El Fomentador

Alive and well in Mexico…

One Language For All! Simplified English

with 3 comments

Long ago, when I was in college, a very wise instructor once shared with me a valuable bit of her wisdom. I had commented that her office, crammed, as it was, into a  former dormitory room, appeared to be like totally organized! You could see the top of her desk for crying out- loud! Her in-box was empty! She promised to tell me her secret. (I haven’t told this to another living soul in all that time; well, okay I’ve told a few people, but no one else was that impressed.) With the knowing look that only a true leader can get away with, and in a suddenly hushed, almost breathless voice, she said:      “File don’t pile”. Well, you can imagine  the effect that had on me, or well, maybe you can’t.  Anyway, I’ve always been particularly fond of advice that rhymes, it makes it so much easier to remember. Not necessarily easier to follow…but,  I do still remember it.

I, like, or perhaps I should write, as many other people, I’m certain, have made, at various, oh, shall we say, periods in their lives, more or less, valiant attempts at staying ahead of the debris that continually seems to surround us in life. “File don’t pile”; the words come back to me now as clearly as when she said them. All I can say is: Thanks Teach’. And please feel free to use the advice of my prophetic prof’ to enhance your own schema for living.

As for me, give me liberty or give me…no, wait a minute, that one has already been done, to death. But in a way I too am committed to liberty (possibly just not as much as Patrick Henry apparently was, or for a cause perhaps quite as noble as his). I am fighting for  freedom from the little stacks of paper that litter the edges of my desk, the notebooks and journals filled  with who-knows-what, but still neatly stacked in a cubbie hole, awaiting, ah, awaiting, well I’m not really sure what fate may be awaiting them. Oh wait, there’s a box of old newspaper clippings. What was I thinking?!? Well, you know, one day at a time, right, mate? So give me “files or give me piles”…that didn’t really come out right.  My point is I have chosen files. As an old friend once said: “I’ve found my chair and I’m sticking to it.” I realize that really doesn’t have much to do with the file thing but  I just think that was sort of funny. (As I recall, it almost bordered on hilarious when she said it.) Yes, it’s true, circumstances would seem to dictate that I must once again enter the fray, full-speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, “Remember the Alamo!” Okay I’ve gotten a little carried away again. (As an aside , I find it interesting to note that both sides still remember the Alamo, just somewhat differently.)

My new private war is in the battle to become organized. Oh sure, I used to say, “organized is a four letter word”,  and it may be in some foreign language, somewhere, I have to admit that I don’t really know about that part…. But you get the idea, right?

Now, I am a changed person, I control my own destiny as well as a small, but growing, part of my desktop. And just to prove it,  I am going to get rid of one more piece of paper. That’s right, correctomundo, as Fonzie might say, right here, right now there is an old xerox I made of an article from, I think it was a magazine called “Speak-Up in English”. I bought the mag at a news stand years ago in Augas Calientes, it was the first magazine in English that I had seen in awhile. It is published in Spain. Anyway it was interesting enough. It had articles on various topics, written at different reading levels and in English as it is used in various parts of the world. Portions of the magazine were devoted to language instruction, helpful hints, popular culture and even a series of self-tests. Much of the material was repeated on an interactive CD that was included with the magazine. At least I think the material was on the CD. Apparently the issue I bought was paired with a batch of defective CD’s. A notice was printed inside the back cover.  I didn’t bother writing to Madrid for a replacement copy.

So this article in particular attracted my attention. In fact, reading it spurred me to write about  a simplified Spanglish (please see post on Simplified Spanglish), that could become a lingua franca for the western hemisphere. Perhaps not surprisingly, no one really liked that idea. I guess there are just too many artificial languages already. And I have to say devotees of them all are nothing if not adamant. “God bless ’em, every one”, to paraphrase Tiny Tim, I wish I could say that in Esperanto. (please see comments on the same post, touchy, touchy, touchy).

The article is entitled “One Language For All” and was written  by William Sutton. The language level is Intermediate. And the article includes a short glossary of some vocabulary and idiomatic expressions translated into Spanish. I think it is well-written for its purpose and contains some interesting information. The whole thing is about 300 words. I guess I should make a disclaimer–I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with the author, remember,  I’m only doing this so I can get rid of this damn piece of paper. Please read on.

The introduction is in Spanish:

Aquellos que estan desesperados porque creen que el ingles se les resiste, ya

pueden respirar tranquilos. Esta surgiendo un nuevo lenguaje, el globish o ingles simplificado.

Para hablarlo se precisan 1,500 palabras.

The need for a world language is urgent. the problem with Artificial Languages is that nobody ever learns them. We need a more practical solution. English is the most widespread language in the history of the planet. But its complex pronunciation, spelling and idiom make it hard to learn–and hard to use accurately. So why don’t we make English easier?

The Simple Approach

Since the advent of the European Union and the internet, this notion, first proposed before World War II–is coming back into fashion. Could simplified English succeed where Artificial Languages have failed?

In his 1930 book, Basic English, Charles Kay Ogden proposed a modified form of English as an easily acquired second language. He selected a vocabulary of 850 words. He made the grammar simple, but not too simple for complex thoughts: you can read translations of the Bible and Plato’s Republic. (Oh boy, I can’t wait to get my hands on that reading list!) Ogden claimed it takes seven years to learn proper English, seven months for Esperanto, and seven weeks for Basic English. (And, to think, Tarzan apparently did it in the space of one movie! Of course, he had Jane to help him.)

