The underlying theory
The construct of elaborated and restricted language codes was introduced by Basil Bernstein in 1971, as a way of accounting for the relatively poor performance of working-class pupils on language-based subjects, when they were achieving as well as their middle-class counterparts on mathematical topics. Interestingly, it was stimulated directly by his experience of teaching in further education.
It is frequently misunderstood, largely because of Bernstein’s unfortunate choice of labels. The “restricted” code does not refer to restricted vocabulary, and the “elaborated” code does not entail flowery use of language. There is an issue of “linguistic impoverishment” in the educational problems of some pupils, but Bernstein is not on the whole concerned with such extreme cases.
One of Bernstein’s research studies involved showing a group of children a strip cartoon and recording their account of what it depicted. Some said things like:
“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”
while others said:
“Three boys are playing football and one boy kicks the ball
and it goes through the window
the ball 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.”
(from Bernstein, 1971 p 203 [re-arranged])
As Bernstein points out, the first account makes good sense if you have the strip cartoon in front of you, but means much less without it. This is an example of restricted code. The second can “stand on its own”, and is an example of elaborated code.
The essence of the distinction is in what the language is suited for. The restricted code works better than the elaborated code for situations in which there is a great deal of shared and taken-for-granted knowledge in the group of speakers. It is economical and rich, conveying a vast amount of meaning with a few words, each of which has a complex set of connotations and acts like an index, pointing the hearer to a lot more information which remains unsaid.
“If you’re going to town, get Rupert a new April from you-know-where” (Restricted)
“If you are going into Bedford, please get a new toy for Rupert the dog from the pet-shop (which we can’t name because if the dog hears it he will go mad), to replace the one which we have come to call “April”, which he has almost chewed to bits.” (Elaborated)
“Cameron’s at it again.” (Restricted)
“I see from the newspaper I am reading that David Cameron, leader of the Opposition, is once again trying to attack the government from a position of right-wing populism as we discussed a couple of days ago.” (Elaborated)
Not only that, but because it draws on a store of shared meanings and background knowledge, a restricted code carries a social message of inclusion, of implicitly acknowledging that the person addressed is “one of us”. It takes one form within a family or a friendship group, and another with the use of occupational jargon within a work group. Its essential feature is that it works within, and is tuned to, a restricted community. Everyone uses restricted code communication some of the time. It would be a very peculiar and cold family which did not have its own language.
- One of the commonest “padding” expressions in English is “you know” or even “you know what I mean”. Indeed, in restricted code usage there is an expectation that others will indeed know what you are getting at, from a few key words.
- A major failing in badly-written novels, films and TV plays is the inability to strike the fine balance between expressing the restricted code of the characters, and spelling things out for the audience who do not “know”. Get it wrong, and it’s either incomprehensible or wooden.
Elaborated code spells everything out: not because it is better, but because it is necessary so that everyone can understand it. It has to elaborate because the circumstances do not allow speakers to condense. (“Condensed” might have been a better label for the restricted code.)
Restricted/condensed code is therefore great for shared, established and static meanings (and values): but if you want to break out to say something new, particularly something which questions the received wisdom, you are going to have to use an elaborated code. Bernstein’s research argued that working-class students had access to their restricted code(s) – but middle-class students had access to both restricted and elaborated codes, because the middle classes were more geographically, socially and culturally mobile. I do not know of any recent research which attempts to check whether this is still true.
Because schools and colleges are:
- concerned with the introduction of new knowledge which goes beyond existing shared meanings
- relatively anonymous institutions which may not share many taken-for-granted meanings in their formal structures (although quite a lot in their informal structures within the staff and student groups)
– they need to use elaborated code. The bottom line is that if you can’t handle elaborated code, you are not going to succeed in the educational system.
Bernstein has not gone unchallenged, particularly in his suggestion that restricted codes cannot deal effectively with new knowledge and ideas. The problem is that the basic idea has got tied up with many others, and has often been misunderstood, particularly in the United States. William Labov (1969) showed that what was then known as “Negro Nonstandard English” was perfectly capable of expressing complex and original ideas: but I do not read Bernstein as ever having suggested otherwise.
