BASIC ENGLISH: International Second Language
Section Two, Appendix A , p 97
Basic English - Its Present
Position and Plans
A paper read to the Commonwealth Section of
The Royal Society of Arts on April 26, 1966, and following a paper
by Dr. E. C. Graham on Basic English.
by J. A. LAUWERYS, D.Sc., D.Lit., F.R.I.C.
Professor of Comparative Education, Institute of Education,
University of London, and Chairman of the Trustees,
Basic English Foundation
There is no need to describe Basic English; that has already been done.
Its nature, functions, and purposes were summarized by
C. K. Ogden in his 1943 Memorandum to the War Cabinet:
"Basic English is a selection of 850 English words, used in simple
structural patterns, which is both an international auxiliary language
and a self-contained first stage for the teaching of any form of wider
or Standard English." And, as Sir Winston Churchill said in his
1948 Harvard speech:
"Here you have a plan. There are others, but here you have a very
carefully wrought plan for an international language capable of very
wide transactions of practical business and of interchange of ideas . . ."
If the qualities and virtues of Basic are indeed what they are
claimed to be, questions immediately arise. Why then has its progress
been slow and rather halting during the last twenty years?
What use could and should be made of Basic? What could it contribute
to the spreading of scientific knowledge in the countries of the
Commonwealth and, indeed, of the world? What program of activities
ought now to be planned?
Before attempting to give tentative answers, it seems fitting that I should
explain the reasons for my own interest. In the 1960's, I was responsible for
the training of teachers of science and mathematics in the London Institute of Education.
Among these were many from Commonwealth countries in Asia and Africa. Many had language
difficulties caused by inadequate and poor quality teaching of English. But, equally
important, on their return home they would have to convey to their pupils scientific
knowledge using as a medium of communication vernacular languages heavily tainted by
animistic and superstitious beliefs. Standard English, too, has many words with such
overtones -- as etymology makes clear. But the overtones have been weakened, worn away,
by hundreds of years of use in an industrializing society, permeated by scientific thinking.
For this reason -- there are, of course, many others -- it is somewhat harder to teach
science in Africa or Asia than in Northwestern Europe or the United States.
In addition, it is obvious that all science teaching, like all teaching,
is an affair of communication between teacher and pupil largely through the medium
of spoken language: the problems presented are in part semantic.
There was also another, distinct point: working in an institution which,
like the University of London, attracts students from many countries,
is bound to create interest in the possibilities of international auxiliary languages.
The outcome of these influences was renewed and intensified interest in the theory
of language and, in particular, in The Meaning of Meaning and Bentham's
Theory of Fictions. I well remember my delight on first learning about
Ogden's work on Basic English. Here, it seemed, was an approach completely
consonant with that of the sciences. Here was something refreshingly different
from the pseudo even anti-scientific word-counting and frequency evaluations,
with their bogus sampling techniques. It appeared to me then, as it does now,
that to decide that certain words should be taught because they are among the
2,000 or 5,000 words most frequently used in conversation or writing by some
Englishmen at some date or other was about as wise as to decide
to teach pupils all about test-tube holders or glass beakers just because they
are frequently used in laboratories.
Basic English also seemed a better answer to the problem of devising an
Auxiliary than, say, Esperanto. This, partly because the artificial languages
were in reality little more than European hash, but chiefly because, in Ogden's words,
Basic harnessed "the impetus behind the spread of the English language to the
development of an international means of communication."
My deepening interest in all this led to a long and close friendship with
C. K. Ogden, and I am happy to have this opportunity of expressing both my
gratitude and my great indebtedness to him.
I became Chairman of the Basic English Foundation at a time when it was known
that the government grants were to be withdrawn and when financially its affairs
were at a very low ebb. If I may be allowed to say so, however, I have never
thought that the material success or prosperity of a policy or of an
organization was the criterion that should decide whether it should be
supported. Furthermore, the history of science and technology provides many
instances of the fact that it usually takes at least fifty years for a good
idea or invention to be accepted and acted upon. H. G. Wells expresses the
same view in The Shape of Things to Come . . . "Basic English
was a by-product [of attempts to improve the language mechanism].
The new science was practically unendowed, it attracted few workers, and it
was lost sight of during the decades of disaster. It was revived only in the
early twenty-first century . . . It became the common language for use between
nations . . . By 2020 almost everyone was able to make use of Basic for talking
Let me turn away from these personal details and take up the story where
Dr. Graham left off. There are points to be added and a record to put straight.
