Language Codes

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.

What is it about academic writers? Even someone as closely attuned as Bernstein to the ways in which language is actually used, writes in a wilfully obscurantist manner. Actually, it is fasicnating to turn Bernstein's ideas onto himself...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. See Bernstein's own work for detailed accounts of the research behind the construct.

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)

    This is of course no longer applicable; Cameron is at the time of revision the Prime Minister in a Coalition government.

    "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)


So? This is not about teachers trying to express themselves in their students' vernacular—which usually results in embarrassment and ridicule. It is, however, about the embarrassment which many students may feel when asked to express themselves (speak in class) in an elaborated-code, alien, institution. It is about the reassurance and security which can come from relapsing into grunts and argot which is inaccessible to the "powers that be".

It is not primarily about restricted-code users' inability to understand elaborated code. They are exposed too much to the media for that (although some tabloid newspapers and radio stations affect a particular restricted-code style to suggest intimacy with their readers). It is however about their unfamiliarity with using it (speaking it rather than hearing it) to explain complex ideas.

Don't over-simplify: it's patronising. Remember that when teaching the misunderstandings may come not from your use of elaborated code, but from your use of your restricted code, adapted to your own speech community (jargon, abbreviations, etc.), rather than a properly and appropriately elaborated code.

But restricted code use offers security. A class's own language grows up through its interaction and history: using it can be socially important (the shared laugh whenever a particular group member is mentioned is both a means of bringing most of the group together, and of course of excluding her), and powerful. Help the students to move from one code to another and back: perhaps sell the jargon of the subject as another restricted code.


BERNSTEIN B (1971) Class, Codes and Control vol 1 London; Paladin

DOUGLAS M (1973) Natural Symbols Harmondsworth; Penguin

LABOV W (1969) "The Logic of Nonstandard English" reprinted in P Giglioli (ed.) Language and Social Context Harmondsworth; Penguin 1990


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Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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