A Summary of C.K. Ogden, a Genius, Attracted with 850 Words

Yoshiko Aizawa
Former professor of Tokyo University of Arts & Design.

This is a detailed summary of a book released on the 50th anniversary of Ogden's death. It was written in Japanese and was published on by Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, Japan, in November 2007. C.K. Ogden, as well as an inventor of Basic English, was a coauthor of The Meaning of Meaning with I.A. Richards, and an expositor of J. Bentham's linguistic writings. In addition to these, he wrote and translated a number of books in various fields, and edited magazines and academic series. However, such great contribution of Ogden to the thought in the twentieth century has been regrettably neglected. I, the author of the book, hope this will arouse more interest in Ogden and will be of some help for better understanding of Basic English.

There are about ten Ogden archives, mostly in UK but one in US (UCLA) and another in Canada (McMaster Univ.). Enormous amount of the precious materials ― his books, papers, documents, letters, and his library ― have been carefully kept. Visiting these archives I utilized the materials, especially a great number of letters. I am deeply indebted to these organizations.


Preface   What is Basic English?

Chapter I   Ogden's Life

   1  entering Cambridge University

   2  editing Cambridge Magazine

   3  editing Psyche and academic series

Chapter  II   Ogden's Portrait  

   1  as a polymath

   2  as an eccentric

Chapter III Background of Basic English 

         ― Seeking for an ideal language, Ogden's intellectual pursuit       

1        dreams of a universal language

2        language innovation

3        relations with contemporary thinkers

4        The Meaning of Meaning

5        up to the completion of Basic English

Chapter lV  Attractions of Basic English

 ― 850 words Ogden was so attracted with

   1  anything can be said with 850 words

   2  only 16 verbs   

   3  treasure house of metaphor

   4  one transparent pattern

   5  simple, clear English ― as the nucleus of English

   6  ideal materials of English teaching ― Graded Direct Method

   7  clarification of thought ― way out of Word Magic:

Chapter V  Propagation of Basic English

   1  in England

   2  in America

   3  in Japan

What Ogden left for posterity


  Before the main theme of discussing Ogden, a rough sketch of Basic with some examples of Basic writing was given for the readers' convenience. . . .

Chapter I  . Ogden's Life

1  entering Cambridge University

Ogden entered Cambridge University, Magdalene college, in 1908 with a scholarship for classics. His research theme was 'Greek influence on Greek thought', which soon spread to language in general, He thought the ambiguous use of words clouds and confuses our thought. This topic which he called the power of words or 'word magic' became one of his key themes and to get out of it was his lifelong aim.

  He founded 'Heretics Society' first to oppose compulsory college chapel, and then to discuss religion and other subjects freely. As the president, he planned programs and attracted distinguished speakers. Many students attended the meeting to hear their speeches and join the discussion. In fact, he wrote in his unpublished document that this was to observe how spoken words were handled and see the errors of expression before his eyes.

Through his acquaintance and correspondence with Lady Welby, he was convinced of her semantic study named significs and at some meetings tried to introduce it to the audiences. However, he soon obscured her influence. Other than academic matters, he had an interest in industrial issues and wrote articles on them. He proposed more for industrial education, visiting Germany to investigate the schools there. Later he wrote a book and papers on this issue as well. The range of his concern was so extensive, from theology and color coordination to women's liberation and even birth control.  

2  editing Cambridge Magazine

  In 1912 Ogden undertook the role of editing the university magazine and it continued about ten years. During the war he was concerned for civil liberties and wrote pacifist articles in it. He was determined to go on for international undertaking. A distinguishing feature of the magazine about that time was 'notes from the foreign press' series, giving a survey of 200 newspapers and journals, even including Germany's. Though it needed massive effort to translate and summarize these articles, they were favorably received, for the readers were enlightened with impartial information about the war and internationalism.

However, there were those protesting against the series criticizing Ogden as 'anti-war' or 'pro-Germany'. On Armistice Day in 1918 his bookshop was wrecked by radical students. That night Ogden called on Richards to ask if he could identify any of the rioters. Though he couldn't, they talked late into the night, with the topic turning to 'meaning'. Within about two hours, they had roughly got their plan for collaborating on The Meaning of Meaning. The book first appeared in serial form in the magazine.

