Tag Archives: basic english

Britain’s three dumbest languages of government

When people think of the British languages, the most common ones to talk about are the big ones: English, Welsh, maybe Scots, Cornish, and Gaelic. But there are other languages in this country, that get used to a greater or lesser degree.

Devonian

Little information is available about the early language of Somerset and Devon. Except that appears to have been part of a Celtic language that was spoken in Cornwall and Brittany. A Joseph Biddulph has published a small pamphlet which theorises on the language, and claims it as the language of Devon. Beyond this, there’s been no serious attempt to revive the language, which almost definitely went extinct in the early medieval period.

It’s a little odd,but this language was used in a legislature as recently as 2002, when a west-country UKIP MEP called Graham Booth gave his maiden speech to the EU parliament in Old Devonian. He wanted his speech to make fun of the European unity, it’s perhaps a shame he choose to do this by drawing attention to the fact that at one stage his constituents had been closely related to people across the channel.

Law French

Norman tapestry of soldiers
“A ceste Bille les Seigneurs sont assentus!”

Norman is still spoken in Normandy, and in the Channel Islands. But it’s also regularly used in parliament. It became an official language in 1066, for reasons the should be obvious. While usage of it didn’t take off in Britain as a whole its use by lawyers and rulers meant that it developed a set of phrases that were useful for law. It was used in courts until 1362 and lectures and debates for trainee lawyers were held in it until the 16th century. It was still in use in a degenerate form as late as 1688.

The last proper record of Law French comes from marginal notes written by Chief Justice George Trelby, they read:

“Richardson, ch. Just, de C. Banc al Assises at Salisbury in Summer 1631. fuit assault per prisoner la condemne pur felony que puis son condemnation ject un Brickbat a le dit Justice que narrowly mist, & pur ceo immediately fuit Indictment drawn per Noy envers le prisoner, & son dexter manus ampute & fix al Gibbet sur que luy mesme immediate- ment hange in presence de Court.”

Even though Law French was described as archaic and unhelpful 700 years ago, it’s still used in Parliament to describe the passage of a Bill into law.

Basic English

Basic English was an attempt to simplify English for people who didn’t speak it as a first language. It had only 850 words and a grammar which was meant to be easier to learn than the English one.

The first person to mention the language in the British parliament was Sydney Silverman, a backbench Labour MP who began his career as a conscientious objector in WWI and ended it in CND. He was mocked by Churchill for his comments at the time, but obviously won him over in the long run because debates over Basic English continued in parliament throughout World War II. Proving perhaps that even during war-time, parliament has time to waste.

IngSoc PosterA white paper on encouraging the language for use in administration was written in 1944 and in 1947 the government paid £23,000 to obtain the copyright on the language. The Basic English Foundation was formed in 1947 and seems to have run until 1971. The closest thing we have to a legacy is George Orwell’s satire of it, NewSpeak.

I don’t know if anyone ever suggested translating Norman French notes into Basic English, but they should have done. It would have been excellent opportunity to replace an old stupid tradition with a shiny new stupid tradition.