Dominic Fairfax Forum
Dominic Fairfax Forum


How Does Language Shape our Emotional and Intellectual Growth?

The Prescriptive Versus Descriptive Debate

The Possible Future of our Language

The intention is to reveal the extent to which language usage either inhibits or promotes our personal growth in a variety of spheres. Particular attention will be focused on areas such as social performance, social exclusion and how language acquisition can stimulate aspirations, promote ambition and enable individuals to work through intellectual and emotional problems. 

There will be an examination of the Prescriptive versus Descriptive debate and the controversy surrounding the Restrictive versus Elaborate code usage and their effects. In addition, a futuristic peek at the possible direction of the English language. First, the Prescriptive/Descriptive debate:


Within the linguistic field, the prescriptive school of thought gives vent to anxieties concerning the perceived debasement of Standard English, in part owing to the omission of grammar from the school curriculum and the implications that these factors will have for society as a whole, particularly regarding educational attainment levels and the possible loss of the ability for international communication. It is invariably stated that the working class in particular, reside in a restricted consciousness due to insufficient language acquisition. The prescriptive school advocates setting up an academy to regulate English usage in order to prevent its deterioration.


The opposing school of thought is the descriptive stance. An supporter of this school is the sociolinguist expert, Jean Aitchison, who stated:

First and most important, linguistics is descriptive not prescriptiveWe need to understand language not control it.

This has been the dominant view since the 1950's and 60's. Both the prescriptive and descriptive theories are lengthy and complex but tentatively, the latter postulates that everyone ''automatically speaks their own dialect correctly.'' Standard English is perceived as one of many dialects and therefore, the descriptive school believes that there is no need to learn the rules of a standard variety which ''cannot in any sense be regarded as better for any purposes." 


Much of this debate arose following the works conducted by William Labov, whose study of Black English Vernacular [BEV], refuted Basil Bernstein's earlier theories that Restricted or Elaborated code usage confined individuals within limited spheres or elevated their intellectual understanding respectively. An opponent of the descriptive school is the linguistic professor, John Honey, who claims that the notion that “all English is Standard in its appropriate domain is simply not feasible.” “What domains are these?” he asks. "The ability of members of a community to discuss any aspect of the community they wish implies adequacy within a static community, but what happens when members of such a community want or need to step outside the intellectual bounds of their community?”


John Honey perceives Standard English as empowering. He perceives “blind adherence” to descriptivism as accommodative and partly responsible for the perpetuation of social class and inequality. He feels that stratification can only be eroded by the collective acquisition of knowledge accessible through the medium of Standard English rather than encouraging diversity by accommodating a variety of dialects, ‘codes’ and colloquial speech patterns which will inevitably, in his opinion, lead to continuing pockets of crumbling social standards. With regard to those unable to imitate Standard English, John Honey believes it will be too late for many. Where children have had disadvantaged, neglectful and abusive backgrounds it is usually because of similar patterns of family behaviour going back hundreds of years. Such patterns invariably cause anger, depression, confusion and anxiety which if not counter-balanced can precipitate severe mental illness. Without insight and understanding via language acquisition, the afflicted individual cannot understand his or her own psychology. He or she cannot therefore, gain self-mastery of the emotions and break the cycle. It is the children from such backgrounds who need the remedial attention.


Honey argues that it is imperative to recognise that by a combination of factors: geographical, historical, political, economic and educational, one dialect [Standard English or its modified equivalent], emerged as the dominant dialect and it assumes a number of characteristics which the others do not have; the main one being that it is the method of communication generally used by authoritative bodies such as educational establishments, the law-making processes and business. In its written form, Standard English has developed a massive vocabulary especially in areas such as physics and philosophy. It is doubtful that anti-languages such as creole, BEV, Restricted Code [which Honey states is simply under-developed language] or any other kind of non-standard variety could be accommodated due to its lack of sophistication. The prospective student of any subject would need to learn the standard language of his or her given country because insistence on adherence to his alternative would inevitably slow him down. Written printed languages such as English have the power to perpetuate new linguistic forms beyond the lifetime of individual speakers.


On the other hand, it is imperative to remember that syntax, lexis and spelling are always in a state of flux and have been throughout the Old English, Middle English, early modern English to modern English eras and will continue to be so irrespective of whether we want them to or not. With regard to an Academy to ‘ensure correctness’, it is unlikely that anybody would take notice of it, although interestingly, there is one in France. As long as language is spoken, it is a living thing and like all life-forms, it is subject to vicissitude. As the history of language reveals, it is very difficult to artificially control any language and equally difficult to predict the outcome of any linguistic changes.


