On Ogden’s Basic English

My apologies for not having written recently – life has been exceedingly hectic in the general vicinity of Toronto, Ontario, and that has resulted in my thoughts meandering towards increasingly blatant dead ends. In either case, I am here at present, and would like to discuss something that has been on my mind for the past few days.

That “something” is a language – Ogden’s Basic English, to be more precise.  Aptly named, Basic English is somewhat of a paraphrase of the English language, claiming to express ninety percent of the concepts found in the dictionary whilst harboring an 850-word strong vocabulary.  It was developed by Charles Ogden, unsurprisingly; it was originally to be used as an international auxiliary language, and as an aid for teaching English as a foreign language.

At one point, I was considering teaching myself Basic English (or rather, practising its use when speaking with my E.S.L. students).  However, the urge did not evolve further, as it could not adapt to suit my rather stringent means of approaching languages.

I’ve decided that those aspects deterring me most are the argumentative techniques that some modern-day proponents of Basic English utilize.  Please note that my saying so by no means denotes that I don’t respect those who think Basic English to be beneficial – to make this perfectly clear, I’ve just stumbled upon several claims that I don’t think to be entirely attributable to the language.  For example, several people have stated that one of Basic’s merits is its being an “undistorted form” of English.  I must object here, as I don’t think that a subset of an item can portray the item in the entirety of its [the item’s] being.  One could also interpret “undistorted” as “without misrepresentation”; unfortunately, I think that Basic harbors far too much potential for misrepresentation to manifest itself.  Observe the below, for example.

I take this side-by-side comparison from a web site which supports Basic English in a highly educated and reasonable manner.

Eighth [from the original] it is their belief that all the nations of the earth, for material reasons no less than because it is right and good, will, in the end, give up the use of force. Because war will come again if countries which are, or may be, ready to make attacks on others go on using land, sea, or air power, it is their belief that it is necessary to take away all arms from them till a wider system of keeping the general peace, more solid in structure, comes into being. They will further give their help and support to all other possible steps which may make the crushing weight of arms less for peace-loving nations

Eighth [in Basic] they believe all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.

Do you see some meanings that have not been included in the Basic (or, conversely, some meanings that have been inserted into the Basic by dint of ambiguities occurring in the standard English)?

“Realistic” encompasses far more than “material”, “spiritual” is most certainly not identical to “right and good” (“right and good” is even idiomatic whilst “spiritual” is not), “must come to” does not denote “surrender”.  “Lack of peace” is not “war”, “permanent” isn’t necessarily “solid in structure”, “weight” doesn’t have to be a “burden”, and “peoples” is not synonymous with “nations”.  The standard English words harbor more ambiguities, as well as more profound meanings, in most cases.  The Basic words eliminate connotations, often recording only one interpretation of the standard words that resounds with bias.

Additional thoughts, albeit disorganized:

– The largely intriguing linguistic attributes of a language are not to be disregarded, even when one is just commencing the learning of English.  I would state that these intricacies are what make the language worth learning; I could even go so far as to claim that one does not truly comprehend the language until one can appreciate its nuances.  I understand that this isn’t the point for many trying to learn a foreign language, but I will stubbornly maintain that it should be.  Why learn a language if you aren’t set on being able to express yourself holistically, gracefully, easily?

– “Fluent basic English” is somewhat of an oxymoron in my eyes.

– The foundations upon which the English language is built are incredibly complex, thoroughly profound – you cannot hope to simplify English (or any other language, for that matter) in this way.  What you get is neither English nor a subset of English – it’s an introduction to English.

– Some sources claim that there are one hundred “general science” words – yes, that’s another oxymoron.

– Some also claim that utilizing basic English would aid native English speakers in being more clear and in avoiding confusion.  I simply must state that I do not stand in favour of a language being simplified for its speakers.  Perhaps I am beginning to sound somewhat impractical and thoroughly insane, but I believe that native speakers should at least strive to embrace their tongue in its entirety.  Certainly, that is a matter of opinion.

Lastly, then, to offer an alternate means of teaching English to those E.S.L. students: I think that life would be considerably easier for all English students if they were to retain a basic understanding of Latin and Greek roots.  Upon saying something like “ameliorate”, I’ve often been greeted with a resounding “Huh?!”  If the student had known that ad meliora means “towards the better” in Latin, then he or she would have been able to make an educated guess as to what I was indicating.

So, what say you?

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5 Responses to On Ogden’s Basic English

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    I’m sure you’re right about Basic English. Assuming, as I do, that the world needs an international auxiliary language, what’s wrong with Esperanto. It has a relatively simple structure, and has shown its worth in practice. In fact its speakers will be celebrating the 125th anniversary of the language in 2012.
    To use youe expression, what say you?

    • Sophia says:

      I say that I am inclined to agree with you. I enjoy Esperanto as well – I taught it to myself some time ago, and it has thus far proved useful. Its grammar, phonology, and political neutrality are all exceedingly attractive qualities. I’ll most certainly be celebrating Zamenhofa Tago rather religiously in 2012; when my skills improve significantly, I hope to join the Toronto Esperanto Circle.

      May I ask what form of experiences you’ve had with the language? I always enjoy hearing of people’s linguistic adventures.

      • Nao says:

        Practically, Esperanto is probably the best contender for an IAL. However, the common criticism is that it is too based on Indo-European languages, particularly the western ones, and I am inclined to agree. This takes away from the truly international quality of it, even if it’s not the native language of any state or culture. That said, I believe this also contributes to its easiness to learn. The languages Esperanto is inspired by are widely-taught languages spoken at the international level, and such influence makes it easier for any sort of people (even those who speak completely unrelated languages) to learn. (The major reason why I think English is so easy for many to learn and pick up.)

        Ultimately, I’m not sure a truly “international” auxiliary language is possible.

        Sorry, not much of this was related to Basic English. @_@

  2. Sophia says:

    Oh, I’m certain that there prevails a universal auxiliary language of paramount quality, one useful to most anyone for most any purpose – Klingon!

    On a more serious note, I do agree with you. However, on those terms, is there a means of generating an I.A.L. that is not largely biased? Even if it were to be a language brimming with unique attributes, then it would have to be at least somewhat akin to those already in existence. If we somehow managed to ensure that it wasn’t analogous to existing artificial languages in any major aspect of its being, then we would have a very difficult time with acquisition.

    In summary: yeah, Klingon time!

    Haha, that’s fine! My real intention in posting was to further discuss auxiliary languages, and to elaborate upon which feelings they instill within me – Basic is but an excuse for that.

    • Nao says:

      That’s why I doubt the existance of a truly “international” IAL. No matter who the creator, there will always be strong influence from existing languages. Additionally, I suspect more international IALs–ones that are further away from the Indo-European influence–are not as universally easy to learn, since linguistically we are a pretty Indo-European dominated world.

      Yeah, Klingon time!

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