3  editing Psyche and academic series

  In 1920, before the magazine ceased, the journal Psyche had been founded, as a quarterly review of psychology. Over 30 years of his editorship, it became somewhat his personal vehicle. In spite of its unfavorable finance, he gained intellectual satisfaction from it. Ogden's research of Bentham's linguistic work and

ideas of Basic appeared there about the same time (1927-1930). After the announcement of Basic in 1930, its research and spreading were reported in every issue. The final volume (XVIII) delayed 14 years (1938-1952), which shows how the war affected this period. [reprinted 1995] This volume is said to be 'almost undiluted Ogden'.

  While making research on Basic, he also edited as many as five academic series, among which the most well-known was International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Science Method. More than 100 books were published including works by Jung, Piaget and Wittgenstein. By editing these he introduced western thought into England and played a great role for the development of thought in the twentieth century. Ogden had a superhuman capacity for absorbing information and ideas from others, and was called among his friends a 'splendid midwife'.

Chapter II .  Ogden's Portrait

1  a polymath

Ogden in fact did a great amount of work. He was a linguist, psychologist and philosopher. As was stated above, what he had done ranges over a variety of topics. He was called one of the greatest intellects at the beginning of the twentieth century in England. As well as writing books in many fields, he translated from German and French more than ten books, such as The Philosophy of 'As if' and The Social Life of the Ants. Translation, as was seen in the war time news survey, seemed to him his mission to elevate international understanding, which later led to Basic.

 Sound was also one of the topics he was deeply concerned with. He made research and wrote papers on rhythm and stress, with special interest in Hopkins' metrics. Later he established Orthophonic Archives in his Institute with gramophones, various machines and a number of records. In 1927 he had set up Orthological Institute for the research and promotion of Basic.

Besides the academic area, he had an interest in almost everything. He was a mania for collecting various things ―― clocks, music boxes, post stamps, etc. In fact, many of those items were not only rare but valuable and he actually made use of them. For example, 800 stamps were used for his book Basic by Picture Stamps.

He was one of the great book-collectors of modern times and his houses (at some time he had several in London) were full of them. Ogden actually read most of these books, it seems, for Richards stated in his writings that he noticed many slips of paper in them and Ogden's peculiar penciled indications in the margin. Those books, old or valuable, were mostly purchased and are now kept in the archives in University College, London and in UCLA      .       

   People around him wondered how he managed the money to buy so many books, antiques, etc. and the time to do so many things. One of his friends said 'Ogden slept in the morning, got under way by mid-afternoon, and really blossomed as night fell.'  

2   an eccentric

He was often called 'eccentric' and some amusing anecdotes told by his friends are introduced in this book. In 1943 Prime Minister Churchill in his speech at Harvard Univ. hailed Basic. Newspapers flashed this news and Ogden's name spread all over. In an interview with Picture Post, Ogden appeared with a weird mask on his face. The picture was printed in the paper. While talking with a friend, it is said he sometimes put on a mask or put it on the friend. He himself said he put on a mask to talk in terms of ideas and not in terms of personality. In fact he had an amazing collection of strange masks.    

He had some pseudonyms. The one he liked best was Adelyne More, which is a parody of 'add a line more' and its anagram becomes 'money dealer' .He used it more than 40 times on his articles and a book Fecundity versus Civilization. He even tried to substantiate a fictitious author of this book with photographs of a pretty secretary and her wedding.

  He had a great number of friends but tried to see them individually. He was a sociable person but had strong likes and dislikes. He was obstinate and made bitter attacks on those against his views, especially on those against Basic. Even with I.A. Richards who had been his best collaborator, Ogden later quarreled over Basic and wrote very severe letters to Richards criticizing his flexible Basic.   

Chapter III .  Background of Basic

 Basic didn't come out of nothing. Twenty years before its completion, Ogden had started to think of a universal language. At the back of Basic, there were various factors that made it possible. 

1  dreams of a universal language

The idea of a universal language which would bring the nations to better understanding, developed as early as about 100 BC, and a number of attempts had been made. The earliest projects were mostly artificial ones. In the 17th century when the decline of Latin language as well as the historical and cultural upheavals took place, this issue was actively pursued. In the latter half of the century utopian stories appeared one after another, where ideal languages were spoken on the moon, on the sun, or in some little known places on the earth. 

