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UNDOING BABEL: C.K. OGDENS BASIC ENGLISH.

Each unique individual is introduced to words and learns to use them
under somewhat different conditions. This produces the unmatched
meanings of misunderstandings, a problem Basic English is meant to
address.


Undoing Babel by taming the snake of Adam's garden did not occur to anybody until this century. It was not for lack of reflections on Babel, Adam, and snakes (or at least eels, as we shall see).

Thinkers in every age have dwelled on the problems of language; it took a 20th century thinker to propel the ageless questions towards a unique answer. C. K. Ogden (1889-1957) was less preoccupied with the moral and serpentine dimensions of Adam's dilemma than with the problem of what Jeremy Bentham called "the eels of language"--its slippery verbs, and less preoccupied with the problem than with a solution. The undoing of modern Babel became, for Ogden, not only a preoccupation but his life's work.

When Bishop John Wilkins published his Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language in 1668, speculations on the pitfalls of language and efforts to create an ideal universal language were already venerable traditions.

Latin was losing ground as the vehicle for scientific writing just as science was breaking new ground. The publication of discoveries demanded wide circulation, and so an urgency about language reform was in the air in Wilkins' day. Science itself, by the introduction of nonverbal symbols in algebra and chemistry, suggested a model. If recovering the ideal, God-given language which Adam had spoken was impossible for fallen man, hope lay in substituting for it a methodical one based on sense experience. Such a language, philosophical, rational, and error-free, could then accurately reflect the fabric of nature and ensure the progress of knowledge.

Wilkins' invention for freeing humanity from "that curse in the confusion of tongues" consisted of a new system of written and spoken symbols, somewhat resembling shorthand. Thus, - T - represented the noun "stone," and a hook added to the right end of this symbol transformed it into the adjective "stone": - T [??] Wilkins elaborated rules for the modification of such symbols. Thus, the "stone" symbol could be modified to form the verbal expressions "throw a stone (at someone)" and "stone (someone) to death." The full system of symbols attempted to ensure that symbols would always express only what was necessary and natural in a way which could be understood from the modifications and combinations themselves.

Opponents and adherents of Wilkins' innovation were legion and wrote endlessly on the subject, but, for all its intensity, the debate petered out within 10 years of Wilkins' death in 1672, without producing any institutionalized reform.

No period in history channeled more energy into solving the universal language problem than the late 19th century. Esperanto, the brainchild of a Russian medical doctor by the name of Zamenhof, is the best known of the artificial languages dating from that period. Mundolingue, Volapiik, Balta, Bopal, Langue bleue, Spelin, Universal-Sprache, and Veltparl are just some of the others which appeared between 1863 and 1899.

It was not any of the nineteenth century linguistic inventions nor Wilkins' Promethean labors of 200 years earlier which drew C.K. Ogden to the language question. Between Wilkins and Zamenhof had come Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a prolific thinker best known for his writings on jurisprudence, ethics, and social reform, but whose contribution to linguistics had been largely overlooked until Ogden publicized it.

At the core of Bentham's observations was the notion of fictions, by which he meant the patterns and norms of language which impute concrete qualities to entities where none exists. "Music moves the soul" conceals three fictions. Neither "music" nor "soul" is the name of a thing, nor is any physical movement involved in the relation between them, which the sentence is intended to express. This may be apparent to language users in such a case, where a metaphor is involved, but it is much less obvious in other instances, such as "Liberty is desirable" or "This is red." In Bentham's view, "Liberty," "red," and even "this" are fictions. Language is forced to introduce fictions by any form of predication. We must talk about qualities as if they were there. Linguistic ghosts. Linguistic bogeys. If they are not frightening, they are as insidious as the serpent of Eden. Verbs, Bentham declared, are to be distrusted, because of their complex nature and elusive meanings, which inevitably lead to inaccurate expression and imprecise thought.

