Maybe This Is A Solution To The Maritime Language Problem

The weak English translation of the MIT Costa Concordia report made me wonder about the use of English as a more universal communication system. While driving to a project, I was listening to National Public Radio, and there was a bit about Voice of America broadcasts. I never realized that Voice of America programs cannot be broadcast within the United States, since, in essence, they are government propaganda. However, if there is a specific request for VOA information, a recent law change has now made it possible to broadcast VOA segments in the United States.

Oddly, the factual quality of VOA is not bad, and probably much better than some of the commercial networks we all are subjected to. Actually, VOA’s efforts at truth during WWII had a major beneficial impact on the whole scope of the war. Regardless, the most interesting point in the NPR broadcast was their reference to Special English, which may be a path to better communications in international shipping.

I had never heard about Special English, which is a semi-formalized system of conveying information in English using a basic vocabulary of only 1500 words and a simplified English sentence structure that only uses one or, at most, two thoughts in a sentence. When spoken, Special English is also spoken 30 percent slower than standard English.

Special English is not the only system for making English simpler. IMO has instituted a system named Seaspeak (SMCP). This system uses short standard sentences such as “Say Again” to speak on ships with different citizens. The airplane industry uses Simplified English to write their documents and books.

This means the pieces to develop a kind of Marine English already exist. All that has to be done is to develop a system that combines Special English, Simplified English and Seaspeak. This would be a very good job for the English speakers in the shipping community. But it would take some work. In Simplified English the word “close” means “to make something not open”. But “close” should never be used in Simplified English for “near to”. In Simplified English it is not correct to say: “Do not go close to the airplane engine”. While in Special English it is not wrong.

There are some difficulties with Special English because a group of 1500 words is not enough to operate a ship. But many of the ship words that do not exist in Special English such as: line, OWS, sewage, tide, gangway, SMS, GPS, computer, internet and cell phone, are already known by every person on a ship. The words “engineer” and “officer” already exists in the Special English vocabulary. “Captain” or “Master” do not exist in Special English. (But there may be people who will believe we do not need them.) The word “mate” is defined as: “to bring together a male and a female to create another creature”. That word may not be correct for that officer, but the words “Chief” and “Officer” can be combined to get around that problem.

I wrote the prior three paragraphs in Special English using the VOA Special English Word Book. Initially this is not an easy task, but, having lived in the maritime community for so long, it feels very close to the type of spoken and written English I stick with (which can be sort of described as Globish) when there are language problems aboard a ship or ashore, and a formal Marine English approach would simply compel me to stick to a more formal and standardized approach, which, in turn, would reduce confusions. (I wonder if there are Special English grammar and vocabulary word processor checkers that function like the Word spell checker when I type a document?)

In the Costa Concordia blog I suggested that the native English speakers were getting a break if English became the universal maritime language, but here we may be providing an even playing field for everyone. It would be about equally difficult for English speakers to express themselves in Marine English as it would be for non native speakers to learn to speak Marine English. And that would be, as Theodore Roosevelt said, a square deal.

I will use the Marine English system for international shipping communications if it is made into law. (A promise stated in Special English, the basis of Marine English)