The Shape of Things to Come

Book the Fifth
The Modern State in Control of Life

7. Language and Mental Growth

H.G. Wells

(I print this section exactly as Raven wrote it down. It is, the reader will remark, in very ordinary twentieth-century English. Yet plainly if it is a part of a twenty-second-century textbook of general history it cannot have been written originally in our contemporary idiom. It insists upon a refinement and enlargement of language as if it had already occurred, but no such refinement is evident. It must have been translated by Raven as he dreamt it into the prose of to-day. If he saw that book of his at all, he saw it not with his eyes but with his mind. The actual page could have had neither our lettering, our spelling, our phrasing nor our vocabulary.)

ONE of the unanticipated achievements of the twenty-first century was the rapid diffusion of Basic English as the lingua franca of the world and the even more rapid modification, expansion and spread of English in its wake. The English most of us speak and write today is a very different tongue from the English of Shakespeare, Addison, Bunyan or Shaw; it has shed the last traces of such archaic elaborations as a subjunctive mood; it has simplified its spelling, standardized its pronunciation, adopted many foreign locutions, and naturalized and assimilated thousands of foreign words. No deliberate attempt was made to establish it as the world language. It had many natural advantages over its chief competitors, Spanish, French, Russian, German and Italian. It was simpler, subtler, more flexible and already more widely spoken, but it was certainly the use of Basic English which gave it its final victory over these rivals.

Basic English was the invention of an ingenious scholar of Cambridge in England, C. K. Ogden (1889-1990), who devoted a long and industrious life to the simplification of expression and particularly to this particular simplification. It is interesting to note that he was a contemporary of James Joyce (1882-1955), who also devoted himself to the task of devising a new sort of English. But while Ogden sought scientific simplification, Joyce worked æsthetically for elaboration and rich suggestion, and vanished at last from the pursuit of his dwindling pack of readers in a tangled prose almost indistinguishable from the gibbering of a lunatic. Nevertheless he added about twenty-five words to the language which are still in use. Ogden, after long and industrious experimentation in the reverse direction, emerged with an English of 850 words and a few rules of construction which would enable any foreigner to express practically any ordinary idea simply and clearly. It became possible for an intelligent foreigner to talk or correspond in understandable English in a few weeks. On the whole it was more difficult to train English speakers to restrict themselves to the forms and words selected than to teach outsiders the whole of Basic. It was a teacher of languages, Rudolph Boyle (1910-1959), who contrived the method by which English speakers learnt to confine themselves, when necessary, to Basic limitations.

This convenience spread like wildfire after the First Conference of Basra. It was made the official medium of communication throughout the world by the Air and Sea Control, and by 2020 there was hardly anyone in the world who could not talk and understand it.

It is from phonetically spelt Basic English as a new starting-point that the language we write and speak to-day developed, chiefly by the gradual resumption of verbs and idioms from the mother tongue and by the assimilation of foreign terms and phrases. We speak a language of nearly two million words nowadays, a synthetic language in fact, into which roots, words and idioms from every speech in the world have been poured. K. Wang in a recent essay has shown that there are still specializations of vocabulary. The vocabulary of a score of recent writers of Italian origin chosen haphazard shows a marked preference for words derived from the Latin, in comparison with twenty Eastern Asiatic writers whose bias is Chinese and American. Yet they can all understand one another and they are all in one undivided cultural field.

There are few redundancies in the new English of today and tomorrow, and there is an increasing disposition to take synonyms, and what used to be classified as “rare” or “obsolete” terms, and re-define them to convey some finer shade of meaning. Criticism, in the form of the Dictionary Bureau, scrutinizes, but permits desirable additions. One can feel little doubt about the increasing delicacy and precision of expression to-day if we compare a contemporary book with some English classic of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. That is still quite understandable to us, but in its bareness and occasional ineptitudes it seems halfway back to the limitations and lumberingness of Early English or Gothic.

The fuller the terminology the finer the mind. There can be very little doubt that the brain of a twentieth-century man compared with the brain of an ordinary man to-day, though in no way intrinsically inferior, was a far less polished and well-adjusted implement. It was warped by bad habits, cumbered with a tangle of unsound associations, clogged with unresolved complexes; it was like a fine piece of machinery in a state of dirt and neglect. The modern brain is far more neatly packed and better arranged, cleaner and better lubricated. It not only holds much more, but it uses the larger keyboard of our contemporary language more efficiently. The common man to-day is apt to find the philosophers and “thinkers” of two centuries ago unaccountably roundabout, tedious and encumbered. It is not so much that he finds them obscure, but that when at last he has dragged the meanings out of their jungles of statement into the light of day he finds he has thought all round them.

