Learning Basic English, page 7.
An Over-all View
First, let us give you a short account of what Basic English is. Then, after saying what it is, we'll do our best to say what it isn't. We'll take up one after another, the questions about Basic which are commonly put by those who haven't had much or any experience with it, by readers who maybe have seen something about it in the papers, but who haven't seen it at work in schoolrooms or gone into any of the 130 or so books on and in Basic which are in existence. There are a number of very strange ideas current -- as to what Basic is, what it is for, and what its effects might be -- and our chief purpose here is to put, if possible, a little grain or two of salt on the tails of some of these ideas or at least to make you readier -- when you come across them -- to take them with salt.
Basic is a system of everyday English words used in the regular forms of normal English. It is a selection of those English words which -- taken together and used as we are all using them all the time -- will among them do the most work. It is the smallest number Of English words with a general enough covering power, among them, to let a man say almost everything -- to say it well enough for his general day-to-day purposes in all the range of his interests however wide -- in business, trade, industry, science, medical work -- in all the arts of living and in all the exchanges of knowledge, belief, opinion, views, and news which a general-purpose language has to take care of.
Basic is a very small-scale language to have such a range of uses. It has only 850 head words in it. Putting on one side one point we'll be taking up later, these words go through all the changes of form which the same words in full, unlimited English go through. For example, take is one of these Basic words. So we say in Basic: I take, he takes, he is taking, he took, and it was taken as in full English. So again we say I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, and so on as in full English. There is nothing in good Basic which is against the rules of good English. If someone's attempts at Basic are bad English then they are by that very fact bad Basic.
Naturally there is nothing about Basic to keep a man automatically from talking it badly or from writing bad Basic. But no more is there anything about complete unlimited English to keep a man automatically from talking bad English. Rules may be broken in Basic as in any other language. But the rules of Basic are far simpler than the rules of unlimited English. They were made as simple as possible -- in the interests of the learner. But not by changing anything in English structure, only by limiting it.
Parallel with and together with the selection of words for the Basic word list, Mr. Ogden made a selection of the forms of statements -- the structure rules of Basic -- with two ends in view: (1) to make Basic as clear and regular in structure as possible and so as little trouble to the learner as possible, and (2) to keep Basic a normal though limited form of English.
This last point is very important. Any limited form of a language which is not normal may well be a great danger to the mother tongue. Mr. Ogden and his helpers were fully conscious of this, and saw to it that there is nothing in Basic English which is not a normal part of the regular structure of English. The learner who goes on from Basic into more of English (as almost all do) has to make his ideas of English structure wider. He has to do more -- but there is nothing that he has to un do.
In short, not every way of putting the Basic words together give: you Basic -- but only those ways which keep to the Basic rules.
This seems, however, to be starting off to say what Basic isn't! Let us go on a little longer with what Basic is.
A word or two on how it was worked out will make that clearer. We are all in agreement that some words are, in general, of more use than others -- the word do, for example, is of more use than the word extrapolate. This is equally true with some words which have more or less the same sense: the word make is of more use than the words fashion, fabricate, manufacture, contrive, constitute; produce, and all the rest of the words you'll see under make in Roget's Thesaurus, say.
Well, Basic came about by taking that fact seriously -- the fact that some words are of very much more use than others. Mr. Ogden and a very able group of helpers went on for seven years. (1925-32) testing out the powers of English words in comparison with one another. The outcome was Basic. Naturally they had to take into account a very great number of things. Of use -- for what, by whom, under what conditions? This is a very complex question, taking in not only what the English language does but what the other chief languages do. But the key question was this: How far are the words in English able to take over one another's work? The answer came by attempting for every English word to put what it might say in other words -- the words on a limited list. That list became the Basic English list.
