Ogden's Basic English
8. Basic English Compiled
by Julia E. Johnsen
For the first time in twenty-two years I acquired a desire to go back to college and take a new course. I should like ever so much to take a course in Basic English and, having rescanned my text for tonight, it occurred to me how enormously it would improve it. It would eliminate all of the 50-cent words and get it practically entirely into 10-cent words. And I can think of no greater improvement that could be made on any speech that I have ever heard.
-- Thomas E. Dewey, Governor of New York State, address at Herald Tribune Forum November 16, 1943. New York Herald Tribune. N. 21, '43. Sec. 8, p.. 1.
Basic English is not just a linguistic life-belt, tossed to the foreign student in the hope of keeping him afloat until he either learns to swim or scrambles back to dry land, determined never to take the plunge again. It is a living and flexible language in
its own right, and the mind capable of inventing so delicate an instrument could never have limited itself to its practical application alone. It is the profoundly philosophical basis of Basic English which makes it a potential corrective for many of the ills from which the writing and reading of English are demonstrably suffering. Its study might make people think about what they are saying, for Basic English is a step further into the analytical process which has overtaken the English language. And it is from the point of view of the English reader who might be persuaded to investigate his mind through his mother tongue that I. A. Richards starts on the venture of making a "stream-lined" version of Plato's Republic, based upon the "techniques" of Basic English.
-- Ivy Low. New Republic. My. 18, '42. p. 673.
I should have said more emphatically what I said in passing, that there is no occasion for any one who has a wide knowledge of English to use Basic unless he is speaking to people who have only Basic. As to the suggestion that Basic is advancing towards a reform of the English language, we would not venture upon any such undertaking. You cannot reform a miracle like a living language. I happen to be interested in the theoretical possibilities of an entirely independent language, and there I join with Sir Richard Paget's remarks. I am fascinated by the theoretical possibility of designing an ideal language, but that is a totally different venture from the one undertaken by Mr., Ogden and his fellow-laborers in Basic. Basic is intended to be a convenient world medium, not an ideal language. I think that any one who has any experience in using Basic finds it unnaturally boring to keep within that narrow range. Even if we all had' Miss Lockhart's virtuosity in it that would be so. I think even she would say she never speaks Basic unless she must.
-- Ivor A. Richards. Royal Society of Arts. Journal. June. 2, '39. p. 752.
To show that Basic English is far from being an ordinary fad, like Esperanto, Dr. Ogden, in an earlier article reviewed some of its gains in other than English-speaking countries :
Japan conducted initial experiments at the Imperial Naval College in 1929-30, and in 1932 definite plans were laid to adapt Basic to Japanese needs, under the direction of Professor Y. Okakura, of St. Paul's University, Tokyo. In China the Educational Review (Shanghai) favors the rapid development of Basic for Chinese cultural and scientific work. The Soviet Union is very active in encouraging study of this language; Madame Litvinov, wife of the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, reports that a group of physicians was able to read Basic with ease after only eighteen lessons; her husband, Maxim Litvinov, is believed to have been the first to introduce the idea of Basic to President Roosevelt. In Denmark a class that had had 50 hours training in Basic gave a successful demonstration over the radio. Classes in Basic are reported in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Argentina; in Madrid, Saigon, and Singapore. At Geneva an Internationa1 Secretariat plans to correlate world activities in Basic, and a recent survey of radio in twelve European countries has shown the ease with which international news could be transmitted in this super-language.
-- Harold Ward. Living Age. Jan. '35. p. 463-4.
The organization and steady growth of the movement known as the "Federal Union" --also referred to as the Anglo-American, or English-Speaking Union-- will do much toward establishing English as the world's language. Though Federal Union aims at a confederacy of world democracies to curb totalitarianism in the postwar world, though its purposes are political and economic rather than linguistic, the adoption of English as the official language is an implied if not an explicit objective. Federal Union has sixty United States chapters, with sixty more being organized. Britain has two hundred and fifty chapters with 10,000 members. The latest convert is the Union of South Africa which, always anti-British in politics and suspected of being pro-Nazi, nevertheless affiliated.
Then, too, English has the advantage over some other languages by reason of its capacity for adopting new words from foreign sources and of readily naturalizing them so that they may be treated entirely as native English words.
