Otto Jespersen on English

In Novialiste (3, 1934) Jespersen reviewed a book my M. Follick, The Influence of English (Williams & Norgate). He made this review the platform of a general expression on the question of English, of which he was a great master and admirer, as an auxiliary language. "Although English is easier than other languages," he says, "it is not easy enough. The spelling is so absurd that small changes as those favoured by Theodore Roosevelt are useless; we must have a fundamental revolution based on pronunciation ... but such spelling reform is not sufficient. To make English a really easy enough language for the whole world to accept it as a universal language, it is essential to simplify considerably its grammar. The ideal of the author is something similar to Pidgin English. This suggestion interested me as I have studied all such languages, Pidgin, Beach-la-Mar, etc., and have written a long chapter in my book Language, its nature, development and origin (Allen & Unwin); I have called them `Minimum languages.' I do not, however, agree with Mr. Follick when he believes that it would be possible or even easy to make the world adopt such a language in universal use - not only among exotic people but also in Europe. It would be too much of a parody of English, laughed at and mocked, and all those millions who know and love the old English language would not consider it a serious attempt to solve an important problem, but would turn away with horror. The author has not considered the natural feelings which are less shocked by a language constructed on the principles of Novial, than by English as Mr. Follick conceives it."

There have been attempts to reduce artificially the vocabulary of English to make it an auxiliary base language. J. Hubert Jagger gives us a considered view on the meaning of words contained in such lists. He says, "This subject of meaning is one of great importance. English words possess a remarkably large number of meanings: for example, to give the New English Dictionary ascribes 64 distinct senses, to take 63 senses, and to clear 25 adjectival senses." (English in the future, p. 84, Nelson). If we were to accept these words in a limited vocabulary and to try to persuade the foreigner that he need only learn these verbs with a similarly selected number of nouns and other words to be able to use them as an auxiliary language, we would be misleading him. For, to master even such a limited vocabulary, he will have to learn all the meanings in current use. This manifold multiplication of meanings would do away with the apparent advantages. This method does not point the way to a solution of the problem. Further down Jagger states another interesting fact, "... we possess a great number of partial synonyms, the profusion of which has rendered our tongue very hard for a foreigner to learn to use as we ourselves do, although a rudimentary command of it is soon acquired, because its structure is simple. Easy and comfortable to us who have spent our lives threading its infinite paths, our vocabulary is a bewildering labyrinth to the stranger."

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James Chandler 1997.