Adopting registers & codes

Adopting Registers  I  Adopting Codes  I  References  I  Comments


Adopting social & academic registers

“Texts, as well as talk, in specific domains, are not just in English (or some other language) "in general". There really is no such thing as "English in general". Rather, any text or talk is in a specific style of language” (Gee, 2003, pg 33)

“Specialist varieties of language are different – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large ways – from people’s vernacular variety of language. Linguists often refer to these specialist varieties of language, tied to specific tasks and identities, as “registers” (Halliday and Martin 1993).” (Gee, 2008, pg 95)

“Throughout their lives to speak in the vernacular style of language, that is, the style of language they use when they are speaking as “everyday” people and not as specialists of various sorts (e.g., biologists, street-gang members, lawyers, video-game adepts, postmodern feminists, etc.).” (Gee, 2003, pg 34)

“Nearly everyone comes to acquire non-vernacular styles of languages later in life, styles used for special purposes, such as religion, work (e.g., a craft), government, or academic specialties. Let us call all these different styles of language “social languages” (Gee 1996, 1999)” (Gee, 2003, pg 34)

“Some texts are, of course, written in vernacular varieties of language; for example, some letters, e-mail, and children’s books. The vast majority of texts in the modern world, though, are not written in the vernacular but in some specialist variety of language. People who learn to read the vernacular often have great trouble reading texts written in specialist varieties of language. Of course, there are some texts written in specialist varieties of language (e.g., nuclear physics) that many very good readers cannot read.” (Gee, 2008, pg 95-96)

“While the process of acquiring a vernacular form of one’s language is, at least in my view (following Chomsky, e.g., see Chomsky 1986), biologically specified and every later social language does, indeed, build on the resources of one’s vernacular, acquiring various non-vernacular social languages is not a process that is itself biologically specified (Gee 2001).” (Gee, 2003, pg 34)

“It is obvious that once we talk about learning to read and speak specialist varieties of language, it is hard to separate learning to read and speak this way from learning the sorts of content or information that the specialist language is typically used to convey ... The two – content and language – are married (Halliday and Matthiessen 1999).” (Gee, 2008, pg 96)

“Of course, one key area where specialist varieties of language differ from vernacular ones is vocabulary. Yet they also often differ in syntax and discourse features as well (“syntax” means the internal structure of sentences; “discourse” in this context means how sentences are related to each other across a text and what sorts of things can or cannot be said in a particular type of text).” (Gee, 2008, pg 96)

“Consider the two sentences below: 

  1. Hornworms sure vary a lot in how well they grow. 
  2. Hornworm growth displays a significant amount of variation. 

While every native speaker’s grammar contains all the grammatical structures that this sentence contains (e.g., nominalizations), not every speaker knows that combining them in just this way is called for by certain social practices of certain academic (and school-based) domains (“Discourses”). This has to be learned and this knowledge is not acquired on the basis of any biological capacity for language.” (Gee, 2003, pg 34 - 35)

“Specialist languages draw, of course, on grammatical resources that exist also in vernacular varieties of language. For example, any vernacular variety of English can make a noun (like “growth”) from a verb (like “grow”). Yet to know the specialist language, you have to know that this is done regularly in such a variety; you have to know why (its function in the specialist language); and you have to know how and why doing this goes together with a host of other related processes (for example, using a subject like “hornworm growth” rather than “hornworms” or avoiding emotive words like “sure”). (Gee, 2008, pg 97)

“Yet our experiences of talk, dialogue, and social interaction with other people are a large part of what teaches us how words and other signs apply to reality.” (Gee, 2008, pg 97)

“The best way to see this is to participate in social interactions and activities in which these symbolic forms are used in ways that make clear what they mean and how they apply.” (Gee, 2008, pg 99)

“Here, interactive, intersubjective dialogue with more advanced peers and masters appears to be crucial.” (Gee, 2008, pg 99)

“The child simulates in his or her head and later imitates in his or her words and deeds the perspectives his or her interlocutor must be taking on a given situation by using certain words and certain forms of grammar or by treating certain objects in certain ways. Thus, meaning for words, grammar, and objects comes out of intersubjective dialogue and interaction: “ . . . human symbols [are] inherently social, intersubjective, and perspectival” (Tomasello 1999, pg 131). The same dialogic, socially interactive process of language acquisition that shapes children’s early understanding of the meaningful functions of their everyday language applies to their learning later specialist varieties of language that are crucial for school success.” (Gee, 2008, pg 99)

“People have not had the same opportunity to learn unless they have had equivalent experiences with the relevant specific social languages, not with just English (or some other language) "in general".” (Gee, 2003, pg 33)

“Have all children in a given learning environment had equal opportunity to learn the specialist forms of language vital for thought and action in the domain they are seeking to learn?” (Gee, 2008, pg 100) 


Elaborated & Restricted Codes  (back to top)

In his work on linguistics and sociology, Basil Bernstein (1964) suggests a rough model to distinguish between what he refers to as an "elaborated code" and a "restricted code". In this case, “code” refers to the language that is used by an individual or a group. In the case of an elaborated code, the speaker will select from a relatively extensive range of alternatives. Propositions express a specific meaning based on the choices made by the speaker and those choices which are omitted or avoided. We imagine a language that is rich with interchangeable parts, specific terminology and a consciousness of the consequences of word choice. 

