What Is Basic English?

About Ogden's Basic English

The Basic English version of the opening words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
The Basic English version of the opening words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Basic English is a version of the English language "made simple by limiting the number of its words to 850, and by cutting down the rules for using them to the smallest number necessary for the clear statement of ideas" (I.A. Richards, Basic English and Its Uses, 1943).

Basic English was developed by British linguist Charles Kay Ogden (Basic English, 1930) and was intended as a medium of international communication. For this reason, it has also been called Ogden's Basic English.

BASIC is a backronym for British American Scientific International Commercial (English). Although interest in Basic English declined after the 1930s and early 1940s, it relates in some ways to the work carried out by contemporary researchers in the field of English as a lingua franca. Examples of texts that have been translated into Basic English are available from the Ogden's Basic English website.

Examples and Observations

  • "Basic English, though it has only 850 words, is still normal English. It is limited in its words and its rules, but it keeps to the regular forms of English. And though it is designed to give the learner as little trouble as possible, it is no more strange to the eyes of my readers than these lines, which are in fact in Basic English. . . .
    The second point to make clear is that even with so small a word list and so simple a structure it is possible to say in Basic English anything needed for the general purpose of everyday existence . . ..
    The third most important point about Basic is that it is not merely a list of words, governed by a minimum apparatus of essential English grammar, but a highly organized system designed throughout to be as easy as possible for a learner who is totally ignorant of English or of any related language. . . ."
    (I.A. Richards, Basic English and Its Uses, Kegan Paul, 1943)

The Grammar of Basic English

  • "[C.K. Ogden argued that] there are very few basic operations 'hiding' behind the very large number of verbs in the normal standard language. Not only can most of the so-called verbs in the language be circumlocuted by phrases such as have a desire for and put a question, but such circumlocutions represent a 'truer' meaning than the 'fictions' (want, ask) that they replace. This insight prompted Ogden into devising a kind of 'notional grammar' of English in which everything could be expressed by translating it into terms of relationships between Things (with or without modifying Qualities) and Operations. The principal practical benefit was to reduce the number of lexical verbs to a small handful of operational items. In the end he decided on only fourteen (come, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, seem, take, do, say, see, and send) plus two auxiliaries (be and have) and two modals (will and may). The propositional content of any statement can be expressed in a sentence containing only these operators." (A.P.R. Howatt and H.G. Widdowson, A History of English Language Teaching, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2004)

Weaknesses of Basic English

  • "Basic has three weaknesses: (1) It cannot be a world auxiliary language, an avenue into standard English, and a reminder of the virtues of plain usage at one and the same time. (2) Its dependence on operators and combinations produces circumlocutions at times unacceptable in standard English . . .. (3) The Basic words, mainly common, short words like get, make, do, have some of the widest ranges of meaning in the language and may be among the most difficult to learn adequately." (Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press, 1992)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Basic English?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/basic-english-language-1689023. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). What Is Basic English? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/basic-english-language-1689023 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Basic English?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/basic-english-language-1689023 (accessed May 29, 2023).