What is the language like which was the outcome of all this? It's like this. As no doubt some of our readers have been noting, we have been using nothing but Basic so far. This has all been in Basic. Is it so very unlike everyday, full, unlimited, complete English? We will go on a page or two more in Basic. Then we'll come out from Basic into a fuller form of our mother tongue. But first we'll go on and say a little more, still in Basic; on the reasons guiding the selection of the Basic word list. These words are not necessarily the most frequent words in English, though 500 of the 850 words of Basic are among the most frequent words
there are. All the Basic words which any teacher will be teaching first are very frequent; For example, the 10 most frequent words in English are the, of, and, to, a, in, that, it, is, I. (Among them, they makeup a fourth part of all our reading.) Well, naturally enough all' these words come very early in the teaching of Basic. But they don't come early because they are frequent They come early because they are necessary, because they do so much work in the English language. And they are not necessary because they are frequent. That is putting the cart before the horse. It's the other way round. These words are frequent because they are necessary, because it's not possible to do very much without them. That is not to say that all frequently used words are necessary. Far from it.
First things first. Put the most necessary words and ways of saying things first -- that is the chief idea of Basic. You will -- if you go through, say, Learning the English Language1 -- see nothing very strange. What's chiefly to be noted is that certain very common and frequent words are not there. For example, chair. Why isn't it there? Isn't it a word of very great use? Certainly it is -- but there is another English word of even greater use which does almost all the things the word chair does, and does more things as well. It is seat -- covering chairs, and all the other things on which we may take a seat and then be seated, coveting settees, couches, settles, thrones, stalls, divans, hassocks, tripods, taborets, woolsacks, and the rest -- to make use of some words which like chair are not in Basic. Seat in addition in Basic lets us say, for example, "This is a room seating 150," or "Seating herself, she said, 'Please be seated.'" You'll go on yourselves with the other uses of this word.
So far we have been writing in Basic English. Now we are going out of it. There is no point in having people who know the rest of English talk Basic to one another. Winston Churchill put that very well in the House of Commons on November 4, 1943: "Basic English is not intended for use among English-speaking people. . . . I have tried to explain that people are quite purblind who discuss this matter as if Basic English were a substitute for the English language.'
We have only been writing in Basic to convince you that it is normal standard English -- nothing pidgin or broken or funny about it. We'll go back to our main point -- it quilts certain common words. Chair was our example. It omits chair because it has another word, seat, which is rather more useful in the same field (seat in a train, in a theater, the seat of his trousers) and because chair does only one important thing that seat does not do -- it gives us chairman. But note this -- it's true of all such omissions. Foreign students are not going to begin their English-speaking career with a public address needing "Mr. Chairman." The great use of that title, of course, is for when the speaker doesn't know his chairman's name! Basic speakers are not allowed to be so careless. And note this, too. Very common words, names of common objects like chair, are very easily picked up. The teacher can safely leave them to
the general public and concentrate on teaching things that have more need of her help. Have you ever known a student (in an English-speaking community) to be taught Basic without picking up about as many other English words out of school? Here is the answer to those who declare that Basic is too limited a medium to be offered to the world in place of English. it is not so offered and those who need and can use more English find Basic an escalator thereto.
So much for a sketch of what Basic is and I how it was worked out. Now for some of the
odd ideas that people somehow pick up about Basic. One is that it is some sort of "pidgin English." "Two mans come here yesterday," "Give this to I," etc. You'll be able to judge now on that. We may think that those who call Basic a "pidgin" don't know much about either Basic or pidgin English.
Another queer idea is that Basic and the rest of English are somehow two separate languages with some sort of barrier between them. It is not so of course; the essential words of Basic are the essential words of all English -- the very same words used in the very same ways. So, too, with the constructions. A student of Basic doesn't --while he's studying Basic -- learn the rest of English.
But does a student of first-year French learn his way about Mallarmé or Proust? There is good evidence now that students of Basic do in fact go on to the rest of English -- to literary English -- much more successfully than students who start in on more old-fashioned lines. And there are reasons for that. One is, that the Basic words, because they are the words that will do the most work, are the words with which other English words can be most easily explained. The General Basic English Dictionary defines 20,000 and more English words in the Basic 850.
You would think that students of English would learn the most useful words rather than the literary words first. That sounds like common sense. But funny things happen in the teaching of English.
