Basic English

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BASIC ENGLISH Also Ogden's Basic English, Basic [an acronym for British, American, Scientific, International, Commercial]. A reduced form of English devised in the 1920s by the writer and linguist C. K. Ogden, in cooperation with the critic I. A. Richards. It was favoured by the British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, with some support from the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Basic was an exercise in language planning, intended to extract from STANDARD ENGLISH the minimum grammar and vocabulary needed for everyday communication. Ogden saw it as serving three ends at the same time: an international medium in its own right, an introduction to ‘full’ English, and a kind of PLAIN ENGLISH. The name of the organization created to further Basic, the Orthological Institute, echoes such terms as orthodoxy, orthography, and orthoepy.


Ogden and Richards' The Meaning of Meaning (1923) contains in its chapter on definition the germ of Basic, which took final shape in 1928. Its minimal syntax has a fixed analytic word order (as in I will put the record on the machine now) and six affixes (-s for plurals and verbs, un- to negate adjectives, -ed and -ing to form participles, -ly for adverbs, and -er as an agent suffix). Ogden encouraged compounding such as farmhouse and teapot, madman and blackbird, and get up, go out, put on. The syntax was accompanied by a reduced vocabulary of 850 words in sets: 400 general words and 200 picturable words (600 nouns), 150 adjectives, 82 grammatical words, such as across, all, can, and 18 operators (such verbs as get and put). Operators had three roles: to replace more difficult words (get replacing receive, obtain, become), to form phrases that would obviate other verbs (give money for replacing buy, give him a push instead of push him), and to be part of a phrasal verb (put together replacing assemble). By such means, he considered that his operators could stand in for some 4,000 verbs. He accepted figurative extensions of meaning and supplemented the basic words with numbers, names, and lists of technical terminology according to need.

Ogden described the system in Basic English (1930) and The System of Basic English (1934). In 1940 he published The General Basic English Dictionary, which gave ‘more than 40,000 senses of over 20,000 words, in basic English’. This work went into over 20 impressions until discontinued in the late 1980s, one of the first dictionaries for learners to use a defining vocabulary. In the introduction, Ogden stated:
With its help, anyone who has had some training in the structure of English through Basic or any other system, will be able to make headway by himself with the English of Library, Radio, and Newspaper. … Words which are now come across only in the works of early writers and words which are the stamp of the old learning based on Greek and Latin are looked on as no less the apparatus of the expert than the words of some branch of science, and have been given no more space. As far as possible a balance has been kept between the interests of the old education and the new, without overlooking the fact that, for the learner, what is current is more important than what is past.This extract is composed entirely in Basic, which includes the word apparatus. The following passages compare Basic and standard English. The first is from ‘Time in Philosophy and Physics’ ( Herbert Dingle, Philosophy, 54, 1979), the second its restatement in Basic:
Original. Let us look first at the question ‘What is time?’ Time is an inescapable—perhaps the most inescapable—fact of experience, but we cannot define it. The final word on this was said by St Augustine. ‘What is time?’ he asked, and replied ‘If no one asks me I know: if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know.’
Basic. Let us give a look first at the question ‘What is time?’ Time is a fact of experience from which there is no getting away—possibly the only such fact of which this is completely true—, but we are unable to give any clear account of it. The statement which says the most it is possible to say about it was made by St. Augustine. His answer to the question ‘what is time?’ was: ‘If no-one puts the question to me, I am certain about it; if I have a mind to give a questioner an account of it, I am uncertain.’

Critical responses

Most commentators have agreed that Basic is ingenious. Some have expressed sympathy for one or more of its aims, and enthusiasm for some or all of Ogden's principles and practices, but others have regarded it as pernicious. Basic was the subject of an acrimonious debate in the 1930s between Ogden and Michael West (see West et al., A Critical Examination of Basic English, University of Toronto Press, 1934; Ogden, Counter-offensive: An Exposure of Certain Misrepresentations of Basic English, Cambridge, the Orthological Institute, 1935). West argued that Basic was a sort of PIDGIN English, and feared alike its success or failure: if successful, it would endanger such other forms of simplified English as his own, and lead to a deterioration in usage; if a failure, it would cast doubt on the approach he endorsed. It was, he claimed, ‘an incalculably grave disservice’ to humanity. Ogden in turn accused West of ‘grave errors’ and ‘ludicrous’ views.

Both adverse and favourably disposed critics generally agree that Basic has three weaknesses: (1) It cannot be a world auxiliary language, an avenue into standard English, and a reminder of the virtues of plain usage at one and the same time. (2) Its dependence on operators and combinations produces circumlocutions at times unacceptable in standard English (as above, where Dingle's ‘If no one asks me I know’ becomes ‘If no-one puts the question to me, I am certain about it’). (3) The Basic words, mainly common, short words like get, make, do, have some of the widest ranges of meaning in the language and may be among the most difficult to learn adequately. Charles C. Fries and A. Aileen Traver reported that for the 850 words the OED lists no fewer than 18,416 senses (English World Lists, Ann Arbor, 1950).

Vernacular English

Apart from a few items like account, experience, machine, question, and apparatus, Ogden's words are drawn from the vernacular stratum of English vocabulary. Like the 19c purist William Barnes, he appears to impute special merit to a core of words that were there before the majority of Latin and Greek ‘big words’ arrived. The syntax and word structures singled out for inclusion are Germanic, and the active-voice model for sentences rejects the passives common in academic and technical language, and originally based on Latin models. Like the early 17c lexicographer Robert Cawdrey, Ogden explains and replaces Latin-derived verbs like impose with vernacular verbs like lay on. However, as critics and many foreign learners have often pointed out, such vernacular forms as lay on can be harder to use than their Latinate partners.


In 1943, Churchill asked Harold Palmer to consider changes that would make Basic more flexible and useful as an international medium. Palmer suggested the addition of ‘an adequate number of verbs’ (so that, for example, give him a push could once again if necessary be push him), more grammatical words, and the replacement of non-standard compounds with their everyday equivalents. These recommendations were not adopted, but many word lists used in writing simplified readers and in introductory language courses, as well as defining vocabularies in learner's dictionaries, owe much to Ogden's pioneering efforts. Although the logical minimalism of Basic has few advocates and the system is now little used, its indirect influence has been considerable. See ARTIFICIAL LANGUAGE, RESTRICTED LANGUAGE.

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Basic English a simplified form of English limited to 850 selected words, intended for international communication.

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