Holborow, Orwell and Sara’s students on standard English.

There is a fabulous discussion over at Critical Mass ELT relating to the question of standard and non-standard Englishes. Apparently, the students’ seemingly contradictory comments posted on the university wiki prompted Sara to raise this crucial issue on the TEFL blogosphere. Our thanks to Sara, the students who inspired her with their comments, and the contributors for an excellent discussion and recommend readers participate with their experiences and ideas

From our perspective, we believe both students ( both non-native English speakers) are entirely correct in their positions. Student A is correctly prescriptive about logic, intelligibility and style:

Languages all over the world are changing at an insane pace to match our increasing demand for brevity, yet they often sacrifice logic in their formulation of abbreviations and ignorance of syntax structures. This is not an evolution towards a more Spartan and elegant speech but rather a devolution that I personally find less than aesthetically pleasing


And Student B is correct in asserting that a particular formal language is not necessary for scientific papers:


Should it be therefore desirable, the incorporation of a more non- formal language ? Would the use of other than standard English compromise the reliability and the validity of scientific scripts that are written distinctively? After all, language is just a code which provide the means for a successful communication

We reach this conclusion by the use of the Marxist method, which is well-outlined in Marnie Holborow’s generally excellent, Politics of English Language. She argues that language cannot be separated from the social relations of production, languages must be understood, therefore, historically, and, viewed in this manner, language is seen to be a site of intense political struggle. Indeed, what we see as Standard English is but the triumph of one English over others and attempts to devalue those which fall outside the accepted norm, are done from a political perspective and not necessarily a linguistic one. She is following Labov here, who demonstrates, quite categorically, that there is no language deficit in the Afro-American street language, rather it is as rich, if not richer, than it’s accepted WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) standard college English cousin. This would accord with Student B’s call for diversity in expression.

We would disagree with Holborow, however, in her treatment of Orwell’s prescriptive approach to the English Language. At first she praises Orwell for his attempts to bring more aspects of spoken language into written language but then we believe she diverges from the Marxist method when she claims:

His understandable criticism of unthinking style of contemporary communist leaflets (which h equates with the officialese of the BBC) should have been made on a political basis rather than a superficial stylistic one, especially for one so identified with socialist ideas.

Even the briefest of readings of the piece from which Holborow draws, Politics and the English Language, however, shows Orwell simply following his particular political philosophies. Namely, his hatred of elites who subvert the thinking process  (most extensively developed in 1984 and his concept of doublethink) and his belief that socialism has been taken hostage by a new elite of technocrats (developed in both 1984 and Animal Farm). Orwell would have despised Alistair Pennycook (we are sure of that) not for the fact that ..the theoretical tools of post-modernism and Foucault tie Pennycook’s willing hand, but because  such writing from Pennycook, as below, is so unacceptably elitist and anti-worker:

It has also been suggested that sustainable development has become something of an unquestioned given, a notion so linked to the moral discourses of enviromentalism that it is hard to question its practices. Adams(1995) suggests that in spite of the multiple meanings of the notion, sustainable development has “colonized academic discussion of development”, and is rarely given any careful scrutiny or critical analysis (p.87). The discourse of sustainable development, he argues, has its origins not so much in development theory as in “Northern environmentalism” (p.88), and thus it is tied more to a form of environmental moralising than to more direct concerns for local participation in local based projects for improvement of different conditions. Looking at the ways in which sustainable development derives from “technocentrist environmentalism”, Adams argues that it “shares the dominant industrialist and modernist ideology of …developmentalism”, based as it is on rational capitalist planning models (pp. 89-90). Thus, sustainable development may be seen “as simply one more transient label on the trickle of capital flows of aid donors from the industrialized North, and something that allowed ‘business as usual’ by international capital” (p.99).

This passage is an exercise in the elitism which Orwell despised, the empty repetition of fixed phrases

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They  will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

That Holborow does not challenge Pennycook for his obtuseness (it should be noted that she writes so well herself, except when attempting to take Pennycook on using his own linguistic jargon) is down to the fact her book ultimately exists on an academic and not a political level. We are not saying that Holborow does not suggest any political consequences of the theory she develops but she is ultimately concerned with general theory and not political action as was Orwell in his writing. Here she writes as a member of the academic community, (her own willing hands tied). Indeed, we know here at Marxist TEFL, we should attend to some of our writing in the spirit Orwell suggests. We would not, however, suggest that Orwell’s approach to these issues is non-political and purely a matter of style.  Orwell’s pamphlet is, in fact, equivalent to sloganeering. He is attempting to raise clear politic goals in a definite political period as opposed to an excericse in outlining genral thoretical standpoints. It is Orwell who is the Leninist of language and not Holborow.

We would reiterate our claim, therefore, along with  Orwell, that both Student A and Student B are correct in their approach to standard English. We need to make the language more real and everyday without sacrificing the intelligibility, logic and simple aesthetics of expression. The two students are raising clear political questions, unfortunately so many in the teaching profession are trailing behind them.  The students have shown a lead, let’s follow them.



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4 responses to “Holborow, Orwell and Sara’s students on standard English.