Another adapted form of  ‘English As A Lingua Franca for Europe” (ELFE) is intended to reduce EU translation and interpreting costs. To make ELFE acceptable, linguistic experts want to simplify vocabulary and grammar, and eliminate culturally sensitive idioms: for example, ‘Double Dutch’, meaning incomprehensible talk.  (I had never heard that one before; I might have guessed it meant, like, really, really chocolately, which I wouldn’t consider too insensitive to the Dutch cultural heritage, but the whole cultural heritage thing, from any culture, can be a big problem when it comes to world languages.)

From Able to Zero

‘Globish, on the other hand, describes the way non-native English speakers already communicate, using common phrases, diverse levels of grammar, and unpredictable spelling. (That actually makes a pretty good description of my Spanish skills.)

In his 2004 book, Parlez Globish, Frenchman Jean-Paul Nerriere proposes a 1500-word Globish vocabulary from ‘able’ to ‘zero’–though he also recommends learning Frank Sinatra songs (See, now here is a big difference between me and this guy right away; I mean Mr. S was great but personally I have to recommend singing along to Nat King Cole). Nerriere’s book has received coverage throughout Europe and is already being translated into other languages including English (So I am just going to go ahead and assume that the book is already available in Globish).

Could It Work?

Could simplified English become the global language? Or is it a crazy dream? (What would life be like without a ‘crazy’ dream or two?)

Winston Churchhill considered Basic English as a tool for peace following World War II. But without international recognition, its value for learners remains limited. Churchhill himself lost enthusiasm when his wartime speech about “blood, toil, tears and sweat” was translated into Basic English as “blood, hard work, eyewash and body water.” (I don’t know, I think Churchill could still have pulled it off using that phrase in his speech, but it makes me think about that band from the ’60’s:  Blood, Body Water and Eyewash, I don’t know if that would have gone over as well,  but who knows? Afterall, it was the ’60’s).

Globish does, however, have an advantage: it is occurring spontaneously.  (I’m using it already! And I haven’t even read the book!) Used by ever-increasing millions across the planet, it is far ahead of Esperanto. (As a disclaimer: I wouldn’t have said that if it weren’t in the original article.) Language change is no longer prescribed by academics in dusty offices: it happens in conference rooms, backpackers’ hostels and internet chat rooms. (And, apparently,  everywhere I go, too, even dusty offices.)

Whether we like it or not some form of simplified English is already with us. (And that has been my point all along, I think.)

How did Charles Kay Ogden reduce Basic English to 850 words?

1. Omit synonyms:  ‘earth’ not ‘world’.

2. Turn verbs into nouns with ‘-er’ or ‘-ing’.

3. Invert adjectives with ‘un-‘. (George Orwell’s novel, 1984, mocked words like ‘ungood’ with Newspeak, created by the Thought Police to outlaw unauthorized thoughts.)

4. Combine words for complex concepts.

5. All questions begin with ‘Do’.

6. Forget annoying irregular past simple forms.

Well, as the Cisco Kid used to say as he and Pancho rode off triumphantly into the sunset, “Adios Amigos!”

3 Responses

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  1. You don’t mention Esperanto. Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing – and sung in it – in a dozen countries over recent years.

    Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries.

    Bill Chapman

    July 11, 2009 at 7:43 am

  2. On it’s face the idea of a simplified English as a second language makes sense…

    From the perspective of an English speaker. However, the bulk of the non-English speaking world detests English and by extension anglophiles for myriad reasons. Not least of these is English speaking people asserting that their language will one day be the worlds “Lingua Franca.”

    No, there is too much cultural baggage attached to English and in fact all natural languages for any one of them to prevail worldwide.

    Only a language that is truly culturally/politically neutral has any real chance of succeeding.

    By definition any language meeting this criteria would of necessity have to be a constructed language belonging to no existing nation or people.

    Sorry, English just doesn’t and never will make the cut.


    October 26, 2009 at 12:33 am

    • To komencanto

      Thanks for your response. You make some very good points. It’s never before been suggested that I may be an anglophile, (and in all honesty, I’m not certain I should even infer that from your response) but I would have to agree that all natural languages have too much cultural and political ‘baggage’ (read nationalistic fervor) attached to them for any of them to ‘make the cut’ as a world-wide language. Take Chinese, for example, given the current course of world events (and even discounting the varied dialects).

      Your English is very good for someone that seems to detest English speaking people and/or their assertions. What I seem to sense from your response supports, in a way, my own belief that the prospects for an ‘acceptable’ world “Lingua Franca” in the foreseeable future are dim, to say the least. I would, however, never say that to proponents of Esperanto. But by your definition, Esperanto does not meet the criteria you have set forth (or my own, for that matter, and I would never say that to an Esperantoist, either). And based on the history of constructed languages I’m willing to wager that there will never be a ‘truly culturally/politically neutral’ language that will succeed.

      My own interest in the concept of a simplified English really comes down to two issues. The first is to facilitate communication between people that may be struggling in their use of English or other second languages. Really, for my own, (admittedly, somewhat selfish), purposes, a simplified Spanglish would be more useful and perhaps, not as ‘Anglocentric’. (Of course, I also applaud Dr. Zamenhof for thinking of the contribution improved communication among the people of the world could theoretically make to, say for example, world peace. But who knows, if we really understood each other it might make things worse!) The second is that simplified English, which, I hope it is clear, I am not specifically proposing as a world language, is already in use in many places and settings world-wide. My only point, or I should say the point that I found interesting in the article, was that it seems to be happening anyway, so maybe it would make sense to attempt to codify it to some, perhaps, more useful degree.

      As far as the potential for English to become a world language, I suggest we wait for a century or two and see what happens–who knows we may all be speaking Chinese! Thanks again, adios.

      El Fomentador

      October 31, 2009 at 8:16 am

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