BASIC ENGLISH: International Second Language
Section One, Part Two
A Short Guide to Basic English
1. What Is Basic English?
Basic English is an attempt to give to everyone a second, or international, language which will take as little of the learner's time as possible.
It is a system in which everything may be said for all the purposes of everyday existence : the common interests of men and women, general talk, news, trade, and science.
To the eye and ear it will not seem in any way different from normal English, which is now the natural language, or the language of the governments, of more than 600,000,000 persons. 37 [ 58 nations plus the UN designate English as an official language -- NYT 2002 Almanac.]
There are only 850 words in the complete list, which may be clearly printed on one side of a bit of notepaper.
But simple rules are given for making other words with the help of those in the list ; such as designer, designing, and designed from design, or coal-mine from coal and mine.
The word-order is fixed by other short rules, which make clear from an example such as
"I will put the record on the machine here"
what is the right and natural place for every sort of word.
Whatever is doing the act comes first ; then the time word such as will; then the act or operation (put, take, or get); then the thing to which something is done, and so on.
It is an English in which 850 words do all the work of 20,000, and has been formed by taking out everything which is not necessary to the sense. Disembark, for example, is broken up into get off a ship ; I am able takes the place of I can ; shape is covered by the more general word form ; and difficult by the use of hard.
By putting together the names of simple operations -- such as get, give, come, go, put, take -- with the words for directions like in, over, through, and the rest, two or three thousand complex ideas, like insert which becomes put in, are made part of the learner's store.
Most of these are clear to everyone. But in no other language is there an equal chance of making use of this process. That is why Basic is designed to be the international language of the future.
In addition to the Basic words themselves, the learner has, at the start, fifty words which are now so common in all languages that they may be freely used for any purpose. Examples are radio, hotel, telephone, bar, club.
For the needs of any science, a short special list gets the expert to a stage where international words are ready to hand.
Those who have no knowledge of English will be able to make out the sense of a radio talk, or a business letter, after a week with the word-list and the records ; 38 but it may be a month or two before they are talking and writing freely.
In fact, it is the business of all internationally minded persons to make Basic English part of the system of education in every country, so that there may be less chance of war, and less learning of languages — which after all, for most of us, is a very unnecessary waste of time.
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37 Estimates today  put the number of English-speaking people in the world at about 700 million. ED.
38 See the Book List at the end of the book. ED.
2. Basic as an International Language
Even the experts who give all their time to words are unable to get a working knowledge of more than 20 or 30 of the 1,500 chief languages still in use ; and those who have a knowledge of
Chinese or Japanese in addition to one of the languages of India or Africa may be numbered on the fingers of the hand.
Today the great languages of Europe are important from an international point of view, not only or chiefly as the mother tongues of this or that group but because of their use in other
parts of the earth. Spanish and Portuguese, for example, have a future in South America, though English is increasing as the second language of all South American countries. It has taken 500 years for English to become the second language of the East in addition to its development in the United States, Canada, and Australasia ; and of the 30 languages now at the head of the list, English has the first place among the eight which are used by more than 50,000,000 persons. It is the natural language, or the language of government or trade, of some 650 millions.39
The seven others are:
Though 'Chinese' is generally given as the mother tongue of
400 millions, it is not certain how far these are clear to one another in talking and writing. Some authorities put the number at 200 millions, others at 300, but the words have quite different senses at different voice levels, and the time needed for the learning and writing of Chinese picture-words gives such a language very little chance of becoming more widely used.
|1930s ||NYT 2002|
|Chinese ||450 ||800|
|Russian ||166 ||160|
|French ||112 ||100|
|Japanese ||100 ||126|
|German ||95 ||121|
|Spanish ||85 ||300|
| Bengali ||6040
|Hindi || ||430|
|Arabic || ||200|
Before the Great War, it was clear to most persons with a knowledge of history and an interest in international organization that one of the chief needs of Europe was fifty more dead languages. Every year the Earth is getting smaller, through the discoveries of science ; but there are still more than 1,500 languages in use in the different countries which the radio, the telephone, and advertisement in all its forms have suddenly put in touch with one another. In fact, the experience of the past ten years makes it possible to say with some hope of agreement, at any rate from men of science, that the chief need of our time is 1,480 more dead languages.
Even today, it is hard to get a working knowledge of more than three or four, so 20 would be quite enough (in schools) to keep teachers at work ; and men of letters would be quite happy with almost 2,000 (in libraries).