And lastly, as Christopher Hollis has so eloquently phrased it -- "The English language is the language, far more than any other, in which the story of freedom is told. . . . Through the survival of English literature, the memory of freedom will not perish and . . . the reality (of freedom) will be able to return in some distant, happier day when the Chinese and Russians, Indians, and even Germans, have learned to say that we must be free or die who speak the language Shakespeare spoke."
-- Progress Guide. Dec. '43. /'. 544.
To assume that when an immigrant or a child has mastered the words on the Basic list he will stop there and learn no more English is so palpably absurd that it should not require discussion. The value of Basic in this case is its value as a first step in the mastery of English. The several Basic forms listed by Mr. Ogden and his associates are clearly presented for pedagogical purposes. These forms constitute sortings of word senses and easily acquired progressions in the transformation, specialization or expansion of sense. If one is writing for a foreigner who has mastered only these senses, and if one wishes to be understood, one will be wise to restrict oneself to these forms. If, however, there is reason to believe that the child or the immigrant has a larger vocabulary than this, the writer or speaker may well go beyond the list.
The value of Basic as the first step in the teaching of American children is more relevant to Mrs. Davis's purposes [E. M. Davis, "Basic English in the Speech of American Children."] than its uses as a first step in the mastery of English by immigrants. Inasmuch as children have to begin the study of their own language some place, it would seem reasonable that their first study should be of a vocabulary which has both a wide covering power and contains within itself a linguistic apparatus of use later. Experiments now in progress in a nursery school indicate that this assumption is sound. Five-and-a-half-year-old children are said to be able to read anything within the range of their mental capacity (Newton's "Principia" would, one assumes, be excluded), and are able to use dictionaries freely in the study of words whose meaning are not clear to them. Although the
system of verb elimination, an important Basic contribution, is followed in the classroom as a useful device in breaking up the most troublesome of our linguistic complexes, no teacher would expect a child to follow this analytical procedure in his play hours. Once the child has got to the point where he sees that to kick, kiss or push a thing is a short way of saying he gives it a kick, a kiss or a push, and that when he is "getting on" he is getting on in some direction, he has an analytical apparatus of use to him in breaking up more complex fictions in his later studies.
-- R. D. Jameson, Library of Congress. School and Society. Jan. 21, '39. p. 84-5.
It has an extensive literature and has such roots that Allen Lane, the English publisher of the sixpenny Penguin and Pelican books, whose modest ambitions for 10,000 issues has run into millions, recently made a tour of several near-East and oriental countries to explore the possibilities of distributing his books, printed in Basic English, to wider publics. Thus, it looks as though the realm of Basic English is due for considerable extension.
Ready extension of it to commercial fields seems feasible for English-speaking printers and advertisers. Around the Pacific Ocean there are 760,000,000 of this earth's peoples, great numbers of whom are in contact with trading activities; numbers of others would make use of an auxiliary type language were it available. Pidgin or business English is a common medium in trading. Basic English would rationalize this already used "tongue" in graphic form, for pidgin English has the disadvantage that it does not get into written form. Printed words in Basic English would soon build up a source for common reference by users of pidgin English.
It is not, however, so easy as all that. . . . A copy writer should have close knowledge of native speech and customs. As all printers know, the much. abused swastika is the Buddhist cross; yellow is a color of high regard in China; white is the color of mourning in the same land; and so on. Basic English is not intended for replacing languages in countries that already have a highly developed language of their own. . . .
The opportunity seems to lie in the direction of making use of an easily learned and readily comprehended auxiliary language among peoples whose standards of living are being raised through the amenities of trade and who rely to a large extent on the language of the trader more than on their own tongue. A common means of expression between traders would be of incalculable advantage in international advertising and commerce, and its feasibility should appear in the pending experiment by the enterprising English publisher. If his plan to open new regions for books in Basic English is successful, the
outcome will mean much to printers, for printing follows new readers of books.
-- B. N. Fryer, Linotype Expert, Newspaper and Magazine Writer. Inland Printer. Mar. '40. p: 40.
