logo Ogden's Basic English

Tom Burns Haber

Department of English
Ohio State University


D. Appleton-Century Company
New York         London
Copyright 1945
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof,
must not be reproduced in any form
without the permission of the publisher.

Army of the United States


    Prime Minister Winston Churchill, speaking at Harvard University on September 6, 1943, stirred the imaginations of his million of listeners by referring to Basic English as "a very carefully wrought plan for an international language, capable of very wide transactions of practical business and of interchange of ideas . . . a medium of intercourse and understanding to, many races and an aid to the building of our new structure for preserving peace."
    An endorsement of such weight had never been accorded to any international language. In a few moments more had been done to stimulate the interest of the American public in Basic English than had been accomplished in the twenty-odd years since its invention. The American press for the remainder of 1943 and well into 1944 printed thousands of articles in replay to the question: "What was the Prime Minister talking about?" The English professor, as well as the layman, wanted to know.
    They learned the following facts about Basic English:. . .
    1 . It was invented about 1920 by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards at Cambridge University, England.
    2 . It consists of 850 essential English words, including only 18 verbs.
    3 . It "looks" like standard English, has the same rules for conjugation, spelling of plurals, and so forth.
    4 . It is not intended to be a substitute for standard English. .
    5 . Its purpose is to provide a common language for all the peoples of the world.
    6 . It also provides an easy approach for the foreigner who desires to master the full language.
    7 . It had been, prior to World War II, widely studied in the Orient; was being taught in many Russian schools ; had for some time been a part of the curricula of citizenship classes in a number of our Eastern institutions-the Cooper Union of New York City, for example; and had proved its usefulness in military schools in various parts of our country in providing foreign soldiers with a working knowledge of English.
    This only way by which an international language can survive is by fulfilling a world-felt need, That the need is evident --and daily becoming more evident -- cannot be denied. As a world language Basic English has much to recommend it: it is a natural, not an artificial, speech; it is the heart and core of a language which, being analytical, made the identification of its basic vocabulary relatively simple; it has behind it the great prestige of the English language and the whole Anglo-Saxon tradition.
    The Handbook of Basic English aims to give a complete condensed description of its subject. For permission to use the name Basic English and the Basic English vocabulary, the author expresses his gratitude to C. K. Ogden, of the London Orthological Instute, without whose friendly cooperation this book could not have been written.



    With each day that passes, the need for some simple means by which people of different languages can make themselves understood to each other becomes ever more obvious. The telegraph, the telephone, the radio have made next-door neighbors of peoples separated by half a world in space. We are approaching a time, have indeed in large measure already reached it, when a man in mid-China or mid-India can pick up an instrument on his table and within Eve minutes be talking with someone in the middle of Russia at of Africa as easily as though the two sat in the same room. But they may find themselves separated by a barrier far more formidable and insuperable than the barrier of world distances -- the barrier of differing languages. Space might almost as well not have been conquered unless this other obstacle can be overcome. And that is only one aspect of the practical difficulty in this matter. One only needs to have taken part in one of the numerous international conferences where eight or ten languages may be spoken, or even in a luncheon party in Washington or London, to grasp the extent to which the understanding of the simplest thing may be distorted or made impossible by the Barrier of Babel.

