Language is power. The story of Standard English and its enemies. John Honey. 1997. London & Boston: Faber & Faber. 298 pages. ISBN 0-571-19047-2.
first published in Journal of Sociolinguistics 2,3, pp. 457-461, 1998 (Blackwells)
If only people would stop saying I done it and start saying I did it, rich vistas of intellectual development would open up before them. If only teachers would understand that children who persist in saying the one what seen me as opposed to the one that saw me are sentencing themselves to a lifetime of ignorance and unenlightenment. If only the world's anglophones would realise that to say I don't want any rather than I don't want none is to acquire the potential for rhetorical and cognitive development. This, believe it or not, is one of the ludicrous theses on which this book is based.
Another, equally ludicrous, is that there is a conspiracy on the part of the world's linguists to keep nonstandard English-speaking people in their deprived state by persuading them that there is no need to learn Standard English. This straw man is in fact the most dishonest aspect of the whole book: I have never known a linguist who believed that anglophone pupils should not be taught to write Standard English (although by and large we do not agree with Honey as to why they should be taught this variety). Just to make the ludicrous status of this thesis absolutely clear to any non-linguists who might happen to read this review, here is something I wrote in 1974: "children with no ability in Standard English will be at a disadvantage"; in 1979 I wrote that Standard English is "the dialect of educated people throughout the British Isles. It is the dialect normally used in writing, for teaching in schools and universities"; and in 1990 I wrote "The social and educational role of Standard English in modern society should be dealt with, and the benefits of mastery of Standard English stressed". Many other linguists have written very similar things.
It is not controversial to assert that, on very many counts, English is the most powerful language in the modern world. It seems equally clear that of all the dialects of English currently extant, Standard English is far and away the most dominant. You would think, then, wouldn't you, that to assert not only that Standard English has enemies, but also that it needs to be protected from them, would be demented. Not according to Honey, it isn't. In fact, the problem for him is such a terrifying one and these enemies so pernicious and menacing that he has devoted months of his life to writing a book about it. One cannot help asking oneself: why? Why has he written such a fully researched but, in the end, flimsily argued and utterly dishonest book? What drives him to argue his bizarre thesis with such pains and at such length? Why has he gone to all this trouble to set up this straw man? He is, it is true, a skilful self-publicist, and he does court attention through his polemics. John Raymond de Symonds Honey is also not a modest man. It is clear from this book and from other evidence - for example, from the smug and conspiracy-theory laden tone of the pathetic letter he wrote to The Higher complaining about Roy Harris' scathing and entirely accurate review of this same book - that he genuinely believes he has succeeded, single handed, in demolishing the findings of generations of linguistic scholarship. Since he is, or has been, a university Professor, and since he tells some of our more gullible journalists exactly what they want to hear, he certainly gets plenty of publicity which, from his letters to and interviews in the press, he shows every sign of enjoying. The book will probably sell quite well, too, though I would not advise linguists with high blood pressure to read it without their medication at the ready. But there are many easier ways of getting publicity.
So why does he do it, given that he seems to believe what he is saying? To suggest that it perhaps has something to do with a youth spent as a white male in southern Africa would probably be to insult the many liberal-minded members of that group, but one clue is that he seems not to be an egalitarian. (He will most probably deny this, since, although he became the darling of certain British Conservative politicians at one time, he has in many respects aligned himself with those (mostly German) Marxist linguists who espoused the "let's empower the proletariat by giving them standard language" line.) But he is deeply offended - and those who have seen him performing at conferences will not doubt the depth of the offence - at the suggestion that all languages might in some meaningful sense be potentially equal. He is, if anything, even more offended by the suggestion that all dialects might be linguistically equal. He is obsessed, indeed, with the notion that Standard English is self-evidently and obviously, and in some very clear way (which, however, he is never able to articulate satisfactorily) linguistically superior to other dialects of the language. This book is the fruit of that obsession.
Honey claims to be "trained in linguistics". This, together with his academic titles, enables him to peddle his views with apparent authority. This authority is entirely spurious. His linguistic "training", I believe, and I apologise if I am wrong, consisted merely of a one-year MA course at Newcastle University under Barbara Strang. Those of us who have taught such courses know that they do not necessarily succeed in converting students into linguists. In Honey's case, he seems, rather, to have been turned into an anti-linguist. Honey has never done any linguistic research. He is not sympathetic to the goals of linguistics. He does not care to discover more about the human language faculty. He is not interested in the typological characteristics, the histories, the structures of the world's languages per se. He does not really even know enough linguistics to get by. He is uninformed enough, for example, to come up with howlers such as "language[s] of a few thousand words" (p. 15), and although he is not foolish enough to refer to "primitive" languages, he actually goes the other way and claims, absurdly, that some languages are "too complex" for the modern world. He is most definitely not a linguist, and often betrays this fact. Consider the following passage of utter nonsense where he tries to suggest why some languages with "inadequate" vocabularies can never be made "adequate" by lexical borrowing because there are insurmountable difficulties in the way of such borrowing (pp. 15-16):
There is a third important factor at work , which I have called congruence. Speakers do not automatically allow their language to make certain adaptations. There are obstacles which are technically called phonotactic or phonaesthetic barriers - some languages cannot cope with, or cannot regard as aesthetically acceptable, particular vowels or consonants or combinations. English has around 40 phonemes (distinctive sounds): a language with only eleven phonemes cannot easily accommodate words involving the sound system of a language with 40, or 100, or 140 phonemes.