We take it that it is possible for any person of good sense to get a knowledge of eight or nine hundred words of a new language in less than a week if he or she took enough trouble; this would not get anyone very far in reading and writing chemistry because there are a great number of names of chemical substances and processes the learning of which is necessary. But these are chiefly international and in general use. Ammonium, chloride, titanium oxide, distillation, calcium fluoride, hydroquinone, anthracene, catalysis, dinitrobenzene, and triethylnaphthylphosphonium iodide are almost the same in every country where teaching in chemistry is given. The undertaking is probably simpler than it seems at first. Are we able to make our thoughts clear or give an account of our tests and experience by using only eight or nine hundred words in addition to the chemical words which are for the most part international? How far is it possible to go with such a limited number of words, the learning of which would take a Russian, an Italian, a Bengali, an Arab, or a Greek such a very short time? It is necessary for this language to have a very small number of rules, that is clear, and of all the common languages English does its work with the smallest number of changes in word endings. The question comes in fact to this : Is the writing of English possible, using only eight or nine hundred words in addition to the international words of science ? Are we in this way able to make it clear how
barium nitrate and potassium sulphate may be mixed in water and how we then get barium sulphate separating in the solid form? Are we able to make it clear how nitrobenzene may be changed into aniline and how diazo coloring materials may be made? If so there is an international language for science here at hand and there is no need for any other. It is probable that where our Russian or Armenian friend has control of the eight hundred and fifty words, he will quickly get the knowledge of another hundred and this will make the reading and writing of English for science simpler, but this addition to the number of words is not in fact necessary. Eight hundred and fifty words will take you a great distance and papers and books have been printed using only so small a number of English words as this, in addition naturally to the international words of science.
-- Editorial. Chemistry and Industry (London). P. 19, '38. p. 169-70.
The language of science -- its syntax, special terminology, and general structure -- by its very nature should be the last in which the vices of ambiguity, confusion, and what Quiller-Couch caustically satirized as "jargon" could appear, let alone flourish. The facts of science are difficult enough without compelling not only the serious layman but also the trained expert to struggle with a luxuriant, parasitic growth of bombastic phraseology, inflated beyond all need by a turgid gas of special terms, each more clumsy than the last and many with a noisy retinue of "variants," "synonyms, ""improvements," and the like. In a recent article on "The Internationalization of Scientific Terms," published in Progress and the Scientific Worker, C. K. Ogden, that indefatigable champion of Basic English, thus summarizes the feeling of many literate people whose lively interest in science is hopelessly dashed by the linguistic pomposities of the scientist :
It is a curious paradox that science, which for three centuries has waged an unremitting war upon superstition, seems today in danger of letting its enemy in by the back door. The tendency of certain modern scientists to veil their utterances in verbose jargon not only invests
science, in the eyes of a worshiping public, with something dangerously akin to the quality of a mystery religion but makes for the entanglement of its practitioners themselves in unfruitful forms of verbalism.
Continuing, Dr. Ogden pleads the case for an international language-specifically, the 850-word Basic that has been considerable progress in the past few years -- among scientists. He calls attention to the fact that already "Basic can claim the whole of mathematics, a complete system of chemical formulae, all the classificatory nomenclature used in entomology and petrology, the names of minerals, crystals, and stratigraphical divisions of geology, the greater part of paleontology, and so on." But serious deficiencies in standardization still exist in the fields of technology, engineering, and medicine, where full internationalization is most gravely needed. To illustrate the possibilities of Basic English in the field of science, Dr. Ogden refers to an article on "X-Rays as the Servant of Science," written in this language. Of a total of 1,200 words 27 were agreed upon international terms, and only three terms not existing in Basic were required, one of them being a purely stylistic concession to mineralogists. We note also that "a Basic textbook on astronomy is now in the press, and two further applications to special fields -- Basic for geology and Basic for psychology -- have reached the final preparatory stage.
-- Harold Ward. Living Age. Jan. '35. p.. 463.
The "uses" of Basic English may be roughly given as : A "second" language, for use between all countries. A quick but not a cheap way to get a knowledge of the English language. A help to English or American writers and readers who may be not quite happy about their use of their mother tongue, by making them go slow and take a look through the glass of another man's mind at the strange growth which a language is. . . .