    To meet this very real and practical obstacle to the business and daily life of the world, such artificial languages as have been devised in the past have not proved very successful. It is not easy to sec why they should have failed to the extent to which they have. It looked for a time as though Esperanto, which had so much to recommend it in the way of the symmetry and logic of its construction, would fill this real need of mankind. It had many adherents; there were many who spoke it with some fluency; it managed to organize international gatherings, and yet, somehow, it did not arrive.
    Basic English approaches this vital problem along an avenue different from that followed by the inventors of artificial languages. It takes an existing language which the accidents of history and geography happen to have scattered so widely throughout the world, adapts and simplifies it.
    It is sometimes argued that the consideration most likely to prevent the adoption of Basic English as an auxiliary tongue is that the non-English would resent the language of any one people being chosen for this purpose. But English long since ceased to be the possession of one people. It belongs to the United States quite as much as to Britain, and the former country long since ceased to be English in its racial or national composition or in its political affiliation. And long before the United States became an independent state, English had become the first, not the second, language of the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, as now it has become the language of the independent nations of Australia, New Zealand, and the main language of bi-lingual nations like Canada and South Africa. It is the lingua Franca of the many diverse peoples of India, where anything from a hundred to two hundred native languages are spoken, and where, for administrative purposes, it is likely so to remain, even when India has become as independent as the United States or Canada or South Africa. There are many millions on the earth who would rightly resent the idea that they are in any way subject culturally or politically to England because they speak English; as energetically as would the ordinary American resent such an implication today.
    It is safe, therefore, to say that English, or some simplified form of it, has passed beyond the stage where its use constitutes any implication of political or cultural subserviency to England. Incidentally, it is well to note that today, though there is an English tongue, there is no such thing as an English State. There is a British State inclusive of several languages -- the Gaelic of the Scottish Highlands, the Welsh of Wades, the Manx of the Isle of Man, and the old Norman French of the Channel Islands. In the case of Welsh, the non-English tongue is quantitatively important.

    In any case, we do well to remember that Basic English is to be, not a first, but a second language; an auxiliary; a means by which, when the first language -- Russian, Chinese, Hindustani, Arabic, Japanese, Czech, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Turkish, Romanian, Urdu, Tamil, Somali, Swahili, or any of the scores of African tongue s-- fails, both parties may call upon a second best which will enable them to communicate on some matter of urgent business. Indeed, sheer need has already for a century or more given rise to a horrible and barbaric form of Basic English: the "pidgin" English employed for purposes of intercommunication on the coasts of China and in many Pacific islands; employed not merely between those speaking English and the Chinese or Pacific Islanders, but between non-English-speaking Asiatics themselves and non-English-speaking Europeans and Asiatics. Thus "pidgin" English in New Guinea and the Solomons and other Pacific islands has frequently been made the language of government proclamations. Rather than that English should be made the basis of the barbaric "pidgin" English of the Pacific, ii is better that there be found in English the basis of a scientific, simple and dignified means of communication like that outlined in these pages.
    It is possible, of course, that this may give to speakers of English a certain advantage in the world because Basic might well lead to the speaking of English with its normal and wider vocabulary. But, unless hopeless paralysis is to mark all international relations of the future, one of the lessons which we have to learn is that we must not refuse improvement because someone else may benefit by it, or benefit perhaps more than we do. We must learn to put our own advantage and convenience above the delight either of doing injury to someone else or of seeing that he does not benefit more than we. If we reject advantage to ourselves from a given course because someone else may advantage still more, we put injury to others above our own profit. We ought to accept the painful and disagreeable fact that our own advantage may also help someone else. The richest, most powerful and proudest people in the world -- those of the United States -- have managed to reconcile themselves to the use of a language which comes from the southern part of a small island oft the northwest coast of Europe. In view of that perhaps others can also manage to reconcile themselves to the use of a modified form of that tongue as a second language, a mere instrument of daily commerce. After all, Christendom happens to have taken its religion from a very small country in a corner of the eastern Mediterranean, and accepts, as the holy document of its faith, a book written almost entirely by people belonging to a different faith.
    Basic English represents a great experiment as part of the machinery of international communication; one of the instruments of that internationalism which we must manage to achieve in some form or another if we are not to condemn ourselves in the future to immeasurable -- literally immeasurable --torment and agony. For this reason if for none other, it is worth trial.





