The best way to get agreement about the value of a new invention is to let it be seen in operation and this is no less true of a new system of language like Basic English than of a machine or a process in industry. Basic may now be seen at work in more than 1000,000 printed words by more than 50 different writers.
But when the public has seen the invention at work it becomes interested in the question how that work is done. Basic is not a sort of school-room trick, or a simple form of English put together from the commonest words for school-books, which may be taken at their face-value, and the teacher will be in a better position to make its purpose clear if he has some knowledge of the structure and working of the machine he is using.
How is Basic able to get so far with only 850 words? The reason may be given in simplest language.
The greater part of the words used in science and for everyday talk are what may be named shorthand for other words. That is to say, they are taking the pace of other words which are clearly, in some sense, nearer to the facts.
The greater part of the things we generally seem to be talking about are what may be named fictions: and for these again there are other words in common use which get nearer to fact.
The greater part of the statements we make about things and persons are unnecessarily colored by some form of feeling: They do, no doubt, say something about things and persons, but most common words are colored by our feelings -- or the feeling by which the thought of our hearers is to be consciously or unconsciously guided; and it is frequently possible to keep thought and feeling separate.
The most important group of 'shorthand' words in European languages is made up of what are named 'verbs' -- words like 'accelerate' and 'ascertain'; 'liberty' and 'blindness' are examples of fictions; 'credulous' and 'courteous' say something about our feelings in addition to their straightforward sense.
At the back of such forms of language there is something simpler for which we may or may not have the right words. In English it is generally possible to get to the lower level without much trouble. To 'accelerate' is to go more quickly, when we have 'liberty' we are free, and a 'credulous' person is one who (in our opinion) is over-ready with belief; and this lower level is one stage nearer that solid base in pointing and acting from which the structures of language go up into the clouds.
There is no need to go further down till we come to science, and for the purposes of an international language it is not wise to go higher than this common sense level -- which is where the 850 Basic words have their place.
The first step to a simpler word-list, then, is to take out all the more complex sorts of 'verbs,' in which, in addition to the operation of one body on another, the direction of the act is more or less clearly named. Sometimes the thing talked about, in addition to the operation, is covered by one word, as when we 'rise,' 'shave', 'feed', and 'grumble' -- where bodies and beds, hair and faces, food and mouths, feelings and the weather may be part of the word picture; but these 'shorthand' forms are chiefly names of acts and directions only -- as when we 'enter' (go into) a room, 'break' (go against) the law, 'contract' (go down with) a diseases, 'precede' (go in front of), and so on. In this way we see that it is possible to have a working language in which about 4,000 common 'verbs' have been dropped out. At the same time, a first attack on the other groups gets the list down by another 1,500; and that, in place of at least 7,500 at the start, we are now only troubled by about 2,000.
These numbers are not far wrong, but in fact not more than 1,500 words are needed for the list from which the expert will make his selection and to which all the most serious thought has to be given.
We have to get well under the 1,000 level if the outcome is to be of use for international purposes or as an instrument in education, and the first stage in the development of Basic was the invention of an apparatus with the help of which it might be possible to get a clearer idea of the behavior of words and a more certain test of their values.
By putting the word to be tested in the middle of a circle with lines going out from it like the arms or rays of a starfish, so that on every line we get a relation or connection with some other possible word, questions may be framed in the form -- "What word takes the place of the word in the middle in this connections?" These other words will then be placed at the end of the lines, all round the circle. For example, if the key-word dog is in the middle: What is another name for a dog in connection with Time? Answer: Puppy. Clearly the word puppy will not be needed if we have dog and the connection with Time is covered by young. The same will be true of bitch, in relation to sex, if we have female in our Basic list. And when our range of questions is complete, we have a complete picture of the word in relation to all the other words in a language which have a connections with it.
If, for everyday needs, the word in the middle, used with the words on the joining line, will take the place of the new word at the end of the line, that word may go. It is not necessary in this connection. So if we have young and dog, puppy will not be kept in the Basic list. The question "What is a puppy?" is answered fully and readily by 'a young dog' on the line marking the Time-relation.
In making a map for all sorts of words there are thirty lines for thirty sorts of possible questions; though for a word like dog, some questions will not be answered. Dogs do not come into all the relations talked about in connections with men, mountains, machines, or music; so there is, for example, no special word (such as litigant, plaintiff, client) for a dog in relation to Law.
This then, is the apparatus used in Panoptic definition; and when the answers are all put in on any one map, with special uses underlined, or colored, we get a picture with an important and interesting story for the Basic expert; and with its help he is in a much better position to make up his mind about the value of words for which an argument might be put forward. With his working selection of key words, he will be read to go through the Pocket Oxford to make certain that every one of its 25,000 commonest words has a place somewhere on one of the maps.
