Rediscovered: the Bible in Basic English Collection

James Peters has created another in our occasional series describing work being undertaken on some of our less well-known collections.

Basic English is a simplified form of English, devised by the linguist Charles Kay Ogden in the 1920s. It has a basic vocabulary of 850 words and 16 verbs. Its primary purpose was to be a quick and effective means of teaching English to non-speakers, but its advocates believed Basic English could also promote greater international co-operation and friendship.

Basic English enjoyed a vogue during the Second World War, winning approval from figures as eminent as Churchill and Roosevelt.  However, others criticised Basic English’s radical simplifications, and George Orwell is said to have used it as a model for Newspeak in his novel 1984. By the 1950s its influence had waned, although Basic English has continued to be used for teaching English as a foreign language.

One of the most important Basic English projects was a translation of the Bible, completed in 1949. A small archive of papers relating to this project was purchased by the Library in 1981, and has recently been catalogued by Alison Hall, a Liverpool University archives student.

Alison writes:

“A newly catalogued collection explores the development of a linguistic system called Basic English. The Bible in Basic English archive consists of over 600 letters, notes, cuttings and typescripts relating to this project run by Ogden’s Orthological Institute. The collection reflects an interesting if largely forgotten chapter in the publication history of the Bible in English.

Portrait of Charles Kay Ogden (1889-1957) by an unknown artist. Wikipedia image.

Charles Kay Ogden (1889-1957) invented Basic English during the 1920s, setting out its main features in Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1930). In the succeeding decade, Basic English was used for a number of everyday texts, notably the Bible.

Christian Churches were very interested in Basic English as they believed it would facilitate international missionary work. Ogden recruited eminent Biblical scholars such as Samuel Hooke and Theodore H. Robinson to work on the translation, and the archive reveals the often difficult process they faced in using the Basic English vocabulary to capture both the meaning and the poetry of the Biblical text.  Ogden did most of the work on the New Testament, which was published in 1941, followed by the complete Bible in 1949 (both published by Cambridge University Press).

Publisher’s flier for the Bible in Basic English (ref. BBE/1/19/7).

Highlights of the collection include a copy of the original project proposal and correspondence with Professor Hooke relating to his brief. There is an amusing note by Ogden (1939) on the vices of adultery and drunkenness in the Bible and the difficulty of rendering them into Basic English. There are also a number of letters from both enthusiasts and critics of Basic English about various translation controversies, in particular relating to the attack by C.S. Lewis published in the Times Literary Supplement in December 1944.

The collection will be of particular interest to those interested in linguistics, the teaching of English as a second language, Biblical scholarship, and missionary history.

The collection catalogue is now available on ELGAR.”

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