First, the Cabinet committee appointed by the Prime Minister was neither
quick nor efficient.
A month after his Harvard speech, in October 1948, we find Sir Winston writing
to the Secretary of State for India, Mr. L.S. Amery: "I was shocked to find on
my return to this country that the Cabinet committee appointed on July 12th had
never once met. You volunteered for it . . . If you feel the pressure of your
other duties is too heavy on you I will myself take on the duty of presiding.
. . ." How sad that he did not! The final recommendations, while in favor of
Basic as an international auxiliary language, were weak, half-hearted compromises.
(See the Prime Minister's Statement
with original and Basic versions, pp. 378-80.)
The financial negotiations -- after all nothing could be done to spread
Basic without cash and Ogden was absolutely opposed to commercializing
it to his own advantage -- were dragged out to tremendous length.
The failure of the authorities to provide the necessary paper for printing
made it impossible to take advantage of the publicity caused by Churchill's support.
In 1945, a stock of more than 100,000 volumes valued at £18,000 was
destroyed by damp in Cursitor Street, Chancery Lane, while the Inter-Departmental
Committee which had been set up delayed the decisions which would have
provided the necessary accommodation and removal facilities.
At no time was any help given -- those were difficult days -- to renew
the contacts abroad which had existed before the war. Since no paper was
made available, even to print textbooks for export, piracy flourished;
while American texts, clearly making much use of the theory of Basic,
exploited even the European market.
It is not going too far to say that this first stage of the
negotiations (that is, from 1944 to 1946) was a complete justification
of President Roosevelt's opinion. In June 1944 he wrote to his
Secretary of State, Cordell Hull: "If in regard to Basic English we
get the views of 'competent Government specialists'
we shall certainly sound the death knell of Basic English or anything like it.
I never knew of any group of such people to agree to anything really different
from the existing system or for that matter anything new.
Basic English has tremendous merit in it."
A claim for damages and liabilities amounting to £56,000, which included
the 100,000 books, had been submitted in March 1946. An offer of £23,000
was accepted by Ogden in settlement, and the payment of this amount was agreed
by the Inland Revenue in the following year to have been made entirely for that
purpose. It is important to insist upon this point because a widespread impression
exists, based upon inaccurate and misleading answers in Parliament, that the
£23,000 was a payment for copyright in Basic English. It was not:
it was compensation for damages. The papers in the files of the Basic English
Foundation leave no doubt whatever about this point. No payment was ever made
by the Government for the copyright -- only for material loss caused by delay and incompetence.
It is not without interest to note that the amount paid, the £23,000,
is recorded in the Civil Appropriation Accounts as set off against the vote
to the British Council, of which in that year £1,000,000 was shown as unexpended.
The Chairman of the Council at that time, Sir Malcolm Robertson, had never
concealed his hostility to Basic. Later in 1946, on the intervention of
Mr. Ernest Bevin, then Foreign Secretary, negotiations were resumed and
finally brought to a conclusion in May. As Dr. Graham has said, the
Basic English Foundation was established as a result, in 1947.
In the following year, at the request of the Foreign Office, the copyright
in the Basic word-list and system, an option on which had been retained
by H.M. Government, was assigned by Ogden to the Foundation.
The copyright in the United States and in India was expressly excluded
from this assignment. The Orthological Institute was to receive, through
the Foundation, an annual grant from the Ministry of Education, to be used
for those of its projects which the Foundation approved. Altogether a total
sum of about £100,000 was allotted to the Foundation over a period of six years.
This sum may appear large, but in fact the size of the sums given by American
foundations or by the Nuffleld Foundation for the improvement of science
teaching explains why some think of it as peanuts. Still, I suppose it would
be worth more then than now.
Moreover, there was an insistence upon wasteful appointments as a precaution
against the misuse of funds, although the Foundation was subject to Government
Audit and any profit from publications accrued to the Trustees under Ogden's
deed of assignment and declaration of Trust. So, much of the grant was frittered away.
In any case, none of the money could be spent abroad, for instance,
to start experiments on the teaching of English or to pay the expenses of
representatives -- evidently a crippling restriction making almost impossible
the diffusion of the Basic system abroad.
The protracted negotiations which followed the Harvard speech had yet
another unfortunate outcome. Because of what was said in the White Paper
it was generally assumed that the Orthological Institute would be receiving
official support, and most of its sources of income in consequence stopped.
