What is Minimal English?
Minimal English is a highly reduced version of English designed to be as simple and cross-translatable as possible.The main resource at present is the edited book Minimal English for a Global World: Improved Communication Using Fewer Words (Goddard ed. 2018) . The book includes contribution from experts in diplomacy and international relations, ethics and law, science education, public communication and medicine, as well as NSM linguists. Other ongoing work is exploring how Minimal English can be used in language teaching and language learning, international development programs, and counselling, mediation and therapy.
Although based on research by NSM linguists, Minimal English is not NSM. It is different in purpose and in composition. Minimal English is intended for use by non-specialists, and for a wide and open-ended range of functions. It is the result of taking NSM research “out of the lab” and into the wider world – not as the sole language of communication, but as an auxiliary or supplementary language.
Minimal English is a tool that can help people to say things in a way that is easier to understand and to translate across a language barrier. It also helps one to think more clearly because fewer words to choose from, one is forced to focus on the essential things that one wants to say.
Vocabulary of Minimal English
This section outlines the core vocabulary of Minimal English (around 300 words). It’s important to stress, though, that this core vocabulary can be expanded to suit particular contexts and needs.
The starting point is, of course, semantic primes and universal semantic molecules, because these meanings are, as far as we know, cross-translatable into all or most languages of the world. Along with the basic forms, variants and portmanteaus are included, e.g. ‘a lot’ as a variant of ‘much’ and ‘many’, ‘well’ as an adverbial variant of ‘good’, ‘he’ and ‘she’ for ‘this someone’, ‘both’ and ‘every’ as portmanteau words based on ‘all’, and also portmanteau time words, such as ‘sometimes’, ‘often’, ‘always’, and ‘never’.
The words in the table below are also part of the Minimal English lexicon. Some, such as ‘money’ and ‘book’, are semantic molecules that appear to be fairly widespread across the languages of the world, making them “high value” items for Minimal English even though they are not universal. Others are useful “international words”, such as ‘government’, ‘plastic’, and ‘photo’, for talking about things that matter to people all around the world as it is today.
Some non-universal but useful words for Minimal English
|hungry, brain, heart||Body|
river, mountain, desert, sea, island, jungle / forest
rain, wind, snow, ice, air
flood, storm, drought, earthquake
east, west, north, south
bird, fish, tree, seeds, grass, mosquitos, flies, snake
dog, cat, horse, cow, pig, (camel, buffalo, moose, etc)
|month, week, clock, hour, second||Times|
|house, village, city, school, hospital||Places|
|teacher, doctor, nurse, soldier||Professions|
|country, government, capital, border, flag, passport, vote||"Country"|
|science, the law, health, education, sport||"Fields"|
|meat, rice, wheat, corn, (yams, etc), flour, salt, sugar, sweet||Food|
|knife, key, gun, bomb, medicines||"Tools"|
paper, iron, metal, glass, leather, wool, cloth
thread, gold, rubber, plastic, oil, coal, petrol
car, bicycle, plane, boat, train, road, wheel, wire, engine
pipe, telephone, television, radio, phone
|Technology and transport|
|read, write, book, photo, newspaper, film||Literacy and media|
|money, God, war, poison, music||Other: nouns|
|look at, go / went, eat, drink, take (someone somewhere), burn, buy / pay, learn||Other: verbs|
It is not necessarily problematical to introduce into local versions of Minimal English, various locally important words for natural kinds and “concrete” things. For example, in the Pacific it would not necessarily create any problems to add the words ‘canoe’ or ‘betel nut’. It is important, however, to avoid using “abstract” English words because abstract words in any language, e.g. words for values, ideals, and emotions, are typically very culture-specific.
Finally, it is important to stress that Minimal English is very different from C.K. Ogden’s “Basic English” and from other reduced forms of English, such as Wikipedia Simple English. The reason is that these other systems were not devised with cross-translatability in mind and therefore include numerous complex and English-specific words.
An example of Minimal English
Here is a one-paragraph text in Minimal English relevant to science education. Many school textbooks tell the story of changing ideas and discoveries about the Universe over the centuries from Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo and into modern times. The extract describes the importance of the telescope.
