Who was John Honey?

… one of our readers asked a few days ago.  “Where was he working when the National Council of Educational Standards asked him to write The Language Trap? Was he an academic?” she asked.

What we know about John Honey is still rather patchy at the moment. We know about several of his publications, i.e. The Language Trap (1983) and Language is Power (1997), and about their reception. See elsewhere in this blog for our current list of reviews. Please let us know if you have more of them.

In addition, we have a biographical document as part of the set of letters we acquired
on the reception of The Language Trap (see elsewhere in this blog, too). This gives us some more information.  This document tells us that he was 49 in January 1983, that he attended school in Capetown down to 1948, upon which he went to the UK and eventually became a student at Cambridge (Pembroke College). He taught at the universities of Durham and Cambridge and became a professor of Education at Rhodes University in 1971.

When he wrote The Language Trap he was “Professor and Head of the School of Education at Leicester Polytechnic … where he is now [i.e. in 1983) also Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Science”. Some further information about him may be found in his publications in English Today, which usually contain a blurb of the author of the article in question. So these would be a good source to look at as well. But we still don’t know when he died: we’d be very interested to hear if anybody does! And also do let us have more information about this controversial writer if you have any.

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37 Responses to Who was John Honey?

  1. Philip Shaw, Stockholm University says:

    I’m a bit confused. I think John Honey did his phD at Newcastle University with Barbara Strang and i know that towards the end of his life he was Professor of English at a university or universities in Japan. But i can’t quite fit the Newcastle story into the chronology you describe. Maybe someone else can sort this out

  2. Philip Shaw, Stockholm University says:

    In 1988 he gave his affiliation as Leicester Poly and University of Bophutswana

    “From his retirement home in Cambridge – Honey was previously dean of education at Leicester Polytechnic and a professor of English in Japan – the language crusader wants to alert Labour ministers to the dangers of the education establishment’s embrace.”

    27 august 1997

  3. Philip Shaw, Stockholm University says:

    You were right, here’s what English today says :

    JOHN HONEY graduated at Cambridge and Oxford,
    and trained in linguistics at the University of
    Newcastle upon Tyne under the celebrated historian
    of English, Barbara Strang. He has taught at the
    universities of Durham and Cambridge, in
    Singapore, and at three universities in Africa. Until
    1985 he was professor and dean of education at
    what is now De Montfort University, Leicester. Since
    1989 he has worked in Japan, where he lived
    through the big 1995 earthquake, and is at present
    professor of English at Osaka International
    University. His Faber paperback ‘Does accent
    matter?’ appeared in 1989; he is now working on a
    study of the controversies surrounding the teaching
    of standard English in schools, while also annotating
    selected Bronte and Jane Austen novels for EFL
    English Today 44, Vol. 11, No. 4 (October 1995).

    So it’s a bit unfair to say he wasn’t a linguist. But did he do a phD or was it just an M Phil perhaps?

  4. Charlotte says:

    Many thanks for following up on my question. Why would he leave De Montfort University for a position in Japan? This is most surprising. I read and write Japanese so I will see what I can find on the Japanese-side-of-things internet. Lottie

  5. Charlotte says:

    Here is something.

    ジョン・ハニー(John Honey)
    著書は,本書の他に,Tom Brown’s Universe (1977), The Language Trap (1983), Language Is Power (1997) などがある.

    Born 1933
    He was studying the history of public schools but he became particularly interested in the pronunication of English.
    He taught at Lancashire Grammar school, and then went to work in universities overseas.
    In 1998, he taught in Kumamoto University.
    From 1992-1996, he went to work for Osaka International University.
    Then, he went to Botswana University upon invitation. In 2001, he fell ill with a disease (?).

    What is interesting is there is not mention of Oxford or Cambridge – universities that create a buzz amongst most Japanese. It seems he may well have died in Botswana.


  6. Philip Shaw says:

    At the time he moved to Japan I was vaguely in contact with him — we were both Strang’s students — and ny impression then was that he was upset about attitudes to him in Britain and that the Japanese offered him a lot of money and not so much teaching. But that may reflect the reasos why I would have gone to Japan at that time!

