The virtues of Simple English Wikipedia

One of the more endearing aspects of the Wikipedia (online open source inspired encyclopedia) project is its decision to include Simple English among the localized versions of various Wikipedia articles. Indeed, the main page of the Simple English section is itself written in, err… Simple English. It is targeted at English learners and teachers, a little like the Collins Cobuild dictionary for learners which used ‘simple’ English in the definitions. The Simple English versions are also designed to help the many translators working on English originals.

Wikipedia has come in for considerable shtick from professional librarians and the like since, as a grass-roots open publishing enterprise generated by unpaid amateurs, it is open to abuse of all kinds. But as this recent article suggests, the very scope and reactivity of the production community ensures that errors and idiocies are removed faster than you can say Britannica.

What intrigues me, though, is that Wikipedia offers an extraordinary resource for people interested in the writing process, as the whole history of modifications are stored in the history section of any given article. Unlike most documents, whether digital or ex-arboreous, you can inspect the way Wikipedia’s articles have been edited, expanded, rewritten for readability and so on. And then you can go to a translated version, of the article and see the same process of editing applied to the new version. A rare treasure after five hundred years of final-version-only print publishing.

Which is where the Simple English Wiki comes in. First, it shows that writers can more or less easily ‘simplify’ their discourse, even without much training or theory. Second, the S E discussion forum offer a instructive glimpse into how various aspects of simple writing are thrashed out by real world practitioners. And third, the actual encyclopedia entries together with their editing histories offer a superb training resource for people interested in the potential for using ‘simple’ expressive means (sentence length, vocabulary, grammatical rules, etc) in expository discourse.


Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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