several structural features which made it susceptible to analysis and reduction to a very small number of words in terms of which it was possible to talk about all our usual objects of thought. This meant that a minimum vocabulary of maximum efficiency was buried, as it were, in the rich soil of English. Among other important things, it meant that English, which is already the chief language of international science and trade could be made a severely practical, compact, and entirely adequate instrument for international communication. So it [Basic English] was designed first of all as an auxiliary international language. For this purpose it was necessary that it be capable of handling the common everyday interests and needs of men and women, and the daily matter of business, trade and science in such a way as to get across clearly and directly whatever was being talked about with the least possible burden to speaker, listener, reader, or writer. It need not--and to be entirely practical should not--include a wealth of different ways of saying the same thing, or keep all the accessories of emotional value which gives the language its power in literature and in propaganda. It must rather have whatever is necessary to the plain sense, with conveniences but no frills. That it is designed for this very practical function, and not in any sense as a substitute for literary English, is a point which seems clear enough but is often missed. Basic is not trying to deprive anyone of Shakespeare who wants and can understand it. It is simply offering an alternative to people who want to use English as a direct means of communication and are not primarily concerned with it as a literary medium. And this is just its importance to scientists, business men, and others who are concerned with international conversations. They can get to the point without worrying about literary flourishes (the literary use of language in this sort of communication is usually little more than a flourish, as the Basic books on science and economics suggest). And they can get to the point in such a way that they have more than the usual chances of being understood by their colleagues in other countries.
    Obviously any language designed for international use must put the difficulties of learning and teaching at a minimum. The simplicity of Basic for teaching is as root and branch to its efficiency for international science and business. Its importance for teachers of English as a foreign language is that it represents an arrangement of English which puts first things first and everything in order as no previous analysis of English has. It is a sort of boiling down of English to, its essentials, and reveals those essentials as being fundamentally quite simple and quite regular. The vocabulary is a nucleus of 850 words, most of which can be taught in their first and root senses by pictures, pointing, or going through the motions. Six hundred of these are names of things, either real things in the material world, or "fictitious" things which have no existence as objects which can be pointed to, but which for convenience we talk about as though they were things-words like "belief," "hope," and "Society." One hundred and fifty are names of qualities, mostly given in pairs of opposites, such as "first - last," "early - late." (Basic encourages teaching words in logical groupings -- it is possible to carry grouping by opposites into the nouns (front - back) and the prepositions (before - after, over - under) and the verbs come - go, etc.)
    One hundred more are the words necessary for putting the others into operation. These are names of acts and directions, or "verbs" and "prepositions" and a number of words which, although luxuries in an economical system (they could be replaced by other words already in the Basic list), are kept for convenience and smoothness.
    The fact that there are only sixteen of what we usually call verbs to be conjugated fully is the most startling thing about the wordlist at first glance, and is one of the first causes of questions from people who think that here is something radical being done. It is not, in fact, as revolutionary as it looks. Mr. Ogden's analysis of the verb, when it is understood, throws new light on the structure of English meanings for those who are interested, and makes possible a word economy which would not otherwise have been attainable. It also makes possible the simplicity of the rules for putting the words together, rules more regular than would be possible in the case of any other natural language. Grammar is explained with reference to what is being said rather than to abstract principles. We ordinarily talk about things, the operations we perform on things, the direction in which we perform them, and characteristic word order is based on the actual order in which we do these things. Therefore, it is taught in Basic, in the first instance, by patterns, such as, "I will give good food to the girls now," in which the person doing it comes first, then the time word [will] (when he does it), then what he does, then what he does it to, and so on. The Basic word-wheel, or "Panopticon" which has a number of each sort of words printed on concentric discs with the "I," or the person doing it as the center, is a device which many students have found helpful in learning how to build sentences. The sentences which are automatically formed by turns of the discs are, or are not, good English according to whether they make sense with relation to the way things behave in the real world. For instance, "I will give able food on the girls yesterday," which might be made by moving three of the discs, is not good English because, if we know at all what the words mean, food is not one of the things which can be "able," the act of giving food on the girls is absurd, and "will" and "yesterday" do not refer to the same sort of time. It is a practice with sense and nonsense which is useful for increasing control of the words learned as well as giving a sense of word-order patterns. From this first sample base of uniform word order, the word-wheel may help a student gradually to competent use of all the variations from this standard pattern which are acceptable in English style.