Some people tried to make an ideal language with signs corresponding to ideas, which was called a philosophical language. It was thought the correspondence between words and what they indicate would keep away the confusion. Wilkins and Leibniz were the most well-known for making such a language. Ogden studied these past trials in great detail.

Soon the media as an international communication came to seem more realistic. Then from the 19th to 20th century such a trial seemed to reach the climax, and both artificial languages like Esperanto and simplified natural ones like Basic appeared.     

2  language innovation

  There were some, mostly philosophers, who were aware of drawbacks in language and preached the needs to improve language, or rather people's attitude to it. Ogden noticed this steady development of the new attitude to words and in his writing gave the names of these thinkers: Occam, Bacon, Locke, Leibniz, Hoone Took, ...Bentham ―― a great tradition. However, they didn't actually put their theory into practice. Ogden studied and discussed each of these pioneers' views.

  Bentham was noted as a legal reformer but he also did a great work on language. This had been almost overlooked for about 100 years until Ogden took it up and threw light on it. On the other hand, Bentham's view about language gave Ogden a great impact. In fact, it provided Ogden the key to a practical solution to the language problem. The major point was Bentham's 'fiction' theory. In general  fiction words like 'freedom' or 'emotion' are used like 'apple' or 'table', which makes our thought confused, he insisted. He persuaded people not to substantiate such fiction words which in fact have no real entity. Ogden put Bentham's ideas in his manuscripts together and with his preface published a book Bentham's Theory of Fiction.

  Bentham proposed putting these fiction words into more concrete, descriptive forms. Especially verbs which are stuffed with complex ideas and are slippery can be analyzed and are made clearer; as 'enter' into 'go into' and 'disembark' into 'get off a ship'. His work confirmed Ogden in the view that language had pitfalls but could be controlled, and gave him a clue to his development of Basic.

3  relations with contemporary philosophers

  Ogden studied and united language theories of the predecessors. However, newer theories have to do with views of contemporary thinkers. For example, Watson, Russell and Wittgenstein were all concerned with the idea of 'substitution', which is a key concept of Basic. In fact Ogden was close with each of these theorists. He made detailed research of their work and was influenced by them. Peirce, Saussure, Malinowski and Korzybski were some other theorists. Malinowski's article on the problem of meaning in primitive language was included as an appendix to The Meaning of Meaning

 Bridgeman, a modern scientist, noticed ambiguity of language and insisted on the operational definition of words. The idea of 'length', for example, is actually defined by the operation of measuring the length, he said. In Basic, verbs are taken as operational elements. Ogden must have thought Bridgeman's idea would be of use for the development and support of Basic.   

4         The Meaning of Meaning

This unconventional book is a joint work with I.A.Richards. They pointed out that linguistics so far had neglected the study of meaning and the relationship between language and thought. This was a thorough-going attempt to define the nature of communication and to provide a base for the study of meaning. The book is also called 'many books in one', for it covers a wide range; signs, definition, function of language, communication, etc. and cannot be summarized in a few paragraphs.

As the subtitle 'A Study of Influence of Language on Thought and Science of Symbolism' says, it has two main objectives. One is to discuss the troubles caused by language and make people aware of the power of words. They wanted to explode the myth of the magic bond between words and things. The second is to formalize the new science of symbolism, study of words as signs. As the practical expansion of the first aim, there is a third aim to seek the way out of 'word magic'. This solution he tried to seek first in this book, and then in Basic.

In fact this book played a great part as the background of Basic. The following points especially influenced Basic. 1) The definition routes were of great use in selecting Basic words. 2) Canons of symbolism about the proper use of words provided the theoretical foundations for Basic. 3) As to the division of language functions, Basic put as much weight as possible on symbolic rather than emotive use.

5  up to the completion of Basic

  While Ogden and Richards made definitions of various words, they were struck by the fact that whatever words they defined, certain words kept coming again and again. Then they thought that with some limited set of words a simplified language might be possible. They were so excited and even wished to stop the book in order to tackle a new language system. In fact, after the book was finished, Ogden started to go on with this project.

