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Simplifying English for Everyone – Basic English

I am continually surprised at how difficult a language English can be.  The other week, over a good bottle of red wine, my Russian friend Yuri told me he had enjoyed my latest missive but had struggled with a few of the words.1  So I hauled out a printed copy and asked him to underline what had troubled him, expecting him to point out two words at most.Yuri is an engineer who speaks English fairly fluently.  He has lived in South Africa for three years and in Ireland for one.  Yuri nonetheless underlined around two dozen words.3  The next day I tested an Afrikaans colleague fluent in English and found that the same set of words eluded him.  Then a Dutch friend mumbled he had difficulties with the vocabulary at times.  To my dismay, I came to realise that the language of the Inconsequential Diary can at times be challenging for second-language English speakers.4  But a week later two lecturers in the humanities at UCT told me their first-language English students would struggle with some of the words…5,6  This language issue set me thinking about universal systems of communicating and about Basic English in particular.

– My friend Yuri

The quest for a universal auxiliary language of communication recurs throughout history.  Various synthetic languages have been devised to the effect, ranging from Esperanto to Interlingua to Zlango.7  The challenge is to establish a language that is easily assimilable to all.  It must be free from irregularities and must do away with the needlessly complex structures of natural languages.  Despite staunch efforts by their proponents, synthetic universal languages have not found wide acceptance.  For, to reach critical mass, they require not only that potential speakers expend effort to learn them, but also that these people believe that enough others are willing to do the same.  Alas, gentle friends, such loft of vision is beyond human inertia and our sorry mistrust of our fellow man, so that the grand designs of synthetic languages like Esperanto, noble as they are, were moribund from the start, and are foundering as we speak.8

However, all might not be lost, according to the proponents of BASIC English (British American Scientific International Commercial English).  English is the most widely spoken language in the world today.9  It has by far the largest vocabulary of any language on earth, drawing on Germanic, Greek and Latin roots.  But the Standard English of native speakers is a difficult language.  What needs to be done is the following:  Take Standard English, substantially reduce its vocabulary to a manageable subset, hugely simplify its grammar, introduce systems of expansions to basic words etc. and voilà – the world’s universal auxiliary language.  Beginners could immediately fall into a large community of existing speakers from the start, and could at their choosing, but not necessarily, progress to Standard English from there.

Now, why Basic English and not Basic French, Vietnamese, Swahili, Chinese or German?  Isn’t Basic English an outdated imperialist push for Standard English in disguise?  Is the current widespread diffusion of English, which after all is nothing but an outcome of history which might have turned out differently, the only advantage that Basic English has to offer?  Not at all, claim its champions.  Of all the major languages, goes the argument, English is uniquely suited to telescope its vast vocabulary into a set small enough to (i) be legibly printed on the back of a single sheet of paper, (ii) allow beginners to assimilate its symbols within thirty to fifty hours and (iii) form a minimum first stage that is complete in itself, i.e. the fundamental operations of physics in which a human organism can involve itself, can be fully covered.10

What is it about English that makes this possible?  Its comparative grammatical simplicity, they say.  English has over the centuries simplified its degree of inflexion to the point where its core vocabulary can be easily reduced.  Moreover, English has simplified both its noun and verb inflexions such that irregularities of form and idiom can be reduced to negligible dimensions.11  Inflected languages are highly resistant to simplification.12  It is contended that English, having collapsed vast tracts of its former grammatical superstructure, is the leading candidate for universal auxiliary language status because it can render efficient communication with the smallest vocabulary.

Basic English was first propounded by Charles Ogden in Cambridge in the 1920’s.  After a ten-year project, Ogden and researchers established a vocabulary of only 850 words that constitute Basic English.  Why 850 words?  They found that human action and interaction could be reduced to a minimal number of operations on an object that as a result moves in some direction.  These elements, nothing more, formed the substance of Basic English, much like the 100-odd elements of the periodic table make up matter.13  Also, the reductionism from Standard to Basic English reaches a lower bound at around 850 words below which fundamental aspects of expression are lost, and in which only Pidgin English or travellers’ enquiries is possible.

The panoptic vocabulary of Basic English is made possible by eliminating most verbs from Standard English.14  This is largely achieved by the extensive use of auxiliary verbs.  So climb becomes “go up”, penetrate becomes “go into” and to vomit can probably be accurately substituted by “push what’s inside stomach through mouth outside” etc.  I’ll leave the description of other bodily functions to your linguistic talent.  Such a reduced vocabulary does not allow for the luxury of feelings or language for art’s sake.  Basic English is severely practical and free from ambiguity.  Its focus is on thought and action, not feeling, so that nuance, subtlety and specificity get sacrificed.  It is claimed that people can learn Basic English in two hours a day over a month, whereas second-language students of Standard English struggle to master its complexities over many years.15  Thousands of texts have been translated into Basic English, and by adding small specialist vocabularies of around fifty words to it, the bible and major works of politics, science and literature have been intelligibly disseminated.

