Words on the big outside place

At noon on Friday of last week (the 10th), this event at Santa Clara University, an Environmental Studies & Sciences seminar:

Faculty will attempt to describe their research using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in English. Should be fun!

(Each talk about 5 minutes long.)

(Hat tip to Peter Ross, in Mathematics at SCU, who remarked to me on the restriction in the announcement and wondered how it was to be enforced.)

The scheduled talks:

John Farnsworth: “Thinking about the Big Outside Place”

Michelle Bezanson: “Studying weird hair-covered animals with large brains at field places: hurts on the outsides, students, and the near-living real people”

Hari Mix: “Making it rain: How water trains in the sky get stuff really wet when they hit land”

CJ Gabbe: “Do people who build housing do what they are supposed to do?”

Iris Stewart-Frey: “How water on land will change when it is too warm for ice”

Virginia Matzek: “The good things that happen for people when we put back the groups of trees that were there before we cut them down”

Ed Maurer: “How the air moves, how hot it gets, and how much it rains is changing

It was all about the environment, aka the big outside place.

I immediately recognized the reference to “the 1,000 most commonly used words in English”: Ogden’s Basic English, an earnest attempt to create a kind of conlang from English by restricting and sharpening the resources available to users, especially those who are native speakers of other languages. From Wikipedia:

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…

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.

… 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.

(A word in this context is roughly what lexicographers call a lemma. In particular, different inflectional forms — BSE go, PRP going, PSP gone, PRS go, goes, PST went — count as a instances of a single word. But in addition, a word / lemma corresponds to a headword in a dictionary, embracing a set of senses with the same orthographic or phonological shape. More on this second complication below.)

In addition to these resources, users need what amounts to a bilingual dictionary, from ordinary English to Basic English. This is the provided by the General Basic English Dictionary:

(#1) “giving more than 40,000 senses of over 20,000 [English] words in Basic English”

I haven’t consulted this dictionary, but I assume that, faced with the technical term environment in the usage

(the environment) the natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographical area, especially as affected by human activity. (NOAD)

the dictionary supplies something like big outside place in Basic English. This is not actually an advance, since this use of big outside place is not semantically transparent: the environment is not in fact merely some place that is big and outside of where we are. That is, big outside place must be understood as a metaphor-based idiom of Basic English, an expression whose meaning must be learned, just as the meaning of the expression the environment must be learned in ordinary English.

Then there’s a problem induced in part by Basic English’s reliance on high-frequency words / lemmas of English: as is well-known, each of these is semantically multifarious, each representing a large set of conventionalized senses related historically by metaphor, metonymy, semantic specializations, and so on. Consider the preposition on in the title of this posting, and its alternative about. Both are high-frequency items in English, with an enormous number of uses (even single-volume dictionaries list dozens of senses for each). What Basic English provides is an account of the specially spatial uses, visually in illustrations like this:

(#2) Basic English prepositions

Non-spatial uses of the prepositions tend to arise through natural metaphors, along lines that have been much studied, in a variety of languages, but the details are matters of convention, and differ from language to language and variety to variety. In English, on and about mark phrases denoting the subject or topic of some discourse, while over does not (though that would make sense, and OVER markers function this way in other Germanic languages); in English, by marks an agent phrase in passives, while from does not (though that would make sense, and FROM markers function this way in other Germanic languages); and so on.

If such usage details carry over from ordinary English to Basic English, they’ll have to be taught; a display like #2 won’t cut it.

Meanwhile, Basic English can serve as a source of academic playfulness, as it did at SCU last week.

2 Responses to “Words on the big outside place”

  1. Peter Ross Says:

    Interesting, Arnold. I’d never heard of “Basic English”, and the word “lemma” only in its mathematical sense of a minor proposition used in proving a theorem.
    I liked that box of Basic English Prepositions. An amusing anecdote about “up”: my twin sister uses it where it’s superfluous, as in “Did you order up that CD?” I think its use there sounds low-class, but I dare not tell her that!
    Peter

  2. [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky notes a new effort to employ the principles of Basic English, conveying as much meaning as possible with […]

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