WHAT BASIC ENGLISH IS
Rudolph Hess, shortly before his flight to England, announced in a party conference that when the Nazis had won, English would become"a minor Germanic dialect of no world importance." We have glanced at some of the linguistic reasons why what would have been regrettable. His utterance contrasts well with Bismarck's view that the most significant event of the nineteenth century as the acceptance of
English as the language of North America. We have now to see why English can be made easier for any learner than any other major language, how a streamlined English suited to the general affairs of the world has been produced, and what has been and may be done with this form of English.
Basic English is English made simple by limiting the number of its words to 850, and by cutting down the rules for using them to the smallest number necessary for the clear statement of ideas. And this is done without change in the normal order and behavior of these words in everyday English. This is the first point to be made clear. Basic English, though it has only 850 words, is still normal English. It is limited in its words and its rules, but it keeps to the regular forms of English. And though it is designed to give the learner as little trouble as possible, it is no more strange to the eyes of my readers than these lines, which are in fact in Basic English. The reader to whom all this is new may get some amusement from attempting to see for himself, before I give a fuller account of the system, where I first went into Basic on this page.
The second point to make clear is that even with so small a word list and so simple a structure it is possible to say in Basic English anything needed for the general purposes of everyday existence -- in business, trade, industry, science, medical work -- in all the arts of living, in all the exchanges of knowledge, desires, beliefs, opinions, and news which are the chief work of a language. It is true that if we go outside the field of general interests and into special branches of the sciences, the arts or the trades, we will have to have other words not listed among the 850. But the senses of these other words may be made clear in footnotes with the 850 ; or by teaching given through Basic English. Or they may be seen in the General Basic English Dictionary, which, using only the Basic words, gives the senses of twenty thousand other English words. In this way Basic becomes a framework in which words needed for special purposes take their place and from and through which they take their senses. A knowledge of the 850 and of the rules by which they are put together is enough, however, for talk and writing on all everyday general levels.
It would not be hard to put all this book has to say into Basic. It would be clear but not very bright reading. The same words -- because there are only 850 of them -- would keep coming back again and again. A reader who has the rest of the English language gets a little tired of Basic writing after a time. So I return (with this word return, which is not one of the Basic words) to a less confined medium. I have shown, I hope, in the last two paragraphs that Basic is normal English when properly written, and that it can say somewhat complicated things in a reasonably lucid and acceptable fashion.
But this last point no longer needs demonstration. Far too much has been written in Basic on too many subjects (see Appendix) for doubt to linger, in the minds of any who have studied the literature, as to the scope ad powers of this miniature English. Of course, there is bad Basic and good Basic -- as their is bad English and good English. The fact that many people write English wretchedly is no evidence that English is a poor language. Basic, thanks to the care with which its specification was prepared, has been able to adopt as its ruling principle from the outset, "If it is bad English, it is bad Basic."
The third most important point about Basic is that it is not merely a list of words, governed by a minimum apparatus of essential English grammar, but a highly organized system designed throughout to be as easy as possible for a learner who is totally ignorant of English or of any related language. It is a language for all the world, not just for those who happen to have some related language as their mother tongue. It is easier for them, naturally enough. The ideas its words carry accord more readily with theirs, its constructions parallel theirs more closely. and, no doubt, by exploiting those parallels, it might have been possible to give them, in some slight degree, a privileged entrance to English. But that would have been at the cost of a radical injustice to speakers of languages remote from English. On the most neutral grounds, the Chinese have a very strong claim to consideration by framers of a world language. There are so many of them, and the part they should play in the world should be second to none. A simplified English, if put forward as a planetary language, must be made as accessible as possible to peoples other than those of Indo-European tongues -- and it so happens, thought the unique peculiarities of English, that this could be done without any measurable cost in added difficulty for cognate language groups. This third point about Basic is, then, that it is a simplification of English designed equally, so far as the structure of English permits, for users of all languages whatsoever.
The fourth main point is this. If a language is to be easy to learn we must not only cut its words down to a minimum and regularize its grammar ; we must also study very carefully the meanings of every one of its words and decide upon the central, pivotal or key meanings of each one of them. Parallel to the reduction and ordering of its vocabulary, there must be a reduction and ordering of the meanings of the words it recommends. It should be obvious that the task of mastering a set of words will be immensely lightened if, for each one of them, the central meaning be presented first. This central meaning will be the meaning by reference to which its other meanings can be most easily understood. All this has been done with Basic, and yet of the many distinctive characteristics of Basic, this so far has received least attention. It may seem a refined point, but it is essential. Clarity upon it makes all the difference in the world to our conception of language learning. A set of meanings which, if presented in one order, is merely a burden upon the memory can become, if offered in another order, a pleasurable exercise of intelligence. Many examples will appear in what follows. Here I need only say that this selective ordering of the meanings of the Basic words was quite half the task which its originator, Mr. C. K. Ogden, undertook and carried through (see pp.58-61 and 63).
