Basic English and Its Uses
by I. A. Richards
New York, 1943
This is a reconstruction book. It looks to the future and assumes
that the reader enjoys a moderate faith in man. It is sustained by
the thought that even the immense collective crimes of the present
have their encouraging side. In committing them and combating
them, men are exhibiting immense virtues -- intelligence, courage,
steadfastness, initiative -- in degrees which should daunt us all.
Man's powers to invent, to organize, to dare, and to persist seem
indeed almost too much for him. It looks as though, which
enough incentive, nothing were too hard. The first mental task of
reconstruction is to clear our incentive and choose more positive
and permanent goals.
One of these goals is a reasonable degree
of communications spread out more evenly over the planet. How
to attain that goal is our theme. It is a necessity now; necessary
for human progress necessary perhaps for human survival. We
can no longer risk letting any large section of the human race live
in separation, cut off from the fullest possible communication with
the rest. When the separated section is powerful, we know what
happens. It develops a warped understanding of its own
interests, from which must come designs against the interests of
the rest of the planet. National aggressions are no accidents, no
local freaks of evil inspiration. They are outcomes of spiritual
separation. "A man who would live to himself alone must be
either a beast or a god," wrote Bacon in echo of Aristotle. That
is true of nations. Being no gods, they become either beasts of
prey or their victims. For when the separated nations is weak,
technologically undeveloped and helpless, its conditions
contributes to the same disasters. Such nations tempt others to
prey upon them. Prewar China was the great example.
It would be silly, of course, to regard such
separation as the only cause of wars; sillier still to think that
differences of language are the only or the chief barriers between
nations. Nonetheless, linguistic barriers have their share in the
responsibility. No one who knows Central Europe doubts that a
common secondary language of discussion -- free from partisan
charges –- would aid immensely in ironing out boundary tensions.
No one who knows the Far East doubts that China and Japan
must find linguistic access to the thought of the rest of the would if
they are to join it in any real fashion. A common medium of
communications between peoples rather than between
governments is becoming an evident necessity.
The sudden growth of physical
communications has sharpened the moral. The plane, after the
war, will mix us all up to a degree we have not yet imagined. The
radio mixes us up already. And the radio has already been a
chief instrument in cultivating those sentiments -- of exclusive
loyalty to the group, of disloyalty to the planet –- which plunge us
into wars. It is indeed these technological innovations, or rather
their misuse, which we are suffering from. Without canned food,
modern metallurgy, and oil, there could be no global war. These
new inventions have not been balanced by equal developments in
the means of mental transport -– and thereby in the spreading of
the common truths which would make antagonism and disloyalty
harder to cultivate. But these other discoveries are ready to hand
–- as these pages will attempt to show.
I present first some of the reasons for
believing that a simplified form of English is the most practicable
common language, and with them, the grounds for doubting
whether any artificial language yet devised or imagined could do
the same work as adequately. I then describe the form of English
which I believe most nearly meets the need, its relationship to
unlimited English, and how it has been disengaged from the
parent language. I then discuss the teaching of this simplified
English and the aid which the sound motion picture, the radio,
and other recent inventions can be in this instruction. Finally I
show how this simplified form of English -– far from offering any
threat to full English –- may be used to improve and enrich
understanding for those of us who are born to the language of
Shakespeare and Milton. This last point is indeed of paramount
importance. We should be poor servants of the future if in
spreading the English language we impaired it. Happily the
constitution of Basic English makes it an influence tending in the
other direction. It is no rival to or substitute for an ampler
English, where the use of that is feasible. It is an introduction and
an exploratory instrument.
I. A. R.
ON THE CHOICE OF A SECOND OR WORLD LANGUAGE
Selection of a language
Let us be clear about some political essentials from the outset.
