Review

John Honey: Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. Faber and Faber, London

First published in Applied Linguistics, 19, 3, 407-10.


Honey is both a populist and a highly successful self-publicist. Language is Power has attracted much attention in the British press, most of it positive, and it is not difficult to understand why given the arguments he is advancing. Broadly speaking, he advocates that 'standard' English should be taught in schools and that a body, official or unofficial, should be set up to regulate disputed usages and manage language change. On the way, he rubbishes various linguistic orthodoxies and their proponents reserving a special venom for Tony Crowley's work on the historiography of the English language and Peter Trudgill's concerns for linguistic equality.

The main difficulty with the book involves sorting out the sense from the sheer silliness that Honey frequently displays. Few people would deny that the teaching of English, at least in Britain and possibly also in the USA, is in a confused state at the moment. There have been frequent complaints that standards are falling and that something needs to be done. Whether there has been a decline in standards is an open question, although Honey produces some evidence in Chapter 8 to suggest that the massively increased investment in education over the last forty years or so has not been matched by a corresponding improvement in overall levels of literacy (or, indeed, numeracy). Nevertheless, his argument that this decline can be reversed through the teaching of grammar (p.204) is highly suspect not least because it is not at all clear exactly what he means by 'grammar'. The examples he offers (pp.155-160) of grammatical solecisms include the misuse of the word cohort to refer to a significantly large number; the use of reticent in place of reluctant; the loss of the distinction between may have and might have; and the 'mispronunciation' of picture as pitcher. It would be difficult to construct a coherent syllabus from this ragbag of examples, even though he intends them to be merely illustrative.

Elsewhere in the book Honey makes it clear that the grammar he wishes to be taught should be the grammar of 'standard' English. However, for this to make sense, we need a clear characterisation of what he means by the term. He starts by claiming that:

By standard English I mean the language in which this book is written, which is essentially the same form of English used in books and newspapers all over the world. p.1

The initial impression, then, is that 'standard' English is essentially a written variety. However, even if we are inclined to accept this characterisation it still needs far greater specification. Elsewhere (Bex, 1996) I have demonstrated that even those works which are typically regarded as written in this variety manifest such a wide range of different grammatical and discoursal features as to make it well nigh impossible to construct a coherent codification which will capture them all. To some extent, Honey recognises this by acknowledging that 'Standard English can be used in a wide variety of styles' (p.1) and cites two sentences: Anon the damsel waxed wroth and In a jiffy the chick got good and sore as being stylistic variants of At once the girl became angry (p.41). However, this is rather to miss the point. What these three sentences presumably have in common is a similar syntactic structure and the same referents. The lexical differences suggest that they are likely to be encountered in quite different texts and discourses and to that extent they are manifestations of the same kinds of variation that Honey elsewhere refers to as dialectal variation. If 'translation' is possible between stylistic variants, then by the same token it should be possible between dialectal variants: a view which Honey rejects. He argues this on the grounds that 'standard' English is multifunctional (p.36), but this multifunctionality is achieved only by admitting such vast quantities of variant forms that it is difficult to see what they have in common either lexically, syntactically, or discoursally.

Later, it becomes clear that for Honey 'standard' English can also be used in speech, although even here it is dependent on written forms. He makes the very bizarre claim: 'Not only does standard English drop particular sounds, it drops whole syllables.' (p.129) At best, this is meaningless, at worst it is seriously misleading since it suggests that pronunciation derives from spelling rather than vice versa. Of course, it may well be that spelling influences pronunciation but that is a different matter altogether. What is really at issue here is less the influence of spelling on pronunciation than the 'correct' pronunciation. As he states (p.128):

Standard English allows me to say financial with the first syllable as either fine or fin, but if I stray into a third option, with the first syllable as foyn, it is judged 'non-standard' or 'incorrect' because of its associations with the least educated speakers.

This begs so many questions, not least as to who is doing the judging, that I shall return to it later. At this stage it is worth pointing out that the relationship between written forms and spoken forms is far more complex than Honey seems to recognise. He claims that the 'two genres (spoken and written English) have in recent years been growing closer together' (p.132). However, the only evidence he adduces for this includes the use of contractions in writing and various paralinguistic features in speech. He is obviously unaware of the work of Carter and McCarthy (e.g., 1995) which suggests that the grammar of spoken English is significantly different from that of written English. Of course, he could argue that descriptions based on corpora fail to capture the unique features of 'standard' English, but he would still need to demonstrate which sub-corpus best represents this variety and why.