One of your authors will never forget a certain Japanese student. It was at Nara, and there was a fire. I went out to see it and met this student who attached himself for an English lesson -- it's a way they have. The student would have had at least six years of English, probably more, and he did know some English -- of a sort. But when I asked, "'Where is the fire?" nothing more than a good deal of hissing resulted.
I asked, "Is the fire out? Is it still burning? Have they put it out yet? Where is it? Which is the way to the fire?" and so on. At long last with great difficulty a reply came: the usual "I am very sorree for you. I do not understand you"! So I gave the student up. After a time, while I was actually watching the fire brigade at work on it -- the fire was quite lively -- I saw the boy again. He came up and said with great difficulty, "The gonflagration eess eggstinguished"!
Well, there you do have two languages: Basic English -- "'The fire is out. They have put the fire out"; literary English -- "The conflagration is extinguished." It seemed as though our Japanese had only been "taught" the second. Basic would have helped him to keep nearer to the facts in this case with, "The fire is under
control," which is perhaps what the use of "extinguished" meant to indicate.
Talking of extinguishing, it isn't only Japanese students who prefer fancy language to ordinary plain English. Here is the Associated Press on one of President Roosevelt's press conferences:
Washington, March 10 . The polished polysyllabic profundities of James M. Landis, Dean of Harvard Law School and Director of Civilian Defense, seem to be a little too fancy for President Roosevelt.
The Chief Executive read to a press conference today a letter which Landis had prepared for him to send to the Federal Works Agency on the subject of blacking out Federal buildings during air raids.
"Such preparations shall be made," the letter said, "as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal Government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by blackout construction or by termination of the illumination."
With a grin, Mr. Roosevelt hastened to remark that "obscuration" was not his word, nor was "termination of the illumination" his language.
He read on. "This will, of course, require that in building areas in which production must continue during the blackout, construction must be provided that internal illumination may continue.',
Mr. Roosevelt asserted that he knew some people who had had internal illumination, and after a roar of laughter subsided, he continued once more with the letter:
"Other areas, whether or not occupied by personnel, may be obscured by terminating the illumination."
The Chief Executive stopped, turned to his press secretary, Stephen Early, and ordered a rewrite job.
"Tell them," he said, "that in buildings where they have to keep the work going, to put something across the window. In buildings where they can afford to let the work stop for a while, turn out the lights. Stop there," he ordered.
Mr. Roosevelt would have been 100 per cent in Basic if be had said, "In buildings where it isn't so necessary to go on working, put the lights out."
Now for a glance at some ideas about the purposes of Basic English. One of them was dealt with by Mr. Churchill in the House of Commons in the sentence quoted: "People are quite purblind who discuss this matter as if Basic English were a substitute for the English language." Back in 1942, if we remember aright, he described the same idea in the same place as "fanciful". "Purblind" . . . "fanciful" ... good strong English words though they are not in Basic. You'd be surprised, though, if you knew how many people have been taking up their cudgels and valiantly beating the air under the impression that we want to scrap English and make everyone talk only Basic. We'd join them, of course, if that was the idea, and so would Mr. Ogden, the man with the most variegated and sometimes outlandish vocabulary of anyone you are likely to meet. He is a good retort to the notion that work with Basic cuts your vocabulary down.
This takes us to a much more dangerous idea. The preposterous but in some parts prevalent notion that Basic is intended to take the place of French, say, for Frenchmen and for French speakers in Canada, or of Spanish in Spanish-speaking South America.
It isn't salt, it's vitriol that should be put on the tail of that absurd supposal. How can we wake up the people who voice it into doing a little thinking? For consider: every major country in the world has already adopted English in its school program as the first foreign language to be studied. Why? Not to replace the mother tongue. Nothing can replace that. Not because we as peoples or as governments have made them adopt it. We haven't and we haven't tried and we couldn't have done it if we had tried. In fact, the English-speaking nations have been remarkably careful not to try. Not because the other countries love us or our language especially well. Why, then?
