The Vocabulary of Minimal English
Minimal English lexicon consists of a core about 250 words, plus guidelines for how it can be expanded to meet the needs of particular situations. The core vocabulary consists of semantic primes, and some associated grammatical words, plus a similar number of universal semantic molecules, e.g. water, eyes, sky, plus words likely to be found in major world languages, e.g. money, book, sea.
It also includes other cross-translatable words, e.g. moon, stars, dead, and some words that may be hard to avoid in modern or international discourse, e.g. government, the law, plastic, photo, computer, phone, vote. Words like these are going to be extremely useful for talking about things that matter to people all around the world. Provided they are approximately translatable, and do not smuggle in too much Anglo and/or Euro cultural bias, there is no harm in including them in Minimal English.
|Universal and Near-Universal Semantic Molecules|
|hands, mouth, eyes, head, ears, nose, face, legs, teeth, fingers, breasts, skin, bones, blood|
|be born, children, men, women, mother, father, wife, husband|
|long, round, flat, hard, soft, sharp, smooth, heavy, sweet|
|stone, wood, made of|
|be on something, at the top, at the bottom, in front, around|
|sky, ground, sun, during the day, at night, water, fire, rain, wind|
|creature, tree, grow (in ground), egg, tail, wings, feathers, bird, fish, dog|
|we, know (someone), be called|
|hold, sit, lie, stand, sleep|
|play, laugh, sing, make, kill, eat, drink|
|Other useful words likely to be present, at least approximately, in most contemporary languages|
|river, mountain, jungle/forest, desert, sea, island|
|rain, wind, snow, ice, air|
|flood, storm, drought, earthquake|
|east, west, north, south|
|bird, fish, tree|
|dog, cat, horse, sheep, goat, cow, pig (camel, buffalo, caribou, seal, etc.)|
|mosquitoes, snake, flies|
|year, month, week, clock, hour|
|house, village, city|
|school, hospital, doctor, nurse, teacher, soldier|
|country, government, the law, vote, border, flag, passport|
|meat, rice, wheat, corn (yams, plantain, etc.), flour, salt, sugar, sweet|
|knife, key, gun, bomb, medicines|
|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, phone, computer|
|read, write, book, photo, newspaper, film|
|money, God, war, poison, music|
|go/went, burn, fight, buy/pay, learn|
Minimal English is “expandable”
It is important to note that Minimal English is “expandable”. It is not a closed system. If difficult “new words” have to be introduced they can be explained using the existing vocabulary, sufficiently for the purpose at hand.
It is not 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 word ‘kava’, in the Arctic it would not create problems to add the word ‘seal’.
Grammatical “do’s” and “don’ts” of Minimal English
Do use the semantic primes freely, using English “function words” like about, to, for, and with, in all the grammatical patterns listed on the Chart of NSM Semantic Primes. For example, it is alright to use SAY and DO as follows
… say something (good/bad) about something
… say something to someone
… do something good for someone
… do some things with some other people
All these patterns are translatable in meaning, even though their equivalents in other languages may use different function words, or not use any separate words at all.
Don’t assume that you can use a semantic prime in a certain way just because it is allowable in English. For example, the semantic prime DO cannot be grammatically extended with the word ‘about’, e.g. in a sentence like ‘I want to do something about it’. This expression ‘do something about …’ is not cross-translatable.
Don’t use other known non-universal constructions, such as:
(i) So-called “indirect speech”, e.g. He/she SAID that …
(ii) The comparable “think that ...” construction, e.g. I THINK that ….
To ensure good translatability, it is better to use constructions such as the following instead:
He/she SAID something like this: “ … ”
I THINK about it like this: “ …. ”
(iii) The comparative construction, e.g. words like ‘bigger’, ‘smaller’, ‘better’, ‘worse’.
Learning Minimal English isn’t just learning how to discipline oneself in choice of words. It also involves disciplining oneself in choice of grammar. It takes a bit of time and practice to learning to use Minimal English well.
Over the next few years, we will be producing more pedagogical materials about Minimal English.