It is clear that the problem of a Universal language would have been solved if it were possible to say all that we normally desire to say with no more words than can be easily legible to the naked eye, in column form, on he back of a sheet of notepaper. The fact therefore, that it is possible to say almost everything we normally desire to say with the 850 words on the fontispiece insert, which occupy about three-quarters of the space on the back of an ordinary sheet of business notepaper, makes Basic English something more than a mere experiment in simplification.
In brief, the words in question have been scientifically selected to form an International Auxiliary Language, i.e., a second language (in science, commerce, and travel) for all who do not already speak English.
Some form of English is now the national or administrative medium of over 600,000,000 people. English has long been the second language of the East. It is therefore, not surprising that the adoption of Basic English is being advocated by publicists and international organizations throughout the world.
The vocabulary is designed to deal with two distinct levels:
1. The 850 words of the front insert are sufficient for ordinary communications to idiomatic English.
(For the convenience of the learner, a selection of 600 -- forming a first stage complete in itself -- is presented with appropriate explanations in the first twenty lessons of Basic Step by Step.)
2. By the addition of 100 words required for general science, and 50 for any particular science, a total of 1,000 enables any scientific congress or periodical to achieve internationalism.
The 850 are equal in efficiency to approximately 5,000 words in any previous attempt at simplification. They do all the essential work of 20,000. The effect will be that of idiomatic English with no literary pretensions, but clear and precise at the level for which it is designed. The difficulties being known, they can be given special attention from the very start ; and if it is desired to proceed at a later stage to normal English, the intermediate steps are all provided.
The number of general nouns is 400, of adjectives 100, of verb-forms (operators), articles, etc., 100. to avoid awkward periphrases, a judicious selection of 200 names of pictureable objects (common things such as the auctioneer handles daily, parts of the body, etc.), and 50 adjectival opposites, etc., brings the general total here exhibited to 850. With this vocabulary the style and brevity of the Basic translations of Swift, Tolstoy, Stevenson, and Franklin can be attained.
Below the minimum 600, only Pidgin English or travelers' enquiries can emerge ; above the scientific total, we are at the level of international standardization and notation, with which the 1,000 word maximum had been systematically linked.
It should be noted that the scientific addenda are all noun forms, i.e., they can be learnt as names requiring no further grammatical instructions.
It is perhaps also desirable to explain in parenthesis that all grammatical instructions can readily be given in terms with which the teacher is familiar. Such novelties of expression or method as are introduced in what follows will not necessarily reappear in the elementary graded textbooks designed for the orthodox beginner. On the other hand, there are those who may welcome an opportunity of escaping from current grammatical formulae.
The Basic vocabulary dispenses with practically all phonetic ambiguities ; and when a machine for typing from dictation is invented Basic will prove an ideal language for the purpose. When once the function of the different parts of speech are understood and the senses of the 850 words have been memorized, it only remains to learn the conjugates of the operators (verb-forms,( p. 36) and pronouns (p. 39) and the five simple rules covering the formulation of plurals, compounds, derivatives, comparatives, and adverbs. The mechanism of normal word-order is explained by a special educational device (a sentence-builder, the Panopticon), illustrating the essential parts of speech and their relations to one another by means of concentric circles on which the words are printed. All necessary idioms (see page 63) are listed in the ABC and illustrated by examples.
If it be asked : why 500 words, why 850 words, why 1,000 words ; why not 750 or 1,100, or even 1,234, since there is no magic in numbers ? – the answer is that Basic is severely practical. Inasmuch as there are limits set (a) by the number of words which can be legibly printed on the back of a singe sheet of note paper, (b) by the capacity of humans to assimilate symbols in thirty to fifty hours, (c) by the minimum first stage that is complete in itself, certain definite frames are indicated to which the linguistic material of a universal language must endeavor to adapt itself. Partly by good fortune, partly by dexterous manipulation, these spatial and mnemonic exigencies have been met without undue sacrifice.
From one standpoint, that of technology and of writers like James Joyce, the 500,000 words of the lexicologist are too few ; from another, that of the occidentalizing oriental, the 10,000 words of the man on the street are too many. Perhaps, in time, both can be satisfied. Standard English may be enriched and cosmopolitanized as the world contracts through the expansion of modern science ; and Basic may meet the universal demand for a compact and efficient technological medium. If so, English will become not only the International Auxiliary language, but the Universal language of the world.