Here let me sketch the story of the discover of Basic English. I say "discovery" rather than "invention," to stress the point that Basic English was a possibility inherent in the development of English, something needing to be disengaged from full English, not something made up. It had its origin, perhaps, in 1920 when Ogden and I were considering the analysis and control of the meaning of the word "meaning" and writing a book we called The Meaning of Meaning. But in a sense Basic English dates back earlier, for Ogden was already deeply read in the history of attempts to frame a universal language and much concerned with the problem. He was then collecting materials on "word magic" for a major work on the influence of language on thought.
In our joint work we came to the theory and practice of definition. In comparing definitions -- definitions of anything, from a sense quality to a force and from a rabbit to a concept -- we were struck by the fact that whatever you are defining, certain words keep coming back into your definitions. Define them, and with them you could define anything. That suggests that there might be some limited set of words in terms of which the meanings of all other words might be stated. If so, then a very limited language -- limited in its vocabulary but comprehensive in its scope -- would be possible. This was by no means a new idea ; it has haunted many analytic philosophers through the centuries, among whom Leibnitz and Bishop Wilkins are the best know ; but it set Ogden on the track which later led to Basic English.
This initial idea had many discouraging aspects. Ogden has an abnormally developed capacity for verbal experimentation -- a natural gift for rephrasing which he has systematically cultivated. Perhaps he is the first man to take a talent possessed by many of the best scholar-journalists and develop it deliberately into an instrument of experimental linguistic research. A little of this experimentation soon made two things dauntingly evident : that even if such a limited language could perhaps be worked out in some ten years, it would be too abstract and difficult for practical use. Furthermore, as it seemed then, in 1920, such a language would not be in the least like everyday English. It would be an academic curiosity not a general instrument for the common purposes of the world.
Ogden found the way out of these difficulties in part through study of the nature of the verb -- aided by some suggestive hints from Jeremy Bentham, whose writing on language he was to edit. But chiefly it was due to his extraordinarily persistent experimentation. Saying the same thing in other ways became more than a game for him ; it became a passion -- pursuing constantly a clear-cut goal, a minimum comprehensive English, streamlined at every point to offer the least possible resistance to a learner and yet render him at the earliest moment the maximum amount of service. Though Ogden was blessed with exceptionally able collaborators -- among whom Miss L. W. Lockhart and the late Dr. F. G. Crookshank must be mentioned -- Basic English is essentially the creation of a heightened gift of critical experimentation in a mind unusually well fortified by the relevant linguistic sciences and disciplines.
By 1927 it was clear that an English able to cover the necessary ground and limited to less than a thousand words was feasible. What remained was chiefly a statesman's problem : how best to reconcile all the rival claims -- simplicity, economy, regularity, ease of learning, scope, clarity, naturalness, grace ; how to balance this local advantage against that for the common good. These were points which could only be worked out through prolonged and very tedious trial and comparison. It is worth remarking that the final design for Basic English was fully tested as against possible alternative designs during this final period and before the first publication in 1929.
So much, for the present, as to how Basic came into being. That such a small number of words is able to take over the work -- at certain levels and for certain purposes -- of the rest of the language is a very surprising fact. In later pages I will be attempting to say how they do it. But first we have to be clear about the sorts of words there are in Basic. Only then will we see how they may be put together to do the work of other words.
The last paragraph was again in Basic. If I now translate (put) some of it back into fuller English, italicizing (putting in sloping print) the words that are not in Basic, that may suggest something (give some idea) of the process.
So much, for the moment, as to how Basic originated. That so few words can deputize -- at certain levels and for certain purposes -- for the remainder of the language is astonishing. In a later chapter I shall try to explain how they do it. but first we have to be clear about the sorts of words there are in Basic. Only then will we see how they may be combined to convey the meanings of other words.
