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Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

30                  The Loom of Language
and so destroy the enjoyment which the narrative supplies To get to
this stage with the minimum of effort involves realizing clearly what
the bare minimum of essential knowledge is.
Analogous remarks apply to self-expression When we realize what
is the essential muaimum for one or the othei, we can decide on what
we have to memorize deliberately > and what we can leave to look after
itself For self-expression or for reading, the essentials are of two
kinds, a minimum vocabulary of individual words, and a minimum of
grammatical rules3 le. rules about how words change and how to
arrange them in a sentence. Till recently, language text-books paid
little attention to the problem of how to build up this minimum vocabu-
lary. More modern ones have faced it and tackled it by basing selection
on words which are used most frequently,
There are several objections to the method of extracting from the
contents of a dictionary the thousand or so words which occur most often
in printed matter One is that many of the commonest words are
synonyms So while it is true that we can express ourselves clearly with
a little circumlocution if we know about fifteen hundred words of any
language (i e, about five months' work at the rate of only ten new words
a day), we might have to learn the fifteen thousand most common words
before we had at our disposal all the fifteen hundred words we actually
need. At best, word-frequency is a good lecipe for the first step towards
reading, as opposed to writing or to speaking Even so, it is not a very
satisfactory one, because the relative frequency of words vanes so much
m accordance with the kind of material we intend to read Words such
as hares and hawthorn, lyre and bilberry, plough and pigsty, are the
verbal stuffing of Nobel Prize novels They rarely intrude into business
correspondence, or even into the news columns
The statistical method used in compiling word-lists given in the
most modern text-books for teaching foreign languages evades the
essence of our problem If we want to get a speaking or writing equip-
ment with the minimum of effort, fuss and bother, we need to know
how to pick the assortment of words which suffice to convey the mean-
ing of any plain statement Any one who has purchased one of the
inexpensive litde books* on Basic English will find that C K. Ogden
has solved this problem for us. The essential list of only 850 words goes
on a single sheet, Mr, Ogden did not choose these words by first asking
the irrelevant question: which words occur most often in Nobel Prize
novels or in Presidential orations? The question he set himself was;
* Especially Basic English A General Introduction and Brighter Basic.