To have succeeded in getting on the back of a sheet of notepaper, in legible form, all the words actually needed to communicate idiomatically most of the requirements of international correspondence, science4, and commerce, is, then, the claim of those who have spent a decade in compiling the Basic vocabulary.
To read an ordinary issue of the Times newspaper with profit, a vocabulary of over 50,000 words is implied. Actually, many readers get along with 25,000 or less. A conscientious foreigner is apt to have to memorize about 15,000 by way of insurance, before he can understand a particular 1,000 - even if he will never have occasion to speak or write English himself. Let us suppose that his requires from two to four years' hard labor ; the problem of an Auxiliary Language is to reduce his labor to two weeks - or, at most two months.
The artificial languages which contrive, with varying degrees of plausibility, to make similar claims, cannot attain this minimum ; they are all based on a limited group of languages, quite unfamiliar in type to the millions of orientals who must chiefly be kept in view, and their adherents have not yet studied the problem of systematically.
Moreover, when learnt, an artificial language still awaits a millennium in which conversion shall cease to be confined to a few thousand enthusiasts ; and here the importance of accurate statistics is once more apparent. It is often stated that English is the language of 180,000,000 people, and this figure is then compared with the figure s for French, German, Spanish, etc., with the implication that it would be invidious to be influenced by so small a lead, when the tide of national prejudice is running so high. Actually, however, English is the expanding administrative (or auxiliary) language of over 600,000,000 people and financial reasons alone should convince even those who take statistics seriously that it is bound to expand more rapidly in the near future.
The "normal vocabulary of the average man" hovers between the alleged 300 words of the Somersetshire farmer, the 4,000 of President Wilson's State Papers, the 7,000 of the Japanese diplomat, the 12,000 of the Eskimo fisherman or the average undergraduate, the 30,000 of Sir Vade Mecum, CVO at Geneva, and the 250,000 of a Craigie, a Daniels, or a Salzedo. It is therefore of little value to us in assessing the needs of the Riga merchant endeavoring to establish friendly relations with Pernambuco, or the endocrinologist of Ispahan anxious to convey the significance of his latest adrenal catalyst to the Mayo Clinician.
How many words are necessary to meet the needs of the latter pair ? We must bear in mind (a) that the sciences have already internationalized so large a part of their notations that they require only the veriest interstitial mortar at the untechnical level of general communications ; (b) that the commercial world also has its international background of trade terms, formulae, etc. The entomologists start with more than 10,000 names of ants alone ; and in any particular science or trade a small ad hoc supplementary vocabulary, will double the efficiency of the panoptic minimum. Fifty extra words on the back of the notepaper of the chemist, the geologist, the banker, he printer, or the engineer still leave room for 100 further technical terms in the same tope as that here adopted.
The special supplementary vocabularies for Chemistry, Physics, and Biology are printed (together with model translations) in Basic for Science.
The preparations of these special supplementary vocabularies, which have little general utility apart from their particular purpose, is now in active progress, and side by side with this goes the reinstatement in graduated installments, for educational purposes, of the words rejected on the panoptic diagrams in the first process of elimination.
In view of the fact that nearly a quarter of the human race already knows some English, it is important to observe that the 300,000,000 who can use it fairly fluently need not trouble to learn the grammatical rules which will at first limit the idiom of the foreigner. Provided they keep approximately to the vocabulary they will be understood.
Those, however, who devote a few weeks to this Auxiliary medium - of the 1,500,000,000 who are at present linguistically isolated - will be able to make the most of the smallest possible phonetic outfit for any international purpose, scientific, commercial, or conversational ; and will also have laid the soundest possible foundation for further attainment in the world's most widespread literary idiom.
Take, for instance, Japan, where, after decades of compromise on orthodox lines, the teaching of standard literary English is a failure - and even n danger of being abandoned. The present vocabulary provides the practical and theoretical foundation for a reform movement such as that envisaged by Professor Okakura ; and any serious Japanese student should be able, with the assistance of radio, to find his way about the system in less than a month. The 4,000 English words which have already been adopted haphazard into the Japanese language might then be fitted into a teaching system whose further stages, in the direction of literature, the student could approach with assurance.
