Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

When Churchill flirted with Basic English

Monday, 7 May, 2012

In the early 1920s, a rather eccentric Cambridge academic named C.K. Ogden came up with the idea of “Basic English“, which reduced the language to 850 words. One can imagine Winston Churchill, then in his mid-forties, having been shocked by such an idea, but circumstances change cases and, astonishingly, the great orator and author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples found that Basic English had its war-time merits. The first recorded mention of his support for the notion dates from an Anglo-American summit with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Quebec in August 1943, when he was proposing a closer union between Britain and the United States. Eight months later, in April 1944, having heard nothing from Washington, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt stating: “My conviction is that Basic English will then prove to be a great boon to mankind in the future and a powerful support to the influence of the Anglo-Saxon people in world affairs.”

Filled with enthusiasm for the idea, Churchill formed a Cabinet committee on Basic English and appointed Leo Amery, then Secretary of State for Burma, to chair it. Amery had been a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, a great writer as well as a stout imperialist and, as the late Christopher Hitchens put it in Blood, Class and Nostalgia, “It is hard to think of a man less likely to acquiesce in the reduction of English to 850 words.” Eventually, Roosevelt replied. Snippet:

“Incidentally, I wonder what the course of history would have been if in May 1940 you had been able to offer the British people only ‘blood, work, eye water and face water,’ which I understand is the best that Basic English can with five famous word.”

Thus, with a deft jab of WASPish sarcasm, Basic English was banished forever from the “Special Relationship”. Curiously, George Orwell was also an early fan of Basic English, but he turned against it and used the concept as the basis for the dreaded Newspeak of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Churchill


Comments are closed.