The System of Basic English
General Account, p.18
II. Basic as an International Language
1 . BABLE
Considerable ignorance seems to exist as to the extent of which Babel actually prevails.
There are approximately 1,500 languages at present spoken (differing as much as, say, French, Spanish, and Italian) by approximately 1,800 million people. Only 29 are spoken by more than 10 millions ; of these, seven account for half the total population. The seven according to a recent French estimate are :1
|Chinese ||400 ||Japanese ||55|
1 . The 2002 New York Times Almanac numbers are:
||Spanish||300 ||Bengali ||192|
|Russian||160 ||Japanese ||126
||German ||121||French||100 |
What the World needs most is about 1,000 more dead languages -- and one more alive. The so-called national barriers of today are, for the most part, ultimately language barriers. the absence of a common medium of communication is the chief obstacle to international understanding, and consequently the chief underlying cause of War. It is also the most formidable obstacle to the progress of international Science, and to the development of international Commerce.
As to the desirability of a Universal Language, therefore, there can be little difference of opinion. Two distinct possibilities are, however, often confused at the outset. We may either suppose that some or all of the 1,500 existing languages will continue to be used alongside the language which is to be common to all -- in this case our Universal Language is most properly described as an Auxiliary Language; or we may look to the disappearance of existing languages in favor of a truly Universal medium.
Those who propose to adopt (or adapt) an existing language are in opposition to the advocates of an artificial (or synthetic) language. Basic English, however, has most of the advantages of a constructed language; and it is constructed out of normal English, which in the opinion of many authorities might in any case be the most natural choice of coming generations.
2 . THE VIEWS OF LEADING AUTHORITIES
the most strikeing testimential ever offered to the English language is that of the philologist, Jacob Gimm -- whom we have already quoted on the universality of English apart from its whimsical spelling. More than a century ago he wrote :
"When we consider its richness, intellectuality, and condensed adaptability, no other living language can be compared with English."
With a simplified vocabulary, the spelling problem is no longer a barrier ; and whatever is true of the universality of English in its historic form is even more obviously true of a system adapted to universal needs by a drastic elimination of unessentials.
Another eminet Central European who has advocated the introduction of English for international reasons, even in the primary schools, is Count Coudenhove-Kalergi founder of the Pan-European Union :
"All European states should resolve to make the English language a compulsory subject, first in their secondary, then in their primary schools. For the world outside of Europe, the development of English as the medium of international intercourse, is one which can be sayed no longer. . . The rivalry between the European languages would cease, and international understanding would be materially promoted, if every European knew English as an auxiliary language, i addtioin to his own national language. The ease with which the English language may be learned, and its intermediate position between the Germanic and the Romance language groups, predestine it to the position of a natural Esperanto."
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3 . FACTS AND FIGURES
The personal and business correspondence of the majority of writers is of a very limited range. Indeed, after analyzing nearly 400,000 words used by 2,500 different people, Ayres found that the fifty commonest words accounted for more than half of all the words used, that 250 more words cover another 25 per cent, while 90 per cent is done with 1,000 words. The remaining 10 per cent of the material necessitated another 9,000 words, which by any standard would be classified as 'common.'
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How little current methods of language teaching have concerned themselves with basic words is shown by the fact that in 23 of the German grammars most frequently used today a total vocabulary of 3,500 words only shows 227 common to all, while 16 elementary French text-books have only 134 words in common. Similarly, 10 Spanish grammars give a total of 4,488 words with only 249 common to all, and a typical Spanish course covering 5,000 words in one year includes 4,000 words of infrequent occurrence.
The significance of a reduction of the vocabulary to less than 1,000 words has been much obscured by the imaginary or misleading estimates which have hitherto taken the place of scientific study. For just as a propagandist or uncritical use of statistics has minimized the primary claims of English as a Universal language, so the grossest underestimates have distracted attention from the principles on which alone a serious reduction is possible, if English is to become the Auxiliary Language of the future.