In 1948 the Payne Fund, its last main benefactor, ceased its grants.
At this time, I think for the same reasons, came another setback.
At the end of 1948, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Ogden to say that he was
contemplating leaving a great deal of his estate to the Orthological Institute.
'Basic,' he wrote, 'can hardly become a universal spoken language without
a phonetic script: its pronunciation would soon be all over the shop
in a dozen dialects.'
Then in March 1944, in a long letter, he explained that he had previously
named the Orthological Institute in his will as the agent for devising and
launching the British 42-letter alphabet but that he would now look for
some other fad-executor. Ogden replied that he regretted the decision to
disinherit the Orthological Institute since in fact there was still no
certain financial support. I should add that he made it clear he had deep
doubts about the 42-letter alphabet. In a letter to The Times,
a few days later, Shaw said that 'Basic English is a natural growth which
has been investigated and civilized by
the Orthological Institute on the initiative of Mr. C. K. Ogden,
whose years of tedious toil deserve a peerage and a princely pension.'
He added that, once Basic had been mastered 'any foreigner who can live
in England can [then] pick up as much of the rest as he needs, from Chaucer
to Chesterton, just as we all pick it up, by reading and conversation.'
But he made the will we all know about, and when I consider the continuing
success of his plays, My Fair Lady and all, I view with regret the
enormously useful work that could have been done for Basic English with all
The story I have sketched in outline is evidently one which illustrates the
way in which administrative incompetence, procrastination, and timidity can
defeat the best intentions of men of vision. Even statesmen of the stature
of Churchill and Roosevelt at the height of their power were unable to
overcome the inertia of the gigantic machines of which they were in nominal control.
Or, if you like, to avert the bedevilment which at that point befell Basic
English -- 'bedevilled by officials,' as Ogden entered in Who's Who for those years.
There is really no need to suppose that there was active malevolence anywhere
-- in the Treasury, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Information,
or the British Council, which inter alia were represented on the
Inter-Departmental Committees. That too many cooks spoiled the broth may
perhaps be the explanation. Of course interested parties, such as some
publishers and authors of widely used textbooks, did what they could,
by innuendo, misrepresentation, and obstruction to defend their vested advantages.
But this is another matter. Many of these people, in fact most of
those who have an interest in some particular theory of English teaching,
are concerned chiefly with paddling their own canoe. Occasionally they lead
some visitor or other down the garden path for a trip into some backwater.
Content with their own profitable little splashings, they do not want to hear
anything about engines or motors.
Personally, I have little doubt that the chief reason for the
slow and halting progress of Basic since the war is the absence of
the solid official support needed to implement the policy decisions of
the Harvard speech. I attribute very little importance to the criticisms
that have been made of the system, largely because I have not come
across any that are sound and relevant. Consider, for example, the argument
that Basic is underprivileged English unacceptable to people in developing
countries -- a point I at least have never heard raised outside England.
Prime Minister Nehru wrote to Ogden in 1947: "My partiality for Basic English
continues and I think it can help us in India."
Or think of the argument that English must be taught through the
medium of literature. Possibly true -- in England with English-speaking students
or abroad at University level. But with children or adolescents in India, Japan,
or Africa? As Ogden put it: "The Basic System, in spite of the fact that the
Bible has been translated into it with some success, does not lay claim to
literary merits, which no simplified vocabulary can possess.
At the same time, every one of the 850 words is as necessary for literature
as it is for conversation or science, while the peculiar analytic power of
Basic English can be used with great effect, as Dr. I. A. Richards and
Mr. A. P. Rossiter have shown, for the development of a new approach to
intelligent reading and literary appreciation."
Since then, in Northern Ireland, Mr. Wynburne proposes to use it
to train his pupils in literary appreciation and critical ability,
while in Japan Mr. Masaru Muro uses Basic translations of Shakespeare's sonnets.
As he puts it (in Basic): 'It is not my desire to say that my Basic form
of the "sonnet" has any value as a work of art, but it is my
belief that it does have value in making clear where the true value of
this "poem" is to be looked for. It seems to me that the
"sonnet" is still beautiful even in my Basic form.
That makes it clear that what is beautiful in this sonnet is for
the most part the thought which Shakespeare has put in it, and not
chiefly in the use of words whose business is to have an effect on
the reader's feelings or in some trick of putting words together,
or in the sound of the words.'