  In practice, he faced many difficulties, but according to Richards there were two big factors of the solutions:1) Bentham's suggestion that verbs can be reduced by breaking up into more elementary words, 2) Ogden's specific gift for rephrasing, which he systematically cultivated. That is saying the same thing in many other ways. By 1928 he was convinced that 850 words could do the work of 20,000. What mattered was where to keep balance of advantages; simplicity, regularity, economy, clarity, easiness of learning, naturalness, etc. Ogden then went on with experiment by putting various English writings into Basic.

Chapter lV .  Attractions of Basic English

1.   850 words Ogden was so attracted with

  Using the technique of analysis, the main property of Basic, many complex words are put into more simple, basic words; 'puppy' as 'young dog', 'bitch' as 'female dog', and 'scarlet' as 'bright red'. These substituting words have much wider range of use, and do greater work. So by combining these basic words, the meanings of other words can be conveyed adequately. It was Ogden's amazing discovery that among a huge vocabulary of English exist a limited number of such fundamental words.  

English vocabulary is enormous and there are a great number of synonyms. Basic uses more general words in place of them, for example, 'fear' for 'awe', 'dread', 'fright', 'horror', or 'terror'. The subtle nuance of the latter words cannot be expressed, but in Basic it is more important to say things clearly. Other than these techniques, metaphor is used to the fullest in Basic (see 4:3).

Basic words were selected not by frequency but by the quantity of their work. Though a small number, these words work quite effectively in highly organized  system. They are indispensable for expressing everyday thought, feeling, or facts. In fact these 850 words are the key to the rest. Though Basic is limited in its words and rules, it is still normal English. Moreover, unlike most projects for an international media, Basic is based on already widely used language.

2.   only 16 verbs    

   This is the most distinctive feature of Basic. It claims to have 'no verbs'. Ogden once excluded verbs and picked up 16 as operators. They are to operate other words such as nouns or adjectives. Ten out of these sixteen indicate the specific actions of human body, such as 'go', 'come', 'give', 'keep', 'put' and 'take'. Many of the so-called verbs can be analyzed into these Basic verbs (operators) and other words, like 'ascend' into 'go up', 'extract' into 'take out' and 'meditate' into 'give thought to'. (However, the name verb will be used here as usual). Verbs are the pivots of sentence structure, so if they are few it is simple to learn.   

  No other Indo-European languages such as French or Spanish have an equal chance of making use of this process and can be simplified so much. Ogden noticed the analytical property of present-day English and made most of it. After all English itself has the possibility of simplification.

3.  treasury of metaphor

  Basic makes great use of metaphors for extending the use of the words. First with every word the central key meaning (root sense) is decided, from which extended senses are brought about. Many of them use metaphors, such as from 'a foot of a man' to 'the foot of a page', or from 'the root of the tree' to 'the root of the trouble'. As in the latter example, a concrete meaning frequently extends to an abstract one.

  In Basic not only with the names of things but with verbs (operators) and prepositions (directives), metaphors are used quite widely. 'Go' and 'come' from an actual move in space extends to a change of the state, like 'go to sleep' or 'go into details'. We say 'Milk went bad' or 'The names went out of mind'. With 'come' we  say 'come to an agreement', 'come to a decision' or 'The war came to an end'. With 'put' a move of things in space extends to a change of things or events; from 'put a book in the bag' to 'put the machine in operation', ' put the idea into one's mind' or 'put a stop to smoking'.

Prepositions in their root sense indicate position and direction in space (so they are called directives) and extend as 'at peace /rest /war /work', or 'in comfort /danger / doubt /fear'. These extended senses are linked with the root sense by visual metaphor. It is because of metaphors that with such simple, basic words we can convey advanced ideas in Basic.

4.   one transparent pattern

'I will give simple rules to the boys slowly.' is one of the Basic model sentences. The word order is just as we perform an action. First a person or thing that does act, then the time, the act itself, the object acted on, the direction or position, the object of the direction, and lastly not necessary but an adverbial word of manner or time. The pattern is lucid, that is, we can see the act or the meaning of the sentence through this pattern.

In Basic, though the function of words may differ, or some parts unnecessary, most of the sentences are put in this pattern. For example, 'He put a glass on the table.' ' I got the flowers from her.' or 'They made her happy.'  The word order is fixed, always obeying this pattern. It may sound strange that there is only one pattern. However, it is quite helpful for the learners, especially for the beginners. They can see the meaning through the sentence pattern. This is the very basic, important pattern in English and it is useful for the learners to get this pattern completely in the first stage.    