In the case of a restricted code the number of choices is often severely limited, and the speakers tends to navigate through a narrow, often cliched language base. Language is often less technical and it relies upon common phrases used regularly by the social group. The speaker may lack the language choices that would enable him or her to express exactly what is being felt, thought and/or experienced. Consequently, the individual may resort to language and attitudes that are typical within the group. In some cases, it can argued that the user is not critically aware of subtle significance of their language choices, and they can also be evasive if called upon to elaborate or explain themselves further. 

On a psychological level the codes may be distinguished by the extent to which each facilitates (elaborated code) or inhibits (restricted code) one’s ability to explicitly verbalise individual thoughts, feelings and responses. It is often the case that a restricted code has the capacity to become elaborated; however, it is often seen as inferior in formal educational contexts and is therefore not opened up to critical examination and extension.



“Only two levels of language will be distinguished. The first level consists of the formal elements which may be used for the purposes of These are relational elements and devices. There are organization. syntactic rules regulating the use of such elements. This level is referred to as structure. Language may be looked at from this point of view, in terms of the range of structural alternatives or options which may be used for the purposes of organization. The second level consists of words which have objective reference or can be given objective reference.This level is called vocabulary.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg 55)

“On the one hand, it contains a finite set of options and the rules of their regulation at the structural level and a set of options at the level of vocabulary.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg 55 - 56)

“Between language in the sense defined and speech is social structure. The particular form a social relationship takes acts selectively on what is said." (Bernstein, 1964, pg 56)

“Inasmuch as the social relationship does this, then it may establish for the speakers specific principles of choice: coding principles. These specific principles of choice, the canons which regulate selections, entail from the point of view of the speakers and listeners planning procedures which guide the speakers in the preparation of their speech and which guide the listeners in the reception of speech.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg 56)

“Changes in the form of the social relationship can affect the planning procedures an individual uses in the preparation of his speech and it can affect the orientation of the listener.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg 56)

“Summarizing the argument, the following is obtained. Different social structures may generate different speech systems or linguistic codes. The latter entail for the individual specific principles of choice which regulate the selections he makes from the totality of options represented by a given language.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg 56)

“As the child learns his speech, or in the terms used here, learns specific codes which regulate his verbal acts, he learns the requirements of his social structure. The social structure becomes the substratum of his experience.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg 56)

“Underlying the general pattern of the child's speech are, it is held, critical sets of choices, preferences for some alternatives rather than for others, which develop and are stabilized through time and which eventually come to play an important role in the regulation of intellectual, social and affective orientation.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg 57)

“[In an elaborated code], it is difficult to predict the syntactic options or alternatives a speaker uses to organize his meanings over a representative range of speech ... In the case of an elaborated code, the speaker will select from a wide range of syntactic alternatives and so it will not be easy to make an accurate assessment of the organizing elements he uses at any one time. However, with a restricted code, the range of alternatives - syntactic alternatives - is considerably reduced and so it is much more likely that prediction is possible. In the case of a restricted code, the vocabulary will be drawn from a narrow range but because the vocabulary is drawn from a narrow range, this in itself is no indication that the code is a restricted one.

If a speaker is oriented towards using an elaborated code, then the code through its planning procedures will facilitate the speaker in his attempt to put into words his purposes, his discrete intent, his unique experience in a verbally explicit form. If a speaker is moving towards a restricted code, then this code, through its planning procedures, will not facilitate the verbal expansion of the individual's discrete intent. In the case of an elaborated code, the speech system requires a higher level of verbal planning for the preparation of speech than in the case of a restricted code.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg 57)

“These two codes, elaborated and restricted, it will be argued, are generated by particular forms of social relationships. They do not necessarily develop as a result of the speaker's innate intelligence.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg 58)


References  (back to top)

  • Bernstein, B. (1964), Elaborated and Restricted Codes: Their Social Origins and Some Consequences. American Anthropologist, 66: 55–69. doi: 10.1525/aa.1964.66.suppl_3.02a00030
  • Chomsky, N. 1986. Knowledge of language: Its nature, origin, and use. New York: Praeger.
  • Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 2nd ed. London:Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
  • Gee, J. P. (1999) An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: theory and method (London, Routledge).
  • Gee, J. P. (2001) Progressivism, critique, and socially situated minds, in: C. Dudly-Marling & C. Edelsky (Eds) The Fate of Progressive Language Policies and Practices (Urbana, IL, NCTE).
  • Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to learn: a language-based perspective on assessment. In Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 27 - 46
  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Halliday, M. A. K. and J. R. Martin. (1993). Writing science: Literacy and discursive power. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Halliday, M. A. K. and C. M. I. M. Matthiessen. (1999). Construing experience through meaning: A language-based approach to cognition. New York: Continuum.
  • Tomasello, M. (1999). The cultural origins of human cognition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.