  1. Thank you Marxist ELF for your comments and insights. Very much appreciated.

  2. dfogarty

    I don’t know if I agree or disagree! And if I disagree I don’t know if it’s just because, as somebody who feels attracted by anarchism, when I hear the word Marxism, I reach for my bulletproof jacket and my comedy disguise.

    I think, on the whole, I agree (you may rest easy now!). Where I disagree is with the bit about, “you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

    If we followed this to its logical conclusion, the inference would be that original thought requires original language. This would result in nobody understanding anybody (do they anyway?). All language is composed of ready-made phrases or based upon an understanding of ready-made phrases. To have recourse to them is not to shirk. It is quite normal.

    What is also quite normal, and what you may have meant anyway, is to fall back on cliches. That is, to populate your thoughts and ideas with chunks of language that, at the end of the day, have no meaning. Did you spot what I did there?

    But I don’t know if I would blame language or the sloppy approach to it. To me, what is more dangerous is the apparent belief these days that everyone has to have an opinion about everything. Entire news items are built around vox pops (is Latin too elitist?!) despite the fact that the voxes in the vox pops are woefully uninformed about whatever it is they are expressing an opinion about.

    If you are required to have an opinion about something that you know nothing about, then you NEED to stuff your language with pre-baked ideas. I think that this is what needs to be countered. People should inform themselves before they feel that they have a duty to speak out (or, dare I say it, a right to an opinion).

    Incidentally, and I don’t want this to be taken as an insult because I enjoyed your post and found it thought-provoking, have a look through your own post and ask yourself the four questions; look for what you term the “elitist” empty repetition of fixed phrases. I thought I spotted a few.

    The point being that we tend to write/speak in the language of the speech community to which we most closely affiliate. Orwell seems to have been calling for the middle classes to speak more directly to the working classes by stripping out all the big words and the rhetorical flourishes. That might POSSIBLY be seen as condescending by some.

  3. marxistelf

    Hi dfogarty,

    Thank you very much for your excellent comments. The temptation is to simply to leave the response as that but this would be unfair given the critical perspective you have kindly provided.

    The first point we would like to respond on is the difference between Anarchism and Marxism. For us there is much that unites the two traditions, indeed the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is seen as a moment in the transition to a stateless society. As Engels says:

    All socialists are agreed that the political state, and with it political authority, will disappear as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions will lose their political character and will be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society. But the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed.
    Engels On Authority

    For Marxists, therefore, the political character of the workers’ state (which is not merely seen as a change at the top but new means of organisation) is defensive in character. It is an attempt to defend itself against counter-revolution. Of course, we have seen with Stalinism and Social Democracy that the state becomes anything but progressive. It takes on a national character, (socialism in one country) and begins a process of capital accumulation (the will of the people) in competition with other states rather than the people satisfying their needs and asserting their own will. This is nothing other than the absence of revolution or, in the case of Russia, counter revolution.

    All sounds easy, but the problem for modern socialists is to see, how far Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and even Rosa Luxembourg might also have contributed to ambiguities concerning the nature and role of the state under socialism. George Orwell, was very aware of these issues and his writings on language reflect his concerns that the proletariat must defend itself against the exercise of power by those claiming to be acting in its interests. This issue became critical when he saw how Stalin’s politics, (dominated by his primary concern for the security of the Russian state) effectively disarmed the workers struggle in Spain.

    So here, whilst you are right in asking us to examine our own writing for exactly what Orwell criticises, we must come to the defense of Orwell when you suggest he is being elitist. Firstly, we agree that language is made up of many fixed phrases that we have recourse to but these fixed phrases are in many ways the unthinking part of our speech, the parts that allow us to express ourselves in real time. For example, “at the end of the day”, “in the final analysis” or “all things considered”. Such formulaic expressions are never original, this is not their role in expression. But, they do give us more time and space to give our “original” formulations. Orwell’s point (and he overcooks it- he always does) is that we should subject such expressions to more critical examination and not just create a new set of left-wing unthinking formulaic expressions.

    Indeed, consider the expression beyond the pale, a seemingly harmless expression but with incredibly anti-Irish and anti-Semitic roots. By exploring language more critically we can begin to think more and not less. This is not just to ask whether it has racist roots but to ask ourselves which is better : “at the end of the day”, “in the final analysis” or “all things considered? The first seems pretty archaic and lazy but honest, the second and third seem more precise but unrealistic and probably dishonest. And, as a result we have started to do what Orwell wanted, think more. So we don’t feel it’s just about packing what you are saying with lots of pre-baked ideas because you don’t know what you are talking about (though we agree with you and Orwell on this point) but a call for critical thought.

    Finally, on Orwell, I think it’s most unfair to suggest he wanted writers to dumb down. In the passage we quote he says:

    1. What am I trying to say?
    2. What words will express it?
    3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
    4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

    Orwell is not asking for less, he is asking for clarity and freshness. Indeed, he specifically criticises stripping down language in his novel 1984 when discussing Newspeak.
    It has been absolute pleasure replying to you, dfogarty, please come by again and leave more exceptionally thought-provoking comments.

  4. Pingback: “This week in TEFL-blog memes – Standards and “that thing, that thing, that thiiiiing” « $trictly 4 my T.E.A.C.H.E.R.Z

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