With regard to criticisms of a theoretical and specific kind,
a word of warning is essential. Anyone who wishes to evaluate them must,
really must, check up every statement made and refer to the book
called The Basic Words. Consider fairly recent examples.
In a book first published in 1950, now distributed over here in
paperback edition, an American professor of linguistics, Robert A. Hall,
tells his readers that, "as Basic English uses the separate words
fancy, dress, and ball (in all the different meanings
which Standard English attaches to these words), it is permissible
to use also the combination fancy dress ball."
But neither fancy nor ball, except in the sense of
is a Basic word. In a book published in 1963 Lancelot Hogben,
Honorary Senior Fellow in Linguistics at Birmingham, whose
achievements in science and education we admire and acclaim,
and for whom as a person many of us feel deep respect and affection,
put forward a scheme which is intended to be an improvement on Basic.
He says that Ogden adopted 'highly multivalent entries for his list,
e.g., fair (= 1. Equitable, 2. Pale, 3. Pleasing to the eye)'
and also that the Basic formula for ask includes
give an invitation. Apart from the fact that the mention of
formulas in the sense of fixed phases in Basic English which could
always be substituted for words not included in the system shows a
misapprehension of the nature of Basic, neither fair nor
invitation is a Basic word. An anonymous writer in the
Times Educational Supplement last year used the publication
of the Basic English Science Dictionary as an excuse for a
patronizing and misleading description of Basic. He wrote from the
point of view of one of those schools of linguistics which have grown
up during the past thirty years, so removed from psychology and
so narrowly conceived that obviously their practitioners no longer
have any business to speak about language learning or teaching.
They have been engaged chiefly, as the scholastics were,
in spinning 'cobwebs of learning admirable for fineness of thread,'
but of no 'substance or profit.' This reviewer asked how a foreigner
who knew the meaning of go and a number of prepositions
could be expected to form the compounds go by
(meaning judge by) or go for (meaning aim at).
The implication that foreigners are expected to produce English
idioms without being taught them is plainly contrary to every
exposition of the system; and The Basic Words shows that
neither go by nor go for with the meanings stated
are among the six idioms with go which may be included in
a beginners' course. It is really saddening to see the degree to
which prejudice and premisconception can cause writers to fall so
far below normal standards of scholarly accuracy.
But I should not like to give the impression that all students of
linguistics are hostile or ignorant. On the contrary: many write
very fairly and are to some degree supporters. For instance,
Professor Stephen Ullmann of the University of Leeds in his
Principles of Semantics.
It is also most cheering suddenly to come across,
quite unexpectedly, real understanding and support.
On a bookstall the other day I picked up Dr. P. H. Nidditch's
Development of Mathematical Logic and, to my surprise,
found it to be written in Basic. Nidditch explains his purpose:
"The writing of all this discussion of Mathematical
Logic is in Ogden's Basic English. One is forced when keeping to
the apparatus of this form of the English language to take more
care than one
commonly does to make the dark and complex thoughts that are at
the back of one's mind as clear and simple as possible.
We will be attempting in what is to come to get across to the
reader the substance of the story of Mathematical Logic.
In this attempt Basic English will certainly be of some help
to some, possibly even to almost all, readers, and will
certainly not make things harder for any."
PLANS AND PROSPECTS
In spite of all difficulties and obstacles,
a good deal of solid work is being done, and the record of the last
fifteen years is by no means negligible. There is the Basic
Science Dictionary, published in this country last year,
which has been described in an overseas broadcast as a godsend for
students of science.
It will shortly be published in the United States for the use of
American students. There is the work being done in Japan.
Professor Daniels's Japanese-into-Basic dictionary is in process of printing,
there are books like Nidditch's or Wynburne's Vertical Translation.
Among applications of the Basic techniques there is the work of
I. A. Richards at Harvard in connection with the illiteracy problem
in the United States, which has had the support of the Ford and other
foundations. Practical experiments in teaching, too, are going on.
I remember a few years ago, at the Rhodesian Selection Trust's vast
installations near Ndola, watching the highly successful teaching of
Basic to hundreds of new recruits drawn from scores of different tribes.
Basic was to them both a lingua franca and a gateway to the
modern world of machine technology.
What sort of program could the Basic English Foundation now support,
if the material and financial resources were available? Let me try to
list a few -- not in order of priority -- just as examples.
1. A revision of the initial courses in Basic (The Basic Way to English)
for beginners as well as of The Basic Teacher in order to improve them
and to bring them into line with recent publishing standards.
