JOHN HONEY AND THE NOTION OF EDUCATEDNESS
At the beginning of the twenty-first century “standard English” is in crisis. Terms such as “BBC English”, “RP”, the “Queen’s English”, “Oxford English”, “polite language”, “refined language”, or others that might be used to refer to “standard English”, once so highly valued in the dominant language discourse archive of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, have come increasingly under pressure in the last 40 years. Curiously enough, the pressure has come from those we might have expected to be its guardians: teachers, university lecturers, writers and poets. We could of course look at the “crisis of the standard” from the opposite point of view and consider that liberal attempts made by schools and writers to construct a creative attitude towards the standard based on the wide range of varieties of English have fallen into discredit with the media, government and frustrated self-proclaimed defenders of standard English.
However we look at it, the impression we gain is that the wars over “standard English” can no longer be conducted in a civilised fashion. Those who imagine themselves to be in control of the legitimate language seem to have willingly entered a state of war, which in the first decade of the new millennium has been temporarily suspended in a state of uneasy truce. The metaphors used on both sides of the debate are taken more and more frequently from the source domain of war or storm. Crowley (1999: 271), for example, begins his epilogue to Bex and Watts (1999) with the following sentence: “And so the standard English debate rumbles on.” In a review of Bex and Watts (1999), Cameron (2000) expresses the opinion that it is now a matter of “war”, not of civilised debate. And John Honey goes furthest with the title of his 1997 volume on standard English: Language Is Power The Story of Standard English and Its Enemies.
It is Honey’s book that will be looked at in more detail in this section. In chapter 8, I traced out the conceptualisation of politeness which was used to propagate the polite language myth from the time of the “Glorious Revolution” in 1688 to roughly 1720 and beyond. There is an uncanny similarity between that period of history and the period from 1960 to the present. In the first case the conceptualisation of the “standard” depends on vertical social differences built on the principle of “politeness”, and since 1960 similar vertical social differences have been built on the principle of educatedness. But there is one essential difference between the two periods of history: in the eighteenth century the principle of politeness was ultimately victorious, whereas since 1960 the principle of educatedness as a way of measuring the standard language has functioned less and less efficiently.
The central concept in Honey’s book, which was published just before the landslide victory of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” over the Conservative Party in the 1997 general election, is “educatedness”. The book has been heavily criticised in several reviews. Three examples from Crowley’s epilogue to Bex and Watts (1999) can serve as examples of the severity of this criticism. Referring to a passage from Honey’s book that reads “Critics have pointed out that from his emotionally frigid home background (he came from a poor family, and won his way to grammar school and Cambridge) [Raymond] Williams learned to love ‘the People’ rather than actual people” (1997: 115), Crowley first notes immediately after the first word “critics” that none are specified. He then goes on to make the following assessment:
Honey is too skilled a rhetorician not to know what he is doing with such words, though whether he understands academic standards is again called into doubt. In case he does not know, it should be made clear that such attacks on (dead and thus not able to be libelled) fellow members of the profession, have no place in academic debate. This is not a question of falling standards, but of shamefully fallen standards of decency and professionalism. (281, n1)
Honey argues that “Standard English” has two forms, written and spoken, and that they “share a common, ideal structure” (Crowley 1999: 273). However, Crowley notes that the valid point made by the Milroys that written language is altogether different from oral language for the simple reason that the written channel is different from the spoken channel is simply evaded by Honey: “Honey’s answer is simply to duck such complicated research and to resort, in a common tactic in these debates—frequently used by conservative
politicians for example—to received social attitudes and beliefs (one might say prejudices)” (273). His assessment is made on the basis of the following quotation from Honey:
It is important, though, to emphasise here that many educated people, including some respectable linguists [who are, as we might expect, not named], and also huge numbers of ordinary and not particularly educated people, act as though they believed that those forms of spoken English which are the most acceptable for a number of functions, especially functions associated with formality, are the forms which most clearly reflect written forms. (1997: 122-123)
Crowley (1999: 279) completes his contribution to Bex and Watts by stating that “It is in fact a great pity that the standard English debate is marred by the sort of conceptual confusions and political posturings (no matter how poorly expressed) which I have outlined by looking at one contribution to the debate [i.e. Honey’s book].”
At the beginning of his book Honey quite explicitly uses the metaphor of the battlefield—“Standard English is now a battlefield” (1997: 1)—to offer a virtually tautologous definition of standard English shortly afterwards: “By Standard English I mean the language in which this book is written” (3). He then resorts to the adjective educated repeatedly to strengthen and justify his argument. Honey’s major argument is that there is a natural connection between proficiency in standard English and levels of education. The argument is so central—and also so similar to the argument put forward by politicians of the 1790s and early 1800s—that I shall focus on it specifically in this section. His first proposal (p. 33) is that “educatedness” and “literacy” are closely connected, and that the connection creates access to what he calls the “mainstream” of society: “Standard forms are the expression of a complex of values associated with being in the mainstream of society, and with educatedness, which is in turn associated with literacy.” Unfortunately, Honey never defines what he understands by the “mainstream of society”, but the argument is in any case circular: standard English is in use in the mainstream of society, so if you do not have proficiency in standard English, you cannot be in the mainstream. It is also purely exclusive: “we” in the mainstream will exclude “you” from it on the grounds that you do not speak (write?) standard English, and, as with the eighteenth-century concept of politeness, members of the mainstream may at any time shift the goalposts so that you will never be admitted to the select few. I assume that the select few here are the “educated”. Those who are not proficient in standard English are not educated and may therefore not be admitted to the mainstream. This is an almost direct transference from the polite language myth and the legitimate language myth to the educated language myth, supporting the ideological discourse of “standard English”.
