Thursday 14 June 2007

On simplifying English

A grad student from the US writes to ask if there have been other attempts to provide a simplified English apart from Ogden & Richards' Basic English and Quirk's Nuclear English. She wonders why these attempts never prospered. Is it, she asks, because linguistic simplification is impossible to achieve, as an end in itself (as opposed to the simplifications introduced when teaching English as a foreign language, as a stage towards students achieving command of the full language)?

There certainly have been other attempts to provide a simplified English for special purposes. One was devised for the European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA), for simplifying maintenance manuals. The Voice of America has a 'Special English' project, with restricted vocabulary and simplified grammar, which has been going since 1959. And there have been several constructed languages based on English which aim to facilitate international communication, such as Seaspeak, Airspeak, and Policespeak.

I suppose you might include under this heading the kinds of simplification introduced by the UK's Plain English Society (or the equivalent in other countries) in their campaigns to increase everyday intelligibility. These are an end in themselves, and on the whole very successful too. But they had to fight to get their proposals adopted, and the battle against gobbledegook is by no means over. Plain English campaigns are only a partial simplification, though, being focused for the most part on formal written English intended for the general public.

An arbitrary simplification of the entire language is unachievable, in my view. All artificial or constructed languages come up against the same problem: how to bridge the gap between the simplified form and the reality of English as it is spoken and written (and, now, used on the internet) in its full range of unsimplified varieties? One needs to preserve continuity (with the non-simplified language) and to provide motivation. The logical arguments are all on the side of those who argue for a simplified English spelling, for example, but the pragmatic arguments are not - and pragmatics always wins. The only simplified spelling movement to have succeeded was Webster's, in America, and that was for a special set of reasons (coinciding with US independence). There have been dozens of proposals for simplified spelling since, and none have made much headway. Progress would be even more difficult to achieve if proposals were made to simplify grammar and vocabulary. The usage brigades would be on the streets fighting to defend the language's expressive richness.

Simplification is actually complicated. It sounds easy, for example, to reduce vocabulary to a core set of words. But as soon as you do that, if you want to maintain your expressive power, you have to increase sentence length. Look at the way the Longman Dictionary of Contemporay English handles its defining vocabulary of 2000 words. All the entries restrict themselves to those words, but as a result some of the definitions get quite long. The whole point of 'long' words is that they compress into a single unit what it often takes many words to say.

A distinction has to be made between artificial and natural simplification. I don't think artificial proposals are likely to succeed, outside of special circumstances (such as Seaspeak), though they might achieve a fashionable status for a while. But natural processes of simplification are certainly possible - and visible today on the Internet. If one looks at the kind of language used in chatrooms, instant messaging, texting, and other genres of language where the technology or the nature of the interaction requires short and speedy responses, then we find shorter sentences, reduced vocabulary, and simplified spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. I give some statistics and illustrations in my Language and the Internet - the second edition in 2005 includes instant messaging and blogging, which weren't around when the first edition appeared. It's too early to say whether any of these simplifications will have a long-term impact on language; they remain special varieties at present. But when you type rubarb, for example, into Google and you get 85,000 hits, it makes you wonder. Maybe English spelling will simplify, in the long term, as a result of Googlonian democracy.


Anonymous said...

Hello there,

As regards 'r(h)ubarb', not only do we have to expect to be googled-down any day now, but we also have to arm ourselves against losing readers, by means of dual spelling.

My yog(h)urt making pages are a case in point. I have to admit, Yahoo has always been more flexible, but how long is that going to last?

May I ask how you think the ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet) fits/has fitted into the simplification attempts?

My own experience in teaching with it has been very favourable, with hardly any sign of transition problems.

I only found your site last night and my head is swirling with queries. Far too many to bring up here. I wonder if I may point you to a page where I could upload some. Please zap this comment, as it doesn't really come up to the standard of your pages.

DC said...

Well I don't like zapping comments, especially when they raise new issues. I assume you mean the Pitman i.t.a. (several other 'initial teaching alphabets' have been proposed). This was a really interesting experiment, I thought. I met James Pitman once, and was impressed with his mix of evangelism and common sense. Kids seemed to like it, many started to read twice as quickly, and most didn't have a problem with the transition to standard orthography, as had been feared. But there were difficulties - for instance, it wasn't so good if you had an accent which wasn't accurately reflected in the i.t.a. symbols. And there was always a problem over the fact that, while the children were learnng i.t.a. in one learning environment, they were being exposed to traditional orthography everywhere else. After a while, there were lots of pros and cons, and the end result was that the approach never had the permanent impact its proponents hoped for. I haven't seen it in use for ages.

i.t.a. wasn't so much a method of simplification as a method of avoiding irregularity - or, rather, postponing it until children had grasped the notion that writing is essentially a regular relationship between sounds and spellings. What I think i.t.a. did was help focus minds on the relationship between phonology and orthography. It thus helped form a climate for the later development of a systematic phonics.

joco said...