Those who have a fear that the purpose of Basic English is
to become the one language of all countries, pushing out English
itself, may be answered from the book [ Basic English and Its
The common secondary language [to be chosen] must be such that it can be learned without sacrifice of men's ability in their own primary languages. It can, in fact, be so easy to learn that much time now given ineffectually to foreign languages would be freed for further study and improvement in primary languages -- than which nothing is more important.
Most frequent of all is the natural question : "Will a learner
be able to get the sense of books or talks in which words not
in the Basic list are used?
The answer to this is that by whatever system you get a new language every new word is balanced by hundreds not yet the property of the learner, and that while any learner up against a free use of English by others will be in frequent need of the dictionary or explanation, the Basic student will find that most of the definitions given in print or by word of mouth are likely to be in words with which he is intimately familiar -- his Basic vocabulary. In this way the Basic student has an edge over a student with a vocabulary that is possibly numerically greater but not founded upon such complete experience of the potentialities of every word in it. For the Basic list has been made with the purpose, as C. K. Ogden, its creator, has frequently said, of making every word in it "work to the utmost."
Some people tremble for the purity and integrity of the English language. Is Basic, perhaps, a new form of pidgin to be inflicted upon the world, enabling "imperialists" to understand the stumbling "native" while themselves employing a language rich beyond the native's comprehension? This question may be settled here and now, since the greater part, but not all, of this review has been written in Basic English, and the reader only has to look for the "pidgin" in it to be convinced.
Formerly, when I was really fluent in Basic, I could address a meeting which never noticed when I slipped into Basic and when I returned to the free use of English. As to the way in
which English-speaking people slip automatically into Basic when they want to make themselves really clear, Professor Richards gives a homely and convincing example from American
life. "Destination? Occupation? Relatives ?" asks the questionnaire of the immigrant from Europe, but behind the bewildered foreigner stands the experienced immigration officer, interpreting into human terms: "Where are you going? What's your work? Are any of- your family in this country ?"
The place of English as an international language was seen
clearly last April in the Berlin meeting of the representatives
of Japan and Germany. Though Count von Ribbentrop had
said at the start of the war that he would not say another word in English, he and Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka were forced to put their knowledge of English to full use, it being the only tongue they had in common. . . .
Let us now see what start has been made in making Basic an international language. In 1920-30 the Imperial Naval College of Japan made a test of Basic, and in 1938 a Basic English Dictionary came out of Japan with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation. Basic newspapers were put out as early as 1933 in Japan and Poland. In China, the Educational Review took up the cause of Basic ; by 1936, it was being used in teaching in twenty-five countries ranging on the map from Norway to Paraguay. Even in the Leeward Islands, the schools have been giving the young people one Basic word each day. The Soviet Union has. been awake to the value of the new language, and the government in 1935 had five books put in Basic for general teaching use in the schools. Ex-Foreign Commissar Litvinoff of Russia seems to be the - person who gave the idea of Basic to President Roosevelt, and Madame Litvinoff has made a new record in teaching English to a group of medical men in Russia by having them reading in the new language without trouble after only eighteen ~hours of work. Professor Ogden says that groups working in Denmark with Basic were able to make a cut from four years to one month in learning English. The international secretariat at Geneva has made use of Basic in its work among nations. The opening talk of the international meeting of the Institute for Pacific Relations in 1935 was given in Basic. Our "Good Neighbor Policy" with the countries to the south has made an international language of even greater interest to us. New books for teaching Basic English to the Spanish and Portuguese are now coming out. A Basic English School was
started last July for Latin America at Quito, Ecuador, where a strong German school was in operation. In connection with radio teaching in Basic, WRUL of Boston, Massachusetts, gives out regularly much material to South America and Europe by short wave. Phonograph records are much needed, as well as the Panopticon, a special invention for putting the Basic words together in the right order. . . .
Because of the Basic wordlist the other lists of most important words now used in teaching reading in public schools have had to make additions of a great number of Basic words. Mary L. Guyton, supervisor of adult alien education of the State Department of Education at Boston, said before the National Education Association that Basic English is the best way of teaching our language to newcomers from other lands. It is now used widely in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. . . .