The original research has been developed, particularly into a model for understanding authority relationships within families (with Cook-Gumperz), and into the basis of a fascinating classification of cultures (Douglas, 1973)
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
Theory of Language Code
Basil Bernstein made a significant contribution to the study of communication with his sociolinguistic theory of language codes. Within the broader category of language codes are elaborated and restricted codes. The term code, as defined by Stephen Littlejohn in Theories of Human Communication (2002), “refers to a set of organizing principles behind the language employed by members of a social group” (p. 178). Littlejohn (2002) suggests that Bernstein’s theory shows how the language people use in everyday conversation both reflects and shapes the assumptions of a certain social group. Furthermore, relationships established within the social group affect the way that group uses language, and the type of speech that is used.
According to James Atherton of the Doceo Teaching and Learning Website, the construct of restricted and elaborated language codes was introduced by Basil Bernstein in 1971. As an educator, he was interested in accounting for the relatively poor performance of working-class students in language-based subjects, when they were achieving scores as high as their middle-class counterparts on mathematical topics. In his theory, Bernstein asserts a direct relationship between societal class and language.
According to Bernstein in Class, Codes and Control (1971),
“Forms of spoken language in the process of their learning initiate, generalize and reinforce special types of relationship with the environment and thus create for the individual particular forms of significance” (p.76). That is to say that the way language is used within a particular societal class affects the way people assign significance and meaning to the things about which they are speaking. Littlejohn (2002) agrees and states, “people learn their place in the world by virtue of the language codes they employ” (p.178). The code that a person uses indeed symbolizes their social identity (Bernstein, 1971).
Elaborated code and restricted code
The two types of language codes are the elaborated code and the restricted code. The restricted code is suitable for insiders who share assumptions and understanding on the topic, whereas the elaborated code does not assume that the listener shares these assumptions or understandings, and thus elaborated code is more explicit, more thorough, and does not require the listener to read between the lines. According to Atherton (2002),
the essence of the distinction is in what the language is suited for. The restricted code works better than the elaborated code for situations in which there is a great deal of shared and taken-for-granted knowledge in the group of speakers. It is economical and rich, conveying a vast amount of meaning with a few words, each of which has a complex set of connotations and acts like an index, pointing the hearer to a lot more information which remains unsaid.
Within the restricted code, speakers draw on background knowledge and shared understanding. This type of code creates a sense of includedness, a feeling of belonging to a certain group. Restricted codes can be found among friends and families and other intimately knit groups.
Conversely, according to Atherton (2002), “the elaborated code spells everything out, not because it is better, but because it is necessary so that everyone can understand it. It has to elaborate because the circumstances do not allow the speaker to condense.” The elaborated code works well in situations where there is no prior or shared understanding and knowledge, where more thorough explanation is required. If one is saying something new to someone they’ve never met before, they would most certainly communicate in elaborated code.
In differentiating between restricted and elaborated codes, it is noted that elaborated code can “stand on its own”, it is complete and full of detail, most overhearing a conversation would be able to understand it. However, restricted code is shorter, condensed and requires background information and prior knowledge. A person overhearing a conversation full of restricted code would be quite lost. It would be easily identifiable as an “insiders” conversation. According to Bernstein (1971), “Clearly one code is not better than another; each possesses its own aesthetic, its own possibilities. Society, however, may place different values on the orders of experience elicited, maintained and progressively strengthened through the different coding systems” (p. 135).
As communication occurs in groups and either the elaborated or restricted code is used, there is a degree of openness that is noticed. There is both the closed-role system and the open-role system. In a closed-role system, roles are set and people are viewed in terms of these roles, as well as expected to act in accordance with their role. In an open-role system, roles are not set or simple, they are fluid and changeable (Littlejohn, 2002).
There are two factors which contribute to the development of either an elaborated or restricted code within a system. They are: the nature of the socializing agencies (family, peer group, school, work) present in a system as well as the values within the system. When the socializing agencies are well defined and structured you find a restricted code. Conversely, where the agencies are malleable, an elaborated code is found. In a society which values individuality you find elaborated codes, and in a narrower society you find restricted codes (Littlejohn, 2002). According to Bernstein (1971), “The orientation towards these codes may be governed entirely by the form of the social relation, or more generally by the quality of the social structure” (p. 135).
