Basil Bernstein’s Sociolinguistic Theory of Language Codes

 R. Young Spring 2002

Basil Bernstein makes 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. For the purposes of this paper, 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.278). 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 found on the world wide web, 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 makes a direct correlation 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).        

The two types of language codes are the elaborated code and the restricted code. Now, to avoid misunderstanding, it is noted that the restricted code does not refer to restricted vocabulary just as elaborated code does not refer to better, more eloquent language. 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 a 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). Bernstein (1971) purports that, “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 makes a correlation between social class and the use of either elaborated or restricted code. He reports 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 argues that the working class 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 elaborate 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 elaborate 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 elaborate 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.]  

  Now that the dynamics of Bernstein’s sociolinguistic theory have been explored, it is prudent to critique the theory with several guidelines as presented in Littlejohn (2002).      



      Adler, R. (1999). Looking Out Looking In. New York: Harcourt Brace.

     Atherton, J. (2002).

      Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, Codes and Control (Volume 1). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

     Littlejohn, S. (2002). Theories of Human Communication. Albuquerque: Wadsworth