A Common Language


By PROFESSOR IVOR ARMSTRONG RICHARDS, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass

Delivered at the New York Herald-Tribune Forum, New York City, November 16, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 158-160.

DID Mrs. Reid say that I am talking tonight on Basic English? I'm not only talking on it, but in it. Among the suggestions yet made for a second common language, or an international language, Basic English has a special place for two reasons. One is that it is not a made-up language, it's not like Esperanto, or Ido or Novial, but is part of normal, every-day English, in fact. The other reason is that it is such a very small language, small enough to be printed on one side of a bit of business note paper. And yet, in this Basic it is possible to say almost anything. This is a talk in Basic English. You may be interested a in hearing what this little pocket language of 850 English words is like. I have been using Basic English so far and I will be keeping to it all through. Normally, there is no point at all in talking in Basic English when those who are hearing you have the rest of English. A man talking Basic, then, is a bit like a dog walking on its front legs only. Strange, maybe interesting for a minute or two, but there is no doubt he'd get on better on four legs. So it is only to give you an example of Basic at work that I am using it here tonight.

As a rule, we give surprisingly little attention, don't we, to the new conditions we will probably be facing tomorrow. Maybe we are certain that nothing will come of any attempts to see into the future. And yet the minute the new conditions are present, it will seem very clear that things had to be so. That sort of future was a necessary outcome of that sort of past, and any one with even half an eye for causes and effects might have seen what was coming.

Calls for Foresight

This is being wise after the event, and that's hard. But why didn't we see these changes on their way and get readyfor them? They take us by surprise again and again. Why don't we give more attention to the oncoming changes in their first, their earliest, stages, while they are still tendencies only, while there is still time to do something about it

I am giving this talk in Basic English here tonight only because one man, Mr. C. K. Ogden, in Cambridge, about 1920 did make an attempt to see what the great tendencies of our time were, the tendencies which had in them the seeds of the future. Looking into coming events as far as he might—in the cold daylight of 1920—he saw that every increase in man's powers would become a danger if not balanced by a like increase in control. We are learning more and more with the years about these dangers. At least, it is to be hoped we are learning something—about the need for better distribution which our new scale of producing goods has put upon us, about the need for wiser political ideas and wider political structures which our new scale in making wars has put upon us; about the need for a common second language which new developments in air transport, in radio, in the motion pictures have put upon us —to give only three examples.

Mr. Ogden took up the question of a second common language for every one as the work he himself might best do toward meeting the new and increased needs of tomorrow. I say "a second language" because Basic English is not designed to take the place of any one's mother tongue, French, Spanish, Russian or English. That's not part of its purposes, and in fact it doesn't have and won't have any tendency in that direction. After all, everything which has any value for any of us came to him through his mother tongue. If learning a second common language was going to take any one's language away from him, I for one would have nothing to do with it. And that's the feeling of allwho are responsible for Basic English. Basic is put forward only as a second language, as a simple way of getting enough common language for the everyday needs of trade, transport, news, science, political discussion, and men's businesses and interests generally.

I am still talking in Basic English only, so that you maysee it is regular normal English and not a form of "pidgin." You would be surprised at the numbers of people who say basic is a sort of "pidgin." Is it a sort of "pidgin"? Now "pidgin" is the first word I have said tonight which is not on the Basic list. And on all that sort of question of Basic and the rest of English, and the effects of talking Basic English in the sort of way that you may go on talking the rest of English later on, let me say this. Most learners of Basic get more than a little of the rest of English while they are learning their Basic. Basic is no air-tight vessel. It's a strong framework on which we may, any learner of Basic may, keep on hanging bits of the rest of English all the time. There is no danger that any one by learning Basic is going to be kept down to 850 words only of English. Our experience is that he goes on freely into the rest of English as far as he has any need to go, or any interest in going.

Uses of Basic Listed

Now what will be some of the first uses of Basic in the coming years? Here is one chief example—you have been hearing about it earlier this evening, but once one gets on the air waves it's hard to get off them, and here's the use of Basic in connection with air-transport. On that let me put two ideas before you. They are not new ideas, in fact, Mr. Pogue and Miss Cochran have given you both the ideas earlier this evening in what they said before me. Butthese, though they're not new ideas, they are ideas that it's hard to keep clearly in view. It's harder still to keep in mind all the outcomes. And yet, these two ideas are keys to our future.

One is that no place on earth is farther away from New York than sixty hours by airplane. (And in every great plant in which airplanes are being made there are planes being designed which will make present-day planes seem like Model-T Fords tomorrow). The outcome is clear: Men and women from all parts of the earth will be dropping down among us everywhere—men and women with every sort of mother tongue. We will be hearing all the chief languages of the earth in our airfields, in our streets and stores and offices, before we are very much older. The other of my two ideas is this: English—the English language in one form or another—is necessarily certainly going to become the common second language of the airways. Is there any possible doubt about that? Who, after the war—at the very time when the organization of general air transport is being put through—who will have the planes, the trained airmen, the men and women ready for work in the control stations at the airfields, the staging points, that was the name Mr. Pogue gave them, and the men and women needed for the upkeep of the planes? Who will be responsible for all that? The great plane-producing nations. They will have to put this work of organization through. It will be no attempt to get other nations under their thumb, but only the outcome of the simple fact that in the very process of overcoming the Axis they are producing the plants and the planes and the persons needed for running the airways.

In the air, between plane and control station, there is no time or room for more than one language. Every man andwoman in the international airways will have to have enough knowledge of one language to give and take directions—about landings, for example, and weather conditions changes of parts, machine trouble, and a hundred and one other things. And that one language, at present, will have to be some sort of English, some sort of safe-working English.

Used for Chinese Flyers

I saw a very clear example of this key fact early this summer at Luke Field, Arizona. I was watching the Chinese Air force getting its training there. There were these young Chinese airmen-to-be, with only four or five weeks in which to get enough knowledge of English to keep them safe in the air up there in the sky with their teachers and, a little later, when they are up there by themselves in a P-40 in cold and deadly fact hanging on the English words from the control stations coming to them through their earphones.

Well, how is it done? How are they given enough English in so short a time? It is done in a great measure through Basic English, with the addition naturally of the special words necessary for managing an airplane—words like "tachometer" and "gyroscope" for example. The instructors at Luke Field give them their basic air training through Basic English—the same Basic English I am using tonight.

Now, if Basic is going to be the language of the airways, what will be some of the general outcomes for trade? What new undertaking, what new forms of "pioneering"—to use one more word which isn't in Basic—what sort of newundertaking will be possible? Clearly our knowledge of other countries and their needs, and their knowledge of ours, will be much increased. And with that will come all sorts of new openings for industry and advertisement and trade in all sorts of ways.

And, more narrowly, wide new fields will be opened in connection with Basic English itself. Advertisements worded in Basic English are even now being given international distribution in the trade papers. Handbooks of airplane instruments are in wide use, written in Basic English. International newspapers meeting different sorts of needs are starting. Radio news talks, in Basic are in operation. And most important probably of all at this stage—the teaching of Basic English is offering quite new openings to the teaching motion picture. The sound motion picture, the teaching picture, specially designed for that purpose, is probably the best way of taking a learner quickly and safely into Basic English. "There are, reasons—I go into them in my book "Basic English And Its Uses"—why Basic and teaching through-the sound motion picture go specially well together.

And when that work has been done for English, it will have to be done for other languages—as far as their structure makes that possible, and after that there is the great work of giving every one. as much general knowledge as possible, as much science as possible, as much history as possible, and as forward-looking a point of view as possible through this second language—for the better meeting of minds among what we are hoping will become our more and more United Nations.