It would seem, then, that 'standard' English, even for Honey, is beginning to expand beyond the confines of a prescriptivist's desire. And this impression is confirmed when he admits (p.243): 'So far we have spoken as if there were one model of standard English, but in fact there are two [the other being American] - and some people would argue that there are yet other models.' But once we allow the proliferation of 'standard' Englishes, Honey's model becomes even more suspect. Surely it would be better to recognise there are varieties of English which have developed to perform specific tasks in specific communicative situations. The suggestion that there is one monolithic variety which is both multifunctional and which should be taught in our schools is dangerously na´ve. Although Honey may have difficulty in understanding certain Americanisms (p.248-9), presumably the vast majority of Americans do not. Again, he may feel unease at the spread of 'Estuary English' (p.168). Presumably its speakers do not.

What is interesting here is not that Honey feels he should make any adaptations to such new forms as may be developing but that 'Until we can . . . be sure that there is no real loss to the language, we must seek ways of trying to bring this new tendency in spoken standard English under control' (p.168). And this is where the two themes of his book come together. I have argued that his concept of 'standard' English is seriously flawed theoretically in that it is linguistically undefinable. I believe it is equally flawed sociohistorically. Honey rejects the idea that the history of standardisation has been an attempt to impose a class dialect on all speakers of English. In particular he attacks Tony Crowley for developing this thesis. Some of his criticisms are justified, although I feel he misreads Crowley in that The Politics of Discourse is more a historiography than a history of the language. Honey's alternative view is that 'standard' English is the preserve of the 'educated' and that where it has been prescribed or imposed it has been precisely to empower those who lack such education.

This raises interesting questions as to the relationships between power, class and education which are beyond he scope of this review. Certainly Cobbett (1819, p.8) believed that a knowledge of grammar would enable his son 'to defy the ingenuity of man to give to our words any other meaning than that which we ourselves intend them to express'. But this was because he wanted to use the language of the governing classes as a weapon in his struggle against them. It is not at all clear that Honey sees empowerment in quite the same way and the suggestions he makes for regulating the language indicate that he does wish to impose a class dialect in exactly the ways Crowley describes in his book. In the first place, his definition of the 'educated' is vague. Does it include all those who have successfully completed GCSEs, A levels, degrees? Honey leaves us guessing, but he gives us numerous examples (pp.153-163) of people who would be regarded as educated by the general public committing various solecisms. We are left wondering whether these people would be allowed to become members of his regulatory body and if not on what grounds they would be excluded. He drops one slight clue in his discussion of increasing loss of pronominal cases (p.161). He argues that such usages as '"to my wife and I", "between you and I", "for we British"' should be deemed acceptable because:

such a volume of consistent present-day use by people who satisfy every normal criterion of "educatedness" - graduation from (often famous) universities, of literary reputation, or the ability in all other respects to use the language in highly acceptable ways - or who are in some other way high-status figures (like royalty), means that we must question whether there is now only one rule for pronoun case, or whether, as I have suggested, we should now recognise that there is an alternative rule. pp.161-2

If these are the kinds of people whose usages will be adopted by Honey's regulatory body, then we are clearly dealing with a class-based dialect.

There are various other contradictions in the book which deserve mention. In his brief discussion of Foucault (pp.109-11) Honey appears to question the notion of social discourses within which some voices are privileged while others are ignored, yet the whole of Chapter 9 describes how his voice has been rejected within the discourse of sociolinguistics. In this chapter (p.216) he also claims that sociolinguists have misrepresented him as arguing that the 'linguistic equality' doctrine has contributed to 'declining moral standards in Britain'. Although I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of this, it is interesting that Honey asserts that hostility to teaching 'standard' English in schools is related to 'the persistent disparagement of authority which some teachers would claim has, in the past three or four decades, seriously undercut school discipline' (p.195). This sounds like a moral judgement dressed up as a social judgement to me.

Finally, Honey suggests that because of the dominant discourse within sociolinguistics 'it is unlikely that this present book will be allowed to feature on students reading lists' (p.222). I can assure him that it is already listed for my students. I regard it as essential that they should be able to distinguish between sense and nonsense in the debate as to whether 'standard' English exists or not and one way of doing this will be for them to judge for themselves the extent to which his argument is valid.

References

Tony Bex
University of Kent at Canterbury


Placed on the web 1999 06 16

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