This subtle shift in myths is made explicit six pages further into the text (p. 35): “Standard English is perceived by all—and resisted by some—as the language of literacy and of educatedness.” If everyone perceives “standard
English” to have this status, how can there still be some who resist? Honey is implicitly making a distinction between good, commonsensical people who accept the equation “standard English = literacy + educatedness” and a small, misguided band of people who wish to reject acceptance of the equation. The equation itself is thus presented as fact. Unfortunately for Honey’s argument, the band of unbelievers is rather larger than he imagines and includes teachers, lecturers, writers, education theorists and others. In addition, surely he would hardly wish to suggest that the “enemies” of “standard English” are not also “educated” and “literate”.
In both these quotations, being literate is also equated with having proficiency in the “standard language”. But if we take Koch’s complex model of literacy used in chapter 3 as the basis for my concept of inscribed orality, it is incumbent on us as linguists, sociolinguists and educationists to admit to the extreme complexity of a term such as “literacy”. Am I literate if I can just about read comics and the popular press, instructions on medical prescriptions, and cooking recipes, but never read novels, histories, academic monographs? Am I literate if, as was the case with many people in the late Middle Ages, I can read simple texts but cannot write? Am I literate if, as a nuclear physicist, I read complex treatises on physics but have never read a novel and know next to nothing about literary texts in general? Am I literate if I spend all of my free time participating in Internet chat groups, receiving and sending e-mails, or setting up blogs? We cannot now know how Honey would have classified these cases, but my interpretation of the way in which he seems to use the term “literacy” implies a connection to the reading of literature, in all probability of the high-brow variety rather than true-love stories, adventure stories, detective stories and Western pulp fiction. Without a clear definition of what Honey understands by “literacy”, which is never given to us throughout the whole book, it is meaningless to equate literacy with “standard English”.
Honey’s next move (p. 39) is to introduce grammar into his argument: “There is a long-standing and now overwhelming association, right across British society, between the use of the grammar, vocabulary and idioms of standard English, and the concept of ‘educatedness’.” He subtly conceals the significance attributed to the term “grammar” here by combining it with “vocabulary” and “idioms”. However, the discussion of the tug-of-war that went on between the Conservative government in the second half of the 1980s and the Kingman and Cox Committees as to what the term “grammar” should mean in the National Curriculum for English and, in the course of his book, Honey’s attacks on theoretical linguists proposing a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach to syntax are enough to convince the reader that grammar refers to standards of “correctness” and a prescriptive approach to the structures of English represented in the parsing exercises given up in the early 1960s. Throughout the book, Honey also makes sweeping statements such as the one above, entirely unsupported by concrete evidence, in an effort to make it seem that any right-thinking person must also think the same way, and that those who think differently are either subversive or perhaps a little
deranged. This is a form of rhetoric based on the assumed rightness and com- monsense of hegemonic discourse that has become so naturalised that it is considered to represent fact and does not need to be bolstered up by any further evidence. By now, it should be possible to see through Honey’s rhetoric and recognise most of the language myths that lie at the basis of his discourse, perfection, homogeneity, purity, legitimacy, immutability.
Part of Honey’s tactic is to ridicule linguists’ insistence on objectivity so that he can appear to be taking a modern, sociolinguistic stance by admitting that language varieties are never “neutral”. The aim of this strategy is to avoid criticism that his support of “standard English” is in any sense partisan— which of course it is, as is obvious from his repetition of the connection between “standard English”, literacy and educatedness (p. 114): “She [Janet Batsleer] is right, of course, that standard English is not a neutral norm: it is the badge of literacy and educatedness.”
Honey has his own private enemies throughout the book, and two of these are James and Lesley Milroy. In the following quotation (p. 122), he says that the Milroys don’t understand why so much of the public admires literate forms, and he offers the following reason for this: “Their lack of understanding of the basis of popular respect for literate forms is due to their failure to recognise the popular association of standard English with educatedness and competence.” The “popular respect for literate forms” that Honey refers to here in fact transforms the more abstract notion of literacy into a concrete example of what he means by the term: “literate forms”, exemplars of literature. This is a small step away from the grammarians of the eighteenth century using the best writers of the day to illustrate their grammar rules and even to upbraid them for making mistakes. He has also smuggled in the notion of “competence” alongside “literacy”, “grammar” and “educatedness” as being represented by standard English.