On pages 30-31 will be seen the Basic Word List. Its 850 words are divided into three main classes. There are six hundred names of things, one hundred and fifty names of qualities (adjectives) and one hundred "operators," as Ogden calls them : words that put the other into significant relationship with one another. It is these one hundred operations or structure words which most need our attention here. Indeed they are in many ways the most important words in Basic. They are those that give the learner and the teacher of Basic the greater part of their trouble ; they are those upon which the simplicity of Basic chiefly depends ; they are those whose study gives most insight into the structure not only of Basic but of full English as well ; and they are those from which we can learn most about the nature, the resources, and the limitations of language in general. A careful study of these one hundred words is a course in grammar, in linguistics, and in theory of meaning.1 Here, however, we are concerned only with how the right choice of these one hundred words completely changes the prospects for English as a word language.
A glance down the operations column, the first column of the Basic Word List, shows that the first eighteen words (from come to will ) are what are usually called verbs.
Ogden, for sound but not altogether simple reasons, prefers to call them "operators." The work they are capable of doing is unlike that of other English verbs in certain important respects which will be noted later. They may be divided into four sets. The first ten (come to take )
are names of irreducibly simple acts. Seem somewhat resists this classification or indeed any description. It is easiest to think of it as complementary to be. (We seem ) wise and good perhaps ; we are perhaps foolish and bad.) But the others name what we do, or what things do, and between them they cover our doings, and the doings of things, in a peculiarly comprehensive fashion. Into the meanings of other verbs comes some component able to be carried by one or more of these operators (as enter, for example, has the meaning of come in, and meditate has a meaning which may be carried by give thought or take thought And this is what has been meant by the claim that Basic has "no verbs." Its use of these superverbs or operators allows it to dispense with the rest.
Next come be, do, and have which do such a lion's share of the work in English either as full verbs or as auxiliaries.
Then come say, see, send. These are luxury conveniences in Basic and not strictly indispensable. We could cover their uses with other Basic words. When we say something, we put it into words ; when we see it is in view or we have it before our eyes ; when we send someone we make him go, and so on. but these periphrases would be awkward, and these three words are of such general utility that it is better to
have them on the list. Lastly come may and will, auxiliaries of possibility and permission, and of futurity.
All these words in Basic take all the inflections of full English. Thus give is a head word, under which might be listed in a full table gives, gave, giving, and given.
This raises puzzling questions as to how words are to be counted. If we list all the inflections of a verb, just when do we stop ? Do we list kept in "I kept it" and "I was kept" as two separate entries. though they are the same in form ? We would probably list put in "I put it here now" and "I put it there yesterday" as two, if we listed give and gave separately. But then, since "I am," "You are," and "He is" use different forms, why not list give five times to correspond with I, you, you (plural), we, they -- adding another two entries for the imperative and the infinitive ? Similar quandaries arise in counting the pronouns.
Ogden listed I, he, you and let it at that, knowing well that a one-page list of head words would not be the place where an intelligent person would look for their plurals (we, you, they ) or for the neutral (it ), the feminine (she ), the accusatives, and the possessives (him, her, it, his, her, its, etc.). Similarly who covers whom, whose, which, and what. As with more, most, which go with much, and less, least, he saw that a table of related forms was what the learner needed for such things. The Word List is not a manual of Basic, but the briefest, compactest possible specification of the language. I mention all these trivia because hostile critics of Basic have been very willing to take time out to complain about such points instead of consulting one of the texts (The Basic Words or The ABC of Basic English ) which would at once have answered all their questions, and relieved their professed bewilderment. My reader must forgive me for taking time out here to answer them. There is in fact an expanded model of the Basic Word List which includes all forms under the 850 head words, including plurals of all nouns, and all recommended compound words (undergo, for example). but that is a comparatively unwieldily thing. It is hardly manageable by a printer and was in fact handmade in China, where all available copies remain. It is a good thing to hang on a classroom wall, but not so generally useful as Ogden's one-page summary.
The reduction of the verbs to eighteen was the key to the discovery of Basic. It explains what otherwise would seem impossible : the vast covering power of such a mere handful of words. These "operators," in combination with other Basic words, translate adequately more than four thousand verbs of full English. And they do it sometimes with gain in force and clarity. We shall compare some examples later. The use of these words, in place of more learned looking words, has for centuries been increasing for simple, colloquial, informal speech and writing. Students of the history of English knew, of course, that words like make, take, put, get, and give had been extending their spheres of influence in the language, but not one before Ogden's demonstration realized how vast a domain these unobtrusive little words had won. Willing, serviceable little workers, they were less impressive than the more literary verbs, but handier and safer. We shall see in connection with the teaching of Basic how this translation works out. Here a few examples will suffice. People inserted and extracted less and less, put in, and took out; more and more. Followers of Dr. Johnson at his most characteristic might be reluctant to give up words like, abandon, abdicate, adjure, cede, desert, desist, forgo, forsake . . . relinquish, renounce, resign, vacate, withdraw, and yield in place of give up -- their homely Basic rendering -- but a public unblessed by and unprotected by a sound training in philology escaped multiple dangers. So did the language itself. Every language is under constant attack by the tongues of its less expert users. One has only to watch -- in a Chinese university, for example -- the degradation of such learned words, when used without awareness of their implications, to see that they need protection. Basic English, by providing invulnerable but adequate substitutes for these more delicate instruments, can serve our language as a fender. It can guard full English from those who will blur all its lines and blunt all its edges if they try to write and talk it before they have learned to read it.
