Basic English

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Basic English is an English-based controlled language created by linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden as an international auxiliary language, and as an aid for teaching English as a second language. Basic English is, in essence, a simplified subset of regular English. It was presented in Ogden's book Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1930).

Ogden's Basic, and the concept of a simplified English, gained its greatest publicity just after the Allied victory in World War II as a means for world peace. Although Basic English was not built into a program, similar simplifications have been devised for various international uses. Ogden's associate I. A. Richards promoted its use in schools in China.[1] More recently, it has influenced the creation of Voice of America's Special English for news broadcasting, and Simplified English, another English-based controlled language designed to write technical manuals.

What survives today of Ogden's Basic English is the basic 850-word list used as the beginner's vocabulary of the English language taught worldwide, especially in Asia.[2]

Design principles

Ogden tried to simplify English while keeping it normal for native speakers, by specifying grammar restrictions and a controlled small vocabulary which makes an extensive use of paraphrasis. Most notably, Ogden allowed only 18 verbs, which he called "operators". His General Introduction says "There are no 'verbs' in Basic English", with the underlying assumption that, as noun use in English is very straightforward but verb use/conjugation is not, the elimination of verbs would be a welcome simplification.[3]

What the World needs most is about 1,000 more dead languages – and one more alive.

— C. K. Ogden, The System of Basic English

Word lists

Ogden's word lists include only word roots, which in practice are extended with the defined set of affixes and the full set of forms allowed for any available word (noun, pronoun, or the limited set of verbs).[4]

The 850 core words of Basic English are found in Wiktionary's Basic English word list. This core is theoretically enough for everyday life. However, Ogden prescribed that any student should learn an additional 150-word list for everyday work in some particular field, by adding a list of 100 words particularly useful in a general field (e.g., science, verse, business, etc.), along with a 50-word list from a more specialised subset of that general field, to make a basic 1000-word vocabulary for everyday work and life.

Moreover, Ogden assumed that any student already should be familiar with (and thus may only review) a core subset of around 200 "international" words.[5] Therefore, a first-level student should graduate with a core vocabulary of around 1200 words. A realistic general core vocabulary could contain 2000 words (the core 850 words, plus 200 international words, and 1000 words for the general fields of trade, economics, and science). It is enough for a "standard" English level.[6][7] This 2000 word vocabulary represents "what any learner should know". At this level students could start to move on their own.

Ogden's Basic English 2000 word list and Voice of America's Special English 1500 word list serve as dictionaries for the Simple English Wikipedia.


The word use of Basic English is similar to full English, but the rules are much simpler, and there are fewer exceptions. Not all meanings of each word are allowed.

Ogden's rules of grammar for Basic English help people use the 850 words to talk about things and events in a normal way.[8]

  • Form plurals by appending an "S" on the end of the word. Where special rules are normally necessary, such as using "ES" or "IES", use them.
  • There are two word endings to change each of the 150 adjectives: "-ER" and "-EST".
  • There are two word endings to change the verb word endings, "-ING" and "-ED".
  • Form adverbs from qualifiers by adding "-LY".
  • Talk about amounts with "MORE" and "MOST". Use and know "-ER" and "-EST".
  • Give adjectives a negative meaning with "UN-"
  • Form questions with the opposite word order, and with "DO".
  • Operators and pronouns inflect as in normal English.
  • Make combined words (compounds) from two nouns (for example "milkman") or a noun and a directive ("sundown").
  • Measures, numbers, money, days, months, years, clock time, and international words are in English forms, e.g. Date/Time: 20 May 1972 at 21:00
  • Where necessary, technical expressions or other terms required for the task at hand may be used and take on their local form.


Like all international auxiliary languages (or IALs), Basic English may be criticised as inevitably based on personal preferences, and thus, paradoxically, inherently divisive.[9] Moreover, like all natural language based IALs, Basic is subject to criticism as unfairly biased towards the native speaker community.[10]

As a teaching aid for English as a Second Language, Basic English has been criticised for the choice of the core vocabulary and for its grammatical constraints.[11]

In 1944, readability expert Rudolf Flesch published an article in Harper's Magazine, "How Basic is Basic English?" in which he claimed, "It's not basic, and it's not English." The essence of his complaint is that the vocabulary is too restricted, and, as a result, the text ends up being awkward and more difficult than necessary. He also notes that the words in the Basic vocabulary were arbitrarily selected, and there have been no empirical studies showing that it makes language simpler.[12]

Literary references

In the novel The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933, H. G. Wells depicted Basic English as the lingua franca of a new elite which after a prolonged struggle succeeds in uniting the world and establishing a totalitarian world government. In the future world of Wells' vision, virtually all members of humanity know this language.

From 1942 to 1944 George Orwell was a proponent of Basic English, but in 1945 he became critical of universal languages. Basic English later inspired his use of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four.[13]

Evelyn Waugh criticized his own 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, which he had previously called his magnum opus, in the preface of the 1959 reprint: "It [World War II] was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster — the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful."[14]

In his story "Gulf", science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein used a constructed language called Speedtalk, in which every Basic English word is replaced with a single phoneme, as an appropriate means of communication for a race of genius supermen.[15]

See also


  1. Time Magazine. Dec. 31, 1945. Education: Globalingo
  2. Edmond H Weiss The Elements of International English Style, pp. 17-18, M. E. Sharpe, 2005 ISBN 978-0-7656-1572-5
  3. A good summary in Bill Templer: Towards a People's English: Back to BASIC in EIL Humanising Language Teaching.
  4. See the list of words which are assumed and not counted for details.
  5. Ogden's "International Word" List - Alphabetic
  6. Ogden's Basic English Next Steps
  7. Ogden's Basic English Combined Word Lists
  8. "Rules of Grammar". 1 January 1996. Retrieved 2009-07-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Rick Harrison, Farewell to Auxiliary Languages
  10. For instance, a sample quotation from the auxlang mailing list archives and another from noted linguist Robert A. Hall, Jr..
  11. For instance, by proponents of Essential World English. See a summary of EWE for instance and, again, the linguist Robert A. Hall, Jr..
  12. Flesch, R. F. "How Basic is Basic English?" Harper's Magazine, March 1944. pp. 339-343.
  13. Illich, Ivan; Barry Sanders (1988). ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. San Francisco: North Point Press. p. 109. ISBN 0-86547-291-2. The satirical force with which Orwell used Newspeak to serve as his portrait of one of those totalitarian ideas that he saw taking root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere can be understood only if we remember that he speaks with shame about a belief that he formerly held... From 1942 to 1944, working as a colleague of William Empson's, he produced a series of broadcasts to India written in Basic English, trying to use its programmed simplicity, as a Tribune article put it, "as a sort of corrective to the oratory of statesmen and publicists." Only during the last year of the war did he write "Politics and the English Language," insisting that the defense of English language has nothing to do with the setting up of a Standard English."<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Waugh, Evelyn (1959) [1946]. Brideshead Revisited. New York: Dell.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>. Full preface text available online.
  15. Heinlein, Robert A., "Gulf", in Assignment in Eternity, published by Signet Science Fiction (New American Library), 1953. Page 52-53: "It was possible to establish a one-to-one relationship with Basic English so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word".

Further reading

  • I. A. Richards & Christine Gibson, Learning Basic English: A Practical Handbook for English-Speaking People, New York: W. W. Norton & Co. (1945)
  • Basic English: A Protest, Joseph Albert Lauwerys, F. J. Daniels, Robert A. Hall Jr., London: Basic English Foundation, 1966. An answer to Robert A. Hall, Jr.'s criticism.

External links