The reader who is prepared to device practical tests of the claim here made can, of course, take the theoretical background largely on trust. 1. For all practical purposes, there are the objects which we wish to talk about, the operations which we perform on them and the directions in which we operate. When the most necessary names, the most fundamental operators, and the essential directives have been determined, it can be shown that a verb is primarily a symbolic device for telescoping an operation and an object or a direction ('enter' for go into). 2. Sometimes an operator, a directive, and a name are thus telescoped, as in the odd word 'disembark' (get, off, a ship) ; Latin goes so far as to throw in a pronoun, and a tense auxiliary (which would be illustrated on the device descried below, pg 78, by the collapsing of five concentric annuli). The fundamental operations of physics - the displacements or motions due to pushes and pulls-when caused by the human organism as a whole, can be covered, in English, by then of the sixteen operational symbols in the Basic vocabulary. The directives proper reduce to the twenty whose definitions are obvious with the aid of a diagram.
So long as the essentially contractive nature of the verb was concealed by the existing grammatical definitions, there could be no reduction in the vocabulary sufficiently radical to affect the problem of a Universal Language, nor is this now possible in any language other than English ; and it is the continuous approximation of East and West, as a result of the analytic character of Chinese and English (especially in its latest American developments), which makes this particular form of English basic for the whole world.
Many special captions or trade-marks for the system were suggested, but BASIC -- British, American Scientific International Commercial (English)-- has been finally adopted. The term Panoptic (at a glance) served to emphasize that in its written or printed form it can (on the back of a sheet of notepaper), as it were, be seen at a glance.
A chief obstacle to the spread of English has hitherto been its phonetic irregularity, the frequency with which the same symbols are used to represent different sound, and the uncertainties of stress. There is the fact that the word fish as Sir Richard Paget has noted, might appear as ghoti (gh as in enough, etc.) ; and if dealt with in the same way foolish might bee spelt in 613,975 different ways.
To distinguish all these in a vocabulary of 20,000 words, or even 2,000, necessitates an amount of drudgery which has given phoneticians and advocates of synthetic languages their opportunity. With the Basic vocabulary, however, such irregularities are reduced to a minimum in which, by treating each word as an individual, the learner can even profit by its peculiar appearance in written form as an aid to memory, and historical continuity can thus be preserved. The 850 wounds being fixed by the gramophone records, their written forms can be memorized as individual entities, with no special emphasis on any principle but that of stress.
Phonetic (spelling) reform can thus be left to pursue its separate path. It may find Basic a useful ally, and Basic may later profit by its progress. Hence the importance of Basic for educational work which cannot allow itself to be involved in controversies such as any violent departure from the habits of centuries must always engender.
It is significant that the initiative in promoting enquiries into the International Language problem has usually come from the natural scientists, as the chief prospective users of an Auxiliary language who are organized internationally. Unfortunately they have not realized that the solution lay so near at hand, and have supposed that they must rely on the linguists to whom they have turned for help. But where there is a pipe, the aqueduct becomes unnecessary, and the study of principles for the erection of elaborate structures to get ideas across the linguistic valley is equally unnecessary, when once the notion that all ideas can flow freely through the medium of Basic, at a convenient level, is fully grasped.
How far matters have moved in the last ten years may be gathered from the Report of the Committee appointed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1921), where two essentials are emphasized, preliminary to any further step on the part of the scientists.
The first concerns the need for "a searching fundamental study of the principles involved and experimental data available."
Such as enquiry was reasonable in 1921, when very little had been published which had a direct bearing on the principles of Basic. Since then, however, the field has been fully explored, and the collection of experimental data as contemplated by the Committee is no longer necessary. The only experiments now required will be consequent on the actual adoption of the language itself.
The second essential of the American report can also, happily, be circumvented ; for it demands "authoritative international agreement, both as to linguistic details and as to the practical measures to be taken."
The capacity of mankind to secure authoritative international agreement about any subject lags far behind both it more urgent needs and its power of appreciating and adopting the means of satisfying them. Whether as individuals, nations, or commercial and scientific organizations, men can still achieve many of their ends without prior international agreement ; and this particular reform is likely to be achieved in practice long before any international committee has succeeded in overcoming the objections of its more intransigent members, preparatory to some further interim recommendation - in Portuguese, in Armenian, and in Greek.
Suggestions for concentration on political action are therefore to be viewed with suspicion. They are likely to lead to the shelving for a decade or a generation of any problem which is ripe for solution outside the political sphere Any official or political sanction must of course be welcomed, but it is often harder to convert Pharaoh or enthuse Pilate than to induce the people to enter a promised land.
On the other hand, this same American Committee, under the Chairmanship of the Director of the United States Bureau of Standards, by referring to the movement for an international auxiliary language as : "heretofore relatively neglected" and "deserving of support and encouragement," showed its awareness of the impasse. The achievements of science in the right direction are also usefully summarized, with the respect to
- The system of numbers.