    Basic also has a good deal to say about how, in talking, these sentences may be made to sound like English, with English rhythms and English emphasis. The difficulties, of English pronunciation and English stress have been much discussed. Basic may prove to be the path through the woods for those who are venturing into spoken English for the first time. It gives suggestions about sounds which are as basic as its analysis of meanings. This is not the place to go into details, but a quotation from one of Mr. Ogden’s brief explanations (in Basic) will give the idea:
In an English of 10,000 words—or even 2,000—rules for what little is regular are not much help; and when the teaching of English has no special relation to its structure, or to the sense and purpose of every unit in that structure, the learning of unnecessary tricks gives the memory more than enough to do even without the addition of the current theories of rhythm. In Basic, the number of words is so small, and their behaviour so straightforward, that rules are possible which would have little value, as such, for any other selection from the English language.
    To get a natural effect, force or weight has to be put on the right words for the sense, and on the right division of the word for the sound. Every English word with more than one sound division (let-ter, di-vi-sion) is weighted on one or other of these—by force of breath or muscle. So first we have to give a rule for this.
    Only 337 of the 850 have more than one division, and the rule is : The weight is on the part before the last.
    No less than 254 of the 337 are covered by this rule; and here are examples from every group (of two, three, and four divisions):
    All but 22 of the rest come under three simple heads; and the 22 which might give trouble take less than half a minute on a record.
    The first business of the learner is clearly to get the sounds of the words right. If the weight is not on the right part, the effect may be quite as unnatural as an error in the sound itself. But in addition to this, there are two rules for weighting words when they are put together in statements. It is not enough to say the words one after another like a wordlist because  (a) any word may be given special force to make the sense clearer, and  (b) some very frequent little words are generally given much less force than is normal. So the rules for weighting words in statements, to get nearer to the English way of talking are :
    1. Put force on at least one word in every 10—the word which the sense makes most important.
    2. Let the 12 words which are only weighted for some special reason be joined in sound to the word which comes after them.
    For example : “I will give a good rule to the boy slowly.” That is to say, I will give it to the boy and not to (as against) the girl.
    Almost every statement of ten words may be said in at least ten different ways; and the effect of the addition of force is chiefly to make the weighted word louder. Naturally, more than one word in a statement may be marked out in this way, but one will be enough to give quite an “English rhythm” to any statement. Certain ups and downs of the voice will probably be part of the effect, but we may let these changes take care of themselves as long as they are not the outcome of a sort of song-rhythm based on the special behaviour of some other language. Such song-rhythms have to be watched and taken out if they are seen to be very strong; but there are no rules for English “song” which are important enough to be forced on the learner’s attention—at any rate at the early stages.
    Basic Step by Step and The Basic Way to English are the lesson books in which the words are introduced, in simple statements, in their root picturable or actable senses, with the simple rules for making use of them given in clearly articulated steps, in natural logical groupings. The natural development of language learning is from simple pointing, at the level of a sign language, to the more complex needs of normal talk. As the steps progress in teaching Basic, the words in the earlier lessons come in repeatedly, as the sense of the new words is being made clear, and form an automatic drill. The use of Basic in this way, with vocabulary increased according to a regular and discernible system, insures that the words most necessary to English structure will be worked in over and over again so that the learner has them completely under control. As he goes on to later stages, where words begin to be used in expansions or specializations from their root senses, the new sense may be taught by reference back to the root. A good many of these expansions are metaphors, as, in all normal use of language, we take notions from physics and talk about “a man’s force of character,” or about "currents of thought,” or about “concrete proposals,” or the “expansion of a word’s sense.” In going from the simple sense to the expansion, a learner is in every case doing what he has always and probably unconsciously done in his own language, since every language grows naturally by metaphor, and he is at the same time taking the first steps in skilled manipulation of English. In the same way, when he is ready to go from Basic to the 851st word, and then on, the senses of all new words may be made clear in terms of the more regular and straightforward 850. There are further steps for different fields, taking the Basic learner on up to the 2000-word level. As he goes from one step to the next, he is moulding for himself a skeleton key which will open any door into the full language which his circumstances or interests may lead him to take. This is true because of the very real sense in which the system is basic-—in that it is composed of words which are the ingredients of all the ideas for which we normally use all the language, and not simply of those which most frequently occur in any chance selection of documents. They are the words with which all other words in English may be defined or explained.