Bernstein suggests a correlation between social class and the use of either elaborated or restricted code. He argues that in the working class you are likely to find the use of the restricted code, whereas in the middle class you find the use of both the restricted and elaborated codes. His research suggests that the working class individuals have access only to restricted codes, the ones they learned in the socialization process, where “both the values and role systems reinforce restricted codes” (Littlejohn, 2002 p. 179). However, the middle class, being more geographically, socially and culturally mobile has access to both the restricted codes and elaborated codes. (Atherton, 2002). The restricted code is less formal with shorter phrases interjected into the middle or end of a thought to confirm understanding. For example, “you know” ,” “you know what I mean,“ “right?” and “don’t you think?” Elaborated codes have a longer, more complicated sentence structure that utilizes uncommon words and thoughts. In the elaborated code there is no padding or filler, only complete, well laid out thoughts that require no previous knowledge on the part of the listener, i.e., necessary details will be provided. According to Bernstein (1971), a working class person communicates in restricted code as a result of the conditions in which they were raised and the socialization process. The same is true for the middle class person with the exception that they were exposed to the elaborated code as well. Both groups use restricted code at some point, for as Atherton (2002) points out, “Everyone uses restricted code communication some of the time. It would be a very peculiar and cold family which did not have its own language.”
[The correlation between societal class and language codes shown herein explains for the poor performance in language based subjects by the working class students mentioned earlier.]
Though Bernstein’s sociolinguistic work on ‘restricted code’ and ‘elaborated code’ is widely known it represents only his very earliest work. This early work was the subject of considerable misunderstanding and controversy. Bernstein emphasised that ‘code’ was not dialect and that code theory was neither a bourgeois alibi for middle-class speech nor a denigrating deficit account of working-class language.
Code theory in sociology of education
Bernstein’s ‘code theory’ in the sociology of education has undergone considerable development since the early 1970s and now enjoys a growing influence in both education and linguistics, especially among systemic functional linguists. Maton & Muller (2007) describe how Bernstein argued that different positions within society, understood in terms of their degree of specialization, have different language use patterns that influence the ability of these groups to succeed in schools. These social positions create, as he later put it, ‘different modalities of communication differentially valued by the school, and differentially effective in it, because of the school’s values, modes of practice and relations with its different communities’ (1996: 91). The notion was codified first in terms of “classification” and “framing”, where classification conceptualises relations of power that regulate relations between contexts or categories, and framing conceptualises relations of control within these contexts or categories (1975). These concepts have been widely used to analyze educational contexts and practices and their relations to the dispositions (or coding orientation) brought to education by different social groups.
These concepts raised the question of how different forms of educational knowledge are constructed. Bernstein pointed to the pedagogic device as the cause (see Maton & Muller 2007). This forms the basis of his account of:
- the ordered regulation and distribution of a society’s worthwhile knowledge store (ordered by a set of distributive rules);
- its transformation into a pedagogic discourse, a form amenable to pedagogic transmission (ordered by a specifiable set of recontextualising rules); and
- the further transformation of this pedagogic discourse into a set of criterial standards to be attained (ordered by a specifiable set of evaluative rules).
In Bernstein’s conceptualisation each of these rules is associated with a specific field of activity:
- a field of production where ‘new’ knowledge is constructed and positioned;
- a field of recontextualisation where discourses from the field of production are selected, appropriated and repositioned to become ‘educational’ knowledge; and
- a field of reproduction where pedagogic practice takes place.
Together these three rules and their associated fields constitute an ‘arena’ of conflict and struggle created by the pedagogic device in which social groups attempt to dominate how educational knowledge is constructed:
Groups attempt to appropriate the device to impose their rule by the construction of particular code modalities. Thus the device or apparatus becomes the focus of challenge, resistance and conflict (Bernstein 1996: 193).
As Moore & Maton (2001) describe, having analysed the nature of educational knowledge, and then how knowledge is selected from fields of knowledge production and then rearranged and recontextualised to become educational knowledge, the next question is: what characterises the nature of these fields of knowledge production? Bernstein conceptualises these in terms of ‘knowledge structures’. Bernstein defines a “hierarchical knowledge structure” as ‘a coherent, explicit and systematically principled structure, hierarchically organised’ which ‘attempts to create very general propositions and theories, which integrate knowledge at lower levels, and in this way shows underlying uniformities across an expanding range of apparently different phenomena’ (1999: 161, 162), such as physics. A “horizontal knowledge structure” is defined as ‘a series of specialised languages with specialised modes of interrogation and criteria for the construction and circulation of texts’ (1999: 162), such as each of the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences.