Controlled natural languages (CNLs) are one of the most common branches of natural language and are well-known to professionals due to their widespread use in technical writing. As a linguistic concept, CNLs are not limited by actual language type, and have gradually developed highly representative technical classifications through their utilization in different industrial environments. Examples include Simplified Technical English (STE), Caterpillar Technical English (CTE), and IBM EasyEnglish. Eliminating the randomness, instability, and imprecise nature of natural languages, CNLs have seen wide use in the technology industry, but just what kind of languages are they?
First introduced by English linguist Charles Kay Ogden in his 1930 book “Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar,” Basic English is one of the earliest and most well-known CNLs.
The original goal of Basic English was the lower the barrier to learning English, thereby allowing more non-native speakers to master the language faster. As a result, Ogden’s Basic English only required the use of 850 words for general communication, along with only 18 verbs, which he called “operators.”
Basic English greatly simplifies the grammatical rules of ordinary English. For instance, the prefix “un” was added to indicate negation. Compound words could also be created from nouns and prepositions, such as “sundown” and “sunup.”
Ogden didn’t expect that his simplifications of English to facilitate learning would become one of the greatest targets of criticism. However, the use of only 850 words greatly limited the expression of Basic English, often making the language appear strange to native speakers. Many critics also noted that there were clear personal preferences with regard to the limitations placed on vocabulary and grammar.
New Developments in CNLs
With the advent and development of technical writing after World War II, Improving readability, eliminating ambiguity, and optimizing translation efficiency through a more standardized language have become the focus of many technology sectors. Developed by the aerospace industry from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, STE has become one of the most representative examples. At its core, STE is a writing specification of around 60 articles and a set of dictionaries containing about 875 words. However, after a period of practice and continued development, STE has seen gradual applications in fields outside the aerospace industry.
Over time, CNLs have been adopted across a variety of different fields, and their application scenarios have grown more and more diverse. In 2002, German language processing expert Uwe Muegge proposed ten CNL rules specifically aimed at optimizing machine translation outputs.
- Write sentences that are shorter than 25 words.
- Write sentences that express only one idea.
- Write the same sentence if you want to express the same content.
- Write sentences that are grammatically complete.
- Write sentences that have a simple grammatical structure.
- Write sentences in the active form.
- Write sentences that repeat the noun instead of using a pronoun.
- Write sentences that use articles to identify nouns.
- Write sentences that use words from a general dictionary.
- Write sentences that use only words with correct spelling.
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Benefits of Using CNLs
It requires a lot of investment to promote and master the use of a specific CNL, even for companies in the technology sector. So, what are the benefits of using a CNL?
- Improved Document Quality and Value: Technical documentation written in a CNL that is standardized, concise, and easy to understand ensures high readability and ease of use, thereby enhancing the value of documentation in user guidance.
- Reduced Translation Costs: Complying with the lexical, grammar, and sentence structure standards of CNLs ensures a high amount of reused or similar content, which in turn significantly reduces translation costs.
- Improved Machine Translation Quality and Efficiency: A CNL with simple grammar, consistent structure, and precise wording can greatly improve the accuracy of machine translation and reduce the workload of MTPE, providing more flexibility for localization operations.
Though CNLs have a certain barrier to entry, establishing a set of CNL specifications in the process of content creation and management can help create value for highly technical enterprises across many aspects. This is especially true at the translation level, where CNLs can help reduce costs and improve efficiency.