  7. Joan Beal says:

    I was a young lecturer at Newcastle when John Honey came to do an MA in English Language. Barbara Strang was the professor then. I taught him History of English and remember he did a decent dissertation on the role of public schools in the genesis of RP. He had been an HM Inspector of Schools before doing the MA. I can’t remeber exactly when this was, but it must have been between 1977, when I was first appointed as a lecturer, and 1982, when Barbara Strang died. Of course, I was much younger than JH when I taught him, and many years later we appeared on Granada TV’s ‘Up Front’ programme on opposite sides of a debate about dialects. In the Green Room, he introduced me to his new wife saying ‘we were students together’.

  8. Charlotte says:

    I think that is why many came to Japan! He does not appear to have written about English at Osaka, and worked in the Department of Politics.

    I was also wondering if Rhodes Boyson from the National Council of Educational Standards approached him, or whether it was the other way around. Also, did John Honey personally know the Bradford junior high school headmaser Honeyford who published Education and Race: An alternative view (1984) in the Salisbury Review.

  9. Anthony King says:

    Professor John Honey’s last position was at the University of Botswana in Gaborone, Republic of Botswana which is where I met him, while I was working across the street at the Department od Curriculum Development & Evaluation. I know that he died in 2002 of complications arising from heart surgery (which may have taken place in Johannesburg). I recall attending a memorial service held at the Anglican Cathedral in Gaborone around that time. He had been an organist there during his tenure at the University of Botswana.
    Anthony King

  10. Many thanks for this, Anthony. All this helps to form a better image of the man and his work. Would you by any chance have any letters from him? We have been able two acquire two substantial batches of his corresponence, plus two letters he sent to a colleague in the UK. These letters are of interest in that he expresses some views on usage items, a topic we are particularly interested in.

    • Anthony King says:

      There was some official correspondence between John Honey (at U.B.) and the Dept. of Curriculum Development & Evaluation (Min. of Ed.) in connection with the latter’s stated wish to maintain ‘Standard English’ as the accepted model within the new National Curriculum, being overhauled at that time (circa 1997 +). As one of the curriculum developers responsible, I recall chatting about this several times to JH, who dropped in to our office from time to time, on an informal basis. He also invited us (CD officers) to attend faculty talks, he had organised for colleagues at U.B. and to speak to groups of students attending his courses. J H contended enthusiastically that while there might be a written model, the language in praxis had a way of developing on its own. This he illustrated quite masterfully in frequent talks to peers and invited guests (supported by synoptic print-outs focussing on the emergence, history & development of modern English – in one A4 leaflet, two pages).
      I’m fairly sure some of this material could be obtained from the archives of the University of Botswana. Off the record, JH joked about ‘Setswenglish’ – an emerging form of communication combining Setswana (the national language) and English (the official language).

    • Charlotte says:

      I asked the original question regarding John Honey’s work with the National Council of Educational Standards, which Prof. Tieken so kindly put up on her blog. I have always wondered how Prof. Honey came into contact with the National Council of Educational Standards. I wonder if his family might know it he approached them? Or, was he approached by Rhodes Boyson, a very charismatic conservative politician and one time chair of the NCEE?

  11. Charlotte says:

    Rest in peace, Prof. Honey. In addition to Ingrid’s request, I wonder if anyone could say what school John Honey attended? The fact he was organist is suggestive he went to an independent school, where many were prepped to compete for college organ scholarships at Oxbridge.

    • Lucy Honey says:

      He attended City of London School – not sure about dates. He spent part of his childhood (the war years) in South Africa. He was usually spot-on about knowing where people went to school. His organ playing was just a hobby and he certainly didn’t gain an organist scholarship.
      I’m his eldest (of 3) daughter, Lucy Honey. My sister, Anne, and step-mother, Emma, have also posted on this blog, after just finding out about it.

      • Dear Lucy,

        I’m delighted to be in touch. Many thanks for commenting on the blog. So there is you and Anne, and a third brother or sister? If you wish, we could continue by email rather than on the blog.

        Best wishes and thanks again,
        Ingrid Tieken

      • Charlotte says:

        Thank you for your reply to my question, Lucy. I have always wondered about this. I appreciate your answer.