    Because of this defining power, Basic has another importance for students who are not learning English as a foreign language, but who are learning to use their own language with discrimination, with awareness of its powers, with effect and with clear understanding. It gives them a surgeon’s knife with which they may dissect what is being said to them and what they are saying, and has proved to be a valuable part of their equipment in the clearer, more discerning use of language in writing and talking, and in the finer interpretation of what they read and hear. Anyone who puts a bit of English prose into Basic, whether it is Burke’s speech “On Conciliation,” or something of his own, finds himself forced to make explicit in his mind all the various things it might mean because, instead of explaining it in roughly parallel synonyms, as in the usual paraphrasing, it is necessary to unravel and state in other terms all that is implied in the words used in the original. Word by word translation into Basic is not usually possible if the translation is to make sense. It must be thought for thought, always keeping in mind what is being said by all the words used together in a sentence. The process throws a searching light on the care with which the thought of the bit of prose was woven together, the care with which one word was used instead of another. Because Basic frankly concentrates on words which are most useful for conveying the sense-- that is, whatever is being explicitly said-- a sort of subtraction of the effect of a Basic version of any ordinary English prose from the effect of the original will show the degree to which the language of the original was doing more than making statements, by at the same time expressing an attitude or subtly evoking an attitude in response.
    Important as these latter functions are for American education, they are actually by-products of Basic the international language and Basic the teaching medium, and therefore the present committee will give less space to them than they are tempted to in a sketch of Basic which was requested by American teachers. The uses of Basic are so interlocked that wherever the emphasis is being placed, its value for the other two purposes carries over to some extent, and whether student and teacher are always aware of it or not, it never quite performs one function to the exclusion of the other two, but is quickly making two blades of grass grow where one grew before. This is true because the three uses of Basic are not a diffusion of aims and a falling between stools nor in any sense a mere coincidence, but are all integral to it-the natural and inevitable result of the sort of linguistic analysis which has made Basic possible.
    The proof of all these statements, of course, is not more statement, but the fact that Basic actually does these things when it is intelligently put into operation. A number of things must be understood as a prerequisite of intelligent use of Basic. One has already been suggested, and that is that students of English who want more than enough for certain specified purposes must be made to see that they will not be limited in any way after the first two or three months, or however long it may take them to digest the Basic system. Basic does not impose limits on the English language, but offers them for occasions when a limited and efficient medium of communication is desirable. On the grounds that it is necessary to learn to walk before running, Basic offers a way of walking with balance rather than tottering with a limp. Wise teachers take advantage of this, and using it as a first step, keep away from more complex forms of language until the foundation is established. Then the full structure of English may be built up from it. If expansions beyond Basic are introduced before the Basic words and their functions are assimilated, confusion is sure to result and the advantages of the system vitiated. Basic is simple in structure, and is highly effective for several rather important purposes; it is not a patent medicine, cannot perform miracles and does not take all the effort out of learning a language--any more than the "touch system" takes the effort out of learning to type. The usual conditions of learning hold, and work is required on the part of the teacher and student if the advantages of the system are to take effect. As in the touch system of typing when compared to the "two-finger hunt and peck," the effort is less in the long run because it is systematic, and none of the effort is wasted-- though at first it may seem greater simply because it is a system, and therefore demands some concentration.
    Though no knowledge of the theory is necessary for the practical use of Basic, a teacher will be able to make its potentialities clearer if he has some understanding of how it came to be, how it is possible that so much can be done with 850 words, and why these 850 instead of any others which might have been selected on any other basis. For this reason some sketch of the general lines along which the analysis proceeded is in order here before going on to show more fully how it operates.