Apart from the amazing power these words have to take over the work of other verbs, they are in themselves the most indispensable verbs of full English. they have to be learned and well learned anyhow by anyone learning English. By concentrating on them, Basic can teach them as no system that adds further verbs can.
Below the verbs in Column One come twenty words (about to with) whose peculiarity is that they handle positions and directions. Basic groups them together as "directives," separating them from the preposition adverbs for an interesting reason. All these much-used little words have, of course, a great variety of meanings in full English. in general the usefulness of a word and the variability of its uses go together, as we would expect. It is useful because it will do so many things. Naturally, the words best worth teaching will be the hardest to teach -- unless you succeed in analyzing and arranging their uses so that as far as possible the links between the meanings teach themselves. This, it will be remembered, was my fourth point above. Ogden's analysis of the uses of these directives, and his separation of those that are intelligible (if taught in the right order) from those that are not, is perhaps the clearest example of this. As a contribution to the teaching of English (Basic or full) it is second only to his "break-down" of the verb.
In their central uses -- those to be taught first -- all these twenty words have to do with position or direction in space. In these uses they can all be illustrated in one diagram.
So presented this is obvious enough. But it is surprising how few teachers of English have used these physical senses in elucidating other uses of these words that are not physical. I suspect they have been daunted by the word "metaphor." And that is as though an engineer let himself be daunted by the word "stress." It is not suggested that teachers should explain the theory of metaphor to their classes. To teach that is no light undertaking. But if a series of examples is presented (leg of a man, leg of a dog, leg of a table) the connections between the uses of a word which metaphor has established become very easily apparent. The whole art of learning a language is in recognizing familiar features in new settings.
Of the other uses of these directive words, some are simple metaphors from these space senses, some are rather more complex metaphors going by steps, and some are irrational and incomprehensible accidents of the history of the language, and therefore cannot be understood and have to be just learned and remembered as brute facts. The important thing to do in teaching them is to separate and postpone these irrational "idioms" and give the others in the order that makes them most lucid and intelligible to the learner. Then he can see how and why the words do what they do in English.
Consider here the word on. "on the Table," " on the wall,"
"on the earth," on earth," "on Monday," "on view," "on my mind," "on approval," "on a line," "on no account' "going on," "and so on." Try out the effects of substituting in for on in a large collection of such phrases. That brings out better than anything else what the problem of teaching the indispensable words of English in the most economical fashion is. I go further into the detail of all this in a later chapter. Here the point is that it is possible to choose a key sense for on and an order for the presentation of the other uses that makes all those that are intelligible relatively easy to master. In most pre-Basic teaching any and every use of on which happened to turn up has been given equal attention. Such hugger-mugger methods are wickedly wasteful of mental energy, the most valuable commodity in the world.
A similar selective ordering of their uses has been given in basic to all its words. The recommendations are recorded in The Basic Words. As a result, learning Basic, if these recommendations are followed, becomes an incomparably lighter task than the learning of the same 850 words in the full range of their senses taken at random. Indeed, what would be deadening and frustrating chore is turned into rewarding and enlivening enterprise. but many, who have thought they were studying Basic seem hardly to have looked into The Basic Words or to be aware as yet of the possibilities of economy that little book offers.
Among the six hundred name of things are many that at first sight may be taken to be verbs : act, attack, attempt, change, fall, for example. In Basic they are nouns. The powers of the operators allow such words to be used in phrases that make a verb use of them unnecessary. thus in Basic we do not act in any of the confusing senses of that verb, but we may take the part of Hamlet in the play. In general we do whatever it is. Again, in Basic we do not attempt something or attack someone, we make an attempt or an attack ; we do not change things, we make changes in them ; we do not fall, we have a fall, and so on. but these indications would be misleading unless I point out at once that Basic, through the rule summarized by "derivatives in -er, -ing, and =ed from three hundred nouns," has many other ways of handling these meanings. We may add -er to these words to give us the name of the agent -- the actor, attacker, and so on. With three of these (actor, creditor, sailor ) the spelling is -or and not -er. This 1 per cent irregularity is not troublesome. To the same words we may add -ing, to give us nouns for the action and corresponding adjectives : "The acting was bad," "He is the acting manager," "He was acting in the manager's place." This is a far simpler way of teaching these uses than through the nomenclature of participles and gerunds -- that bane of so many schoolchildren's days. Similarly, we may add -ed to give us another adjective. "The play was acted." This provides us with the past participles and the passives of our three hundred words, without bringing in the complexities of the full verb and the construing difficulties it occasions (see pp. 56-57).