Honey refers to educatedness in close association with standard English every few pages of his book, and as he progresses he manoeuvres himself into a position in which, by his own admittance, standard English is a value-laden term to categorise those who are, in his sense, “literate” and educated. But what does Honey understand by “education” and being “educated”? What is his ulterior motive in writing the book apart from maligning fellow linguists for wrongheadedness? Throughout the whole book, Honey never defines the terms that he uses. We search in vain for a definition of “education” or “educatedness”, although in one passage he does give his readers an insight into how he understands the category “educated people”:
In October 1995 I published in the journal English Today evidence drawn from more than fifteen years of recording examples of educated people who use the supposedly “incorrect” forms—“to my wife and I”, “between you and I”, “for we British”, etc. My fifty examples came from prominent literary figures, from university professors (including well-known professors of English), distinguished Oxbridge theologians (“for we who are in chapel today”), politicians (including several party leaders, and three education ministers) like Paddy Ashdown, Lord (David) Owen, George Walden (“the likes of you and I”), Sir Rhodes Boyson, Paul Channon and Margaret Thatcher. (1997: 161, italics mine)
The odd thing about this quotation is that what “educated people” frequently say, even if—from a technical, prescriptive point of view—ungrammatical, must, according to Honey, be allowed to be good standard English. I would argue that the phrases he quotes involving use of the nominative form of the first-person pronouns singular and plural (I and we) are perfect examples of variability lending support to the argument against homogeneity.
However, Honey’s scale of values to define the class of the educated includes university professors, famous literary figures, Oxbridge theologians and politicians, so it is not quite coterminous with those who might have deserved this etiquette in the eighteenth century. As we saw in chapter 8, this would have included the gentry and the aristocracy. But it does contain a liberal sprinkling of those who wielded power in late-twentieth-century Britain. The problem is that it is out of step with the course taken by the public education system in England and Wales in introducing a National Curriculum. The significance of standard English in that system is not disputed, since the argument in educational circles is that every child should have access to and be taught to use standard English in written form just as long as she is not prevented from using her own oral style of English in or outside the classroom.
Perhaps Honey’s real aim throughout the book is expressed just two pages later (1997: 163) when he argues explicitly for the setting up of “a form of authority” to watch over standard English. He does not explicitly call it an “academy”, but it is perfectly clear that this how he intends it to be understood: “So what the English language needs is a form of authority that can easily be appealed to for guidance as to the uses which are acceptable compared with those which are not—an authority based not on an individual’s irrational likes and dislikes but on the consensus of educated opinion.” The wheel has turned full circle since Defoe first made the suggestion in 1697 that a body of people should be set up to “encourage polite learning”. The members of Defoe’s “society”, as he called it, should be members of “polite society”; those who would provide guidance in Honey’s putative “authority” should be “educated” people. They should, in other words, be “prominent literary figures”, “university professors”, “distinguished Oxbridge theologians” and “politicians”. Linguists, sociolinguists, sociologists, cultural theoreticians and, one might also presume, professors of education, as well as a host of other progressive persons (whether educated or not) would, in all probability, be immediately barred from deciding on what constitutes the chimera of standard English. The discourse and the basis on which it was originally constructed—the linguistic homogeneity myth, the purity myth and the perfection myth—have been continually reproduced and reconstructed institutionally from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the present. Under the roof of the legitimate language myth, which promoted an immutable standard English, the polite language myth has simply been reproduced as the educated language myth.
It is not totally clear by the time we reach the end of Honey’s book exactly how he conceptualises the notion of “educatedness”. We have seen that he frequently uses it in conjunction with “literacy”, which, as I pointed out above, does not mean for Honey simply the ability to read. It comes rather closer to the term “literate” as this was used in the eighteenth century to refer to “knowledgeable in the classical languages and their literatures”. However, as he uses the term so often in conjunction with “standard English”, it is obviously a term of importance to him. In poring over all the references to the term, one is left with a degree of uncertainty as to whether Honey is simply of the opinion that every child in Britain should have the opportunity to achieve a good education, which would mean, in terms of the National Curriculum, a good grounding in the full range of subjects that would enable the student to specialise in certain subjects after the age of 16. I suspect that the old elitism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still forms part of the concept for Honey, and this comes out very clearly in his use of Latin etymologies to back up his argument that most writers use certain Latinate words wrongly in English. One of the classic cases here is his lampooning of the “wrong” use of the lexeme decimate. Honey makes sure his readers are aware of his knowledge of Latin in explaining that “decimate” refers to taking out one in every 10 of a set of objects, and refers to a seventeenth-century law of decimation, by which a tenth of some citizens’ payment was taken. He deplores the modern use of the term to mean “destroy utterly” and makes the comment that “with the decline in the widespread knowledge of Latin among the educated of the late twentieth century, the one- in-ten meaning of decimate was lost” (1997: 154). One is left with the impression that Honey would like to see Latin make a comeback in the schools and universities of Britain, and that what he means by “educatedness” is not very far from what it meant at the beginning of the nineteenth century.