logoOgden's Basic English


Basic English is a language created by Charles Kay Ogden as a subset of standard English -- although complete in itself, it is not a separate language. The intent was to utilize the minimum number of words to convey the maximum amount of thought, and thus be the least painful way to learn and the most immediately useful to speak.

I was recently in Holland and watched American movies with subtitles. Over and over I was impressed with the variations in English speech that were reduced to a lesser number of words at the bottom of the screen. "Of course", "Sure", "Clearly", "Obviously", "No surprise there." ... all were reduced to "Naturally". This reemphasized that there is no need in learn the full richness of English to adequately express oneself.

Even though Basic English is intended to be self-contained, it incorporates some of the idiosyncrasies of standard English such as full conjugation of the few Basic verbs. A criteria was compatibility so that (1) the speaker would be seamlessly accepted as an English speaker, and (2) the student can progress painlessly to the full language. Therefore Basic is not without unfortunate complications -- namely its whimsical spelling.

Basic English could have taken the track of a separate language without any exceptions of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation, but it would sound strange to the ear of the speakers of standard English. Others have tried to regularize English, to no avail.

For example, Mensa once introduced a single letter to replace "Th". It was a "T with a leg", perfectly understandable. It shortened text and was a disappointment when it was dropped -- probably because it was not included in computer fonts.

Simplified English, as I understand it, is a merger of Ogden's Basic English with the top 1,000 words in use. There are at least two schools of thought about simplifying language. Ogden studied and attempted to select words that can be used to express all fundamental ideas. The second approach is to select the most common words in use and exclude the frills. Ogden is of the first school attempting to optimize thought. The ten commonest words in English writing are the, of, and, to, a, in, that, it, is, I ; these will be in any version of English. Spoken English must include 'ah' and 'Ya know'. With 'Basic Plus', what is accomplished by doubling the initial word load on the student?

Ogden proposed additional 150 word packages for specialized needs. He found that 100 general words on a topic and 50 words or terms of the specialty were sufficient. For example: the "bankers" option would contain the 100 words for business and 50 words unique to banking. Therefore, an approach is already included to update the language. A "web programmers" package would contain words that did not even exist in Ogden's day.

Next Step. Basic English is complete. For those wishing to continue to full English, the Basic program can continue for the interested student from the 850 basic words to the 2,000 word, terminal level. The additional words are selected in the Ogden way. By the 2,000 word level, the student has achieved Standard English and can proceed on his own.   next step

Wonder what an exceptionless Basic English would look like? Has someone tried it? If not, then ...? The question is : where does one draw the line between utility and principle: Ogden had a useful idea, simplify, yet retain full compatibility with normal English. Modifications to a regularized English, at a minor level of change, would look like just poor English. Users would be looked upon as uneducated -- a fault Ogden avoids. At a major level of change, the new language would be difficult to recognize even the English roots. As an example, see EU Spelling Proposal.

Unique Definitions It has been suggested that it is just as easy to expand the 850 vocabulary to learn new words as it is to learn the alternate meanings of the Basic 850. I disagree : (1) New words require new spellings and pronunciations. (2) New words further complicate by having alternate meanings themselves. (3) To limit the vocabulary to unique meanings violates Ogden's principle of transparency with Standard English.

Top Frequency Words. Ogden condemns learning only the high frequency words and I must agree. We bought software to drill the top 200 words in Dutch before our recent visit to the Netherlands - it was virtually worthless. What good to recognize the "filler" words in a sentence and miss the context ? Ogden would rather spend the time on the Next Step words that expand content and depth of expression of concepts. These next step words were selected using the same criteria as the original 850.

Simplified English This version of English of about 2,000 words combines the Basic vocabulary with the top 1,000 words in contemporary use or customized for a particular industry. It sounds like a good idea yielding the completeness of expression of Basic with the conversationalness of Standard English. But it slows down the learning process. Are 1,000 new words really required by any industry that is not already addressed by a glossary. I would be inclined to consider this a teaching aid, rather than a language. We, as Ogden, can accept local modification if it furthers understanding. Just so the basic words are understood so the learner can read Basic publications.

Learning Time. Ogden suggests that "the whole word-list can be successfully acquired in less than fifty hours" and "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." Does anyone have actual experience to confirm or deny this target?

Consider the economic and human impact of this. Some states, including mine, have ESL programs running two years or more with associated qualification for welfare and has massive programs to provide government activities bi-lingually. Use of Basic English would allow earlier self-sufficiency and eliminate government intervention and associated waste -- except for running monthly Basic English classes. Attendance of such classes should be required for application to government programs.

The problem is that Basic English allows the learner to express himself to anyone, which is great, but the standard English world continues to use "rich vocabulary" which will limit the utility of those who understand Basic English. What is required is a word processing software package with spell check and grammar check with thesaurus suggestions for Basic English usage. One reader of this page is taking about doing this. I can put you in contact if you wish to collaborate or to contribute effort in what will be essentially converting The Basic Dictionary into machine readable form. A wordlist suitable for spell checking is available.

Should Basic be used to teach primary English ? The typical kindergartner has a vocabulary of 2,500 words of which about 600 are in Basic. Teaching the remaining 250 words at an early stage will allow the second grader to read newspapers and documents written in Basic intended for the whole community. Even speak with a businessman from Afghanistan or Mali. What better goal of teaching?

Compound Words. Through various assumptions, Ogden's Basic English has a lot more words than 850 : numbers, calendar terms, etc. I though for a while that he was cheating by allowing compound words -- new words made up of two basic words. His rule is that the new compound word must have obvious origins, thus hand plus bag yields new word handbag, a totally new word and meaning that is attributed to Basic communication without counting in the 850. I have now accepted this as no different than using a string of single Basic words to express a complex concept. Introduction of these extensions is rewarding with a minimum of training time.

The Orthological Institute disbanded in the 1960s. There is obviously a need for a mechanism to keep Basic up to date -- then only one Basic would be existent and more readily adopted.


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About this Page: Ramble.html - ramblings about Basic English by Jim
Last updated June 21, 2002.
Created on January 8, 1997
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