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This review appeared in Volume 2 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Meaning of Ogden

by Henry G. Schogt

C.K.Ogden: a biblibliographic study. by W. Terrence Gordon (1990) Metuchen, N.J.-London: Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 0-8108-2317-9.

With his bio-bibliographic study of C.K. Ogden, Professor W. Terrence Gordon has a triple aim: shedding light on the person of C.K. Ogden, who apart from being recognized as the co-author with I.A. Richards of The Meaning of Meaning (1932) is not very well known; investigating his important role in linguistics and in the intellectual life of his time; and providing an exhaustive bibliography including not only all the works written by Ogden, but also a great number of secondary sources, ranging from reviews to personal memories.

Gordon who has done extensive research in Canada, the United States and Great Britain sifting through an enormous amount of Ogden material in different University libraries and gaining access to private archives, is a very knowledgeable and entertaining biographer. Without the extensive detective work Gordon would not have been able to draw the engaging portrait of a man as complex and elusive as Ogden. Yet the picture that arises from the about 50 pages of the biography is not uncritically flattering. In the sad story of the gradually growing hostility between the two authors of The Meaning of Meaning, Gordon does not take sides, but regrets that the conflict prevented further collaboration and made revisions of the most important result of that collaboration impossible. As Gordon is planning and working on a critical edition of The Meaning of Meaning we may expect that many of the controversies that have remained hidden until now, will come to light in his commentaries.

Whereas The Meaning of Meaning, and the reactions to it are academic in character and do not draw much attention outside the university milieu, the same cannot be said of the Basic English project by Ogden that was not only widely discussed in linguistic circles, but also attracted the attention of politicians including Winston Churchill. Again the story that unfolds is not a happy one, Basic English gets diluted and changed by its success, and from world language whose aim is a better understanding and an easier exchange of ideas, it becomes in the minds of some a tool for anglophone world domination.

References in the-biographical part of the study refer the reader to bibliographical entries, and a great number of end-notes provide useful biographical and bibliographical data. An index of proper names, with dates of birth and death would have been helpful for the many readers who are not familiar with the period covered by the biography. The bibliography itself is the work of an experienced practitioner. Gordon is well known for his two bibliographical publications in semantics (Semantics, a bibliography 1965-1978 Scarecrow Press 1980, and a second volume covering 1979-1985 published by Scarecrow in 1987), in which he not only provides the titles of thousands of books and articles, but also lists book reviews often giving very succinct and useful commentaries himself. The Ogden bibliography follows the same methods, highlighting the immense interest aroused by Ogden's basic English. Most of the reactions to it are concerned with the question of whether it is possible to create an adequate tool for international communication using only eight hundred entries in the lexicon. Not unexpectedly there are suggestions for possible extensions, while other commentaries point at the inconsistencies in the sample applications that are under discussion. The only omission to be mentioned is the reaction by Benjamin Lee Whorf who rejects basic English on the ground that it assumes knowledge of or familiarity with covert categories and cryptotypes. Whorf writes: "Basic English appeals to people because it seems simple. But those to whom it seems simple know or think they know English -- there's the rub! Every language of course seems simple to its own speakers because they are unconscious of structure. But English is anything but simple..." ("A Linguistic Consideration of Thinking in Primitive Communities" published in Language Thought and Reality. Edited with an introduction by John B. Carroll, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press second paperback printing 1966, p. 82, first edition 1856).

One cannot but congratulate the author for having brought Ogden back to the attention of linguistics and of those who are interested in the history of ideas, and urge him to continue his work and to publish the promised critical edition of The Meaning of Meaning and the extensive biography of a man who was in contact with many of the most important scholars of his time.

Henry G. Schogt is professor of French Linguistics at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Le Système Verbal du Français Contemporain (1968), S&eacut;emantique Synchronique (1976) and Linguistics, Literary Analysis and Literary Translation (1988).


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