In the past couple of weeks Twitter has been abuzz with explanations of the most complex topics in the simplest words (just see #upgoerfive). The leaders of this craze seem to be scientists and scholars playfully attempting to describe their research without drawing on their disciplinary jargons, but even somewhat banal topics are getting an outing.
For this new trend we have to thank Theo Sanderson’s Up-goer Five Text Editor, which checks as you type to make sure you’re sticking to the 1,000 most common words (here’s how it works). He got the idea from a recent xkcd cartoon describing the Saturn V rocket (shown above).
While all this may be just a bit of fun, a few generations ago it was serious business. From the end of the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth there was widespread interest in fashioning a new international language that would break down the linguistic boundaries between the nations of the world: Esperanto and Volapük are probably the best-known examples of these efforts today. As part of this movement, substantial research was done to find the most commonly used words – those that would surely be required in any international language. In the 1930s, for example, the New York-based International Auxiliary Language Association sponsored several projects to count the most frequently occurring words in general texts – no small undertaking in the days before computers.
The English scholar C.K. Ogden thought that if we were forced to use only a small number of everyday words then we would have to think about what we wanted to say and describe it precisely in easily understandable terms. His proposed international language, Basic English, limited speakers to 850 words, those which Ogden had ‘scientifically selected’ as the most useful (although not necessarily the most common).
Ogden’s Basic English never really caught on, but in the 1970s the Caterpillar Tractor Company developed Caterpillar Fundamental English, a reduced form of the English language for writing technical documents. They wanted an easy-to-learn variety of English for service manuals, so they could spare themselves the high costs of translation. But it soon became clear that Caterpillar Fundamental English was just as hard to learn as any other foreign language, and that even their technical writers had trouble sticking to its limits. Plus, they realised, there is a marketing advantage in talking to customers in their own language.