The application of this rule is in practice much simpler than may appear. The meanings of the nuns, as they are taught i Basic, really control the use of these endings when they are needed. The list of the three hundred and a full discussion will be found in The ABC of Basic English. As Ogden there notes (p. 82), there are other words in the Basic List that take some of these endings, and English speakers writing in Basic may use them with due care. Whether they will be clear to learners depends, of course, on the rest of the sentence and the occasion.
It is in connection with this rule that the charge has been made that Basic creates "wholly unnecessary difficulties . . . difficulties lacking in Standard English." This is wholly false. The alleged difficulties are troubles only to an ankylotic (stiff) grammarian viewing Basic from the standpoint of a complete knowledge of English. They do not exist for the foreign learner. He does not look on his task from that standpoint. He has not yet learned full English. What the rule in fact does is to postpone difficulties until the leaner is at a stage when they will be less of a threat to his progress.
This last point may be stressed. . . . Too often in language teaching it is as though we confuse hairdressing with famine relief ; our pupils are starving for means of expression and we spend our time combing away at their unruly syntax or erratic phonemes.
The other summarized rules on the Basic List, except the last, explain themselves. We add to most of the nouns to make their plurals, but follow normal English custom in all the exceptions. We add -ly to the adjectives to form adverbs (able, ably ). We form comparatives with more and most, but also, with short words, use -er and -est (smaller and the smallest ). Good and bad take better, best and worse, worst. Questions follow normal practice and, as we have seen, all the forms of the operators and pronouns are used.
Finally comes a formula that has been the occasion for a considerable amount of misunderstanding. It concerns a point of general policy. Ogden, looking realistically at the learner's actual situation, the real difficulties of language learning as opposed to vocabulary assimilation, and the means of communications already available, recognized that the numbers, for example, are not in the same position as most other English words. The learner has the figures to use ; all he has to learn is how to spell and pronounce them. He has no subletities or variations of meanings to deal with. Similarly, in a less degree, with the names of the days of the week and the months of the year. The calendar presents them better than any text that does not just reprint it. Again, the metric system is adopted by nineteen governments, current in other countries, and all but universal for science. Its English pronunciation is the only task that remains. The other measurement terms in English possess, also, scientific definiteness of meanings. But, alas, the actual measures employed vary distressingly from region to region, and from trade to trade. This was another reason for excluding them from a general-purpose list, a reason applying also to currency terms. The main argument, though, for making numerals and calendar, measurement and currency terms addenda to the Basic List is their specific notational character. In this they are like proper names or mathematical or chemical signs, rather than like the general run of the common nouns of the language. They belong essentially to the nomenclatures of the sciences.
In addition to these there are the international words mentioned in this rule. Basic at present recognizes fifty words as current in all parts of the world wherever there is some likelihood of anyone's needing them. Typical are bar, piano, restaurant, and telephone, the names of and some of the items in the chief sciences, and titles such as president. They are used by Basic, but it would have been silly to include them as though they were a part of the language that has to be taught.
This brings me to a side of Basic which many offers some of its most interesting possibilities : its use as a connecting framework through which the language of science could become international. This promise which Basic presents has always had a very important place in Ogden's design. It is obviously absurd that anything that is so much the common concern of mankind as the advance of science should be held up, continually, by language barriers, if there is any way of overcoming them. Anyone aware, even in one field, of the amount of relevant data and suggestion, which is hidden from him merely by his inability to read effectively in enough languages, will feel this. It is felt most acutely by natives of the linguistically isolated countries. A scientific worker in Australia, Brazil, or China, if he is to keep "abreast of his subject," must, as a rule, equip himself to read effectively in three foreign languages. In the near future he may well have to add Russian as a fourth. By the time he has so equipped himself he is years behind his fortunate rivals in more polyglot centers. There is little need to stress the point except by adding that effective reading (as opposed to the vague reading which is
one of the most damaging ways of wasting our time) is harder
to achieve, in view of the manner in which even very important papers are commonly written, than is currently assumed.