Because they see clearly and in hard, practical, realistic terms that they need a common second language. If they are to meet the coming world, they need better means o communication. Not necessarily for communication with us, the English-speaking peoples. We are not quite as preponderant a part of the population on this planet as we are sometimes fond of thinking. English speakers are, in fact, another 71,800 millions talking some 1,700 different mother tongues. And these peoples -- physicalcommunications, the airplane radio, television, and the like improve -- are going to need correspondingly improved mental means of communication, with one another even more than with us. And the only immediately practicable means is through English -- some sort of English.
Anyone who has seen much of English teaching in places like China and Japan, India and Malaya, must have some doubts as to what sort of English it is likely to be -- as to how "broken" it will become in the process.
That is the current situation. English of some sort will be everywhere in the classrooms of the world as soon as the war ends. On current teaching practice, years of study don't get most of the students anywhere. It's really daunting to think of the billions of boy-girl years of toil that have been and will be wasted In the absence of an introduction to English which will take them more quickly to a useful point. In this situation Basic comes forward as such an introduction -- as a way of easing the task which these countries have already voluntarily assumed.
And up go vociferous cries -- not from these countries, but from sensitive souls in New York or London -- of 'Cultural imperialism!'
Let us be serious for a moment. Some of you way know areas in China where the spread of the cigarette habit has meant malnutrition -- so slender is the economic margin, so poverty plagued are the people -- malnutrition and all the consequent diseases, tuberculosis and the rest. The poor people could not afford cigarettes and enough food, so they bought the cigarettes. Nobody's fault, maybe -- but the cigarette habit came into China through English-speaking people's enterprise! You never heard any cry go up about cultural or economic imperialism. You can see schools there too where insistence on largely futile English studies has led to serious neglect of Chinese studies -- the worst possible form of mental malnutrition, leading to all the consequent cultural diseases, -nameless diseases: disorientation, spiritual flux, paralysis of intellectual digestion, loss of essential social communication . . . It is a grim picture. We propose to free more time for Chinese for Chinese students and we are told -- by educators out of dramatics departments -- that we are being "linguistically imperialistic."
"Cultural," "linguistic" imperialism -- what do these adjectives mean? In reading Voltaire or Thomas Mann are you submitting to some sort of French or German conquest? If we belabor this nonsense too much, perhaps !t is because so many good hearted people seem to think it would be somehow wicked of us to help the rest of the world to learn English.
This chapter has dealt so far with points that haven't received much attention in the published expositions of Basic. For the detailed specification of Basic the prime authorities are Mr. Ogden's The System of Basic English and The Basic Words. For a more general and more recent account, see Basic English and Its Uses. We promised earlier to come back to one point in the design of flask, one limitation on the remark that its words go through all the changes of form that the same words undergo in full English. It is this. On the Basic word list appear more than 300 words which might be regular verbs but which in Basic are used only as nouns. Basic confines itself to 16 verbs only, and the auxiliaries may and will. The reason for this is the immense simplification in teaching that can thereby be obtained. We can concentrate on these in any case necessity verbs, as we can by no other plan. First things first is the principle of Basic.
If you study the teaching texts of Basic, either Learning the English Language or The Basic Way to English, you will see how the principle works out in practice. Learning the English Language as the course developed in Massachusetts and Washington Adult Civic Education Classes. The Basic Way was the product of experience in India and Africa.
A First Book of English2 was the product of Chinese classrooms. Similarly C.K. Ogden's Basic Step by Step and Mme. Litvinov's adaptation of it to Russian conditions are designed for yet other learning needs. There is a wide range of design in the Basic texts for teaching foreign students. No one picking up one of them should suppose that is the only way in which Basic may be presented. Basic indeed, through the very compactness of the material to be taught, has made experimentation in grading -- in the order in which points are taught -- relatively easy. And the key to this compactness is in the reduction of the verbs.
