Honey claims that Standard English is better than the rest. Is it? Or is it just plain naff? JESS JOHNSTON investigates.

John Honey is one of very few linguists to openly adopt a strong prescriptive view on language. Upon reading his book Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies (1997), it becomes immediately clear that he certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to slating the work of famously descriptive linguists if they dare to undermine the significance of Standard English (we’ll call it SE). He believes that it needs to be protected from – as he puts it – “enemies”.

Honey champions the traditional virtues of ‘good English’ which he believes to be SE: the standard dialect (not accent!) of the English language which is taught across the globe. However, this is a controversial view amongst the majority of linguists as a popular motto in the study of language is that no language or dialect is more superior to another. Therefore, while he is arguing that SE is the superior dialect of English, there is a much greater proportion of linguists – Crystal, Trudgill, Bex, Milroy, Aitchison, Labov, Halliday, Pinker, Chomsky (just to name a few) – whose research and conclusions argue otherwise. While they do not forget that SE is to some extent an important aspect of the English language, they support much more the concept of “linguistic equality” – something that Honey sarcastically writes off as ridiculous (1997: 8-9).

After praising and declaring the unique essence of SE, Honey goes out of his way to name and shame what/who he deems as its ‘enemies’. There are four, with each having a chapter of their own, with the first two being Noam Chomsky and his theory of innateness in child language acquisition alongside his accomplice Pinker. The third and fourth ‘enemies’ are the opinions society hold about SE being a ‘class’ dialect and only for the elite. However, as you would expect, there have been many who have attacked and in some cases undermined Honey’s claims, and Trudgill and Bex are only two of them. For example, in a review of Honey’s book Trudgill portrays him as unsuitable to even have an opinion on the matter as he is merely a scholar – not a linguist – and even goes as far to say ‘that to assert that [SE] needs to be protected from [“enemies”], would be demented’ (1998: 1). Even Bex does not tame his opinions by stating that ‘[t]he main difficulty with the book involves sorting out the sense from the sheer silliness that Honey frequently displays’ (1998: 1). It is clear that they do not respect his arguments in any way.

While many would be quick to happily join the likes of Crystal, Chomsky, Bex and Trudgill in this debate (they are big names in the study of language, after all), it would interesting to consider how we actually react to different dialects as individual readers. For example, if a company were reading through a number of job applications, would you expect them to employ the individual who would be ‘chuffed to bits to get the job cause I ain’t had a job for yonks’ or the individual who ‘would be exceptionally thrilled to receive the job offer and to be thrown back into a work environment after an elongated period of time’? I’ll let you decide.

JESS JOHNSTON, English language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)


Bex, T., ‘Review of John Honey: Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies’. First published in Applied Linguistics, 19, 3, 407-10. [Accessed 30 March 2014] Available at: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/bex-honey.htm

Honey, J. (1997) Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Trudgill, P. (1998) ‘Review of Language is Power. The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. John Honey’. First published in Journal of Sociolinguistics 2,3, pp. 457-461. [Accessed 30 March 2014] Available at: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/honeyrev.htm


2 thoughts on “Honey claims that Standard English is better than the rest. Is it? Or is it just plain naff? JESS JOHNSTON investigates.

  1. Sean Harris says:

    Hi Jess!

    Well done for writing such an informative blog.

    As someone who was born and raised in a place often referred to as the ‘West Country’ (A.K.A South West England), I am very familiar with the snobbery that certain individuals within society have towards particular dialects. I remember during one of my English lessons back in sixth form, my teacher, who had a cockney accent, mocked me for sounding like a ‘farmer’. The regional dialectal features that I had unconsciously adopted apparently didn’t sit well with her. I don’t think that she should’ve mocked me in this way, therefore, the concept of linguistic equality that you mentioned in your blog is something that I strongly believe in.

    You also describe how John Honey believes that Standard English has a unique essence, supposedly superior to other dialects. I think that every dialect has a certain uniqueness to it and it’s these differences between dialects, languages, whatever- that make linguistics such an interesting area of study. I usually find that extremist prescriptive attitudes such as Honey’s tend to come off as a bit snobby, whereas descriptivist perspectives offer more flexibility.

    To answer the question at the end of your blog, I would hope that the company would employ the individual most suitable for fulfilling the requirements of the position, not the person with the poshest accent. The more people that embrace linguistic diversity, the better.

  2. Charlotte Hill says:

    I agree with the premise of your argument, although the example at the end causes me to question whether it is related to dialect, or whether it is a case of using appropriate lexis depending on the context/ situation?

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