Thinking inside the box: Back to Basic

7 August 2009 by Jeremy Bentham, posted in Uncategorized

Greetings, my friends.

A few weeks ago, a gentleman who rejoices in the improbable name of Mr Paul J. J. Payack, and who is the founder of an organisation named the Global Language Monitor, based in Austin, Texas, in the Anglo-American United States, pronounced that the English language was about to gain its one millionth word. He established his prediction upon an intensive monitoring of writing published on the world-wide web, analysed through a complex of formulae and algorithms. Came the day—the 10th of June—and the ‘word’ was unveiled as ‘Web 2.0’. I was hardly alone in questioning whether this curiously unpleasant hybrid appellative qualified as a word at all. A Mr Benjamin Zimmer found Mr Payack’s method to be a ‘self-aggrandizing scam’; while Professor Geoffrey Nunberg, an authority on linguistics based at the University at Berkeley, California, opined that it was not so much ‘bad science as nonsense’. Another commentator judged the exercise ‘a load of old cobblers’, a somewhat baffling neologism in itself, but one which I understand to derive from a cobbler’s awl, and to mean nothing less than nonsense upon stilts. The consensus of informed opinion—and it is a view with which I would entirely concur—is that language is of its nature so entirely fluid, more especially in its less formal usages, that no absolute figure can, at any particular time, truly be placed upon the number of words which constitute its vocabulary.

Nevertheless, the incident prompts me to share with you some of my own ideas on English, and on language more generally, a topic which not infrequently claimed my attention in my lifetime, and which I strove to set upon a rational, logical and scientific footing.

Throughout my work of attempting to formulate, categorise, and codify complex notions and arguments, I frequently encountered the difficulty that the vocabulary at my disposal, the bequest of previous generations, was wholly inadequate to my purpose, and that it was necessary to introduce new coinages. Exceptions excepted, the more copious a language the better. ‘Aneunomothetic’; ‘phthisozoics’; ‘somatico-hedonistics’; ‘pneumatico-hedonistics’; ‘nooscopics’; ‘power-holder’; ‘chrestomathic’; ‘international’; ‘anthropurgic’; ‘physiurgic’; ‘living wage’; ‘locupletative’; ‘ante-jentacularization’; ‘Panopticon’; ‘friend-sickness’; ‘Ultramaria’; ‘Aristocratico-Monarchico-Anarchical’; ‘psychologization’; ‘pathematology’; all these, and many more, are invaluable words and phrases of my own invention. They are founded in every case upon sound etymological principles and precedents, and are, I trust, not inexpressive in their self-evident meanings. My regret is that, even after the passage of two centuries, the wider English-speaking world has yet to adopt several of them.

My thoughts on language, however, went far beyond mere copiousness. This is hardly the occasion for an exposition of my ideas in detail, but I attempted to analyse and expatiate upon the uses, operations and desirable properties of a language. I laid emphasis upon such matters as clearness, conciseness, facility of utterance, melodiousness, ornability, impressiveness, and dignity, and explained how these might best be achieved and rendered compatible with one another.

Regrettably, more pressing affairs claimed my attention, and so I was unable to bring my writings on these topics (as on so many others) to fruition within the course of my lifetime. They were, however, made public after my death—albeit in a somewhat defective form—and in the first half of the twentieth century they were taken up and further developed by a young disciple named Charles Kay Ogden. With much ingenuity and effort, but on a sound foundation of the principles I had expounded, he designed a simplified language as a lingua franca of international communication, naming it Basic English . (His invention is not, of course, to be confounded with BASIC, an erstwhile ‘language’ used in the programming of computers, with which some of my older readers are perhaps familiar.) Basic English reduced the number of verb-forms to just sixteen, and allowed a core vocabulary of just 850 words (a far cry from Mr Payack’s million!). With these, averred Mr Ogden, ‘everything may be said for all the purposes of everyday existence’.

Within a very few years, Basic English began to enjoy considerable success as a medium of essential communication in commercial circles, and as a foundation for a more sophisticated linguistic education. Later, during the Second World War, when military exigencies demanded rapid and unambiguous communication between individuals of multifarious nations, it attracted the attention of the Prime Minister, Mr Churchill. He appointed a committee of the Cabinet to address the subject, and propounded the adoption and promotion of Basic English as an instrument of government policy.

In pursuit of this goal, which remained upon the carpet at the war’s end, Mr Ogden was in 1946 asked to assign his copyright in the language to the Crown, and was offered a monetary sum by way of compensation. In a gracious acknowledgement of my own role as the ultimate progenitor of his scheme, the figure was settled at £23,000, the very sum which I had been paid in 1813 by the administration of the day in compensation for its failure to adopt my plans for a Panopticon prison.

Although Basic English is now largely forgotten within Europe, it continues to underlie much teaching of the English language in China, Japan, and elsewhere in the far East. I am pleased to think that, in this age of global intercourse and polyglot communities, so much of my work remains at the heart of communication between individuals.

Your ever laborious and devoted servant,
J.B.

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