Consider these Basic verbs for a moment. Twelve of the sixteen in their key senses, the senses that are taught first, describe visible actions. The are:
Because these verbs describe visible actions, what a. sentence using one of them means can be seen as it is said. The action can be performed as the sentence is pronounced. These are the most eminently demonstrable general verbs in the language. And, of course, these demonstrable uses describing visible actions are taught first. Academic critics of Basic sometimes so wildly astray here. These verbs, as we all know, have innumerable uses. Basic doesn't for a moment attempt to teach them all. It teaches first the visible action uses; then, in a carefully controlled order, the other uses which, if the visible action senses, the key senses, have been properly grasped, are fully intelligible in context. Ogden went through all the senses and sieved out the uses that aren't intelligible. These are just brute facts of the language, sometimes called idioms. Then he sorted these out into those needed for coverage and those not needed. Those needed are very few.
The result of all this work is recorded in The Basic Words -- a little book that is the outcome of a unique piece of analytic lexicography. The result is -- for teaching purposes -- a simplification within a simplification. Not only are the words and constructions of Basic cut down to a minimum but the ranges of meaning of its words and the recommended phrases are similarly pruned down and limited. Perhaps this is a subtle point. It's important though. Surprisingly enough, most of those who make academic comments on Basic seem never to have heard of it or to have had The Basic Words in their hands.
This reduction to 16 verbs is the most astonishing thing about Basic. It made Basic possible. It is the really new and original thing about Basic. You will not be surprised, therefore, if it is the point at which routine minds aim their attacks. Some have actually said that it would be easier for a foreign learner -- who already knew and could use the words put and together -- to learn a new word, combine, than to learn to say and understand the phrase put together! You'll agree that an academic opposition reduced to this is not very formidable.
The point to note, however, is that the Basic verbs and the other words they combine with in Basic (as defined for teaching purposes in The Basic Words) are words any student of English has to learn, whether he comes into it through Basic or not. We don't avoid put and together by teaching combine. We don't avoid go and up by teaching ascend, and to on. These words and phrases are indispensable for even a modest understanding of English anyhow. What Basic does is to recognize this, teach them thoroughly, and use them.
This brings us to our final point, the last extremity of fanciful opposition, the objection with which this handbook is primarily concerned: the alleged difficulty English-speaking people will experience in attempting to learn Basic. This fantastic objection crops up in all sorts of places. Here is one academic critic in the correspondence columns of the New York Times, for example: "As applied to English speakers. Basic calls for as much study as would be entailed in acquiring a foreign tongue." You would think a professed authority on languages would make some inquiries before venturing a remark so ridiculously wide of the facts. He goes on: "Learning to forget what we have so painfully acquired, learning to do without the wealth of words accumulated by those who spoke English before us. . . . You'll note he, too, seems to think that we are all going to give up our English for Basic! This same authority announced that for foreign learners, Basic is considerably more difficult than ordinary English.
Here is another specimen of the same sort of dreaming: "Basic is more easily learned by a foreigner than by an Englishman for the reason that the Englishman has to unlearn thousands of words which are unnecessary in Basic English."
And here finally is The New Statesman (September 11, 1943) on the same point: "Before he left Downing Street did the Prime Minister take the precaution of memorizing the 99,150 words which he must not use?"
We give you all these samples of this objection lest you may think we have to do with one solitary product of unregulated speculation. The facts are that English-speaking people can easily learn Basic in a couple of days. It has been done in a morning. Large classes of English speakers have learned it in half a dozen sessions. Work through a few of the exercises in this handbook and prove it for yourself.
This whole story of the supposed difficulty of Basic for English speakers takes no account of the facts. Why not? There are plenty of people who could supply the facts, plenty who know by direct personal experience whether it is or isn't bard to learn Basic. Why didn't these objectors consult someone who knows? Simpler still, why didn't they borrow one of the books, and sit down to find out for themselves before bursting out into public print? There is a very simple answer. The critics didn't want to know. They preferred to feel sure that things were as they wished. It's such a human failing that I don't suppose one should blame them.
To sum up:
1. Basic is not a pidgin English.
2. There is no barrier between it and the rest of English. Only a specialist can tell when a speaker goes into it or comes out of it.
3. It is not intended to take the place of full English, nor will it.
4. It is not intended to take the place of anyone's mother tongue, nor will it.
5. It is no threat whatever to the cultural or linguistic independence (or any other sort of independence) of any country whatsoever.