With 'give', the other pattern 'give you simple rules' is actually used far more frequently, but this is presented later, after the learners master the first pattern.


5.  simple, clear English ―― as the nucleus of general English

  English abounds in delicate and complex words such as seen in Shakespeare's works. On the other hand, it also has the opposite tendency. There are concise, simple little Germanic words as well as exquisite big words of Latin origin. Basic for international communication and as the first step has no need of flowery words. It aims mainly to refer to things and to communicate facts and ideas clearly.

Basic is plain, because such little indispensable everyday words as 'get', 'make', 'put', 'take' ,'in', 'out' are pivotal in sentences. They make up the core of English. English itself is morphologically simple and Basic furthered its simplicity. The greatest device of simplicity is the reduction of complex and difficult verbs. Moreover, many of Basic verbs and prepositions can be visualized in the root sense. Since the number of words is quite limited, they come in contact with these fundamental words repeatedly and can learn their use thoroughly.

  Basic is clear because of its analytical expression. Fictions tend to hide the true meanings behind linguistic expressions, but in Basic they are broken down. In place of 'ask' or 'extract', we use 'put a question to' or 'take out', which show clearer meanings.

6.  ideal material of English teaching ― Graded Direct Method

Basic is a self-contained unit and a great number of books were put into Basic. Moreover, it serves as the best foundation for wider study of English, that is, it is quite ideal as the first step of learning English. Basic is designed to give the learners as little trouble as possible, because of its economy, repetition, intelligibility and visualization as was stated before. Basic is learnt by insight rather than automatic memorization. In fact, Richards insisted, Basic was an attempt to substitute insight for habit as working principle in language. With regular and analytical language system, understanding is an effective principle.  

  Ogden pointed out that any method of teaching a language must grade its lessons in some ordered manner. Simple words and structures are mastered first, and then they form a basis for the more difficult ones. Learners start with every word in its root sense, and after they master them, go on to the expanded meanings. This selective ordering of the meanings of Basic words plays a predominant part in

learning. Based on this principle, Ogden wrote some textbooks, such as Step by Step or Basic Teachers.

Richards further went ahead in educational field. At Harvard he developed teaching materials, and with his colleague Gibson he completed textbooks English through Pictures, and developed teaching method called Graded Direct Method (GDM). The principles of Basic are carefully considered in this method.       .     

  The key properties of GDM are serial ordering and sentence united with the situation. 'What should be learned before what?' is taken thoroughly. This is possible because Basic words are limited. Sentences are taught connected with the situation where they are actually used. They learn English not through their mother tongue but directly through the situation the sentences are used. (In Japan I have long used this method and it proved quite efficient.)


7.   clarification of thought  

   The third aim of Basic, especially for the native speakers of English, is to clarify thought. Basic as an instrument of analysis breaks down what one likes to say and expresses simply in elementary words. Translating into Basic becomes a rethinking of meaning. This is because Basic has no rough synonyms and cannot get word by word substitution. We have to change the level of abstraction and have to find some words in lower level, which are more basic and concrete. So this is called 'vertical translation'. It makes us study and understand the original carefully and find out the right words from the context.

  For a long time Ogden tried to find the way out of 'word magic' and Basic is a sort of its practical solution. Basic was sometimes called as a 'sieve', 'fender' or 'corrective'. This is because we can clarify ambiguous statement, as Richards says 'to put into Basic is to find implicit ambiguity and make explicit distinctiveness'. Through Basic we can get the right view of the relation between thought and feeling on one hand, and words and things on the other.

Chapter V  Propagation of Basic English

1  in England

  Once Basic was announced in 1930 in Psyche, it drew attention and spread rapidly not only in England but overseas. Ten years later as many as 30 countries had Basic centers and were trying to popularize it. A number of books about Basic were written and so many books were put into Basic. Orthological Institute which Ogden set up in 1927 was the center of its research and propagation training teachers, translating books into Basic, corresponding with foreign countries, etc.