However desirable a common language for all the world may be,
as a means of communication between peoples who in their
homes speak different tongues, it neither can nor should be
imposed by one nation or group of nations upon others. It must
come into use freely, as a general convenience, under the urge of
the everyday motives of mankind. It must be taken up because
men see it to be useful to them -– to useful to be neglected. It
must serve, and serve immediately, their economic, cultural, and
social needs. It must give them, right away from the start, a
reward in increased possibilities and power. It must spread as
the automobile, the electric light, and the telephone or airplane
have spread. Only so can it get behind it the drive required to
carry through such a gigantic stride toward increased rationality in
Secondly, it must be clear from any threat to the
economic, moral, cultural, social, or political status or independence
of any person or any people. It must carry no implications of
intellectual, technological, or other domination. No one in leaning
the world language must have excuse for even the least shadow of a
feeling that he is submitting to an alien influence or being brought
under the power of other groups. Most extension of communications
carry this political threat. To the Siamese of two generations back,
with Burma and British Malaya on one side and French Indo-China on
the other, the choice between English and French as a school subject
brought the question up in a lively fashion. We can guard against this
danger only by conceiving a world language in a truly planetary spirit
-- as a universal medium, not as an extension of the sphere of
influence of some one pressure group.
Thirdly, as an obvious corollary, no one should be encouraged, far less compelled, to give up the language which is natively his, and adopt another. That usually entails too high a price in personal and cultural values to be tolerable. The common secondary language must be such that it can be learned without any 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.
Fourthly, and more positively, the learning and use of the common language should be symbolic of the learner's participation in the common human political effort, a sign that he recognizes the claim upon him of the world community--beyond that of his regional, racial, or cultural group. Only so will the spread of a world language be linked with the greatest of the unused sources of power--man's new need, corresponding to his new knowledge, for a loyalty larger than any he has yet known. As the use of Latin in the Middle Ages fed, and in turn was supported by, the dream of the Holy Roman Empire, as the Chinese script once embodied the spirit of the Middle Kingdom, so the world language of our age, if it is to fit the larger world we live in, must be the instrument of purposes transcending those of any nation or group of present nations. It must be identified with a world view which values nations only as they contribute to a world aim.
For this reason it would be better not to talk of it as an international language. Jeremy Bentham, who coined that word, would today be the first to insist that the purposes and practice of nations (those typical Benthamic fictions) in their dealings with one another are man's chief disgrace. International affairs are a sad and ghastly record of greed and fear and fraud and fury. These are the necessary faults of the nation as an institution, and while there is one nation still existing there must be others. Their very being derives from mutual restraint, and "foreign relations" are the outcome. World affairs should be carefully distinguished, thought they must at present, of course, grow out of the happier impulses of nations. Supernational would be the better fitted word. The common language must carry and be carried by the supernational impulse, and be the organ of the supernational mind.
Free adoption, absence of all threats of domination of any type, protection for primary languages, symbolization of supernational aims--these are some of the necessary political conditions for the coming into currency of a world secondary language. Let us consider these. The political considerations we have outlined seem to argue against any existing national language as a candidate. The other considerations weight more heavily still against any artificial, constructed language. We shall take the psychological problems first.
Readers who already know that Basic English is useful may skip to Chapter 2 and skip 10 pages of the need for Basic English as a common language.
Dreams of a universal language that would bring the nations to better understanding have, of course, for centuries haunted the imaginations of the generous-minded. Laments for the decay of Latin, proposals for renovating and reviving it, enthusiasms for Esperanto, Ido, Novial, Nulango -- with these we ware familiar. The trouble is that these generous designs are too rarely balanced by a concrete, living sense of actualities and practicalities. "Crackpot schemes !" is the current description of them in the mouths of hardheaded persons. This is a serious matter, since it is to hardheaded, practical men that we must look for effective action. We shall do well to examine the grounds for this adverse opinion as to artificial languages before considering the proposals to use some form of an existing language.
The root criticism of any revived or artificial language, however well designed, is that the immediate incentive which would make enough people learn and use one is lacking. we all want a better world. We may all agree that a world auxiliary language would help. the cynical opinion, which dissents and says that the less we understand one another the better, will not be considered here. We may all wish that everyone would learn such a language. But these wishes,
however strong they might be, will never be strong enough to make enough people put enough time into learning an artificial language as a speculative investment. If you are to go to the trouble of learning a language you need to feel that you will get a return for your toil this very year. A man may plant an orchard and wait six years for his apples ; but six months is long enough to wait for verbs and prepositions to bear fruit. You do not want access merely to a limited and artificial literature, or to a few other speakers and correspondents. You want a vast and undelayed expansion of our contacts. The feeling that you are contributing in your small way to an idealistic but doubtful future is an inadequate motive. It is sad, but it is so. The realization that the speakers of any artificial language are unlikely to increase as rapidly as the inhabitants, say, of Madagascar is a fatal damper.
