Learning Basic English, page 87.
WE HAVE all suffered from the kind of confusion illustrated by the exclamation, "What a (w)hole Harvard is!" The
speaker had one idea in his mind and his hearer another. Most of us, too, have our stories about children's
misunderstanding of prayers: "Lead us not into Thames Station," and so on. (Shades of the deep Shelter! What
division will there be between those who had to go through all that and those who did not?) These mishearings come
at the foot of a ladder that reaches up as high as Jacob's. On the lower rungs of it we are most of us fairly safe,
though children are not. A little girl meeting for the first time
There is a green hill far away
was deeply (and rightly) puzzled as to why a green hill should have a wall at all. Without as "outside" had not yet
come within her ken. There might be these notable differences, however, between our examples. In the first, there
could be solid grounds of prejudice to explain the mistaking of whole for hole. In the second, mere unfamiliarity
with the word temptation might be enough. But in the third, the word without was familiar enough in one of
its senses. In fact it was this very familiarity which prevented the possibility of another sense from coming up. Had
the word been quite new, had it been ayont, say, there would have been no trouble. Context would have made the
reader take it in her stride. It was because the word was already reserved and booked for another sense that the
relevant sense was turned away.
Without a city wall
A similar case higher up the ladder occurred when Chateaubriand translated Milton's fast in Paradise Lost (I:11-12)
Siloa's brook that flow'd
by rapidment. Milton meant "beside, close to, hard by" though "hard" would probably have confirmed
Chateaubriand in his impression. Translation from other languages constantly brings up this sort of mistake.
Teachers and students generally understand them very well and know how to be on the lookout for them.
Indeed mistakes of this sort commonly announce themselves as resoundingly as fog signals -- to others, who
know the language better. In general they do no great damage to human understanding—unless they get
into translations of peace treaties or similar places. And if that happens we will usually be right in
suspecting that more than mere ignorance was responsible for the mistake. We shall probably find that it was as much a twist as a slip.
Fast by the oracle of God
Mistakes due to mere ignorance, to insufficiently wide acquaintance with a language, to unfamiliar words,
and so forth, come within the routine of learning. The remedy is as simple as the fault—a careful look at the
right part of the right article in Webster's will supply the missing bit or clean up the confusion. We may note in
passing that this acquaintanceship with words is a surface matter. It does not go deeper than the sort of
acquaintance we may have with thousands of people : We know their names, can recognize their faces or voices,
we may know broadly what they do and who they are—but we do not really know them. We have no need to. Acquaintanceship is enough.
The really serious misunderstandings (from the lost point to the quarrel) concern those other words we all
think we do really know— the familiar, friendly, incessantly useful key words which take a part in all our doing
and in every third sentence. In general, the more useful a word is the more dangerous it can be.
(more) We skip to the final page of the chapter and book. In the skipped pages,
Richards discusses the difference between sense or definition of words and the
jobs or connotations of words.
Whatever the field, military, political, social, economic, it is well to remember that security can be the bit of meat the burglar brings for the dog. And it can be the burglar alarm, too. These are among its jobs.
He makes the this point and shows that by consideration of words, Basic can even express the thoughts of poetry; he uses fear and love as examples. Page 103
It fits us then to be provident
As fear may teach us out of late examples. ( Henry V, II, 4.)
This has been, as it were, a close-up in slow-motion view of a reader at work on the poem, balancing different ways of getting what he can of it into Basic. As in all such work, the risk is a loss of perspective. The essential theme is the changing idea of love. No more is said, after the first four lines, about the dead lover. He is there to start the oppositions between ways of loving and different orders of lovers, from which the energies of the poem come. As Mr. Sweeney has remarked, "Donne is talking about the turn --- said to have come at the time of the Troubadours -- from the idea of love as an experience of body and mind uniting the equal desires of lovers, to the idea of a love in which the lover, burning with desire, was forever kept at a distance and the loved one ever said 'no.'" There have been other turns since, and Mr. Eliot's comment on "tradition" is to the point. Ideas of love and fidelity form no small part of human tradition. How love is to be conceived is urgent business always. The more we penetrate into Donne's poem the less will it seem a curiosity out of past time, and the more will the study of "that vice-nature, custome" be recognized as part of our contemporaneity.
In closing this exemplification of some uses of Basic as a tool in interpretation we would like to recur to one sentence in the passage we studied from Whitehead. "It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties." Basic very definitely is an attempt toward equipping the future for its duties. It was devised to take a planned and foreseen place among the sudden enormous expansions of man's powers (and consequent perils) which make our times unique. Never was any language spread abroad as English is being spread by this war. Basic as an international secondary language and as first steps toward fuller English is an attempt to help there -- on the linguistic front.
But moreover, and this is no less important, never before today have so many people been forced to concern themselves with so much. Wide and truly universal education is a new thing. It is 'the greatest and most audacious experiment of all time. It is an immense adventure in the faith of reason. Whether the strain it will put on human understanding will be too much we do not know. The best educated men of 200 years ago bad no more than backyard gardens to care for in comparison with the range of invitations to consider that are offered us. Is it any wonder if complaints that no one knows what he thinks about anything, or why he thinks so, steam up everywhere? This is one of the dangers that science (and the applications of the same sort of study in the humanities) has brought us to, one of the dangers "that the future will disclose." The equipment needed to meet it includes every device that will help us to ask ourselves what we understand by anything. On this front as well, Basic, we believe, has its place-as an explanatory resource, a focuser of attention.
Basic, too, no doubt, has its dangers. A poor and crude use of it can produce horrible hashes. We are very lucky if we have not here and there inadvertently illustrated these possibilities. But the very horribleness of badly handled Basic versions is a considerable safeguard. Ineptitudes and misconceptions expressed in fuller English are less conspicuous, less self-revealing by far. No one who knows what much "English" restatement is like - in actual present classroom practice - will be very gravely alarmed over the dangers of Basic as an interpretation instrument. In fact it is with relief and new appreciation that the Basic craftsman returns to the artist's work to study again what he cannot convey in his model of the original. Perhaps a recounting of the ingenious old definition of a catalyst might serve to make the point. Here is a Basic version of the little tale:
"A certain Sheik had three sons, good young men of some learning. On his deathbed he sent for them and made a division among them of all he had. One-half of his property he gave to the oldest, one-third to the second and a ninth to the youngest son. And with that his days on earth came to their end.
For even if the eighteenth camel didn't make possible an arrival at exactly the division of property laid down by the aged Sheik, the approximation was as near as could be made. For all practical purposes nine is as close as you can come to half of seventeen living camels. Basic as an interpretation instrument at its best is the eighteenth camel. When it has done its work you put it aside.
"But when the sons would make a division of their father's goods they were in great trouble. The Sheik had seventeen camels (long-necked animals of the sand-wastes, which are able to go a long time without water). The three were at a' complete loss, till help came to them from a wise old friend of the family. He sent them his only camel to make eighteen. Then the first son took nine of the camels, the second six and the third two, after which they sent back the eighteenth camel to their father's-friend. The eighteenth camel was a catalyst."
Of other dangers -- that the simplified language might replace full English, for example -- we have said perhaps enough above. To the readers for whom we are writing-those willing to take the trouble to master Basic -- these -fears will not, we think, count for much. We miss a word here -- one that George Chapman, translator of Homer, tried to introduce in 1616. "When a man is understood," he said, "there is ever a proportion betwixt the writer's wit and the writee's." Our writees will know enough about Basic by this time to judge for themselves.
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