The subtitle of the book, of course, says it all. Who are these enemies, you may ask? Well the answer is that you are: people who read linguistics, especially sociolinguistics, journals. Indeed, the enemies cited in the book include very many scholars whose august names appear on the cover of this very journal as members of the editorial board. Judging, moreover, by the number of entries in the index, I think I myself can actually claim to be at the very top of the enemy list. I am in good company. The number of linguistics professors this historian and educationist with an MA in linguistics chooses to take to task on linguistic matters on the grounds that he knows better than they do includes Jenny Cheshire, Jim Milroy, Lesley Milroy, Roy Harris, Sir John Lyons, David Crystal, Jean Aitchison, Frank Palmer, Michael Stubbs, Michael Halliday, William Labov, Stephen Pinker, Suzanne Romaine, Walt Wolfram, Donna Christian, Howard Giles - and Noam Chomsky. Noam Chomsky!? Yes, even he, apparently, is a well-known enemy of Standard English.
What is our crime? What is it that Honey would have us be so remorseful about? Well, apparently, by suggesting that all dialects of English are structured, grammatical, rich, viable linguistic systems, we are implying that Standard English is not in any way superior, thereby discouraging people who are not native speakers of this variety from learning it and thus throwing them forever into the outer darkness of ignorance and poverty. And why have we done this? On this perplexing issue, Honey remains suspiciously silent. Obviously it involves some sinister plot, but the reader is left to assume that we have been motivated by some kind of unspecified malice.
Honey has a persecution complex, and he seems to relish this imagined persecution. Sociolinguists would love to have the power and influence he ascribes to them: if only we had managed to change the nation's views on nonstandard dialects! But he goes even further than this. He claims that we have attempted to suppress public discussion of these issues! "Suppress public discussion" actually turns out to mean "have nothing to do with John Honey". Of course we have wished to dissociate ourselves from his views. Since he continues to masquerade as a linguist, and as a self-styled "consultant in English linguistics", and since the weight of uninformed journalistic opinion is on his side, we need to take every opportunity we can to make it plain that he is not speaking on our behalf. He cites an incident where two sociolinguists tried to "blackmail" European linguists who were editing a "prestigious publication" by asking to withdraw their contributions if his was included (pp. 220-221). This, of course, was not blackmail at all but simply an attempt to avoid the embarrassment of appearing between the same covers as Honey. He tells us that the editors "preferred to put free speech and the integrity of knowledge before ideology, and the book came out with my article and not those of my opponents". This is not my understanding of what happened. I shall - put it this way -- certainly be surprised if Honey's article reappears in any second edition.
The book is well written. It is also, in a sense, fully researched, although it is full of errors and half-truths, not to mention wilful misrepresentation. It is clear that Honey, though not at all a linguist, is a clever scholar. He has marshalled his (albeit dishonest and illogical) arguments well, and they will be convincing to many who know nothing about language and languages - and, sadly, that is most people. He is widely read in certain areas of linguistics, though he still makes elementary sociolinguistic errors, such as failing to distinguish between dialect and style, and he has used all his skills as an academic historian - and they are considerable -- to locate and point out areas where linguists do not agree with one another and to cite passages where some of our more ideologically committed colleagues have gone over the top.
The biggest weakness of the book, however -- and of this comes as no surprise -- is that he is totally unable to show how Standard English might be linguistically superior to other varieties. For example, faced with arguments that, while there is of course a relationship between vocabulary and expressive ability, there is no necessary connection between Standard English and technical or academic vocabulary -- that a person does not have to acquire the one to acquire the other -- he is forced to fall back on his nonsensical assertion that this cannot easily happen because of his mystical notion of "congruence" (p. 35). (Honey has clearly never encountered the common phenomenon of Swiss German or Norwegian professors discussing the philosophy of science and other learned topics in their native nonstandard dialects.)
As an example of the ad hominem tone of the supercilious, hostile, unscholarly, paranoid, linguists-as-conspirators writing typical of this book, let me conclude this review with this, my favourite, somewhat geographically-challenged, passage (p. 221):
Meanwhile it was chastening to watch the enemies of standard English prosper. Professor Trudgill went onwards and upwards through professorships at Reading and Essex to a chair in Switzerland, thus becoming one of the highest-paid professors of English linguistics in the world, and Jenny Cheshire achieved similar status at two other Swiss universities. Viv Edwards was given a professorship at Reading University... (It must be admitted that my own career also prospered, though I had to leave the English-speaking world for this to be possible.)
Unfortunately, now, it seems he has come back.
University of Lausanne, Switzerland