On the contrary, its effect would be to free more time for other languages.
6. Basic is not harder for foreign learners than a similar number of other English words.
On the contrary, it is far easier.
7. And finally, it is not hard at all for English speakers.
On this last point readers of this book will soon be in a position to judge. Hitherto only general accounts and specifications and texts having the foreign learner and his teacher in view have been available. In spite of that, many English-speaking people of the most diverse talents and training have taught themselves Basic without overmuch trouble. A handbook designed expressly for them with graded exercises founded on, wide experience of their problems should considerably lighten an already manageable task. At the same time, it will bring out, more explicitly and more concretely, the uses and values of Basic as a tool for the English speaker.
Why should he equip himself with it? There are general as well as special reasons. The strongest general reason is that Basic ii one good way by which lie can refresh his interest in his native language. It makes him ask himself a thousand questions about the words and locution. he handles as a rule so glibly; it strips the veil of custom from a thousand openings for profitable reflection; its restores curiosity as to a thousand nuances which familiarity blinds us to: it whets the edge of our verbal discrimination. In all this the adept in Basic is inquiring not so much into Basic as into the rest of the language. One of the outcomes of a widespread' study of Basic will certainly be increased wear and tear on the greater dictionaries.
Allied to this is an enlarged sense of the miraculous resourcefulness of the English we work on with Basic, and respect for the sheer quantity and order of the meaning which good writers or speakers will commonly be attempting to convey. And with that often come shocked discoveries of the amount that is currently missed, and of the ineptitudes of interpretation that disgrace so many arguments.
Another general gain is the repeated alerting of our understanding of how sorts of writing differ. To make a Basic version is a way of finding out how far we understand a passage.
More than that, it shows us what sort of understanding, what sort of responsiveness, the passage asks us to bring to it. All the customary distinctions -- between prose content and implied attitudes; between sense, feeling, tone, and intention; between statement, suggestion, and persuasion in all their co-operations and embranglements -- cease to be academic abstractions and become very concrete challenges to our discernment when we attempt to reproduce all we perceive of the meaning in the limited terms of our instrument.
These are some of the general values which exercise with Basic can give -- educative values germinating at the point, our grasp of our language, where gains may become most fruitful. The specific uses of skill with Basic are more obvious. For the numberless occasions when our job is to say one thing at a time as clearly and as simply as possible and to say it with the best chance of being understood, practice with Basic is directly helpful. Not that we will then necessarily say it in Basic -- that depends on the audience and the language we have in common, and there is, of course, no magic in Basic by which it will do our work for us. The help comes through the practice in comparing different ways of saying the same thing which Basic has given us. Under this heading the relevance of Basic to the teacher, the administrator, the publicist, and the advertiser needs no more than mention. Examples are given in the body of the book.
Basic, after all, was designed by Mr. Ogden to be an international language, and it is naturally there that its greatest held of use is to be seen. It is those of us who have to do with foreign learners limited in their knowledge of our language who will benefit most obviously from Basic in their efforts to meet their correspondents and interlocutors halfway. As a writer in The Hindu (Madras) puts it, "For the Anglo-Americans its spread is a call for self-conquest and the service of others."
The spread of a common second language does not, of course, by itself mean a more peaceful world. It is well to be neither too despairing nor too confident about the peace. It will depend for its stability upon countless things -- among them it will depend upon how the ordinary citizens of the different countries get on with one another in their necessary contacts. These contacts are going to increase suddenly and fabulously in the next crucial 20 years. There is a chance, through English and through Basic, of easing them immensely in time for the next great crisis around 1965. It is one of many easements that will be needed. It is worth working for. Must we not believe that -- other things being equal -- better means of understanding will lead to better accord? He is a cynic indeed who doubts it.
- - - - -
- Teachers' and Learners' Editions, 3 volumes, Houghton Muffin Company. 1943.
- I. A. Richards. Peiping, China. 1938. Under the authority of the Orthological Institute of China.
- The other four verbs in Basic are: be, do, have ,seem.