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We are so accustomed to multiplicity of terms in certain fields that we are apt to regard their absence as a sign of weakness. Often, however, the elimination of all but one has been the outcome of a long process of linguistic development. Thus in Early English and Early Norse there were at one time almost as many names for the tails of animals as for the animals themselves. Today the brush of a fox would still be recognized as its tail in hunting and literary circles, but the majority of the English-speaking world would probably be unable to locate the scut of a rabbit. On the other hand, various kinds of animals and humans which for the highly civilized Frenchman might merely crient, are found to call, shout, yell, shriek, howl, mew, scream, screech, croak, roar, bellow, low, etc, as soon as they cross the Channel. In Basic they are content to make sounds and noises in various ways -- which is, in fact, all they do in real life ; just as French instruments, however rich in musical effect, usually sonnet, whereas their English counterparts will also readily ring, jingle, tinkle, clink, chink, blow, or toll.
If in French the caroling of a lark and the crowing of a cock are both covered by chanter, the definition of chanter, in terms either of behavior or of what comes to the ear, cannot be very different from that of 'making a noise.' In Basic we may not be aware that the lark is 'caroling' ; we are, however, conscious of the loud clear song the bird, with its sweet voice -- so full of feeling.
The real statistical task of linguists is not so much the determination of the number of words actually used by any particular person or class of persons as the study of how a reduction may be effected in the number of words which need be used ; i.e., how a given field of reference may be covered with the greatest economy. Historic word-counts might perhaps be a source of interest to the literary investigator, if conducted on principles very different from those which have hitherto been employed, but they can have little educational value and no practical application. What is really required is, in fact, a scientifically selected vocabulary minimum ; and it is this selection which Basic claims to provide.
4 . DEBABELIZATION
In estimating the value of Basic as a solution it is always desirable to bear in mid the needs of the smaller countries of the world. Their disadvantages have never been more clearly summarized than by Mr. H. G. Wells in the following passage which is to be found in his Anticipations :
"The native of a small country who knows no other language than the tongue of his country becomes increasingly at a disadvantage in comparison with the user of any of the great languages of the Europeanized world. For his literature he depends on the scanty writers who are in his own case, and write, or have written, in his own tongue. Necessarily they are few because necessarily with a small public there can be only small subsistence for a few. For his science he is in a worse case. His country can produce neither teachers nor discoverers to compare with the number of such workers in the larger areas, and it will neither pay them to write original matter for his instruction nor to translate what has been written in other tongues. In the matter of current intelligence the case of the speaker of the small language is still worse. His newspaper will need to be cheaply served, his home intelligence will be cut and restricted, his foreign news belated and second-hand. Moreover, to travel even a little distance, or to conduct anything but the smallest business enterprise, will be exceptionally inconvenient to him. . . . In most places he is for all practical purposes deaf and dumb. The inducements to an Englishman, Frenchman or German to become bilingual are great enough nowadays, but the inducements to a speaker of the smaller languages are rapidly approaching compulsion. He must do it in self-defense. to be an educated man in his own vernacular has become an impossibility. He must either become a mental subject of one of the greater languages or sink to the intellectual status of a peasant."16
It is not surprising that so practical a prophet regards the eventual adoption of Basic English as inevitable.
With the efforts of educators to reduce the amount of energy at present wasted on the acquisition of foreign languages, which should henceforward be regarded as a technical specialty, supporters of Basic English are in full agreement. Basic itself is a valuable exercise in the understanding of word-behavior. It forms an admirable introduction to that further study of the relations of thought and language which will prove a potent antidote to all forms of Word-magic in the future. Its analytic structure makes it desirable for the learner to understand rather than to learn by rote ; and at an early stage it can indicate the scope and internationality of the sciences as such. Above all, it is important that the arguments for an international language should not be presented -- as is inevitable with any constructed system -- in merely idealistic terms ; as the outcome of some unstable enthusiasm or arbitrary philological principle.
One conclusion at least emerges with special force as a result of any sufficiently broad survey of the international language problem : in no sense is it likely that the foundation of such a language has been laid either in Esperanto or in any other proposal for a constructed symbol system -- though such experiments are of great psychological interest. There are not a dozen proposals before the world today, as current controversy would have us believe; there are two. but one of these has over 500 years' start and over 500,000,000 converts ; and it is within the power even of a single individual to make its success a certainty, within his own lifetime.
The great events of history seem often to have turned on the decisions of individuals. Will these pages, perhaps, assist in the formation of some such decision? At least, anybody can help ; for 'Debabelization' is now no longer a dream, and it is everybody's business.
16. The Shape of Things to Come, by H. G. Wells.
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