    Historically, Basic is the fruit of discerning insights into the nature of language by some of the great English thinkers from Francis Bacon down to Jeremy Bentham, whose theory of linguistic fictions and suggestions about the nature of the English verb were the starting point for C. K. Ogden's work. In 1920, Mr. Ogden began working with I. A. Richards, also of Magdalene College, Cambridge University, on the theory of language from which, during the next ten years, Basic English was to emerge. They were interested in the processes by which men understand the meanings of words enough to make communication possible, and misunderstand often enough to seem sometimes dangerously "to be talking different languages." They asked how a word is made to be the symbol of something to our minds--first of material things and physical acts, when the meaning of the symbol may be checked by direct reference to what it symbolizes; then of much more complex things, when it is harder to check back to what the symbol. stands for because of the infinite individual associations which have become tied up with it, and the complicated clusters of thoughts and feelings which it has been used to represent. Since it is impossible to watch a human mind at work as a doctor can watch the digestive system through a fluoroscope, the most objective record we can get of the way the mind functions is the way it uses its language for putting one mind in touch with another. Language might be called a sort of graph of the mind in action. Since we do manage to communicate with each other, however imperfectly, it is safe to assume that there are probably fairly common patterns by which words come to stand for our thoughts of things. A study of meaning patterns of some of the more complex symbols and their shifts as they are made apparent by context (such as the word "meaning" itself in which a wide variety of meanings have been, as it were, tied up in one bundle) would both verify this assumption and would give psychologists a new clue. This sort of dissection and spectroscopic study of word meanings involved a new and workmanlike scientific approach to language, not to its external history, which is the matter of philology, but to its internal mechanism, which is properly the matter of psychology.
    In the course of three years of work on problems of this kind, it became evident that English was in effect several languages at different levels of removal from references to physical things and operations, and that it was possible to an extraordinary degree to translate from one level to another. Translation from an abstract level to more descriptive or "operational" terms appeared even to be the direction in which the language was actually moving. Following this idea to its conclusion, it appeared that it would be possible to work down through the layers of language to a nucleus of not more than a hundred words which would, logically, be sufficient apparatus for talking about all the usual matter of discourse. It might not, of course, be either convenient or "expressive," but that it would be possible at all gave the hint that it might also be possible to strike a level between the logical minimum and the usual maximum, which would be convenient and sufficient for ordinary communication.
    From. that point on, Basic began to take shape. Mr. Ogden went back to Jeremy Bentham's theories of linguistic fictions and found there many signposts towards the language frame-work for which he was working. By 1929, the list of Basic words was first printed, approximately in its present form but with some slight differences. For the next two years, the list was tested for its powers of dealing with all sorts of material, and was carefully worked over before the complete system was put forward for the first time in Basic English in 1930. The staff of the Orthological Institute had the close collaboration of experts, English and foreign, in the various branches of science and economics, both in working out the preliminary list of international words and in checking the efficacy of the Basic system as a whole. By 1937, the first seventy books had been produced in Basic, including Basic school books with the details of the system developed for use by teachers. Within a short time, there will be a complete library, taking care of the different needs of all sorts of learners and giving the teachers the whole apparatus of Basic method, with pictures and suggestions about teaching natural English rhythms.
    There have already been a number of indications of the way in which the Basic analysis proceeded, by exploitation of natural analytic tendencies in the language, which, when discovered, gave the necessary clues. The reasons for its success may be outlined quite simply.
    Most of the words used in science, in technical jargon of all sorts, and in ordinary English are what may be called shorthand signs for other words. That is to say that they telescope a variably complex situation into one word, which takes the place of a number of other words more closely descriptive of the facts. The most important and numerous group of this sort of words are verbs, though a large number of common nouns may be descriptively factored out in somewhat the same way. There are roughly two kinds of verbs, one kind being names of simple operations, the other being those in which the ideas of the operation, the direction of the act, and sometimes the
. . . thing to which the act is done are all given in one word. “Put” and “take” are examples of simple operations, which it is not possible to analyze further. Examples of the more composite sort of verbs are: “enter” (go in), “descend” (go down) “insert” (put in), or “disembark (get off a ship), and such words as “shave,” which may be a shorthand for taking-hair-off-one’s-face, and to “rise” which, as a response to the alarm dock, is all of getting-up-out-of-bed. By this process of translation of shorthand, nearly all English verbs can be dropped out for the purposes of a working language, the ideas for which they stand being easily and in most cases quite naturally referred to in terms of the indispensable operations which are left. Among the nouns, a “locomotive” is a steam engine,” a “journalist” is a “newspaperman,” in the same way as a “cottage” is in general a “small house” a “hut” is a “poor small house,” and a “house” itself, (to take it one step further than Basic does) is a “building used for living in.” A systematic device for testing this sort of word is described below.