Chapter I

Classification of the Basic Words. There are 850 words in Basic English: The third groups breaks down into
Varied uses of the Basic Words. The classification given above is not a rigid one, as many of the Basic words have more than one use. For example, before is used as a conjunction and as a preposition; this as an adjective and a pronoun; much as an adjective, a pronoun, and an adverb. The word one, which is carried into Basic with the standard numeral system, retains its common functions as adjective, noun, and pronoun in Basic. The meanings of all the words in the Basic vocabulary are described in C. K. Ogden's The Basic Words,1 this is the final authority on Basic usage and should be available to every student of Basic English.
    As you acquire experience in the use of the Basic words, you will find that alley may be employed in nearly all the common meanings to which you are accustomed: generally, close meanings that are given first in a standard dictionary, unless marked "Archaic" or "Obsolete" many of the Basic words are used to express both simple and figurative meanings; the latter are as a rule indicated by the sign (e) "expansion" in The Basic Words. Thus the word fruit may be used to describe the edible product of a plant and also to mean "outcome" or "result." On the other hand, some meanings you have been accustomed to associate with a given word may not exist in Basic usage; for example, the Basic adjective light is not used as the opposite of heavy; as is not used as the equivalent of because; that is not used for who and which.
    1 C. K. Ogden, The Basic Words (Kegan Paul, London, 1943).

Auxiliary Basic lists. Basic also makes use of the following words :
    The names of weights and measures
    The names of numbers
    The names of the days of the week and the months of the year
    A list of fifty "international" words: radio, hotel, bank, park, and so forth.
A complete description of these auxiliary lists is go later in this book, pages 78-80.
    Basic English also employs a small number of additional lists in special fields of reading. It provides 100 words for science and fifty special words for economics. For reading poetry too additional words are used in Basic; these words plus a selected group of fifty others, went into the preparation of The Basic Bible, begun in 1930. These auxiliary lists, you will observe, are useful chiefly to translators of books.

Verbs in Basic English. Even a superficial reading the Basic vocabulary will make evident these two conclusions:
  1. The Basic verbs , since there are but eighteen of them, will necessarily work overtime.
  2. Other parts of speech will be called upon to do a part of the work ordinarily done by verbs.
    The simplicity of Basic English rests mainly upon its simple verb system. A person skilled in Basic can find among the eighteen Basic verbs and their combinations equivalents for the thousands of verbs used in ordinary speech and writing. Too much, however, should not be made of the simplicity of Basic grammar. For the foreign-born student, particularly, much remains to be learned. Basic demands a perfect knowledge of the complete indicative conjugations of its verbs and specifies the number of meanings in which each verb can be used. (There is no formal subjunctive conjugation in Basic English.)


    I . What Basic word can express the underlying idea in all of the following verbs? -- approach, run, advance, retreat, creep, hurry, ascend, descend, enter, depart, proceed, recede, leave, accelerate, crawl.
    II. After you have found the Basic verb in Exercise I, go back over the list of verbs, examining each one to see how nearly its meaning match that of your two-letter Basic verb. What other Basic words need to be added to go to make its meaning approximate that of approach? of run? Make this inquiry of each of the remaining verbs in Exercise I.
    III. Your study of Exercises I and II should enable you to prove the statement that Basic English is a "form of writing that defines itself as it proceeds." Explain.
    IV . Say is a Basic verb. Make a list of standard verbs whose key meaning say can express.
    V . Many of the Basic nouns are names of actions and can therefore supply the place of verbs. Note how the first five general names combine with Basic verbs: give an account, do an act, make an addition, send out an advertisement, make an agreements. Experiment with the following Basic nouns to see what meanings may be expressed by each one by using it successively with as many Basic verbs as are applicable: motion, pleasure, memory, division, work, grip, cause, change, rule, protest, selection. (Refer to the Basic vocabulary on the back end-paper of this book.)
    VI . Why cannot Basic include slang phrases?
    VII. The use of Basic young and dog together makes unnecessary the words pup and puppy. What Basic words used with young will express the meaning of these words? -- kitten, colt, lamb, child, sapling, kid, nestling, calf.
Cover   |   Contents   |   Next: nouns  

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