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CHARLES KAY OGDEN had a revolutionary idea when he wrote Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar, published in 1930. By Basic English, he didn’t mean merely the basics of the language. Rather, he devised an entirely skinned-down version of English using a vocabulary of only 850 basic words.
Since then, Ogden’s Basic English had on-again/off-again love affairs with the likes of Winston Churchill and George Orwell. It continues around the world in the teaching of English as a second language. It has influenced the Voice of America and its international broadcasts and also helped the U.S. government in reforming bureaucratic language. Not surprisingly, Basic English has generated its share of controversy as well.
Linguistically, Ogden’s Basic English is a subset of traditional English. Its modest content makes it straightforward to learn. Its words and grammar are familiar to anyone knowing basic English. However, its limited vocabulary of root words and rules defining permissible compounds often call for artful work-arounds.
Basic English’s 850 words form its core vocabulary. Ogden sensed need for another 100 words in general fields, science, business and the like, and 50 more of specialized terms. To put this 1000-word total in perspective, modern English has around 1 million words in its vocabulary (1,025,109.8, according to the Global Language Monitor as of January 1, 2014). A modern dictionary lists perhaps half this many.
The King James Bible contains 12,143 different words in its English edition. William Shakespeare used 28,829. The OpenSourceShakespeare Concordance is an entertaining source in this regard. For instance, “love” appears 2191 times in Shakespeare’s works; “hate,” only 184.
Winston Churchill, renowned for the clarity of his writing, was an early proponent of Basic English. When he and Franklin Delano Roosevelt met in August 1943, they spoke of its potential for promoting international concord. In April 1944, Churchill followed up with a letter to FDR saying, “My conviction is that Basic English will then prove to be a great boon to mankind in the future and a powerful support to the influence of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in world affairs.”
FDR eventually replied, I suspect with tongue firmly in cheek, “Incidentally, I wonder what the course of history would have been if in May 1940 you had been able to offer the British people only ‘blood, work, eye water and face water,’ which I understand is the best that Basic English can do with five famous words.”
In fact, I used Ogden’s Basic English to assess acceptability of another famous Churchill utterance. In August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, he said, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
In Basic English, “Not ever in the field of mankind’s fight has such a big group been in so much debt to such a little group.” (I’m surprised that quantity comparisons, many and few, are missing from the Basic 850.)
George Orwell was a proponent of Basic English in the early 1940s, though by mid-decade he expressed a general distrust of any universal language. In Politics and the English Language, 1946, Orwell wrote that such languages were “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” And for Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949, Orwell concocted Newspeak, the official language of Oceania, the novel’s totalitarian state. Newspeak limited freedom of thought by excising undesirable concepts. To think these was a “thoughtcrime.”
Orwell wasn’t alone in dissing the concept of Basic English. Political wackos have criticized its word selection as jingoistic and divisive. Linguists called it awkward and stilted. One wag suggested Basic English is not basic and it ain’t English.
On the other hand, Basic English is used today in many countries when English is taught as a second language. It also evolved into Special English, with a core vocabulary of around 1500 words, used by the U.S. Voice of America in its world broadcasts. By the way, as another aid to clarity, VOA presenters of news reports speak at two-thirds the normal rate.
Last, Basic English has had influence on the U.S. government’s Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 and its Plain Writing Act of 2010. This first document is 40 pages in length; the second, 3 pages. Now that’s reform! ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015
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