      • Lucy Norton says:

        I am trying to make contact with Lucy Honey.
        I believe her mother Joanna was married to John Honey when he was working in Durham and subsequently in Leicester?? Is Joanna still alive? …. she would be in her seventies by now.
        My father Eric, was first cousin to Lucy’s grandfather Douglas.

        I would like, if possible to communicate directly with Lucy by e-mail?

        Lucy Norton (Oxford)

  12. John says:

    Hi there,

    I’m looking to get in touch with John Honey’s estate regarding extract permissions for a publication. Does anyone know how one might get in touch with them?

    Many thanks,


  13. John, you could try Plurabelle in Cambridge. It was from them that we acquired the Honey letters, and they still have a lot of his books for sale. See elsewhere in this blog. You can easily find them through Google. Hope this helps. I’d be interested to hear if you manage to establish contacts, because I also have one or two questions to his relatives relating to the letters.

  14. petertrudgill says:

    If anybody has not seen my review of Honey’s infamous book, it can be found here:
    Peter Trudgill

  15. Roger Lass says:

    He accepted the chair of Linguistics at the University of Boputhuthatswana in 1988.It wasn’t much of a place, but I happened to be asked (I was professor of Lingustics at Cape Town then) to be external examiner for his interview there.Unibop (as it was affectionately called by those who were sufficiently lacking in judgement to have any affection for a glorified community college in an Apartheid homeland) as far as I know produced no research of any significance. I only served as external because I was the senior linguist in SA at the time, and thought I might help to prevent a disastrous appointment (that was a common function outside of the set of first-class real universities like Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch and Rhodes) Perhaps the book he was most famous for (it seems to me) was Does accent matter? The Pygmalion factor (Faber 1989). The front matter says he was professor of Linguistics at University of Bophuthatswana from 1988 but that he was a freelancer (‘consultant’, from 1985, so I’m not sure what that means. Probably the same kind of moonlinghting all respectable academics do, like peer review, etc.. The book I mentioned is actually quite good, and shows considerable sharp if informal observation of the properties of various Englishes; it’s written for a lay audience.

  16. Paul Johnston says:

    I do remember him attending the Sociolinguistic Symposia held in the early ’80s, when he was at Leicester Poly, and having spirited debates with the likes of James Milroy. I give him credit for having the courage to come to conferences where he would know that most of us (me included) would have the opposite view about language variation and the need for Standard English and RP to be taught in the schools. He always spoke up when it was time for questions.

  17. Jeffrey Kallen says:

    I have a letter from John Honey dated 19/5/81, at which time he was Head of the School of Education at Leicester Polytechnic. The letterhead described him as MA, DipEd, DPhil and FRHistS. It’s a rather friendly letter which proposes to do some work with the problem of taking non-standard language into account in Speech Therapy. His interests developed in other areas, but the letter is two and a half pages long and shows he was interested in this area.

  18. moira koster-dinning says:

    Have just read all that has been written about John Honey. John was my brother’s friend when they both were students at the City of London public school in the 1940’s.

  19. Anne Davies (nee Honey) says:

    John Honey was my father – he died in June 2001 in South Africa, of complications following heart surgery.

  20. Lucy Honey says:

    John Raymond Halstead de Symons Honey M.A. DPhil, born 12th Nov 1933, died 7th June 2001.
    Pembroke College, Cambs, Queens College, Oxford. He also wrote Tom Brown’s Universe re history of education.
    Subjects : Linguistics, history, education, social anthropology.
    Just found a link to this blog on facebook.

  21. Denise Line says:

    Mr Honey taught history at Littlemore Grammar School, near Oxford 1958-65. Not sure how long he was there though as he was not my form tutor though he was my history teacher. Littlemore Grammar School was a short-lived, pre comprehensive school on a mixed site with a Secondary Modern and Technical Schools.

  22. Jason Storr says:


    I was at Osaka International University (OIU) in 1994 to 1995 studying Japanese as part of my degree with the University of Salford. John was a professor at OIU and his wife, who was from the Philippines was in my Japanese classes. I met John on several occasions and for a few years after I left Japan, the Honey family kept in touch via ‘Round-Robin’ letters. the last we heard was in about 1998 when they had their first child.

    Very sad to read that John has passed away.

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