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- "Prospects for Global English: Back to BASIC ?" by David Simpson
The Yale Journal of Criticism - Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 1998, pp. 301-307
The Johns Hopkins University Press
In its first section, the article explores what "global English" could or should be in a "postnational along with a postmodern era" --- given the basically unplanned development of English, "policed locally and variably rather than by a grand vision of a single design." The author then proceeds to focus on his central theme: "I want to bring up for new inspection the most important effort we have had at providing exactly the rationalized, established standard whose absence I have been describing: the movement for BASIC. Its aspirations and its failures can tell us a good deal about where we stand now."
Simpson provides a brief history of BASIC, noting that
By the late 1930s BASIC was being disseminated, though not always with governmental sponsorship and in varying degrees, In China, Japan, India, Russia, Australia, North and South America and Europe. Churchill and Roosevelt noticed it and supported it, though of course they had other things on their minds. BASIC is remarkably supple and capacious: Richards used to enjoy writing whole pages in BASIC before telling us what he was doing, assuming that we had probably not noticed any difference from ordinary English. Ogden's translations of texts such as Genesis or the Gettysburg Address were fluent and even elegant. The whole effort was consciously humanitarian. Ogden thought that the success of BASIC would mean "less chance of war" and a new internationalism giving "everyone the feeling that this little earth was pulling itself together." [ … ] Richards had the same hopes, and indeed continued to work for BASIC and for analogous or modified projects of his own devising for the rest of his life. Much of John Paul Russo's superb biography is given over to an account of his career.
He then goes on to ask and try to answer : "So why did BASIC fail, and what can we learn from its failures? Both Ogden and Richards were very aware of accusations of 'cultural imperialism,' and both worked hard to assure everyone that BASIC was to be a second language, not an official world monotype." The author also explores other reasons, centering in particular on the reluctance in British and American universities, "with their literature-based pedagogies, to take BASIC seriously," namely the fact that BASIC was not "literary" English, which means that it aimed at "the minimum precise sense and not the maximum range of senses," so that it was not hard for the literature-oriented English departments to dismiss BASIC as "intellectually and culturally empty."
The article closes by noting:
As I write, Chinese air traffic controllers are in the United States trying to master the 500 words and phrases needed to function efficiently in English, which is now the legal language of the world's air traffic. A number of lives have been lost in crashes caused by poor or misunderstood communications. Is it not pertinent to wonder whether BASIC might have a role to play here in providing enough grammatical and semantic framing to make these 500 words clearer than they might otherwise be?
He stresses that BASIC had a "democratic imperative" that does not need to conflict with the mastery of specialized forms of English such as Business English or literary English, and that language should play a role in the "debate about globalism and global culture : [ … ] to raise even these questions is at least to break the silence --- a silence, as it happens, made noisy with our claims for the supreme powers of --- of all things --- language."
[synopsis by Bill Templer]
- "Machine Translation and Global English" by Rita Raley
The Yale Journal of Criticism - Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 2003, pp. 291-313
This essay critiques Warren Weaver's articulation of machine translation as a
problem of cryptography and his analogizing of the treatment of language within
the context of machine translation to C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards's Basic
English project. Basic language, with its privileging of communicability and
immediate legibility, is the precondition for the global network of programming
languages. Focusing on the underlying principles of machine translation,
functionality, and performativity, this essay argues for a homology between
machine translation and global English: both exist in the technocratic mode and
abide by the principle of instrumental rationality.
As the status and legitimation of knowledge are continually re-engineered, it follows that the global business of language would fundamentally change. The field of machine translation no longer truly debates the question of what constitutes a perfect, totally automated, or even high-quality translation. The issue, rather, is functionality; that is, whether the machine translation system can produce automated output that is sufficiently usable, without human intervention, while still remaining cost-effective and facilitating global financial trade. Both Global English and machine translation abide by the principle of instrumental rationality and exist in the technocratic mode as Daniel Bell outlines it, whereby "the ends have become simply efficiency and output." Both operate in the mode "of production, of program, of 'getting things done'." With Global English as a precursor network and medium of late twentieth-century communication, computer languages maintain a parallel currency and legitimation. Like the reorganization of the oil industry after the influx of digital technologies, the old economy of English studies has itself been made new as the market focus for corporations, governments, and schools alike has shifted to functionality and efficiency, and specifically to the means by which information is retrieved, exchanged, and transmitted. Lyotard has explained how the nature of knowledge has fundamentally changed and how the relevance and value of research will increasingly become a matter of translatability into the computer banks: "We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language." English has been able to survive the fundamental changes that have resulted from a re-organization of knowledge and information, then, precisely because it has been amenable to processing as information and to interfusion with informatic codes.
Language technologies are already a significant growth industry, and the market for advanced machine translation programs continues to expand, but this industry's constant and rapid transformation, its unpredictability, and the unpredictability of its consumers, virtually guarantee that contingency will have a great deal to do with the outcomes and futures of English, even in its current operative incarnation. We cannot say with any degree of certainty what the literal and precise order of language would be were the vision of immediate and universal translation realized, except to speak about its becoming-code, its functioning as a code. Neither the narrative of imposition nor the narrative of radical multiplicity and fragmentation can stand. Instead we have to consider language in this context, and specifically the English language, as a basic neutral code operative and operable as a virus, insinuating itself into various networks, with the hosts accepting, not rejecting, the transmission. This is code-switching of a different order. (307-8)