The Prescriptive v Descriptive dispute will probably continue ad infinitum so obviously a compromise needs to be reached. Modern linguists try to avoid the socio-political associations of Standard English, preferring to treat it as a point of comparison for all other varieties. The 1994 Government review encouraged the view that all children come to school as language experts. In order to promote positivity and alleviate prejudice and feelings of inferiority, children are encouraged to learn and recognise Standard English as the language of educational establishments but simultaneously, should feel free to adapt their language usage in personal, social or cultural situations. In this way, rather than insisting that there is only one acceptable form of English, young students are encouraged to develop an awareness of linguistic varieties, ultimately to enable them to make informed choices about the kinds of language they wish to use. Moreover, in many schools, grammar has been re-introduced into the curriculum. In many respects however, educational attainment, including language acquisition, is diverse. Could this be related to the perpetuation of social class and occupational stratification? It is this theory which will now be examined:

Although many linguists try to avoid the political and socio-economic associations of Standard English by trying to treat it "solely as a point of comparison for all other varieties", it is in fact, impossible to separate vocabulary from socio-economic and political factors. Generally, the language of the well-educated and politico-economically powerful is markedly different from that of the poorly educated, the deprived and the powerless. The fact that well-educated foreigners from relatively wealthy backgrounds can speak clearer Standard English and possess greater articulacy than the UK's poor and disadvantaged should be ample verification of that.


A great deal of research into language development was conducted by the English socio-linguist, Basil Bernstein, who  emphasised that social class factors were the essential ingredients in determining speech patterns. Essentially, he distinguished two forms of speech; namely, the Restricted and Elaborated codes. The former is often described as an anti-language. It tends to be used by disadvantaged groups in all societies. Bernstein stated that restricted codes are a kind of shorthand speech characterised by short, grammatically simple, often unfinished sentences. There is a limited use of adjectives and adjectival clauses, of adverbs and adverbial clauses. Those conversing in terms of the restricted code have so much in common that there is no need to make meanings explicit. Meaning and intention are conveyed more by gesture, voice intonation and the context in which the communication takes place. Since so much is taken for granted, restricted codes are largely limited to dealing with objects, events and relationships among those communicating in a partial social context and such codes are not generally available to ‘outsiders’.


In contrast, Bernstein further claims that the Elaborated Code or Standard English, fills in the detail, spells out the relationships and provides the explanations omitted by restrictive codes. As such, Standard English [in principle at least] tends to be made public or ‘universalistic’ and those who do not use it hinder their own development and educational development. This is correlative with the stance regarding John Honey’s perspective on the Prescriptive/Descriptive dispute.


Speech is an important medium of communication and in order to appreciate Bernstein’s perspective and misgivings concerning the restricted code of speech, it is necessary to clarify the dilemmas and realities of the lives of the socially disadvantaged. In what we currently refer to as ‘lower income groups’ the positions of family members are distinct. Roles are rigidly defined in terms of age, gender and family relationships. This clarity of status requires little discussion or elaboration in verbal communication. Fathers can simply say: "Shut it" or "Get ‘ere now!" to their offspring because his position of authority is unambiguous. His father treated him similarly and further association with like-minded peers serve to reinforce that way of communicating.


By comparison, Standard English users tend to relate more as individuals. There is more negotiation and discussion rather than in terms of their ascribed status as father, son, mother or daughter. Synonymous with the supporters of Standard English and the prescriptive school, Bernstein stipulates that “...the school is necessarily concerned with the transmission and development of universalistic orders of meaning.” This places the child who is unused to Standard English at a considerable disadvantage since he or she may end up in a dead-end job and an early marriage unless steps are employed to halt such a probability before the individual reaches physical maturity. Intervention wherever it is possible and required is essential since the acquisition of Standard English ensures good verbal communication which may positively elevate consciousness and prevent relegation to intellectual and economic impoverishment. 


Supporters of Bernstein claim that Standard English is superior for explicitly differentiating and distinguishing objects and events, for analysing relationships between them, for logically and rationally developing an argument, for making generalisations and for handling higher-level philosophical concepts. This view receives strong support from many psycholinguists and educational psychologists, one of whom is the American Carl Bereiter. Bereiter stipulates that shorthand or alternative speech patterns used by marginalised sub-cultures of both black and white people in the United States, are practically inferior to Standard English in every conceivable way. He asserts that alternative speech patterns are not only undeveloped versions of Standard English but they are also “negative, non-logical modes of expressive behaviour which impede progress in school, retard emotional and intellectual development in addition to perpetuating, in many instances, poverty."


However, in an investigative article entitled, “The Logic of Non-Standard English”, the American linguist, William Labov, strongly attacks the aforementioned. He stipulates that non-Standard English or alternative speech patterns are not necessarily anti-language and neither are alternative speech patterns inferior; they are simply different. Labov bases his case on the speech patterns of a small sample of lower-class Black children in Harlem. He examines a statement, part of which is quoted below, about the non-existence of heaven by a boy named Larry:


Cause you see, does’n nobody really know that it’s a god, y’know. Cause I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods, all coloured gods, an’ don’t nobody know it’s really a god. An’ when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ t’heaven, tha’s bullshit, ‘cause you aint goin’ to no heaven, ‘cause it aint no heaven for you t’ go to.


