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English Language & Linguistics

English Language


Bernstein: Language and Social Class

Central to Bernstein's writings is the distinction between the restricted code and the elaborated code. Some of the differences between the two codes are:
(i) syntax is more formally correct in the elaborated code, but looser in the restricted code. There are, for example, more subordinate clauses in the elaborated code, and fewer unfinished sentences.
(ii) There are more logical connectives like if and unless in the elaborated code, whereas the restricted code uses more words of simple coordination like and and but.
(iii) There is more originality in the elaborated code; there are more clichés in the restricted code.
(iv) Reference is more explicit in the elaborated code, more implicit in the restricted code: so the restricted code uses a greater number of pronouns than the elaborated code (see the example quoted at length below).
(v) The elaborated code is used to convey facts and abstract ideas, the restricted code attitude and feeling.
While (i) to (iv) relate at least in part to the forms of language, (v) relates primarily to the meanings being conveyed.

Examples which show clearly all the differences between the two codes operating together are difficult to find in Bernstein's articles. One example which particularly illustrates (iv) above is quoted in Bernstein, 1971:194. Two five-year-old children, one working-class and one middle-class, were shown a series of three pictures, which involved boys playing football and breaking a window. They described the events involved as follows:

(1) Three boys are playing football and one boy kicks the ball and it goes through the window and the bail breaks the window and the boys are looking at it and a man comes out and shouts at them because they've broken the window so they run away and then that lady looks out of her window and she tells the boys off.

(2) They're playing football and he kicks it and it goes through there it breaks the window and they're looking at it and he comes out and shouts at them because they've broken it so they run away and then she looks out and she tells them off.

The elaborated code is the one which, in the adult language, would be generally associated with formal situations, the restricted code that associated with informal situations.

In the earlier articles it was implied that middle-class children generally use the elaborated code (although they might sometimes use the restricted code), whereas working-class children have only the restricted code. But Bernstein later modified this viewpoint to say that even working-class children might sometimes use the elaborated code; the difference between the classes is said to lie rather in the occasions on which they can use the codes (e.g. working-class children certainly have difficulty in using the elaborated code in school). Moreover, all children can understand both codes when spoken to them.

Following from (ii) above, it has also been assumed that part of any 'cognitive deficit' would consist in an inability to think logically. Labov (1969), however, has argued that young blacks in the United States, although using language which certainly seems an example of the restricted code, nevertheless display a clear ability to argue logically. One example quoted by Labov is a boy talking about what happens after death:

You know, like some people say if you're good an' shit, your spirit goin' t'heaven...'n' if you bad, your spirit goin' to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin' to hell anyway, good or bad. (Why?) Why! I'll tell you why. 'Cause, you see, doesn't nobody really know that it's a God, y'know, 'cause I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods, all color gods, and 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 ain't goin' to no heaven, 'cause it ain't no heaven for you to go to.

The speaker is here setting out 'a complex set of interdependent propositions'; 'he can sum up a complex argument in a few words, and the full force of his opinions comes through without qualification or reservation'.

In addition Labov notes the common faults of so-called middle-class speech: 'Our work in the speech community makes it painfully obvious that in many ways working-class speakers are more effective narrators, reasoners, and debaters than many middle-class speakers who temporize, qualify, and lose their argument in a mass of irrelevant detail.' There is no clear relationship between language and logical thought

(Cruttenden, A., Language in Infancy and Childhood, Manchester University Press, 1979)