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 billioin 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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