Basic Basic

ALDEN H. SMITH served as an Army interpreter in French and Japanese during the war. He lives in Tuckahoe, New York, and is Vice President of the Magazine Institute.


WHAT I cannot understand about Basic English is why Mr. I. A. Richards, the inventor or discoverer, never thought to supply it with an “ouch,” “kerplunk,” or a “for gosh sakes.” It does seem pretty obvious that situations demanding these words are just as frequent as those in which “and,” “but,” or “cat” is sufficient.

I imagine Mr. Richards fell into the common error of supposing that everybody says “ouch” when hurt and “plop” when trying to describe the impact of a small object falling into a liquid medium. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just let Mr. Richards try calling a Portuguese cat by the kitty-kitty-kitty method. That cat will remain unmoved until Richards translates into Portuguese thus: “ Biz-biz-biz!”

And so it is with all those other little words which the grammarians call interjections, onomatopoeic words, or which they ignore altogether. We take it for granted that bells in all countries say “ding-dong” and that “ow” and “ouch” are essential expressions of pain; yet every nationality has its own repertory.

Let us, for example, imagine a Russian carpenter banging his thumb with a hammer. In Basic English he would be tongue-tied or confined to some such silly remark as “I have just brought the hammer down upon my thumb.” Given access to his native vocabulary he would start out with an anguished “Oi — oi!” I think he would then call the manufacturer of the hammer a lousy “sookin sin,” but that’s getting away from simple interjections.

I should mention here that Ivan also had a Spanish assistant, José Maria Gutierrez y Zumbamba. The moment the hammer landed on Ivan’s thumb this José began to chuckle, “¡Je! ¡Je! ¡Je!” and then, his carburetor flooded with exclamation points and unable to contain himself, he burst right out with a loud “¡Ja! ¡Ja! ¡Ja!”

Don’t think for a minute that the Russians are overburdened with any great love of humanity. If the positions had been reversed and it had been the Spaniard’s thumb that got whacked, it would have been José’s turn to make a Spanish “ouch” like this, “¡Huy!” and Ivan would have clapped his hands to his ribs and roared, “Xa — xa — xa!” which the Russians consider to be laughter.

But it was Ivan’s thumb, so instead of “Xa — xa — xa!” he spits out in disgust, “Foo!” Irritated by José’s laughter he then changes the “Foo!” to an angry “Tfoo!” (This is one of those nuances of the Russian language which make it such a flexible medium for the exchange of ideas.)

José counters with a defiant “¡Puf!”

The Russian backs down in the face of the fiery Spaniard. “Ookh!” he whimpers in abject fear.

So José decides to chuck the job — mañana he can get another one — and he saunters off calling his dog to his side, “¡Tus! ¡Tus! ¡Tus!” Head in the clouds, he falls right into a freshly prepared batch of cement, “¡Cataplum!” It serves him right and gives us a chance to replace him with a Japanese assistant carpenter.

Instead of pushing a Japanese saw through the plank you pull it. And there may be something funny about the hammers, too, so we had better imagine that Mr. Nakayama is provided with a Western-style hammer.

Well, Nakayama throws himself into the work with the old samurai spirit of Yamato-damashii and to hell with halfway measures. First thing you know, he bangs his thumb and screws his face up in pain. “Sah!” he groans; or “Mah!” or “Oya!” or “Eh!” or “Oya — mah!” It doesn’t seem to matter which, since they can all mean “ouch.” “Sah,” depending on the context, may sometimes be translated as just a thoughtful “Hmm . . .” or an “Ugh!” of disgust or a negative “Unh — unh!” — or, as in this instance, as “Oh, I’ve mashed my goddam thumb!” It is thus very difficult to know what the Japanese are thinking or feeling just by listening to them. They are said to be inscrutable. Believe me, if we said “Pow!” or “Zowie!” or “Boing!” interchangeably for all occasions, we could be considered every bit as mysterious.

From these few examples on a single construction job it is clear there is no international unity in interjections. Bells ring variously in all tongues — “Din-don-din,” “Tlimtlom,” and so forth. Rattle a stick along a French picket fence and the fence gives out with a “Rataplan.” And who can say what is the correct formula for calling a Siamese cat or what strange syllable means “Sic ‘em!” to an Afghan hound?

It would certainly seem to behoove Mr. I. A. Richards to start at the beginning next time and give us something down to earth. I just wonder what Mr. Richards would say in his vaunted Basic if he should come home some day and trip and fall over his French poodle or slip on a Persian scatter rug.