Spelling and Syntax


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The complexities and inconsistencies of English spelling and syntax pose major difficulties for those who claim the language as their mother tongue ‒ far less learners.

Reader PJW Henderson therefore makes a good case by highlighting the advantages of Basic English (Foram, November 4).

An acronym for British, American, Scientific, International and Commercial, Basic English avoids the artificialities inherent in so-called “international” languages such as Esperanto and Volapuk.

It is a simplified form of English developed in the 1920s by the British writer and linguist Charles Ogden. Basic derives its vocabulary and grammar from English but reduces both to a remarkable extent.

The objective is to reduce English to a common core which can be learned with comparative ease. Once Basic is mastered, students can proceed to fleshing out their vocabulary and getting to grips with idiomatic usage.

Only 850 words are used ‒ 600 nouns, 150 adjectives, and 18 verbs. The remainder are operative words such as “can”, “do”, “after”, “the”, ”not”, and “very.” Yet, alone or in combination, these 850 words can do the work of 20 000.

The verbs are conjugated in the normal way, but although there are only 18 of them they can replace about 4 000 standard verbs when used in conjunction with non-verbs.

For example, “put together” for “assemble”; “make up” for invent”; and “take pictures” for “photograph.”

Other than the normal rules for conjugating verbs, Basic avoids the jungle of regulations which govern Standard English.

In keeping with the name, Basic keeps it simple but can still cope with terms of measurement, numerals, currency, calendar, and all international terms in their English form.

Sir Winston Churchill was an enthusiastic supporter of Basic ‒ as was Franklin Roosevelt ‒ but the language never gained the acceptance of the educational establishment on either side of the Atlantic.

Certainly, Basic lacks elegance or rhetorical appeal, but those who have criticized it on these grounds misunderstood its object ‒ “English with no literary pretensions but clear and precise at the level for which it was designed.”

Ogden himself lamented that Basic was “bedeviled by officials” which is a sad reflection on the extent to which illiteracy still prevails ‒ not only in Africa but in the very heartland of the language, judging by recent studies of UK schoolchildren’s competency in English.


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