In a year or two it may be possible for voices in China or Peru to come through quite clearly to any English workingman with an apparatus about the size of a hat and at a lower price than the present small gramophone. Twenty or thirty years back it was possible to put together a language based on European roots in the belief that it might one day become international ; but now that the East is fully awake, and in the very front of our political picture, such an idea is foolish.
English has been made part of the school system of countries with interests as widely different as Japan, the Argentine, and Estonia ; it is the language of the talking pictures and of over 500 radio stations ; and experts in all countries have for a long time been of the opinion that if only it was simpler it would quickly become international for trade and for all other purposes.
Basic English is this desired simpler form. The complete
word-list goes on the back of one bit of business notepaper, and takes only 15 minutes on a small folding record. In theory, anyone with no knowledge of English might get it into his head in less than 24 hours ; but it is wiser to take two hours a day for a month, giving one hour to the words and the other to word-order and to the 250 special uses ('idioms') which are needed to get the natural effect of everyday talk.
In science, this effect is equally possible, as may be seen from any of the Basic science books. But it is less important, because in science the chief need is to get the sense clear without troubling about the details in which men of letters are interested ; and this is what Basic is designed to do. With the addition of 50 special words for any branch of science, and 100 words for general science, the field of knowledge may be completely covered for international purposes. At a higher level, different in every branch, international words are ready to hand ; and Basic is the quickest way of getting to that level.
The value of making the discoveries of science international is not seriously questioned ; but it might be 1,000 years before the necessary language was produced by the process of natural selection. A strong attack on the forces of reaction is the only hope; and with the right organization, on the lines of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, the work might be complete while some of us are still living.
In this connection, it may be noted that those who have not given much thought to language are frequently in error as to the number of words used for the purposes of normal education. Even before they go to school, young learners are generally making use of between 2,000 and 3,000 separate word-forms, and there is an American list of the 20,000 most frequently needed by teachers. Most readers of these pages will have a
working knowledge of 20-25,000 words ready for all purposes, and there are more than 7,000 so common that they might any day be seen in advertisements or headlines designed for the
public. So statements in the papers, saying that we may
get on happily with 500, are based on the chance ideas of some office boy. All this makes the value of a word-list limited to 850 units very dear.
For the expansion of trade, for the organization of peace, and for the development of science, an international language is at least as important as the gold question ; and if it is true that men of science are in touch with less than 10 percent of their public, it is very much more important for the future.
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39 See footnote, p. 47. ED.
40 These figures are of course long out of date. ED. NY Times Almanac, 2002.
"Although there are fewer naive speakers of English than of Chinese, English is by far the most commonly found language outside of China. Some estimates suggest that as many as one-third of the world's people can speak English -- which means four billion people can't. 58 countries and the U.N. designate English as an offical language ." -- NYT 2002
3. How the 850 Words Do Their Work
The best way to get agreement about the value of a new invention is to let it be seen in operation, and this is no less true of a new system of language like Basic English than of a machine or a process in industry. Basic may now be seen at work in more than 1,000,000 printed words by more than 50 different writers.
But when the public has seen the invention at work it becomes interested in the question how that work is done. Basic is not a sort of schoolroom trick, or a simple form of English put together from the commonest words for school books, which may be taken at their face value ; and the teacher will be in a better position to make its purpose clear if he has some knowledge of the structure and working of the machine he is using.
How is Basic able to get so far with only 850 words ? The reason may be given in simplest language.
The greater part of the words used in science and for everyday talk are what may be named shorthand for other words ; that is to say, they are taking the place of other words which are clearly, in some sense, nearer to the facts.
The greater part of the things we generally seem to be talking about are what may be named fictions :a and for these again there are other words in common use which get nearer to fact.
The greater part of the statements we make about things and persons are unnecessarily colored by some form of feeling : they do, no doubt, say something about things and persons, but most common words are colored by our feelings — or the feeling by which the thought of our hearers is to be consciously or unconsciously guided ; and it is frequently possible to keep thought and feeling separate.
The most important group of 'shorthand' words in European languages is made up of what are named 'verbs' -- words like
'accelerate' and 'ascertain' ; 'liberty' and 'blindness' are examples of fictions ; 'credulous' and 'courteous' say something about our feelings in addition to their straightforward sense.
