Standard English and linguistic equality. MIA DERMAWAN discusses John Honey’s controversial views on Standard English (and its ‘enemies’)

John Honey’s opinion on the English Standard Debate is one that has caused much controversy amongst some of the most well-known of linguists. From reading his book, Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and it’s Enemies, it is evident that Honey believes that there is an English Standard that is a better form, which should be taught in schools, known and used across the world. He believes that it is a dialect that should be used to create linguistic equality that would enable everyone to communicate and understand each other universally. He also believes, and presents in his book that this dialect has many enemies, such as other linguists like Chomsky and Pinker – from whom it should be protected. Honey dedicates a whole chapter in his book to the exploration of these enemies and openly attacks their viewpoints by, from what I personally felt was forcefully and persuasively, presenting his own thoughts and ideas, as the ones that are correct. In a review written in response to Honey’s book, Peter Trudgill recognises himself as being one of the linguists that Honey is targeting and arguing against regarding this debate, along with other considered influential linguists, such as; Milroy, Crystal, Halliday, Labov and Aitchison. This is how much of an impact Honey’s view has had, and suggests that much controversy amongst linguists must have been caused with him targeting the work of these named linguists.

So what is Honey’s view on the English Standard Debate? Well in his book, Honey talks about Standard English being a dialect that is spoken as well as written, but is best represented by the language that is written in books and newspapers and used all over the world. He also writes about there being subtle differences in terms of vocabulary, spelling and grammar in, for example, American Standard English and British Standard English (1997: 1). It is this dialect that should be taught in schools and protected from the ‘enemies’ Honey establishes in his book.

In his review published arguing against Honey’s opinion, Trudgill notes that Honey’s claim of other linguists being enemies of the English Standard based on the fact that they imply Standard English is not in any way superior, because they suggest that all dialects of English are structured, grammatical, rich and viable linguistic systems. Therefore they are discouraging people who are non-native speakers from learning it (p3). Trudgill argues his case by pointing out that Honey does not give a valid reason for his claim against the other linguists, as ‘Honey remains suspiciously silent’ (p3). Trudgill then goes further to describe how Honey is viewed to be more of a scholar, rather than a linguist, based on Honey’s knowledge and limited research in comparison with the other linguists. This suggests what the general opinions on Honey’s proposal is on the English Standard Debate. It is not one that is favoured amongst other, more well-known researchers in this field, and is not deemed as viable as theirs.

My own personal opinion on this matter? Well, I think that having an English standard is beneficial, for the same reason that Honey claims – to create linguistic equality and so that everyone around the world can understand and communicate universally. However, I disagree with Honey in saying that the English Standard is a ‘better form’. I don’t think that any dialect is better than another.

MIA DERMAWAN, English undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)


2 thoughts on “Standard English and linguistic equality. MIA DERMAWAN discusses John Honey’s controversial views on Standard English (and its ‘enemies’)

  1. Sophie Heath says:

    Hi Mia,

    I agree with your belief that that having a Standard form of English that allows people from across the globe to communicate is beneficial, as without it, speakers of different varieties of English could encounter difficulties in understanding each another. However, as you pointed out, rather than acknowledging that Standard English is simply one of many dialects that first arose out of chance and circumstance, Honey claims that its success is due to an innate superiority of the dialect, even though he is unable to give any examples of how Standard English forms are in any way superior to nonstandard dialect forms.

    Like many writers of perscriptivist handbooks, I believe Honey is playing on people’s insecurities about language use, and convincing them that they are at a social disadvantage if they are speakers of other dialects, despite his lack of linguistic knowledge or appreciation of the rich complexity of other varieties of English. As for the role of Standard English in education, I feel it is essential that Standard English be taught in schools to give children access to equal opportunities , however this need not be done at the expense other dialects, and the differences between written and spoken English, and formal and informal contexts, should be stressed.

  2. John Smith says:

    Dear Sophia

    John Honey is certainly NOT playing on people’s insecurities about language use. Not for one second. It is an statement for which you can find absolutely no support what so ever from his books or from his declared views on the subject. I suggest that those who so eagerly wish to criticize him read his book before commenting by launching false allegations against him!

    Honey has the audacity to admit that it is advantageous to learn standard English. And why is it? Because it is the standard! He acknowledges that learning the standard is good for anyone who do not have sufficient access to the standard. He does that for the betterment of every child, not to criticize them or make them feel unworthy.
    Is the standard language – whatever you’d call it – richer and more nuanced, and has it a broader vocabulary that the non-standard dialects? Of course it has! But evidently dialects such as Geordie or Scouse COULD just as well have become the standard, if history had turned the other way in one or two important medieval wars or so. And of course the richness of literature and vocabulary, that standard languages automatically acquire through the centuries, then would have benefited these dialects instead of the now standard. Shakespeare would then have written in one of these versions of English, and that standard had become richer and better than all other dialects and would have been taught at universities and language schools all over the world. That is, if one of them had developed into a standard. But they didn’t.

    When you have lost the argument, when you can’t reach the ball, then you go for the player. A strong indication that Honey is right is the boring and offensive ad hominem attacks he has to endure from his critics. Counting the number of professors who turn him down instead of finding valid arguments against his tenets is nothing but a disgrace in a discourse within academia. It is appalling to read these condescending comments against Honey. His opponents are “all respectable linguists, are they not?”. Laughable. I am sorry to say, that in this very respect – how they have treated John Honey and argumented against him – they are anything but respectable. But Honey remains respectable – and honest.

    The real reason for the venomous and loathing attitude against Honey has nothing to do with argumentation. The reason is to be found somewhere else. I claim that it is the clandestine and shameful superiority complex that the great majority of standard English speakers, readers and writers suffer from. Their well hidden supremacist world view is also the reason for their ultra-sensitivity if anyone dare say anything like “superior” or “better” about their standard English. The supremacists instead accuse the messenger of expressing supremacist supremacist views. It is ridiculos. By proclaiming the richness and equality of every non-standard dialect, by bowing and showing reverence towards these dialects, and professing that mastering the standard does absolutely not compose any real significant advantage for those who speak non-standard dialects or accents, by claiming that the standard is in no way richer nor any more nuanced than the non-standards, and by repeating that it is wrong to recommend it to all English-speaking children, the superiority complex-affected person hopes to conceal his or her secret disdain towards these dialects. This tiresome lying has developed into a political correctness that should be alien to every linguist, but it is not.

    Honey – in sharp contrast to the majority of mainstream linguists of our time – is completely free from any contempt towards the non-standard dialects. Read his books, for God’s sake! He describes reality in value-free terms, contrary to what his dishonest enemies and critics accuse him of. That speaking and mastering a standard is intrinsicly better than not doing it should go without saying, as this to a great extent is the implication of the word “standard”. Questioning that a standard really exists could of course afford some justification to his enemies’ objections. But come on, we all know that there is a standard, do we not?! Listen to argument for the opposite is tiresome, it is a concious lie repeatedly uttered within the echo chamber of political correctness, which I just mentioned.


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