As a language for international use, it seems far better than
o Esperanto or any false language. As a first step in the learning of English, its value is great, and will be greater as more and more books are put out in this simpler form. We as teachers of English have still to see how far it may be used as an instrument for increasing the learner's control in his regular use of language. The great need here is that all of us take the trouble to see for ourselves what the system is and what use we may be able to make of it. That it is of much value is clear. As early as 1933 fifty men of international note gave their approval of Basic English as the best answer to the great need for an international language. Among the fifty were John Dewey, Coudenhove-Kalergi (president of the Pan-Europa Union), Dr. S. A. Hedin (late president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences), Julian S. Huxley, E. D. Starbuck, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. In his The Shape of Things to Come, H. G. Wells says, in Basic,
One unlooked-for development of the hundred years between 2000
and 2100 was the way in which Basic English became in that short
time the common language for use between nations. See more
-- Troy C. Crenshaw, East Texas State Teachers College. Texas Outlook, Jan'42. P. 15-16
In the wake of [Winston Churchill's] speech appeared newspaper stories, learned editorials, letters to the editor, and reports of Basic's use by military, authorities. Columbia Broadcasting System's commentator Ed Murrow reported greater comment in London on Mr. Churchill's discussion of Basic English than upon the foreign policy aspects of his address.
The quantity of smoke suggests a fire of some quality. Those of us who okay advertising copy and those of us who write it will probably want to know the answers to three questions: "What is this Basic English?" "Why is it ?" "Will it be of any use to me?" . . .
An auxiliary service of Basic, writes Professor Ogden in his book The System of Basic English is "as a grammatical introduction, encouraging clarity of thought and expression, for English-speaking peoples at any stage of proficiency."
It is as such encouragement, and as a stimulant to a fresh approach to copy writing, that Basic English has perhaps its greatest use to the advertising man. For example, I found myself doing a personally refreshing job of re-christening kinds of words in terms of nouns. I started thinking of verbs as noun-movers, adjectives as noun-sharpeners, adverbs as noun-mover-sharpeners, prepositions and conjunctions as noun-hooks or noun-buttons. (Pronouns, of course, are noun-stooges !)
In the actual writing of copy, Basic English's relative verblessness might prove confining if practiced too strictly. Two examples are provided in the August 16 issue of Time in which the editors review Ivor A. Richards' recently published book, Basic English and Its Uses. Under an illustration which pictorially defines various prepositions by the relative positions of groups of fish, the Time editors slyly point out, "But basically you, cannot "sit or swim."
Personally, I should hate to have to substitute "move myself through water by motions of my arms and legs" for the proscribed verb swim. And what would a Basic English playwright do if he wanted to write "Won't you-er-put yourself upon a seat?"
Easy as it is to poke fun, it's equally easy to see that a little
time spent with Basic will prove rewarding for anyone connected
with the writing or editing of copy. Its simple rules and simple words can show us our relations with words in a new and revealing light.
Its emphasis on a small vocabulary is a good one to set in counter-balance against the ingrained respect we have acquired for writers who have large vocabularies. In preparing copy for mass-circulation media, Basic's 850 are apt to be closer to the words used and understood by your reader, than Webster's hundreds of thousands. It is safe to say that copy should be written in a basic English founded on the copy writer's knowledge of his prospects as a general group. Whether this basic English with a small "b" coincides with Ogden's capital "B" Basic is another question. (Personally, I shouldn't like to risk loss of reader interest by skimping on my verbs.)
There's an additional use of Basic English, as a "sense-detector." This is the term neatly applied to it by Hugh R. Walpole in his book Semantics. He writes of Basic, "Anyone who knows it carries in his head a sieve or gauge or measuring rod which he can use to test the quality of any utterance about which he is uncertain."
This is a more specific extension of Professor Ogden's idea of encouraging clarity of thought. And certainly every copy writer can only benefit by any exercise which tests the quality of what he is about to put into words. He cannot fail to profit by getting more clearly in his mind what he wants to write and what he wants his writing to do. The mere act of trying to express a non-Basic thought in Basic may improve the expression of that thought, may suggest a simpler, better word.
As you scan those eighteen verbs or operators once more, let me close this discussion on a note of assurance. It's true no one can "advertise" in Basic. But you can make an advertisement." You can "put an advertisement in a paper." People can "see what you say in print, and say yes to the offer you make."
-- Ernest S. Green. Q. S. Tyson and Company., Inc., New York. Printers' Ink. S. 24, '43. p. 21-2.
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