Simplified Vocabularies: Political Correctness and Thought ControL
who want to control people’s language, whether for good reasons or bad,
typically pick on the words they use rather than on their pronunciation or their
grammar. Political correctness hinges upon not
saying words that are believed offensive for one reason or another: don’t say handicapped, say disabled.
Political control of language like Orwell’s Newspeak
is an extreme form of language control, which restricts what people think by
controlling what they say.
benign control such as Richards and Ogden’s Basic English simplifies the
vocabulary of English for practical, well-intentioned reasons. If everybody in
the world used the same words with the same meaning,
international communication would be so much easier. And reducing the number of meanings
attached to each word might help even more. If, say, the word reader
only meant ‘person who reads’, not a ‘member of a library’ or ‘machine
for reading’ or ‘senior academic’, we would use it with greater clarity
and consistency – if that is what we are after.
as Lingua Franca (ELF) has been proposed to act as a tool that anyone anywhere
in the world can use to talk to anyone else, not to be confused with the
traditional EFL (English as a Foreign Language). In ELF the simplifications
arise from how the people talk to each other, for instance being
over-explicit, black colour
rather than just black, or
saving on the sounds so that the ‘th’ in theme
and in them are pronounced the same. The strength of ELF is that it is
detached from any particular country – you are not linking yourself with say
the United Kingdom or Canada if you use a neutral form that suits the needs of
its users rather than those of native speakers of ‘standard’ English.
Nevertheless many still believe in the importance of a standard language or
culture: learning English for them implies conforming to a national standard
whether English, Canadian or Indian, not being a world citizen unattached to any
smaller, more consistent, vocabulary could be a boon to second language users
who want to communicate through English despite a poor command of the language.
Since 1959 the Voice of America (VOA) has broadcast some of its programmes in
Special English, which has a
vocabulary of 1500 words listed in an on-line Word-Book
with brief descriptions:
for everyday objects,
- n. a farm animal used for its
for world events,
wreckage - n.
what remains of something severely damaged or destroyed
substance - n.
the material of which something is made (a solid, liquid or gas)
also has a special section called Simple
English Wikipedia, based
on the Basic English 850 wordlist and the VOA Special English Word-Book. Two
examples recommended by them are:
countries, including Britain and France… >
Some countries, for example Britain and France ...
are like rugs. > Carpets
are similar to rugs.
the VOA, Wiki does not adopt a systematic approach to grammar, but exhorts
writers to keep it simple, by for instance avoiding the passive:
bird was eaten by the cat. > The cat ate the bird.
international language may be required for specific jobs; French was once the
language of diplomacy, German that of engineering. Pilots and air traffic
controllers for example use English all over in the world. In a nine-hour day at
a Turkish airport, the controllers had to deal with 278 pilots, only two of whom
were from English-speaking countries. Yet all of them were speaking English.
Several crashes have been caused by poor use of English. The Tenerife runway
crash in 1977 with 583 dead, still the biggest in aviation history, is partly
attributable to the pilot saying We are
now at takeoff. This could mean either ‘we are now at the takeoff
position’ – the air traffic
controller’s interpretation – or ‘we are now actually taking off’ – the pilot’s interpretation possibly based on what it would
mean in his native Dutch. The pilot’s last words in a fatal crash in China
were, in Chinese, What
does ‘pull up pull up’ mean?
of English for flying include changing Yes
and No to the clearer Affirmative
and Negative, changing Roger
to Will comply as Roger might
mean ‘I have understood but am taking no action’, and changing the names of
NOGAL and NOGAR because
Japanese air traffic controllers have trouble distinguishing English ‘r’ and
‘l’. Simplified English is also needed for cabin announcements in
emergencies, such as jump
jump and brace
brace – the latter hardly within most people’s active vocabularies and
not directly found in the OED, an ELF usage as native English requires yourself
– brace yourself.
in turn have relied on a simplified English called Seaspeak
to enable ships to talk to each other, designed in the 1960s. It was designed to
prevent problems such as those encountered with the stranding of an oil tanker
in Milford Haven when a Chinese tug was unable to help because its crew had such
low knowledge of English that the authorities had to borrow a
cook from a Chinese restaurant to act as interpreter. The tanker was
incidentally owned by Norwegians and crewed by Russians. Ships at sea need some
reliable form of communication between such multilingual seamen.
interesting thing about Seaspeak is
not so much its simple vocabulary as its way of showing grammar through
‘message markers’. If you want to make a statement, you start the sentence
with the marker Information:
Information: I need food.
you give your reason:
Reason: I am hungry.
of just asking a question, you start with the marker Question:
Question: Why are you
the reply starts with Answer:
Answer: I haven’t eaten
for three days.
intention is to make each sentence unambiguous. There is no problem
you lift that chair?
a request or a question if it is labelled:
Request: Can you lift that
chair? (and put it by the fireplace)
Question: Can you lift that
chair? (and show me how strong you are)
is now largely superseded as an international standard by SMCP (standard marine communication phrases).
of English form another large group with a need for simple vocabulary. Learners
can’t take in the whole dictionary in a gulp so teachers have to decide which
words to prioritise, usually choosing to start with words that are highly
frequent such as man or words whose meanings
are easy to get across like chair. My
own beginner’s coursebook for English, People
and Places, used a vocabulary of 850 words; most beginner’s books have a
dictionaries for learners of English have used a simplified vocabulary for
definitions, avoiding such well-known problems as the definition of cat
as ‘feline quadruped’ – the words for explaining a word should be simpler
than the word itself. In addition for many years publishers have provided
simplified readers for students using limited vocabulary. The Longman Bridge
Series for instance kept to the most frequent 7000 words and explained all of
those outside a 3000 limit.