Of course, if by world decree or world agreement all children everywhere were to be taught, say, Novial, and if most things worth reading or listening to were to be made available in that language, the prospect would be different. But here again we must separate dreams from actualities. Who is seriously expecting anything of that sort in any foreseeable future ? And on what sort of political judgment would such an expectation be based ? Any of the many new artificial languages now in completion with one another or in preparation would need decades of widespread use before any recommendation for universal adoption would be conceivable.
Linguistic considerations confirm these doubts as to the feasibility of artificial languages. Languages are shaped by use rather than by design. They acquire their powers -- theirs suppleness, their overtones, their resourcefulness, their ability to serve human needs, their almost divine capacity to make a speaker wiser than he knows (and their devilish capacity to make a fool of him) -- from use. Willy-nilly, the situations in which we use words and hear them used control them. Long-established languages have been hammered and wrought, broken and remade, at every point, in countless ways which only the biggest and best of dictionaries can show in detail. The amazing
interdependence of our words comes to them from use. Their forms and their meanings are survivors of a terrific elimination contest. No artificial language can acquire a tithe of such richness of interdependence, however cunningly the resources of roots are exploited, without centuries of wide and varied use. Until this mutuality between its words is gained, literature in the serious sense is all but impossible. So is with, so is real depth of emotional communication. A new auxiliary language would have to be used through many lifetimes before it could offer a learner possibilities of general communication equal to those given through even an inferior handling of any of the major languages, which have been through this process and been fitted by use to human affairs. The speaker of Esperanto who doubts this is probably importing into the interactions of its meanings many nuances from his mother tongue, nuances which will be inoperative for persons with a different background. With a simplified form of a living language these discrepancies are reduced. Its meanings are held to place by the extent of the common use its words have been put to.
This limitation will be felt less in writing or speech with a scientific content, where many words stand for rigidly defined ideas and are relatively invariable in meaning from one sentence to another. This is the writing or speech that is easiest to translate. But
in most use of language no such rigidity holds. In the discussion of affairs, the exchange of opinion, the pursuit of common human purposes,t he adjustment of variant views ; in most used of speech except the plain statement of well-explored and agreed facts ; in nearly everything but greetings, bromides, phatic communion, and the more hum-drum parts of trade and the sciences , matters are very different. In all this, in all the employments for which a general world language is most needed, words accommodate their meanings to the other words that accompany them, in myriad ways easier to analyze than to predict. But it is through these very shifts that our languages serve us ; their words are controlled in these sifts by the collective experimentation that has gone to their shaping. No designer of a new language can supply out of his linguistic acumen (no matter how great it is) a substitute for this process. To compare organs of comparable delicacy and complexity, not physiologist could design a digestive system able to adjust to meet all challenges from the cook ! Our languages, like our digestive tracts, are products of experimentation beyond the scope of any inventor.
Such are, in brief, the chief argument against auxiliary languages of the Esperanto type. They point to this. If there is to be a common language it must be simplified, but not denatured, form of one of the world's existing major languages. That would give the learner immediate access to innumerable speakers.
It would lead into the parent language and so give the learner -- up to the limits of his capacities -- admission to a vast literature. Being part of the major language it would take from it the resourcefulness and interdependence, the hard-won mutual adjustment of its parts, needed if it is to serve the general purposes of mankind. Thus, two of our three requirements would be met ; the objections to Esperanto-type languages would be avoided. But what of the third, the political problem ? Is it conceivable that the very natural objections of individuals and nations to having the language of one section of the earth's population put into such a privileged position can be overcome ? Will not the cry, "This is linguistic and cultural imperialism !" be as fatal as the charge of being a "crackpot scheme"?
It is worth noting, first, that this cry is not in fact raised by those who would have to learn English, for example, but by supporters of one or the other of the artificial languages. Neither those who learn English nor those who teach it as a foreign language have in general any feeling that they are submitting to or furthering a process of intellectual subjugation. On the contrary, they are more likely to feel that they are helping themselves or others to resist such influences. The Chinese, for example, are not in the least afraid of English. What they do often feel is that an excessive amount of time given up to learning English may be damaging to the study of their own language. And that, they rightly believe, would be disastrous. In general, the notion that the spread of a language is a step toward political control is not bore out by recent history. The history of the nationalist movement in India is an instructive instance. Its leaders and its chief supporters are speakers of English and sometimes use it rather as their first than as their second language.
