codification (language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Codification of Language
"Codification of the written word sought to order language in a rapidly changing world" (Marnie Holborow, The Politics of English, 1999). Image: Tower of Babel, 1563, by Pieter Brueghel. (DEA/G.NIMATALLAH/Getty Images)


The linguistic term codification refers to the methods by which a language is standardized. These methods include the creation and use of dictionaries, style and usage guides, traditional grammar textbooks, and the like.

While codification is an ongoing process, "the most important period of codification [in English] was probably the 18th century, which saw the publication of hundreds of dictionaries and grammars, including Samuel Johnson's monumental Dictionary of the English Language (1755) [in Great Britain] and Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book (1783) in the United States" (Routledge Dictionary of English Language Studies, 2007).

The term codification was popularized in the early 1970s by linguist Einar Haugen, who defined it as a process that leads to "minimal variation in form" ("Dialect, Language, Nation," 1972).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "[C]odification of the grammar of a language is not simply writing down the grammatical rules of the language, but generally means that one or two or more rules from different dialects will have to be chosen as the 'standard' one. Codification implies then that a standard variety is established, and generally this will be based on one of the varieties or dialects of the language."
    (René Appel and Pieter Muysken, Language Contact and Bilingualism. Amsterdam University Press, 1988)

  • "It seems the higher the premium on codification is set, the less tolerant and the more rigid is the attitude to linguistic variation and change."
    (Dick Leith, A Social History of English, 2nd ed. Routledge, 1997)

  • Fixing Values for Functional Efficiency
    "[S]tandardization aims to ensure fixed values for the counters in a system. In language, this means preventing variability in spelling and pronunciation by selecting fixed conventions uniquely regarded as 'correct,' establishing 'correct' meanings of words (aggravate, for example, means according to the standard ideology--'make more serious,' not 'annoy'; the second 'colloquial' meaning is disallowed), uniquely acceptable word forms (he does is acceptable, but he do is not) and fixed conventions of sentence structure."
    (James Milroy and Lesley Milroy, Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English, 3rd ed. Routledge, 1999)

  • The Codification of English
    "The codification of English took place . . . from about the 16th century, through the publication of dictionaries and grammars, many of them intended to teach the language to rural squires or to the 'Welsh gentry' after the 1536 Act of Union between England and Wales. Written standard English was codified through the 16th and 17th centuries, although Jonathan Swift's 'Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue' appeared in 1712, the grammar of Bishop Lowth in 1762, and Samuel Johnson's dictionary did not appear until 1755. Throughout this codification process three influences were . . . paramount: the king's English, in the form of the administrative and legal language; literary English, in the form of the language accepted as that used by great literature--and for printing and publishing; and 'Oxford English,' or the English of education and the Church--its main provider. At no point in this process was the State openly involved.

    "Codification also affected the spoken form of the standard language. 'Received pronunciation' was codified through the influence of education, particularly that of the 19th-century public schools, followed from the early 20th century by cinema, radio and television ('BBC English'). Nonetheless it is estimated that only 3-5 per cent of the population of Britain speak received pronunciation today (Trudgill and Hannah, 1982), and hence this particular form of the language is 'accepted' by society only in the sense that it is widely understood."
    (Dennis Ager, Language Policy in Britain and France: The Processes of Policy. Cassell, 1996)

  • In Defense of Grammarians in the "Age of Correctness"
    "As long as linguists continue to treat with disdain the efforts undertaken by grammarians at the end of the standardization process of a language like English, it will be impossible to give full credit to what they set out to achieve. Even down to fairly recently such an attitude led to the . . . prejudices . . . that normative grammarians took an authoritative, unscholarly and unscientific attitude to language. Such prejudices fail to do justice to their actual achievements, which primarily concerned the codification of the language by laying down the rules of grammar for those who wished to improve themselves linguistically or socially, or both. That in doing so they took recourse to Latin as a major source in the formulation of their linguistic strictures--another point on which they are usually criticized (Pullum 1974: 66)--is hardly something for which they deserve to be blamed. At a time when English was not an academic subject, knowledge of the grammar of Latin was the only skill which made them eligible as grammarians."
    (Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, "Lowth as an Icon of Prescriptivism." Eighteenth-Century English: Ideology and Change, ed. by Raymond Hickey. Cambridge University Press, 2010)