Looking back on my testing of Yuri, I’m wrought with guilt for the language difficulties I’ve been unwittingly inflicting on him.  I felt his pain when we went through that word list.  I can see Yuri’s face now, as I did then, when we got to “perfidious”.  It’s time I made amends.  For all to whom English is not a first language, and for Yuri in particular, I’m reproducing a fragment I wrote many years ago titled Unmasking Confidence Tricksters in both Natural and Basic English.  In doing this I realise I run the risk of being considered conceited and patronising by first language speakers of English.  Please.  I hope that in reading it, Yuri Aleksandrovich Kuprashov and others will appreciate how mentally difficult it was for me, a person given to linguistic undulation, adornment and the bon mot, to reduce my language to the barest of bones.



  1. The Inconsequential Diary (ID) No. 29: “To Bean or Not to Bean”.
  2. I had expected Yuri to underline perhaps baulk and reified.
  3. They included wooed, unfathomable, convolution, corporeal, admonishments, cower, sulking, parricide, lashings, gainsaid, normalcy, blot, expunged, inculcated, condone, meted, remonstrates, shooed, precarious, perfidious and stifled.  If it’s any consolation, I’m an assiduous dictionary user myself.  My beloved Chambers 20th Century Dictionary has just arrived from the binders all shiny and new after having fallen apart from overuse.  In no time I was looking up my first word in its second life – cussedness.
  4. Around 35% of the 186 people on the Inconsequential Diary circulation list are not first language English speakers.  My policy is that all 186 people have had to actively opt to be on the list, and only they get the ID directly from me, which they in turn are free to circulate.  If you are an indirect recipient of the ID and would like to be put on the circulation list, you can do so by e-mailing me on jaxpestana@gmail.com and I’ll forward you a disclaimer. Note: I send out pieces infrequently and will never spam.  Of course, should you get fed-up, a short line to the same address extricates you from further receipt.
  5. I do not consider the English I use difficult, but after this I put random paragraphs from the ID through an internet Gunning-Fog readability test and got scores ranging from around 6 to well above 15.  The Gunning-Fog score roughly equates to the number of years of schooling required to comfortably manage an English text.Uniformity of language in commercial publications is often ensured by submissions having to fall within a specified Gunning-Fog band.  The wide range of Gunning-Fog scores for the ID means that its register, like its subject matter, is too wide to ever be a commercial success, should anyone ever have entertained the thought.To assess a piece of English writing for readability difficulty according to various measures (e.g. Gunning-Fog, Flesch-Kincaid etc.) go to http://www.addedbytes.com/tools/readability-score.The Gunning-Fog score for today’s ID is 13.
  6. For examples of trying English, take a look at the GRE® language tests.  Here are three questions from a trial exam I downloaded from the Internet:(i)  Select the lettered pair of words that best expresses the relationship similar to that expressed in the original pair.

    (A)  transparent : penetrate
    (B)  onerous : struggle
    (C)  feckless : succeed
    (D)  illusory : exit
    (E)   pliant : yield

    (ii) Choose the lettered word or phrase that is most nearly opposite in meaning to the word in capital letters:VERITABLE
    (A)  impetuous
    (B)  pernicious
    (C)  inefficacious
    (D)  disastrous
    (E)   specious

    (iii) Choose the word or set of words for each blank that best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole:
    The actual ………….. of Wilson’s position was always ………… by his refusal to compromise after having initially agreed to negotiate a settlement.

    (A)  outcome . . foreshadowed
    (B)  logic . . enhanced
    (C)  rigidity . . betrayed
    (D)  uncertainty . . alleviated
    (E)  cowardice . . highlighted

    The percentage of graduate students in English speaking countries answering these three questions correctly was 35%, 19% and 28% respectively, so you’re doing well if you got them right.  The correct answers are given in Note 17 below.  See website: http://gre.jumbotests.com/tests/gre-analogy-practice and the like.
    The answers are given in Note 16 below.