Such arguments, however, take their force rather from feelings than from facts.
. . . (more) . . . 1 page . . .
The world's need for a common language will be quite certainly be augmented beyond measure in the very near future. The airplane and internet will see to that. So will the resultant needs for world-wide controls of all kinds -- sanitary, economic, commercial -- and for the supply and distribution of information and news. We are only at the beginning of he reporting age. All this will call for (is already calling for) an immediately available common language. And the most immediately available language is English. Furthermore, English is in many ways the language best suited to the task. It is not merely prevalent, but it is prevalent for good reasons.
English speakers are parties to the case and should find it hard to form an impartial judgment. But let us try for a few pages to see what a neutral judge would have to consider. If he is to keep the general interests of the planet in view, he will have to ask at least the following questions :
1 . Which of the existing major languages can be made easiest for learners in general ?
2 . Which at present contains the most universally useful literature in the widest sense ?
3 . Which is already used -- fully or in some considerable degree -- by the most people ?
4 . Which has already been learned on the largest scale by those with other native tongues, and taught as a foreign language most extensively in educational systems ?
5 . Which, by reason of its history and the uses which have been made of it in the past, is most likely to serve best as a bridge between peoples who will and should continue to use their own languages as before ?
6 . Which lends itself most readily to the new means of instruction -- by television, radio, and internet -- that are being developed and seen likely to take some of the burden off the teacher's back in the near future ?
. . . (more) . . . 4 pages . . .
Answers to these six questions, then converge. They point to one conclusion : a priority for English as the world's "second language" in the interests of everyone. To speakers of other tongues this will no doubt seem a very natural conclusion for any English-speaking author to arrive at. Probably the assertion that it will be for others' advantage even more than for ours will seem hardly sincere. "Native speakers of English are bad linguists and lazy," it may be said, "Therefore let everyone else learn English while they give their attention to getting the better of other peoples in further ways." And to such accusations it is hard for us to reply. Our alleged incompetence as linguists is at least doubtful. On the other point, this may perhaps be said. A general adoption of English as a second language might well put the English-speaking peoples at a certain disadvantage ; other would use two languages ; most of us would probably acquire only English. But that sort of argument would at best occasion grins abroad. At home it should prompt us to keep up foreign languages ourselves and work toward improvements in the techniques of learning them comparable in some measure to the improvements in the learning of English that are now possible.
WHAT BASIC ENGLISH IS
Link to : Chapter 2.
THE SIMPLIFICATION OF ENGLISH
Link to : Chapter 3.
AIMS AND POLICIES OF BASIC ENGLISH
Statements about the purposes of Basic English have from the first included two aims : the provision of a minimum secondary world language and the designing of an improved introductory course for foreign learners, leading into general English. And form the first it has been evident that these two aims appeal in different degrees to different sorts of people.
. . .(more : 20 pages) . . .
BASIC ENGLISH TEACHING MEDIA
. . .
Anyone who has read Ogden . . . will not be surprised to hear that the problems of forgetting and remembering has a large part in the design of Basic. this design helps the learner in four ways.
1 . By cutting down what has to be remembered to a minimum.
It is a commonplace of pedagogy that what is learned through the most senses together will be most readily retained, and in assembling a collection of words (and a system of meanings for them) to serve as a minimum language this should on no account be overlooked.
. . .
2 . By arranging automatically for the most frequent repetition (in slightly changed settings) of the most important items, the minimum apparatus of structure words.
3 . By giving the material presented the highest degree of intelligible interconnection and by replacing memorization, wherever possible, by insight and understanding. Too many language courses in the past have offered words to the learners as though they were nonsense syllables, or put mere drill in the place of comprehension.
4 . By the use of visual material on the largest scale. The Basic operators (give, get, put, take ) and the directions (see diagram p.35) that are the pivots and pins of the whole machine are visualizable in their key senses in the fullest measure, and these senses may be illustrated for the eye in countless ways. Their extensions and dependent senses are linked with them by visual metaphor.
(more : 11 pages)
BASIC ENGLISH FOR READING BETTER
(more : 24 pages)
(more : 10 pages, the first sentence is shown)
Most of my readers will be neither statesman nor teachers of language. But what I have been saying has addressed itself to the statesman and the teacher latent in every man. . . .