A Minimal English text about Galileo’s telescope
Galileo looked at the stars not like other people looked at them before. Because of this, he could see them well, not like people could see them before. When he was looking at them, he was holding something of one kind near his eyes. When someone holds something of this kind near the eyes, this someone can look at some places very far from the place where this someone is. A thing of this kind is called “a telescope.” When Galileo looked at the sky at night like this, he could see some places very far from the Earth well.
As well as semantic primes, this passage uses seven non-prime, but easily translatable, words: ‘stars’, ‘look at’, ‘hold’, ‘eyes’, ‘be called’, ‘sky’ and ‘at night’. Elsewhere in the same text, other non-primitive words like ‘the Sun’, ‘the Earth’ and ‘Moon’ are used, as one would expect. The example also shows how “new” words, such as ‘telescope’, can be introduced as necessary by using the Minimal English expression ‘is called’.
A notable point is that the wording of the second sentence of the text avoids the untranslatable “comparative construction”. It would have been easy to say that, using his telescope, Galileo could see the stars ‘better’ than other people before him, but some languages don’t have “comparative” words like ‘better’ (‘bigger’, ‘faster’, etc.).
This highlights the fact that when using Minimal English, we have to be careful to keep the grammar as simple as possible, and especially, to avoid using English grammar structures which are known to be non-translatable into many languages.
Two other non-universal constructions that need to be avoided in Minimal English are what grammarians call indirect speech (the “say that ...” construction) and the comparable “think that ...” construction. To ensure good translatability, it is better to use constructions such as: He/she said something like this: “ X Y Z” (instead of “said that ...”) and I think about it like this: “ X Y Z” (instead of ‘think that’).
Minimal English and Global English
As English becomes a global lingua franca and global communication becomes easier, it is tempting to think that intercultural communication problems will soon be a thing of the past, but this is far from the truth. Like any other language, English (including Global English) carries its own cultural baggage and includes a host of non-cross-translatable words. These include key words of Anglo culture, such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘fair’ and ‘rude’, ‘fact’ and ‘evidence’. These lack precise equivalents even in most European languages, despite the existence, in some cases, of familiar “near-enough” translations or semi-translations.
As well, Global English includes many key words of the larger European culture, present not only in English but in other European languages – words such as ‘system’, ‘structure’, ‘information’, ‘rational’, ‘politics’, and ‘art’.
As global discourse is increasingly dominated by English this means that it is also being dominated by English-specific or Euro-specific concepts.
Minimal English offers a way to get around this problem, in a limited way, by providing a way of using English which is “minimally English” in its cultural underpinnings. As well, since Minimal English has its counterparts in other minimal languages (Minimal Chinese, Minimal Spanish, etc.), expressing important messages and ideas in Minimal English makes them maximally translatable into the other languages of the world.
Minimal English is not only, or even mainly, about translating existing texts. In information-based “technical writing” of all kinds (e.g. school textbooks, health guidelines, safety manuals, consumer and tours information) it makes sense to write for translatability from the onset, i.e. to compose the texts, as far as possible, in cross-translatable words.
The prospects for Minimal English
The idea behind Minimal English is not to oppose global English, but rather to provide a tool to enable English to be used – when and as necessary – in way which is as intelligible and as cross-translatable as possible.
Needless to say, there will be sceptics and opponents. Some people simply refuse to acknowledge that there is any problem, either denying the cultural specifics of English altogether or else taking comfort in the view that localisation will overcome Anglicisation and that all will be well in the end.
Another obstacle is that simple vocabulary is a turn-off for some people, no matter how elegantly it is used and regardless of the content. Sometimes it comes down to a fear of sounding “childish”. Sometimes it is the resistance of highly-educated people to giving up their hard-earned skills as “wordsmiths” of the English language.
In one chapter of Minimal English for a Global World, Goddard and Wierzbicka (2018: 24) speak about the Minimal English project as “open and ongoing”. They continue: “We would like to think that there will soon be a “movement” for Minimal English – and we would like to think that the spirit behind this movement will be practical, open to adaptation, improvisation.”
Much will depend on the uptake by non-linguists in multiple fields, by people who see the value of expressing ideas and messages in clear and simple words, and are prepared give it a go. Initial indications are promising.