Simplified Vocabularies: Political Correctness and Thought Control

Vivian Cook 

Online Writings 

Those 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.

More 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.

English 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 country.

A 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:

·        words for everyday objects,

            pig - n. a farm animal used for its meat

·        words for world events,

            wreckage - n. what remains of something severely damaged or destroyed

·        words for science,

            substance - n. the material of which something is made (a solid, liquid or gas)

Wikipedia 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:

Some countries, including Britain and France…  > Some countries, for example Britain and France ...

Carpets are like rugs. > Carpets are similar to rugs.

Like the VOA, Wiki does not adopt a systematic approach to grammar, but exhorts writers to keep it simple, by for instance avoiding the passive:

            The bird was eaten by the cat. > The cat ate the bird.

An 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?

Simplifications 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 the Japanese navigation fixes 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.

Mariners 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.

The 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.

Then you give your reason:

            Reason: I am hungry.

Instead of just asking a question, you start with the marker Question:

            Question: Why are you hungry?

And the reply starts with Answer:

            Answer: I haven’t eaten for three days.

The intention is to make each sentence unambiguous. There is no problem understanding whether:

            Can you lift that chair?

is 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)

Seaspeak is now largely superseded as an international standard by SMCP (standard marine communication phrases).

Learners 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 similar figure.

Some 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.

EasyTalk Linguistic relativity Warning: words can be dangerous for your health  Basic English