These notions became central in C.K. Ogden's guiding principles for the universal language he would devise. Eschewing the countless models of artificial language, Ogden began working in 1923 on a project for developing a codified, error-proof version of English with an easily mastered, limited vocabulary. By 1928, he was convinced that 850 words could do the job of 20,000. This economy would be achieved by adhering strictly to Bentham's dictum on verbs. They could be replaced by a limited number of what Ogden called operators, words which combine with each other and with nouns to express actions. The operators include 16 words which are verbs in full English, but their use and combinations are highly restricted. Ogden tested his ideas carefully and repeatedly and in 1930 published a complete teaching system called Basic English.

Basic, an acronym for British, American, scientific, international, commercial, found both champions and detractors from the moment it was launched. The ranks of the champions would eventually include Ezra Pound, Lawrence Durrell, Winston Churchill, and H.G. Wells. The latter went so far as to argue the merits of Basic English not only as an international auxiliary language but also as an instrument of literary expression. Wells also predicted that the 21st century would be the golden age of Basic English.

The ranks of the detractors consisted mainly of those who had a vested interest in either a rival system of English or in other international auxiliary languages. Some critics failed to understand that Basic English was intended as a stepping stone to full English, not a replacement for it. Few challenged the linguistically and psychologically grounded principles of Basic.

In the years following the publication of George Orwell's 7954, some commentators surmised that Basic had served Orwell as a model for his vision of a distorted, manipulated, closed-circuit language of a despotic world government. But there is no evidence that Orwell ever condemned Basic, as he condemned the language he satirized himself under the name of Newspeak. On the contrary, he went on record as praising it, because "in Basic you cannot make a meaningless statement without it being apparent."

Franklin Roosevelt's initial support of Basic was eventually tempered by some skepticism, as his correspondence reveals. In a draft of a letter to Churchill, dated June 5, 1944, he noted: "I wonder what the course of history would have been if in May 1940 you had been able to offer the British people only blood, work, eye-water, and face-water, which is, I understand, the best that Basic can do with the famous words."

The pages of Punch frequently treated readers to parodies of Basic, ridiculing not only its vocabulary gaps but the supposedly typical paraphrases required to fill them. The opening of Hamlet's soliloquy was transformed into "To be or not to be, whether it is better in the mind to undergo the stone-sending cords and sharp-pointed air-going instruments of unkind chance...." The saying "charity begins at home" became "it is necessary for the first example of a tendency to give freely to be seen in the house of the one who has it."

Neither rival systems nor misunderstandings nor parodies hindered the momentum which Basic English quickly gathered from the beginning. Between 1931 and 1939, more than 100 books in Basic were published by the Ortho-logical Institute, the organization founded by Ogden for linguistic research and experiment. During the same period, trained representatives taught Basic in centers in more than 30 countries around the world. Both the Payne Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation supported the work generously.

Basic drew attention on the world stage in 1943 when Churchill, speaking at Harvard, expressed enthusiastic personal support for it and announced that he had established a War Cabinet Committee to study its further implementation. As a news item, this was soon to be obscured by the invasion of Italy, but not before producing an unexpected negative effect. Churchill's announcement was taken to mean that the British government was prepared to assume all costs involved in future teaching, research, and publication programs of the Orthological Institute, and consequently American funding was withdrawn.

The story of Basic in the two years following Churchill's Harvard speech is a tangled web. Inertia on the part of an interdepartmental government committee and the attendant bureaucratic morass, war-time paper shortage, personal animosity toward Ogden, and even piracy, combined to prevent the program of the Orthological Institute from building on the success Basic had achieved before 1939.

The post-war years brought no improvement. War reparations moved at an all but imperceptible pace, and there was no priority for financial support of Basic on the scale required. Ogden closed the doors of the Orthological Institute in 1953.

More than 30 years later the story still seems unfinished. What of H.G. Wells' prediction? Does Basic English belong more to the future than to the past? What part can it play in a world in which personal computers are soon expected to come into use by the hundreds of thousands?

The greatest challenge facing the computer software industry today is getting computers to understand the language that computer users speak. The complexities of full English are beyond the comprehension of any computer; the controlled structures of Basic English are not. The greatest challenge for Basic would be to undo Babel in the third millennium for man and machine alike.

W. TERRENCE GORDON (*)

(*) An author of reference books on semantics, W. Terrence Gordon is a professor of French at the University of Nova Scotia.
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Author:Gordon, W. Terrence
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Words:1658
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