  7. Zlango is a logogram language intended for use in text messaging.  It was devised in 2004 and currently comprises around 300 “icons”. See http://www.zlango.com.
  1. Look, I’m trying hard not to be a cynic, right?  But I can’t help myself, given what I see.  It shall make it a New Year’s resolutions in 2015.
  2. There are more speakers of Mandarin Chinese on earth than English speakers, but they are concentrated in China for the moment.  English has grabbed the first-mover advantage in its diffusion, and therefore should enjoy the benefits of primacy for generations to come.  Besides, it is argued that some dialects of Mandarin are distinct enough to be mutually incomprehensible.  Natives of Shanghai have difficulty understanding those of Beijing.  The difference in the dialects of Shanghai and Beijing today could be as marked as Dutch is from German, say.  Some experts argue that to the extent that this is the case, Mandarin should not be considered a monolithic language, but a collection of languages stemming from a similar root.
  3. Charles Ogden – Basic English: International Second Language, Part 1 pp. 18-38.  Website http://ogden.basic-english.org/isl112.html.
  4. Charles Ogden – Basic English Chapter 1:  Introductory, p. 6. Website http://ogden.basic-english.org/bel.html.  Ogden’s 850 words are all over the web.
  5. Inflected languagesInflexion, explained simply, is a grammatical process by which verbs and nouns are modified in such relational categories as tense, mood, aspect, case etc.  When a verb is inflected it is called conjugation, when a noun is inflected it is called declension.  In the Indo-European languages, the Latin branch tends to conjugate whereas the Germanic branch tends to decline.  Let’s look at how conjugation and declension roughly work.Conjugation: I am at present studying Spanish grammar, in particular the shift in conjugation of verb forms that occurs when transforming direct speech to reported speech.  Here is an example in English and Spanish.John:  “I want you to work harder”.  English direct Speech
    John “Quiero que trabajes mas”.  Spanish direct speech.
    “John said he wants me to work harder”.  English indirect Speech
    “Juan dijó que queria que trabajara mas”.  Spanish indirect SpeechIn the two English sentences the verb to work does not change in form at all – it remains in the infinitive in both sentences.  In the equivalent Spanish sentences the verb is conjugated, i.e. it undergoes a change in form, and what’s more, it has many apparent forms.  First, one has to recognise that the sentence is in the subjunctive mood.  This means the infinitive “to work” – trabajar in Spanish – must be conjugated (i.e. modified) in the subjunctive of the second person singular, and not in the more common indicative mood.  Then one has to know that in Spanish the subjunctive mood shifts to the imperfect of the subjunctive in reported speech, and not to any other tense with which it could be confused, such as e.g. the pluperfect.  Only then are we in a position to converse with grammatical correctness.  Of course, to speak properly, you have to correctly parse thousands of Spanish verbs into 87 different conjugation categories, only three of which are regular.  (Don’t believe me?  See 15,000 Spanish Verbs fully Conjugated in all the Tenses using Pattern Verbs by Stephen Thompson, ISBN 0965141829.English does not have these difficulties.  This stumbling block has been known to convert armies of aspirant Spanish-speakers into Dago-haters.Declension:  Inflexion in German has more to do with declension of the nouns and with the modification of the article (i.e. “the” in English).  Here are a few examples courtesy of Elsabe Naudé of Stellenbosch.The Film is good
    Der Film ist gut
    The director of the film is Fassbinder.
    Der Regisseur des Filmes ist Fassbinder.
    The president is visiting the USA.
    Der Präsident besucht die USA.
    We are showing the president our city.
    Wir zeigen dem Präsidenten unsere Stadt.
    The blind man plays the piano.
    Der Blinde spielt Klavier
    They have surprised the blind man.
    Sie haben den Blinden überrascht.In each of the English sentences the form of the noun does not change (e.g. “film” stays “film”), whereas in the German examples the noun is declined, i.e. its appearance changes according to the grammatical case (e.g. “Film” becomes “Filmes”).  Moreover in English the definite article is always “the”, whereas the definite article takes on many forms in German (der, die, das, den, dem…).  To master the proper use of the article in German, you first have to know the gender of the noun (masculine, feminine, neuter) and then memorise a 3×4 grid containing the various forms of the article (three genders x four cases).  Actually, there are two grids, one for singular nouns and another for plurals.
    English does not have these difficulties.  As you can imagine, this stumbling block has arrested the enthusiasm of waves of aspirant German-speakers.  It also explains the existence of Kraut-haters.  Don’t even think Chink.
  6. Ignoring stative verbs, the fundamental equivalent in physics would be force=>object=>acceleration.  So: “I pivot” =  I (object) make myself (force) go around (acceleration).
  7. Panoptic – Definition:  Able to be seen in a sweep of the eye (to paraphrase Ogden); All-embracing: viewing all aspects (Chambers 20th Century Dictionary); Showing or seeing the whole with one view (Concise Oxford Dictionary).
  1. Despite being a student of English all my life, I frequently come across English constructions that make me tremble.  If I struggle with them, how could a Polynesian or a Peruvian student possibly cope?  Ogden mentions the variants of the word “bear” (e.g. “bore”, “borne”); constructions such as “proud bearing”, “lost bearings”, “unbearable”; the difference between a “bare ring” and a “bear ring”, and its various meanings such as “to tolerate”, “to give birth to”, “to produce (fruit)”, “to bring (news)”, “to carry (parcels)”; the difficulties of distinguishing a “bare baby” from a baby “born” but “unbearable”.  And of course there is the animal.  A first language speaker of English resolves the confusion over years of acquaintance with the language.  To a foreigner it must seem a convoluted morass.  Basic English claims to avert practically all phonetic ambiguities.
  2. Answers to the questions in Note 6:  (i) E, (ii), E (iii) C.