2. A revision of the textbooks which have recently gone out of print and
on which Dr. Graham is already working on behalf of the Orthological Institute.
We know these can be improved.
3. Preparation of entirely new vernacular courses in Basic.
There is something for French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish -- though
the books could be improved -- but not, for instance, for Swahili, Hindi, Tamil, etc.
4. Planning of courses of training for teachers using Basic.
5. The preparation and publication of Basic Mathematics - already partly ready - and Basic Social
Science Dictionaries, parallel to the Science Dictionary.
6. The establishment of offices and training centers, in the various countries of the Commonwealth.
Now, turning more specifically to science:
1. C. K. Ogden envisaged as the first and chief contribution of Basic the
publication of a Science Library covering in Basic all the main departments
of science and technology. A provisional start was made on this in his
lifetime with the publication of sixteen books dealing at various levels
with various branches of science. A comparatively modest target would be
about 100 books, which number would meet the most urgent needs.
2. Drawing up Basic Science Lists in respect of sciences for which these do not already exist.
3. Publication of a Journal of Abstracts in Basic.
4. Translation Bureaus, providing Basic versions of scientific
papers to be sent out on request.
Let me stress, in conclusion, that my faith in Basic English
and its possibilities is now stronger than it has ever been. The claims of rivals, such
as the artificial auxiliaries, are fading away. The demand for English is stronger than
ever in all newly emerging countries and in the U.S.S.R. and China as well. It is evident
that Standard English, with its immensely rich vocabulary and its subtle and intricate forms,
cannot become a world language in any future I can foresee. At the same time it is
not possible to run the business of a World, speaking and writing hundreds of languages,
without a common medium. What is needed is a very simple, easily learned auxiliary
to facilitate verbal face-to-face communication as well as the spreading of scientific
and technical knowledge and know-how. The use of Basic would strengthen links between
countries already associated, as in the Commonwealth, and would facilitate the flow of
ideas between them, enriching them materially and spiritually.
Other factors, too, go to swell the tide. One instance must suffice.
How are the memory banks of computers to be furnished? With the entire vocabulary of
the Oxford Dictionary and the whole apparatus of Standard English? Impossible.
Computers must be taught to respond to a limited vocabulary and to a simplified grammar
and syntax. Is it altogether fanciful to imagine that the routine business of the world
of A.D. 2100 will be run by a population
of computers chattering to one another in Basic? What else should they speak? In the
Guardian (20th April 1966) there was an article on 'Making Computers Compatible.'
I quote: "The Imperial College [research] program, [calls for] a general purpose
compiler processor . . . Most computer programs . . . are written in a high-level
language and before they can be used on the machine for which they are written they
have to pass through a device known as a compiler. This translates them into terms
which the machine understands. . . . The purpose of the new research will be to find
ways of describing in computer terms both computer languages and computer systems. . . ."
Another task for the Foundation.
But leave aside computer and industrial routines. Finally the real business of
the world is concerned with human happiness and dignity, with spiritual and
aesthetic values, with peace and freedom. Churchill put it well at Harvard.
Those concerned with the use of Basic were, he said, "the headstream of what
might well be a mighty fertilizing and health-giving river; for it would certainly
be a grand convenience for us all to be able to find everywhere a medium,
albeit primitive, of intercourse and understanding. Might it not also be an
advantage to many races and an aid to the building up of our new structure
for preserving peace? . . . Let us go forward as with other matters and other
measures similar in aim and effect . . . Such plans offer far better prizes
than taking away other people's provinces or land or grinding them down in
exploitation. The empires of the future are the empires of the mind."
I am convinced that the empires of the mind have nothing to do with
empires of political or military power. Nothing to do with either Washington or London,
nor with Moscow or Peking. The empires of the mind rest upon reason and knowledge,
animated by brotherhood and love. I think of Basic as an instrument of communication,
not of dominion; of cooperation, not of power.
I wonder and speculate. I think of the world political scene, its storms and stresses.
I think of the needs of the emerging and low-income countries of the Commonwealth.
I ponder over the relations of science to society.
Is there any chance whatever that the Government might be induced to take a
fresh look at Basic English? Churchill at Harvard spoke of a second Boston Tea Party,
all together, to see what could be done. But the tea pot was cold and the water lukewarm.
In the end the tea party turned out to be a Mad Hatter's Party.
Is there any chance now -- it is not too late -- to warm up the kettles afresh?
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