As Basic was so radical and the claims so large, it brought about the opinions arguing both pro and con. Many writers, such as H.G.Wells, B.Shaw, T.S.Eliot and W.Empson were the supporters of Basic. Othe other hand, it faced skepticism and criticism. M.West et al., for example, wrote a booklet attacking Basic very severely, and Ogden replied with a thick book Counter Offensive to argue against their criticism. He took up every trifling matter and argued in detail.

During the World War 11 Prime Minister Churchill endorsed Basic (see ll:2), promoting England and America to utilize this common language. He thought Basic would be of great use for his country in the postwar days. It became big news, with radio and newspapers flashing Basic and Ogden. This seemed to be a good chance for them. In fact, it led to a great demand for Basic books, which couldn't be supplied because of the wartime paper shortage. Moreover, it happened to cause the withdrawal of American financing because of the mistaken belief that the British government would do all the funding.

Government committee was organized to discuss Basic problems and meetings were held with Basic side. They wanted to establish trust but the negotiation was long drawn out and Ogden was much distressed. Later, in Who's Who he recorded '44-46 bedevilled by officials'. At last Basic Foundation was formed in 1947, through which Institute got some fund from the government for 5 years. However, after the Institute closed and Ogden died in 1959, Basic declined little by little.    

2  in America

  At first Basic project could not get any financial aid from English means, but was supported by American educational foundations. Despite the depression there were more academic possibilities in America.

As early as in 1933, Basic was used for teaching English to the immigrants. in Massachusetts. Besides, in some school and college classes Basic was taught for proper reading and writing. Richards, after coming to Harvard in1939, cooperating with the Basic teachers, played a vital part to spread Basic in US. Richards and Gibson worked hard to better Basic textbooks and the method to teach it (see lV:6). Programs in Basic were broadcasted from WRUL in Boston to South America.  While in England Ogden and his collaborators were suffering from the shortage of money, staff, paper etc. during the war, it did not affect America so seriously.

Richards thought it better to modify Basic in order to make it more acceptable. He let some of the nouns, such as 'act', 'sleep' or 'walk' be used as verbs and some more nouns added. He wrote some books using this modified Basic, later called 'Every Man's English'. Ogden was against this idea, for he had a firm conviction about Basic and did not like to alter it at all. Their approaches to Basic were found out quite incompatible and the dispute was bitter ending in a complete break. In America, however, Richards' efforts bore fruit and Basic was widely utilized in teaching English for some time.


3  in Japan   

Basic movement started very early in Japan. Some well-known scholars of English tried hard to popularize it. In 1933, one of them, inspired by Basic, made up 'Basic Japanese' with 1,000 words. He sent the book to Ogden, who was very pleased with what he had done. Not only in Tokyo, but in several other cities, the enthusiasts of Basic were very active in the first half of 1930s. However, as the time went on, Japan's situation became more and more against teaching foreign languages. Basic was at a disadvantage and after the war it could not revive its popularity as before.

However, the Basic English Society exists still today, and though the number is small, Basic lovers are studying it earnestly. Bulletins are issued every month and there are monthly study meetings and other activities. Especially in Japan, GDM, Richards' teaching method using Basic (see IV:6) has long been rooted and a number of teachers of English are working hard in GDM study group. These two groups are closely connected and often get together working for their common aim.

What Ogden Left for Posterity

As was seen so far, Ogden made great achievements in wide range. He was situated in the center of the intellectual circle and united many ideas into one, from which a new linguistic science was started. His linguistics is not confined to theory but includes practical aspects. His lifelong study was about the influence of language on thought and he tried to create awareness of the power of words to obscure thought. These two points ― interdisciplinary research and practical promotion for better communication stand out even today. Ogden had profound insights into the nature of speech.  

The Meaning of Meaning continued to be discussed and the newest print was put out in 1999 (that of Japanese translation in 2001). Ogden and Richards tried to probe into meaning which is very ambiguous and slippery. Their idea of sign-situation was concerned with Malinowski's context of situation, and through him had an effect on J.R.Firth, one of the pioneers of the British linguistics, London school.

 Basic English itself, though not a matter of general interest, still has strong potential for international communication and the first step to wider English. Moreover, to all of us, Basic ensures the right use of words and appropriate expression because of its properties.

Link: Pocketbook about Basic English by this author.