Thank you for your considered reply. I had completely overlooked the accent factor in I.T.A.use.

Google and spelling: We will know when we are in trouble when the message coming up is: Did you mean rubarb?

I am puzzling today over 'kernel' and 'colonel', wondering if etymology will give way to pronunciation or vice versa.
A combination of 'colony' and 'pimpernel' seems quite feasible phonetically, but how will the army react ;-)

With kind regards,

DC said...

I wouldn't call it 'trouble'. If that message appears one day, all it will mean is that a new spelling has by then arrived, replacing an older one. If Google had been around in Dr Johnson's day, the message to anyone who typed in music would have been 'did you mean musick?' A generation later, it would have been the other way round. And of course, if both spellings gain equal acceptance, Google will simply pass over the variation in silence, as it does at present with such alternates as judg(e)ment, p(a)ediatrics, and so on.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Crystal,

As to your doubts concerning the attainability of a simplified English, I was wondering the following. Do you think it would be possible to have a simplified form of Egnlish parallel to, not as a replacement of, the full form of English? I envision this simplified form as one used worldwide for international communications, not as a replacement of the language in its current form in English-speaking countries.
One of the criticims against Ogden's BASIC English was that it was too restricted, which gave as a result more complex sentences. Is it possible that this could be solved by adding more vocabulary than he proposed?
With this simplified language system I imagine (naively perhaps?), non-English speakers around the world could receive instruction in the simplified form, as well as native English speakers who know they will have to interact with speakers who handle the simplified form. Instruction in the full form could continue for those who are really interested in and have the time to learn the language in more detail.
Is there anything that can be done about those students, often adults, that find out they will attend a conference say in England and are desperate to learn the language in months? As an EFL teacher I am aware that students often expect magical solutions and teachers are no magicians! However, if a simplified form existed, perhaps the immediate needs of these students could be satisfied. What are your thoughts on this? Thank you very much.

DC said...

The problem with all forms of simplified language is that they are much much easier to understand than to produce. (The same point applies to artificial languages.) I would be able to understand A's simplified English well enough, but learning all the rules that A has devised for it would be quite a task. And because I am already a fluent speaker of unsimplified English, there would always be interference from that source.

This difficulty especially affects vocabulary. It was bad enough with the restricted range Ogden used. People were always wanting to add 'just one more word', to help them out when Basic let them down. It is the same even with a more extensive restricted defining vocabulary, such as the one Longman uses in LDOCE. This has 2000 words, but you could argue that for teaching purposes this was either too many or too few.

It isn't just a matter of 'adding words'. Another complication is that words don't exist independently of grammar. The choice of many words controls which preposition follows them, or which type of complement construction, for instance. A 'simple' word, such as put may have complex grammatical consequences (e.g. requiring an adverbial).

My feeling is that any proposed system of simplified English would quickly face the same problems as those who propose systems of simplified spelling. People quickly fall out over what counts as 'simple'. Could there be agreed notions of simplification? One could get some clues from the ad hoc simplifications which teachers instinctively introduce when working with beginners or which authors use in writing books for young children. Even there, though, there is likely to be a great deal of variation in level and inconsistency.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Crystal,

For my research on linguistic simplification, I would like to know what is the most current estimate of English language speakers in the world today, whether as first or second language users. Which of your works, or any other, could you refer me to find this information? Your 2003 "English as a GLobal Language" states that by that time it was used by 1.5 billion people. Has this estimate changed?
Thank you very much.

DC said...

I haven't done any new counting since 2003, but given the way population has grown in certain critical nations (especially India), plus the renewed emphasis on English in China (anticipating the Olympics), the figure must by now be well on its way to 2 billion. This is in line with other current estimates, such as David Graddol's. See especially his English Next (2006).

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Crystal,

I encountered the word "eunymic" in Lancelot Hogben's Essential World English. I looked it up in the OED, in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and the American Heritage College Dictionary but with no success. I only came up with "euonymus" but I am not sure if the terms are related.
Thank you very much.

DC said...

This was one of a number of neologisms that were used by Hogben and others to try to capture the various semantic distinctions they wanted to express. A eunym was a word with a single characteristic meaning - for example, number words such as three and four. The contrast was with words with several meanings. I don't think the term ever caught on. A more widely used terminology today distinguishes monosemic and polysemic words.