Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Basic English

At a recent Council meeting, members complained about how verbose language and technical words used today had made comprehension so much more challenging.

“Do you remember BBC News bulletins on the old Home Service?” I asked the colleague next to me. “I remember hearing ‘Here is the 6 o’clock news being read in Basic English by Alvar Liddell’.”

He said ‘no’ but he may have said that as it would have admitted to his age; this kind of announcement was in the 1940s. Many foreigners serving in the allied armed forces were in the country then and it was thought important to make news accessible to as many as possible.

Basic English had appeared about ten years earlier in the book Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar by Charles Kay Ogden. 

He was a Lancashire man and graduate of Cambridge. He was a journalist and something of an eccentric. His by-line was Adelyne More. (say it very slowly) His first enterprise was as editor of The Cambridge Magazine. This appeared between 1912 and 1922.

It contained what must have been unique at the time: a digest of the foreign press compiled from about 100 European newspapers.  This was provided by Dorothy Buxton, married to a wealthy philanthropist and reformer.  

During his time at Cambridge, Ogden co-founded the Heretics Society which questioned authority and religion. Speakers at its debates or lectures included G. K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Rupert Brooke, J.B.S. Haldane, Virginia Woolf and Ludwig Wittgenstein. 

When he came down from Cambridge he worked as an editor for Kegan Paul on learned publications. He was a translator too. He was a great bibliophile and built up an impressive library with an emphasis on philosophy and became a specialist on Jeremy Bentham.

From 1925, the main thrust of his intellectual activity was Basic English. Ogden tried to simplify English while keeping it as normal as possible as an aid to foreign students learning the language. He restricted grammar severely and only allowed a vocabulary of 850 words that included just 18 verbs. The basic word list was extended with a supplementary list of affixes. Then, if you were a member of an intellectual or technical elite, you could add a 150-word list for your own particular field. But there was more relaxation for the better educated as they were assumed to know a set of around 200 ‘international’ words as well.

Keep it simple

The Rules of Basic English are like ordinary English but much simpler. Thus, plurals are formed by adding ‘s’ or ‘es’ on the end of the word. For adjective relativity, two permitted word endings are ‘er’ and ‘est’. There are just 150 adjectives that can be given negative meaning by prefixing with ‘un’. Adverbs evolve from adjectives by adding ‘ly’. Questions are formed with the opposite word order, and introduced by ‘do’.

That gives a flavour of what Basic English was all about. The word list can be found in the Wikipedia on-line dictionary at https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Basic_English_word_list  The words are divided by purpose: Operations – 100 basic verbs, prepositions, articles etc.; Basic – 400 nouns; Things – 200 nouns; Descriptive – 100 adjectives and 50 opposites.

Initially it was favourably received – hence its use by the BBC.  But later its limitations became more apparent and various attempts were made to adapt it. Ogden was criticised that the choice of words was a personal one and the selection had not been objectively tested. Dr Michael West, a linguist who worked extensively in India formulated his General Service List of about 2,000 words published in 1953. These had some objectivity as they were the most frequent words drawn from a corpus of written English works.

The concept was emulated in France with the development of “Français fundamental”, approved by the Ministry of Education for use in French schools in the 1960s. 

Garbled

International industry bodies – notably marine and aerospace – have developed standard English language specifications to reduce ambiguity, make technical writing clearer, make it easier for people whose first language is not English and above all mitigate against mistakes that could lead to disaster. Sadly, the rules don’t apply to marketing documents used in those industries.

Otherwise English just seems to take root everywhere in strange and garbled forms reflecting local culture and local language. Nevertheless, the need for global communications and the ubiquity of international media means that the underlying simple structure of our native language is bruised but not broken.

Understand?

Norman Bartlett