At the back of such forms of language there is something simpler for which we may or may not have the right words. In English it is generally possible to get to the lower level without much trouble. To 'accelerate' is to go more quickly, when we have 'liberty' we are free, and a 'credulous' person is one who (in our opinion) is over-ready with belief ; and this lower level is one stage nearer that solid base in pointing and acting from
which the structures of language go up into the clouds.
There is no need to go further down till we come to science, and for the purposes of an international language it is not wise to go higher than this common-sense level — which is where the 850 Basic words have their place.
The first step to a simpler word-list, then, is to take out all the more complex sorts of 'verbs,' in which, in addition to the operation of one body on another, the direction of the act is more or less clearly named. Sometimes the thing talked about, in addition to the operation, is covered by one word, as when we 'rise', 'shave,' 'feed,' and 'grumble' -- where bodies and beds, hair and faces, food and mouths, feelings and the weather may be part of the word-picture ; but these 'shorthand' forms are chiefly names of acts and directions only -- as when we 'enter' (go into) a room, 'break' (go against) the law, 'contract' (go down with) a disease, 'precede' (go in front of), and so on.
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In this way we see that it is possible to have a working language
in which about 4,000 common ‘verbs’ have been dropped out.
At the same time a first attack on the other groups gets the
list down by another 1,500; so that, in place of at least 7,500
at the start, we are now only troubled by about 2,000.
a . intangibles
These numbers are not far wrong, but in fact not more than
1,500 words are needed for the list from which the expert will
make his selection and to which all the most serious thought
has to be given.
We have to get well under the 1,000 level if the outcome is
to be of use for international purposes or as an instrument in
education, and the first stage in the development of Basic was
the invention of an apparatus with the help of which it might
be possible to get a clearer idea of the behavior of words and
a more certain test of their value.
By putting the word to be tested in the middle of a circle
with lines going out from it like the arms or rays of a starfish,
so that on every line we get a relation or connection with some
other possible word, questions may be framed in the form --
“What word takes the place of the word in the middle in this
These other words will then be placed at the end of the lines,
all round the circle. For example, if the key word dog is in the
middle: What is another name for a dog in connection with
time ? Answer: Puppy. Clearly the word puppy will not be
needed if we have dog and the connection with time is covered by young.
The same will be true of bitch, in relation to
(sex) behavior, if we have female in our Basic list. And when
our range of questions is complete, we have a complete picture
of the word in relation to all the other words in a language which
have a connection with it.
If, for everyday needs, the word in the middle, used with the
words on the joining line, will take the place of the new word
at the end of the line, that word may go. It is not necessary in
this connection. So if we have young and dog, puppy will not
be kept in the Basic list. The question "What is a puppy ?" is
answered fully and readily by 'a young dog' on the line marking
In making a map for all sorts of words there are thirty lines
for thirty sorts of possible questions; though for a word like
dog, some questions will not be answered. Dogs do not come
into all the relations talked about in connection with men,
mountains, machines, or music; so there is, for example, no
special word (such as litigant, plaintiff, client) for a dog in
relation to law.
This, then, is the apparatus used in ‘Panoptic Delinition"41;
and when the answers are all put in on any one map, with special
uses underlined, or colored, we get a picture with an important
and interesting story for the Basic expert; and with its help he
is in a much better position to make up his mind about the value
of words for which an argument might be put forward. With his
working selection of key words, he will be ready to go through
the Pocket Oxford to make certain that every one of its 25,000
commonest words has a place somewhere on one of the maps.
Naturally, those who made decisions about the Basic 850
had before them all the work clone in America by Thorndike,
Horn, Dewey, and the rest, on the most frequent words. Not
that it is of any great interest at this stage, because anyone
who has been working for years with such word maps is in no
doubt about which English words are very common, or common
enough for the Basic list. What a word will do for us has little
relation to the number of times it is used in newspapers and
business letters; and to say that one word is more common than
another over the 1,500 level, when the statement is based on
A observations of less than 50,000,000, has very little sense. Such
statements are clearly dependent on the size and purpose of
the selection, and the amount of detail noted about expansions
of sense, which no one has so far taken, or would ever be able
to take, into account, in listing even 10,000,000 uses.