    Most nouns, the “things” we talk about, are what may be called fictions, and for most of these there are also words in common use which get nearer to base. Examples of fictions, or words which seem to represent things but which represent actually conditions or ideas or feelings which we talk as though they were things, are “duty” and “blindness.” “Duty” is nothing which has an existence of its own and is something of itself, but is simply a handle word with which we talk about what it is right for us to do in any given situation. It has taken on, as this sort frequently does, a special force from a wide variety of emotional attitudes which became attached to it, a force wl1ich is only partly carried over into any equivalent phrase, such as “what it is right to do.” “Blindness” (being without sight) is used in the same way, as though blindness itself were a thing, but it is less likely to seem to take on an independent existence than a word like “duty” because it is more closely, anchored to the physical situation to which it refers.
    The greater part of the language we use every day is strongly colored by feelings, attitudes to ourselves, to the person we are talking to, to what we are talking about, and so on. Some words say something about a person or thing or situation quite neutrally; some talk about the same state of affairs but imply an attitude to it, bring in the emotion all in one breath, as it were; and some say nothing about the state of affairs and are all attitude. For a language which is chiefly concerned with saying rather than expressing and which is content to talk about feelings without subtly evoking them, the extra load of emotion is not needed. And with these words, as with others, it is usually possible to translate, to find the more neutral ways of saying things and separate what is being talked about from what is felt about it. A “credulous” person is one who, in our opinion, is over ready with belief. “Avarice” is a sort of caring for money which, in our opinion, is wrong; whereas “thriftiness” is caring for money which, in our opinion, is a good thing. A quiet little girl who does not put herself forward is “shy” or “backward” or “modest” according to our attitude toward her and to the situation. Basic makes a sort of working division of the never entirely separable functions of language—roughly classified as “referential” (when its main purpose is to refer to something more or less straightforwardly) and “emotive” (when its main purpose is to. express or evoke an attitude about something).
    A first attack on the language from these points of departure cut the candidates for inclusion from the 7500 or so words which were eligible at the start to about 1500. If the result was to be useful as a tool, internationally and educationally, it had to be well below 1000, so the next step was to devise a way of testing the value and carefully estimating the ranges of the remaining words. This step was what Mr. Ogden calls “panoptic definition.” To quote Mr. Ogden’s Basic account of. how this works :
    By putting the word to be tested in the middle of a circle with lines going out from it like' the arms or rays of a starfish, so that on every line we get a relation or connection with some other word, questions may be framed in the form --
    "What word takes the place of the word in the middle in this connection ?"
    These other words will then be placed at the 'end of the lines, all round the circle. For example, if the key word dog is in the middle : What is another name for dog in connection with time? Answer : Puppy. Clearly the word puppy will not be needed if we have dog and the connection with time is covered by young. The same will be true of bitch, in relation to (sex) behavior, if we have female in our Basic list. And when our range of questions is complete, we have a complete picture of the word in relation to all other wards in a language which have a connection with it.
    If, for everyday needs, the word in the middle, used with the word on the joining line, will take the place of the new word at the end of the line, that word may go. It is not necessary in this connection. So if we have young and dog, puppy will not be kept in the Basic list. The question "What is a puppy ? is answered fully and readily by "a young dog" on the line marking the time relation.
    In making a map for all sorts of words there are thirty lines for thirty sorts of possible questions, though for a word like dog some questions will not be answered. Dogs do not come into all the relations talked about in connection with men, mountains, machines, or music; so there is, for example, no special word (such as litigant, plaintiff, client) for a dog in relation to law.
    This, then, is the apparatus used in "panoptic definition;" and when the answers are all put in on any one map, with special uses underlined, or colored, we get a picture with an important and interesting story for the Basic expert; and with its help he is in a much better position to make up his mind about the value of words f or which an argument might be put forward. With his working selection of key words, he will be ready to go through the Pocket Oxford to make certain that every one of its 25,000 commonest words has a place somewhere on one of the maps.
    Naturally, those who made decisions about the Basic 850 words had before them all the work done in America by Thorndike, Horn, Dewey, and the rest, on the most frequent words. Not that it is of any great interest in this stage, because anyone who has been working for years with such word maps is in no doubt about which English words are very common, or common enough for the Basic list. What a word will do for us has little relation to the number of times it is used in newspapers and business letters; and to say that one word is more common than another over the 1500 level, when the statement is based on observations of less than 50,000,000 has very little sense. Such statements are clearly dependent on the size and purpose of the selection, and the amount of detail noted about expansions of sense, which no one has so far taken, or would ever be able to take into account, in listing even 10,000,000 uses.

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