Naturally, those who made decisions about the Basic 850 had before them all the work done in America by Thorndike, Horn, Dewey, and the rest, on the most frequent words. Not that it is of any great interest at this stage, because anyone who has been working for years with such word-maps is in no doubt about which English words are very common, or common enough for the Basic list. What a word will do for us has little relation to the number of times it is used in newspapers and business letters; and to say that one word is more common than another over the 1,500 level, when the statement is based on observations of less than 50,000,000, has very little sense. Such statements are clearly dependent on the size and purpose of the selection, and the amount of detail noted about expansions of sense, which no one has so far taken, or would ever be able to take, into account, in listing even 10,000,000 uses.
In this way, in 1928 a selection of between 800 and 900 words was ready for the last stage of testing; and in January 1929 the 850 words were printed, though no decision had been made about some 50 words which were still under discussion as possibly 'international.' In 1930 Basic English was put out in book form with less than 15% of the list in doubt; and after another year's experience, getting the views of representatives of all countries, 50 international words were fixed, and the Basic list was printed in its present form. For the purposes of Science, Basic is a system by which special word-lists, most of them international, may be put into operation. There are about 20 words in the 850 at a level high enough to make the connection; and in addition there are 100 words for general science and 50 for any special branch. 1. These lists are only needed by the expert who is writing or talking about some one part of science, and are not for the general reader; but in the same way as Basic puts such groups of words into operation it takes the number system and weights and measures, which are different in different countries, as an addition for everyday purposes. The numbers themselves are international for writing, and the learning of their English names takes less than half an hour.
1. See Basic for Science, A Basic Astronomy, Basic for Geology, Basic for Economics, and other branches of science.
Of the 850 Basic word, it will be seen that 600 are names of things, and 150 are names of qualities. That makes 750, and the last 100 are the words which put the others into operation and make them do their work in statements. After the names of acts and directions which, as we have seen, are pointers, come the other Basic words which make the language complete. All of these (62) are clearly taking the place of other words which would say the same thing in a more round-about way, or are of use in oiling the wheels of our talk so that it may not seem strange to persons who are used to normal English.
The chief form-changes in Basic are those which make the behavior of the 'verbs' and 'pronouns' the same as in normal English; together with 'plurals,' -ly for 'adverbs', the degrees of comparison, and the -er, -ing, -ed endings of 300 of the names of things. In this way the learner is not troubled by a great number of forms and endings which are not regular, and the outcome is a simple, natural, English in which there is room for addition but no need for change at a later stage.
Every word is first given in its root sense, and any other senses which may be used in Basic writing are made clear in relation to this root sense, which, whenever possible, is based on pointing or on a picture. For teaching purposes 200 of the names of things are listed as 'pictured' in the sense that there will never be any doubt about what is so pictured, but most of the others, even where the sense is much more complex, may equally well be pictured.
The same process of going forward from what is clear and simple to what is more complex or less regular takes the learner from root uses to special uses or 'idioms'. There are 250 such special uses numbered and listed with great care in The ABC of Basic English, and when he is clear about all the normal senses and uses of the 850 words, these are given to the learner to make the system complete. In reading, he may come across some of the 250 other special uses which it would be hard for an Englishman to put out of h is mind; but these are unnecessary tricks, to be noted when they come in but not troubled about for everyday use.
In addition to pictures, there are a number of ways of profiting by the structure of Basic in teaching and learning how the words do their work. Among the 150 names of qualities, for example, are fifty which are best taken together with their opposites (good-bad, right-left, and so on); at the same time we have front-back, profit-loss, and a great number of others among the names of things; and the chief operations go two and two together -- come-go, put-take, give-get, keep-let, be-seem, like the directions before-after, over-under, and so on.
All these helps for the organization of the material give an idea of the existence of scales and ranges among the thoughts, things, and feelings which are talked about. But the chief reason why it is possible to do so much with the limited word-list is because Basic has been able so completely to do without 'verbs'. That English had two equally good ways of saying most things had long been common knowledge, because Latin and French roots are mixed with those from an earlier system; but it was a surprise to make the discovery that so much which has been valued by men of letters, and supported by teachers as necessary, was, in fact, a sort of short-hand growth on top of a very much more straightforward growth. For hundred of years these two tendencies have been in existence side by side, and Basic has taken from the more complex forms what is needed to give the effect of natural English. The same degree of organization would not be possible in any other language, and in some ways the structure of Basic is not far from that which science itself has so long been looking for as an instrument of thought.