What is Basic English?


In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at Basic English, a simplified English to use for international communication.








Charles Kay Ogden (1889–1957).

IN the past century we have seen English become the most widely used international language. Whereas before World War II it was only one of a number of languages used between countries, in recent decades, it has become such so widely studied as a second language that today there are more speakers of English who are non-native speakers than there are native speakers. This is highly unusual for a living language.
Part of the appeal of English is the fact that its grammar is relatively simpler than many other languages. It does not have complicated endings on words to mark where they are in a sentence— for example, where English has one word for “the”, German has seven. It does not assign gender to words, like French and Spanish do, for example, where everything in the world is masculine (pencils, books, and dogs) or feminine (tables, blouses, and televisions). And it does not have different words for “I’ or “you” depending on the social relationship of the speaker and listener like Japanese and Javanese do.
Almost all words become plural just by adding “-s” or “-es” to them. All of these grammatical characteristics mean that English learners can make rapid progress at the beginning of their studies.
Where English becomes difficult is with the vocabulary. Because of the complicated history of English and the way it has taken words from many other languages over the centuries, English vocabulary is not very transparent. For example, in many languages the word for hospital combines the words for “sick” and “house/building”, such as Tok Pisin “haus sik”, Hiri Motu “gorere rumana”, Bahasa Indonesia “rumah sakit”, or Mandarin Chinese “yi yuan”. With the same logic, English should have a word like “sick house” instead of three separate and unrelated words: “sick”, “house”, and “hospital”. And to make it even worse, a small centre for receiving health care is not a “small hospital”, but a “clinic”, a completely unrelated word.
Moreover, it often has several words where other languages have only one. Why, for example, does English have “child/infant/kid” or “monarch/sovereign/king”? Wouldn’t two words for each of these two ideas be enough? Do we really need three words for each idea when only one word for each concept would do the trick?
Thinking about this issue, an English linguist, Charles Ogden, set out to develop a way to use a limited number of words to communicate in English. He saw this as a way to allow easier international communication and to level the linguistic playing field that gives native speakers an advantage over non-native speakers. Of course, as an English-speaker himself, he also saw this as a way to make English even more powerful on the world stage.
He called his system Basic English. “Basic” stands for British American Scientific International and Commercial English. It is based on an 850-word word list that has eliminated most English verbs, together with some additional words that add up to 1000 words that learners need to learn. Some of these can be developed by adding prefixes and suffixes, such as “great”, to which “-er” and “-est” can be added to make “greater’ and “greatest” and compound words are allowed, such as “soapbox” or “sundown”, so that the total number of individual words is more like 2000-3000. Still, this is a much smaller set of words than we expect PNG high school students to have to learn. You can see the complete list of words by entering “Basic English word list” on Wikipedia.
Of course, there are times when difficult or specific terms are needed. This is particularly the case in technical or scientific writing. For example, it would not be possible to write about growing coffee without using the word “coffee” (which is not on the list of Basic English words). In this case, the word should be placed in quotation marks and the first time it is used in a piece of writing, it should be explained in Basic English: “‘coffee’, a plant with small seeds that are ground and put in hot water to make a drink”.
This system was popular at the end of World War II, when Britain still controlled its vast empire and the United States had just become the world’s strongest superpower. British prime minister Winston Churchill was one of the most vocal supporters of Basic English for international communication.
While many would say that texts written in Basic English are not as poetic or beautiful as those in ordinary English, they are certainly easier for everyone to understand. This can be seen in the translation of the Lord’s Prayer into Basic English:
“Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. Let your kingdom come. Let your pleasure be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us this day bread for our needs. And make us free of our debts, as we have made those free who are in debt to us. And let us not be put to the test, but keep us safe from the Evil One.”
I have written a number of texts in Basic English and find that it forces me as an educated native speaker of English, to be much more conscious of keeping my English simple and free of unnecessarily complex vocabulary. It also allows my readers, many of whom








Ogden’s book that started the Basic English movement.

have limited English skills, to concentrate on the ideas in a text, rather than the style it is written in.
Basic English has never been used officially as an international language. But it has been adapted for use in international radio programmes, such as the Voice of America special English programmes and in special limited vocabulary schemes used to avoid accidents and improve navigation in international aviation and shipping, such as Seaspeak. It is also the inspiration behind Simplified Technical English, a controlled way of writing technical manuals that was developed in the 1980s.
All of these methods recognise that the majority of users of English are non-native speakers, and that many of them have only an elementary level of English comprehension.

Prof Volker is an Adjunct professor affiliated with The Cairns Institute at James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.