Monday, February 20, 2017

Basic English since 1930

Basic English is an English-based controlled language created by linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden as an international auxiliary language, and as an aid for teaching English as a second language. Basic English is, in essence, a simplified subset of regular English. It was presented in Ogden's book Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1930).

Ogden's Basic, and the concept of a simplified English, gained its greatest publicity just after the Allied victory in World War II as a means for world peace. Although Basic English was not built into a program, similar simplifications have been devised for various international uses. Ogden's associate I. A. Richards promoted its use in schools in China. More recently, it has influenced the creation of Voice of America's Special English for news broadcasting, and Simplified Technical English, another English-based controlled language designed to write technical manuals.

What survives today of Ogden's Basic English is the basic 850-word list used as the beginner's vocabulary of the English language taught worldwide, especially in Asia.

Design Principles

Ogden tried to simplify English while keeping it normal for native speakers, by specifying grammar restrictions and a controlled small vocabulary which makes an extensive use of paraphrasing. Most notably, Ogden allowed only 18 verbs, which he called "operators". His General Introduction says "There are no 'verbs' in Basic English", with the underlying assumption that, as noun use in English is very straightforward but verb use/conjugation is not, the elimination of verbs would be a welcome simplification.

“What the World needs most is about 1,000 more dead languages – and one more alive.”

           — C. K. Ogden, The System of Basic English

Word Lists

Ogden's word lists include only word roots, which in practice are extended with the defined set of affixes and the full set of forms allowed for any available word (noun, pronoun, or the limited set of verbs).

The 850 core words of Basic English are found in Wiktionary's Basic English word list. This core is theoretically enough for everyday life. However, Ogden prescribed that any student should learn an additional 150-word list for everyday work in some particular field, by adding a list of 100 words particularly useful in a general field (e.g., science, verse, business, etc.), along with a 50-word list from a more specialized subset of that general field, to make a basic 1000-word vocabulary for everyday work and life.

Moreover, Ogden assumed that any student already should be familiar with (and thus may only review) a core subset of around 200 "international" words. Therefore, a first-level student should graduate with a core vocabulary of around 1200 words. A realistic general core vocabulary could contain 2000 words (the core 850 words, plus 200 international words, and 1000 words for the general fields of trade, economics, and science). It is enough for a "standard" English level. This 2000 word vocabulary represents "what any learner should know". At this level students could start to move on their own.

Ogden's Basic English 2000 word list and Voice of America's Special English 1500 word list serve as dictionaries for the Simple English Wikipedia.

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