An interesting and valuable group of investigators, whose work still goes on, appeared first in a rudimentary form in the nineteenth century. The leader of this group was a certain Lady Welby (1837-1912), who was frankly considered by most of her contemporaries as an unintelligible bore. She corresponded copiously with all who would attend to her, harping perpetually on the idea that language could be made more exactly expressive, that there should be a “Science of Significs”. C. K. Ogden and a fellow Fellow of Magdalene College, I. A. Richards (1893-1977), were among the few who took her seriously. These two produced a book, The Meaning of Meaning, in 1923 which counts as one of the earliest attempts to improve the language mechanism. Basic English was a by-product of these enquiries. The new Science was practically unendowed, it attracted few workers, and it was lost sight of during the decades of disaster. It was revived only in the early twenty-first century.

Then Carl Ratan became the centre of a group of workers inspired by the idea of making English more lucid and comprehensive and a truly universal language. His work has expanded into the voluminous organization of the Language Bureau as we know it to-day. The work of that Bureau has been compared to the work of the monetary experts who finally made money exact a hundred and fifty years ago. Just as civilization was held back for some centuries by the imperfections of the money nexus, so we begin to realize to-day that our intellectual progress is by no means so rapid as it might be because of the endless flaws and looseness of the language nexus.

An interesting compilation in hand, which promises to become a veritable history of philosophy and knowledge is the Language Discard. This project was originally set going by the Dictionary Section of the Language Bureau, as a mere account rendered of obsolete or obsolescent terms or terms which have become greatly altered from their original meaning; but the enquiry into the reasons for these changings and preferences and abandonments led very directly into an exhaustive analysis of the primary processes of human thought. A series of words, “soul spirit, matter, force, essence”, for example, were built into the substance of Aryan and Semitic thought almost from their beginnings, and it was only quite recently that the exhaustive analyses by Yuan Shan and his associates of these framework terms made it clear that the processes of Chinese and Negro thinking were by no means parallel. Translation between languages, in all matters except matters of material statement, is always a little loose and rough, but between the ideology underlying the literature of Eastern Asia or the attempts of Africans to express themselves and that embodied in the ruling language of to-day the roughness approaches violence. That clash, as it is examined, is likely to produce very extensive innovations in our philosophical (general scientific) and technical nomenclature. We are speaking and writing a provisional language to-day. Our great-grandchildren will no more think of using many of our terms and turns of expression to-day than we should think of resorting again to the railway train, the paddle steamboat and the needle telegraph.

This rearrangement of the association systems of the human brain which is now in progress brings with it—long before we begin to dream of eugenic developments—the prospect of at present inconceivable extensions of human mental capacity. It will involve taking hold of issues that are at present quite outside our grasp. There was a time when early man was no more capable of drawing a sketch or threading a needle than a cow; it was only as his thumb and fingers became opposable that the powers of craftsmanship and mechanism came within his grip. Similarly we may anticipate an enormous extension of research and a far deeper penetration into reality as language, our intellectual hand, is brought to a new level of efficiency.

There is not only this sharpening and refinement of the brain going on, but there has been what our great grandparents would have considered an immense increase in the amount, the quality, and the accessibility of knowledge. As the individual brain quickens and becomes more skilful, there also appears a collective Brain, the Encyclopædia, the Fundamental Knowledge System which accumulates, sorts, keeps in order and renders available everything that is known. The Encyclopædic organization, which centres upon Barcelona, with its seventeen million active workers is the Memory of Mankind. Its tentacles spread out in one direction to millions of investigators, checkers and correspondents, and in another to keep the educational process in living touch with mental advance. It is growing rapidly as the continual advance in productive efficiency liberates fresh multitudes of workers for its services. The mental mechanism of mankind is as yet only in its infancy.

Adolescence perhaps rather than infancy. It is because the mind of man is growing up that for the first time it realizes that it is young.

The Shape of Things to Come - Contents    |     Book 5 - 8. Sublimation of Interest

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