Labov reveals how restricted code can explain higher abstract concepts. He argues that the aforementioned statement is perfectly logical when it is translated into Standard English in order of the logical sequence of the propositions made:

a] Everyone has a different idea of what God is like.

b] Therefore nobody really knows if God exists.

c] If there is a heaven it was made by God.

d] If heaven does not exist he could not have made it.

e] You cannot go somewhere that does not exist.

Labov examines several aspects of such speech patterns which appear ungrammatical and illogical such as the double negatives used by Larry in the above quotation. He claims that the speech patterns follow strict rules similar to Standard English and its meanings are perfectly clear to the native speaker.


Many disagree. With regard to their refutation of the descriptive supporters, opponents such as John Honey are quite adamant in their response. They argue that the fact that alternative language is clear to the native speaker is largely irrelevant. People unfamiliar with such modes of expression may neither have the time nor the inclination spend time deciphering. Besides, what happens when individuals want to depart from such a community? Supporters of the prescriptive school assert that undeveloped language is not universally accepted; it thwarts reading ability, narrows horizons and is liable to keep the speaker living in poverty of one form or another. The psychologist, Charlotte Brooke, states that trying to make undeveloped or reductionist language a positive trait just by perceiving it as ‘simply different’ is downright damaging to the child and his or her future. She states that the language-starved child: essentially the child who has been isolated from those rich experiences that should be his. This isolation may be brought about by poverty, by meagreness of intellectual resources in his home surroundings, by the incapacity, illiteracy or indifference of his elders or the entire community……


The alleged deficiencies of the culturally deprived child include linguistic deprivation, experiential, cognitive and personality deficiencies and a wide range of “substandard” attitudes, norms and values which if not alleviated by knowledge may render the individual susceptible to emotional instability later in life due to the fact that he or she is rendered unable to formulate words and intellectual cognition in order to gain insight into their problems. Several sociolinguists claim that such deprivation made evident by mode of expression is not a matter of ‘free choice’ since informed choices can only be acted upon if people know what they are. Deprivation means little self-awareness, which in turn, often causes the deprived to learn negative sets, sometimes to self-destruct and this is manifested in their language usage. It is social class and occupational stratification that cause differences is speech patterns, which in turn, precipitate differing spheres of consciousness. Occupations, from lawyers, businessmen and politicians to garbage collectors, pipe layers and food distributors often reside in certain fields of register, which according to linguistic determinism can create 'prison houses of the mind' outside of which few venture. The same is true of social settings and that is why there is little true communication between the rich and the disadvantaged. They are each residing in different reality constructions. According to the linguist, Edward Sapir et al, language precipitates thought and vice versa. It constructs the reality of its users in whichever setting it occurs. Furthermore, it is imperative to consider that individuals in higher social ranks do not necessarily possess extensive language acquisition or speak Standard English.


Despite government interference in the form of positive discrimination in favour of linguistically and culturally deprived children in both the United States and the UK, [Operation Head-start for example] results have been disappointing with no long term beneficial effects. The Sociologist B. M. Caldwell argues that programmes have failed to combat the influences of the home environment.  Others suggest that children from such backgrounds should be removed from their parents and placed in high quality boarding school environments. This they hope, would break the cycle of culturally deprived parents producing culturally deprived children, Many social-psychologists feel that language deprivation precipitates emotional and intellectual immaturity and that language other than the empowering standard form is simply a reaction to fill the void.



It would seem then, that there are some very strong opinions. Bazil Bernstein has often been severely criticised in his presentation of his findings which he later modified and clarified. However, it must indeed be the case that language precipitates cognition and vice versa. Accent and dialect are immaterial in relation to the above but restricted language acquisition must be detrimental to the individual’s overall growth although it does not necessarily mean that early language deprivation cannot be overlaid. On the other hand, it is imperative to recognise that Standard English, especially in its pure form, is invariably used as a tool to oppress, control, patronise, legitimize and justify hierarchies and stratification. A substantial number of articulate people can be complacent and arrogant especially in the judicial, educational and political arenas. They use their articulateness and linguistically constructed power dynamics to oppress, deceive, denigrate, control, justify and further reduce the self-confidence of the less well-schooled. Articulateness in SE is simply the result of continuously entering into discourse with the like-minded, extensive reading, scholarly parents, and/or as a result of long stays in educational establishments. 