In this way, in 1928 a selection of between 800 and 900 words
was ready for the last stage of testing; and in January 1929
the 850 words were printed, though no decision had been made
about some 50 words which were still under discussion as
possibly ‘international.’ In 1930 Basic English was put out in
book form with less than 15 percent of the list in doubt; and
after another year’s experience, getting the views of representatives
of all countries, 50 international words were fixed, and
the Basic list was printed in its present form.
For the purposes of science, Basic is a system by which
special word—lists, most of them international, may be put into
operation. There are about 20 words in the 850 at a level high
enough to make the connection; and in addition there are 100
words for general science and 50 for any special branch.42 These
lists are only needed by the expert who is writing or talking
about some one part of science, and are not for the general
reader; but in the same way as Basic puts such groups of words
into operation it takes the number system and weights and
measures, which are different in different countries, as an
addition for everyday purposes. The numbers themselves are
international for writing, and the learning of their English names
takes less than half an hour.43
Of the 850 Basic words, it will be seen that 600 are names
of things, and 150 are names of qualities. That makes 750, and
the last 100 are the words which put the others into operation
and make them do their work in statements. After the names
of acts and directions which, as we have seen, are pointers,
come the other Basic words which make the language complete.
All of these (62) are clearly taking the place of other words
which would say the same thing in a more roundabout way, or
are of use in oiling the wheels of our talk so that it may not
seem strange to persons who are used to normal English.
The chief form-changes in Basic are those which make the
behavior of the 'verbs' and 'pronouns' the same as in normal
English; together with 'plurals,' -ly for ‘adverbs,’ the degrees of
comparison, and the —er, —ing, -ed endings to 300 of the names
of things. In this way the learner is not troubled by a great
number of forms and endings which are not regular, and the
outcome is a simple, natural English in which there is room for
addition but no need for change at a later stage.
Every word is first given in its root sense, and any other
senses which may be used in Basic writing are made clear in
relation to this root sense, which, whenever possible, is based
on pointing or on a picture. In the Word List, as a guide to
teachers, only 200 of the names of things are listed as °pictured’
(that is, best made clear in pictures). These are words repre-
sentative of physical things which may be pictured so clearly
and simply and separately that there will never be any doubt as
to what the picture is representative of. (For example, an apple
is seen to be an apple whatever sort it is, and may be pictured
quite by itself, unlike, let us say, a road.) But though physical
things outside this limited list may not be as clearly pinned
down, in fact a great number of them may quite well be pictured,
and frequently are pictured, as a help in teaching.
The same process of going forward from what is clear and
simple to what is more complex or less regular takes the learner
from root uses to special uses or ‘idioms.’ There are 250 such
special uses numbered and listed with great care in The ABC
of Basic English, and when he is clear about most of the normal
senses of the 850 words, these are given to the learner to
make the system complete. In reading, he may come across some
of the 250 other special uses which it would be hard for an
Englishman to put out of his mind, but these are unnecessary
tricks, to be noted when they come in but not troubled about
for everyday use.
In addition to pictures, there are a number of ways of profiting
by the structure of Basic in teaching and learning how the words
do their work. Among the 150 names of qualities, for example,
are fifty which are best taken together with their opposites (good-bad,
right-left, and so on); at the same time we have front-back,
profit-loss, and a great number of others among the names of
things; and the chief operation-words go two and two together --
come-go, put-take, give-get, keep-let, be-seem, like the directions
before-after, over-under, and so on.
All these helps for the organization of the material give an idea
of the existence of scales and ranges among the thoughts, things,
and feelings which are talked about. But the chief reason why
it is possible to do so much with the limited word-list is because
Basic has been able so completely to do without ‘verbs.’ That
English had two equally good ways of saying most things had
long been common knowledge, because Latin and French roots
are mixed with those from an earlier system; but it was a surprise
to make the discovery that so much which has been valued
by men of letters, and supported by teachers as necessary, was,
in fact, a sort of shorthand growth on top of a very much more
straightforward growth. For hundreds of years these two tendencies
have been in existence side by side, and Basic has taken
from the more complex forms what is needed to give the effect
of natural English. The same degree of organization would not
be possible in any other language, and in some ways the structure
of Basic is not far from that which science itself has so long
been looking for as an instrument of thought.
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a . intangibles.
41. For details, see Psyche, Vol. X, No. 3, January 1930, pp. 9-17.
42. See Basic for Science, Basic for Geology, Basic for Economics.
43. See Basic Step by Step, pp. 50-51.