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Education: Globalingo

4 minute read

The Navy’s orders were to teach them seamanship in a hurry. But only about 100 of the 1,000 Chinese could speak English, and some 300 of the rest could not even write their native Chinese.

Within 18 weeks last summer at the U.S. Naval Training Center at Miami, the Chinese had passed a battery of formidable examinations in gunnery and naval techniques, were equipped to shout, or to heed, such salty orders as “right standard rudder,” or “steady as you go!”

The man who did the trick is a mild, little, wild-haired British professor, I. A. (for Ivor Armstrong) Richards, the Western Hemisphere’s No. 1 apostle of Basic English. Says he: “It takes only 400 words of Basic to run a battleship. With 850 words you can run the planet.”*

Last week at famed old Cooper Union forum, 700 Manhattanites got the first public look at two of the MARCH OF TIME-made movies which Richards used in teaching his 1,000 Chinese, hopes to use in teaching many millions more, of all nations. To audiences who already know more than 850 words of English, the primer-like repetition of the sound of words gets pretty unbearable. But with the Chinese, said Richards, the movie “worked like a dream.”

Pure English, Just Refined. I. A. Richards first became hipped on the idea of Basic 22 years ago when he collaborated with its inventor, Charles Kay Ogden, a fellow scholar at the University of Cambridge, on a tortuous book on semantics, called The Meaning of Meaning. Since then he has spent a good deal of time globe-trotting as Basic’s chief agitator, wearing the benign smile of a zealot who is content with his life’s work. When war broke out, he was at Harvard on a Rockefeller grant as a roving researcher on the problems of the English language. A year ago he was made a professor, but he still spends more time working on Basic than he does on teaching. With a staff of assistants, he started a Basic English radio program for Latin America, produced a batch of Basic texts for Spaniards and Portuguese, helped Walt Disney make Basic educational shorts for the Army.

The people who offend Richards most are those who think Basic is a sort of pidgin English. Actually it is pure English, boiled down to a vocabulary of 18 verbs,* 85 “structure words” (prepositions, conjunctions, etc.), 600 nouns, 150 adjectives.

Richards’ own translation of Plato’s Republic into Basic—he used 150 extra words besides—sounds as dry as Poet Richard Greene’s satirical Basic version of Hark, Hark, the Lark (which also uses some unBasic words):

Listen, listen! The small song bird at the doorway of God’s living place makes a whistling sound on a high note, And Phoebus makes a start at getting up. . . .

Swearing Is Not Basic. “Every time the Big Three meet,” says Richards, “the need for a universal language is emphasized.” Basic, being all English, is not a synthetic tongue like Volapük, Esperanto, Europan or Ido; and Richards neither hopes nor expects to see Basic supplant regular English. “It’s too dull,” he says, “and you can’t swear in it.”

He thinks the spread of Basic as a globalingo could help avert war, and he also believes it would end such peacetime horrors as the outburst by the visiting Symphony conductor to his chattering London musicians: “Don’t spoke! I stand it then and now, but always, my God, never!” Richards is convinced that English is becoming the world’s language; the only issue is whether it will be Basic English or broken English.

*There is also an untested 849-word Basic Chinese, developed recently by Professor Chao Yuan Ren of China’s Academia Sinica.

*Come, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, seem, take, be, do, have, say, see, send, may, will.

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