It is sometimes the case that groups of people go through phases of creating alternative language as a desire to exclude. ‘Youth-speak’ is predominantly used by teenagers in order to create a separate identity or a sense of solidarity amongst themselves. Text and internet cyber language are others. The judicial system uses a great deal of jargon and re-lexicalisation which might be totally incomprehensible to those who are unfamiliar with it. ‘Special teenage variations’ are essentially a different topic in the category of ‘exclusion language’, although it can be perceived that even unwitting exclusion by the self-perpetuating use of restricted usage does have similarities with anti-language simply in that it excludes. In the main, restricted codes or any kind of exclusion or progress-hindering language is a social problem; engendered by inequality of condition which precipitates feelings of non-belonging to mainstream.


With regard to John Honey’s argument and indeed, the Labov/Bernstein dispute, it is worth adding that it is not known how far the absence of a word prevents a speaker or thinker from using a concept. Without naming, how can an individual conceptualise? In other words, the acquisition of the appropriate vocabulary greatly facilitates the individual in conveying concepts both for his or her intellectual and emotional growth and for communicating that concept to others intelligently.


In a socio-economic sense it is not at all convincing that “people do better” using Standard English considering the ever increasing numbers of people who do not use it yet manage to become economically secure. Consider for example, the current trend of entertainment and the mass media. Many celebrities, presenters, footballers, rock stars, rappers and entrepreneurs have occupations they thoroughly enjoy and earn a lot of money in the process irrespective of whether they use Standard English or not. Bankers and businessmen do not necessarily use Standard English. Moreover, they may only be competent and articulate within their specialised sphere.  Society places more value on the economic market and business than on the acquisition of a wide range of knowledge outside of those spheres. There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that SE is wholly used or even needed in those domains. "Well it's an employer's market innit", said a proud entrepreneur with a chain of stores. In a competitive market economy an individual's degree of self-confidence determines his or her economic security rather than his or her degree of articulacy or mode of expression. 

It is argued that elaborate codes have generally been the domain of the ruling classes and of those with privileged upbringings. Many individuals purport that they have been associated with austere, lingering values and the outdated mores of imperialism and pomposity. In consequence, there has been a radical shift away from elaborated codes and Received Pronunciation [RP], particularly due to the influx of working class people infiltrating the visual media. Only approximately two per cent of the population now use RP although interestingly, there are people from run down council housing estates who take elocution lessons or imitate RP in the hope that it will elevate their social standing. With regard to the written form, the Sun is England’s most popular newspaper, deliberately designed to appeal to those whose education is rudimentary. It is believed to contain syntax suitable for the reading age of ten-year-old's which ''provides a mean estimation of our collective level of intelligence."  


Another factor contributing to the decline in Elaborate Code or Standard English is of course, the ever increasing use and complexity of computers. Cyberspace technology has precipitated a kind of Orwellian Newspeak. SMS or txtese used in texting and internet use does not follow or obey standard grammar and the words are not found in dictionaries or recognised by language academics. It uses the least number of vowels and consonants which the recipient fills in: for example ‘w phn ltr’ for ‘will phone later.’  There are a number of words and phrases that use the same abbreviations. For example, if somebody says’ lol’ it could mean laugh out loud or’ lots of love’ depending on the context in which it is used. Punctuation and capital letters are omitted. It is now commonplace for doctors, nurses, solicitors, secretaries, businesses and office workers to log information on computers using the same technique of omitting capitals, vowels, some consonants and all punctuation. It is all about expediency in the work place, speeding up production in order to compete with other nations in economic growth. In addition, everything is speeding up exponentially due to computer technology. It may eventually be the case that just one or two words or abbreviations sum up an entire concept.

In conclusion, it is not so much that lack of Standard English leads to impoverishment but vice versa. Stratification is undoubtedly the cause of deprived language acquisition for those confined in the bottom tiers, even in the very basic spheres such as spelling and reading. Language changes from region to region and from social group to social group. Words, pronunciation and grammatical structures depend upon the purpose of the communication, the audience and the context in which they are used. We also have to consider a person's age, occupation and educational background. Most occupations are unexceptional. They neither stimulate nor require great depth of thought or the vocabulary to facilitate it. The majority of individuals are confined within understanding only their occupation's respective requirements. As for grammar, it would seem that people are not as pedantic about it as they were in the past. It is purported that the last words of 17th century grammarian, Dominique Bouhours were, "I am about to - or I am going to - die; either expression is used."



It is a pity because an entire melting pot of words from Greek, Latin, French, Teutonic and others have combined and given birth to an English language to be proud of. On reading classic literary works it definitely does seem that much has been lost over the last century. It is indeed a sad reflection of society as a whole, that certain sections should feel excluded from the aesthetic richness which is our collective inheritance. As long as inequality is perpetuated by stratification measures, people will form different ways of using language in the same country. It is possible that a form of Newspeak, cyber-speak or even Panglish will be the language of the future. Many novels may even be written in it but hopefully, the library of works written with all the richness of classic Standard English will at least remain forever in the literary sphere.

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