- The metric system.
- The measurement of latitude and longitude
- Mathematical symbols.
- Chemical formulae.
- Time and the calendar.
- Notation in music.
The two main reasons for making English the basis of a universal language are (1) the statistical considerations set forth above, and (2) the fact that English is the only major language in which the analytic tendency has gone far enough for purposes of simplification.
Inflected systems are highly resistant to simplification, and their Latin origin is still only too evident in all the Romance languages of today. In the course of centuries, however, most of the European speech-systems have progressed considerably in the right direction, and the analytic tendency, as we know from a passage in Suetonius, may even have been accelerated by the Emperor Augustus himself, who broke away from the ancient habits of literary elegance and obscurity by inserting directives before his nouns ; thereby crating an analytic link with such inscriptions as we find already in 57 B.C. - "Si pecunia ad id templum data erit".
English, both in its Anglo-Saxon and its Latin derivatives, has carried the process of simplification to a point where the final step was possible ; and by the selection of its vocabulary from the word groups most adapted for universal purposes, irregularities of form and idiom in the Basic nucleus have been reduced to negligible dimensions. The operator forms still preserve some of their inflections, the pronouns are still infected by case anomalies, a few special plurals and comparatives mar the grammatical picture, and there are certain established idioms which cannot conveniently be circumvented.
The memorization of these irregularities is fortunately only a matter of days, or even hours ; but since we have to admit them temporarily into Basic (i.e., until such time as Standard English, with its growing tendency to simplification, shall have progressed far enough to allow us to dispense with them if we so desire), what justification can be offered for their existence, which may at the same time account for their actual preservation?
There are an analogy here with the numbering of streets and houses in a modern city. By anyone who has driven around the suburbs in search of The Laurels, 13A, Aspidistra Court Gardens - peering from a taxi through the darkness at No. 8, at Catspaw Mansion, at the The Chestnuts, at No 41, and at a variety of indiscernibles, before finally turning the corner of an unsuspected news, know locally as Smith's Passage - the advantages of living on No 123 West 456th Street will hardly be disputed. Yet even the best regulated system can conveniently retain certain mnemonic survivals, whether they be Madison Avenue and Riverside Drive, or do and did, he and him, trousers and scissors, better and best. Provided the exceptions are not too numerous, and have a significant historical background, they may even assist the memory. This does not mean that every anomaly which Basic includes can be excused or justified - many will doubtless pass away gradually, as linguistic analogy completes its inevitable work - but it serves to emphasize the negligible character of the irregularities which need give rise to real regret.
The practical analytic tendency which has made Basic possible is one which has had various causes at various times in the history of language, but in two respects at least has reflected modern scientific developments (a) away from the word-magic which induced a reverence for linguistic forms and rituals ; (b) away from specific and toward general names.
The passage from classical Latin to the Romance languages was an important step in the right direction. The inheritors of the language of Cicero and Caesar found a complicated inflexional system too laborious for their practical needs. Subtleties were discarded in everyday speech by people of a simpler mentality, and the learned colossus retained the language of an earlier age for literary purposes. A society which lays stress on verbal niceties in ordinary communication has either succumbed to word-magic, or been victimized by literary pedantry in its educations system. Humanity has not proved sufficiently capable, or it may be, sufficiently long-lived, to profit by a meticulous verbal training. Where the first two decades of life are occupied chiefly with the acquisition of symbolic conventions, scientific and practical considerations almost inevitably suffer ; nor has the average proficiency of the victims of the system been such as to justify their sacrifice in the interests of a few master stylists.
It is from America, however, that the chief impetus to profit by this tendency of language in daily speech has come. Although developments of this sort are thus of supreme significance in any systematic approach to language improvement, they naturally tend to be regarded with misgivings in conservative and literary circles.
When Henry James remarked that the American people were romping amid the ruins of the English language, he left it an open question whether they were there to destroy or to fulfill. From the psychological point of view, at any rate, a linguistic romp may be a highly creditable performance. The antic haverings of a pedantic pedestrianism in quest for Pure English are rapidly producing a new form of Addison's disease-for Addison was the first to complain that "the late war has adultered our tongue with strange words."
But if we are agreed that they are ruins, the case for a newer edifice is all the stronger. If, however, we can build on the old site, so much the better. We may even be able to preserve the old bricks, so that our children's children may say, "This was known to Johnson, to Webster," or "Here Bentham, here Runyon fought and won." The strength of Basic English lies in its determination to discard nothing that is essential from the standpoint of continuity.