Among way of taking a share in the work is the furtherance of a world language. . . .
This is no proposal that we should all talk Basic. Heaven forbid ! . . .
How hard is Basic English for an English speaker to learn ? . . .
One reason for such a late date may have been Mr. Wells's notion (which many people seem to share) that Basic must be very had for English-speaking people to use. . . .
Impromptu eloquence and after-dinner with in Basic are tougher assignments. . . .
Most people, however, become skilled enough with surprising ease. . . .
Just how difficult Basic English may be as a foreign language, for different types of learners with different mother tongues under different conditions and aided by different teachers and learning aids, is not so readily ascertained. All that is certain, as yet, is that from China to Denmark, from the languages furthest from English to those nearest, for classes and those who teach themselves alike, a far more serviceable command of English has been gained in far less time than by any other plan. . . .
Concentration, as much recent work on language learning indicates, is the key to the task. . . .
The confident advance into fuller English and other subjects (including other languages) which able students of Basic make is memorable to those who have watched it. . . .
Such students cannot help beginners in English much. . . .
the convenience to a travel of finding everywhere people able to comprehend him cannot be overlooked. . . .
For many language students -- as teachers grow tired of complaining -- the tourists's conception of a language is dominant. . . .
Basic by its constitution leans to the side of understanding. . . .
The understanding a beginner in a language establishes with this teacher is often especially close. . . .
They in their turn have been privileged. But they have another privilege : that of keeping to their own language, of which they have probably been keenly aware. And this privilege imposes a duty : of being more alert to what their words will mean, of being more supple and appropriate in their choices, of being less ready to hand over the responsibility for being understood, of being more aware of assumptions, and so on.
No doubt, being able to help beginners to talk with us is in part a knack ; in part it depends on what is called a sympathetic temperament and patience ; but it can be greatly heightened by reflection, and by that kind of study of the difficulties of our language which is exemplified in Basic. If more English speakers would train themselves to lighten the task, the gain in other ways would be immense. More than merely linguistic understanding would be in course of achievement.
To prepare oneself for this costs some trouble -- less than may be supposed,
as I have argued above, but still some effort. But his is as it should be. . . .
Here, then, for those who are willing and able to
cultivate sympathetic co-operations across the language frontiers,
is a way of working toward reconstruction. Fifteen years of experiment
and test, of development in texts and in reading materials, have
provided the means. There is no claim that Basic is perfect.
No claims indeed of any sort are needed. These pages are no more than
a description of what it is, what it has done, and how it may be used.
The hour of the most effective use is soon coming, the hour of
reconstruction. It will pass. Hope and resolve will cool.
The enterprising spirit will dull down into routine again unless in
that hour enough is done to transform the urges of disaster into
lasting influences favoring unity. We must act while the lesson lasts.
And what the lesson teaches above all else is that the peoples of the
earth must know one another better -- not through official channels
but more directly.
The medium exists. Its period of trial or of tutelage,
the need for control and observation, for protection and support,
may be taken to be over.
What it now needs to go into maximum action is careful use by as many,
among its 200 million potential instructors, as have the opportunity,
the necessary knowledge, and the ability. A common language for the
earth will only come into being through the common work of common men
and women in their common interests. Official encouragement from governments,
school systems, and other bodies could be a great help.
So could the action of powerful individuals. But it is the men and
women with the opportunity, knowledge, and ability to aid a beginner
in English who will really carry the load.
After the war almost anyone may, so far as transport is concerned,
go anywhere within a few hours. Opportunity, therefore, will not be
lacking. And the necessary knowledge -- for anyone who has read this
through to the end -- will be a matter at most of a few days' diligent study.
The rest is good will, imagination, and a belief in mutual understanding.
English of some sort is undoubtedly going
to be the chief medium for the wider contacts and co-operations
of the air age. People must communicate, and when they are
suddenly mixed together in practical undertakings they will use
the medium that is most available. Academic arguments have
very little effect upon what they will in fact do. At countless
points on the earth's surface, English will be the most available
language -– English of some sort. The questions then are: How
broken need that English be? and : How much strain upon those
concerned need these inevitably faulty communications put?
Both are important -– the first for the protection of English, the
second for general amity. I have been attempting to make clear
what the uses of Basic are in these and in other connections.
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