Language Play in Literature
What is the Role of ‘Language Play’ in Literature ?
It will be helpful to first examine what is understood by the term “language play”. Used experimentally, language is inextricably connected to play. It is intrinsically symbolic, adventurous, informative, and dynamic. As Marian Whitehead writes,
“Language and play share several characteristics: both use symbols to stand for a range of ideas, feelings and experiences; both are reflections of human thinking and also creators of new thoughts; both are part of our genetic make-up.”
Terry Campbell identifies two major classifications of language play: playing with meaning and playing with sound. When teaching children, for example, literature that “plays with sounds” might well be very suitable. Not only do children delight in their perception that silly, babbling, nonsense sounds provide a sudden, surprising license to be childish and experimental, they also experience happy astonishment at their first encounter of a valid form of literature which is nevertheless not trying to be overtly didactic. Assumptions about the purpose of literature must be present in children’s minds from a very early age indeed, and books designed for the very young bear the responsibility of changing their minds about reading and writing from the outset. Naturally there is a didacticism about all literature for children, but perhaps nursery rhymes and nonsense poems, limericks, etc, provide a unique opportunity to learn things in an enjoyable way: a way easily facilitated by the young child’s mind already so keen to mimic and repeat and invent extraordinary sounds at every opportunity.
Outside of children’s literature, language play is rife- for example in the media, wherever a writer aims to make some point memorable or pithy. We find examples of language play in the alliteration of a headline, in the rhymes and jingles of advertisements and radio shows, in pop songs, slogans, magazine headers and TV presenters’catchphrases. In short, whenever someone is trying to sell us something (even if it’s just an idea) we can count on them doing something surprising with language.
Perhaps less cynically, there is a fascination with language play stemming the post-modern movement in literature. Indeed, any author who has ever attempted a self-referentiality has employed a duplicity of meaning which can be characterised as play; in Campbell’s term, “play with meaning.”
Post-modernism quickly adopted a vocabulary of anti-enlightenment rhetoric, which it used to argue that rationality was neither so sure nor so clear as rationalists supposed, and that knowledge was inherently linked to time, place, social position and other factors from which an individual constructs their view of knowledge. In order to escape from constructed (assumed) knowledge, one must step outside it and critique it, ultimately deconstructing the asserted knowledge. Jacques Derrida argued that in order to defend against the inevitable self-deconstruction of knowledge, systems of power called hegemony would need to assert the possibility of an originary utterance, something Derrida dubbed the logos. The “privileging” of original utterance- first word- is called “logocentrism”. So, from Derrida on, knowledge ceased to be rooted in particular utterances, or “texts”, and the basis of all information was something more rootless, that couldn’t be traced to source but could be identified in and as the free play of discourse itself, an idea rooted in Wittgenstein’s idea of a language game. Through its unique emphasis on the permission of free play within the context of conversation and discourse leads postmodernism to adopt the stance of irony, paradox, textual manipulation, reference and tropes. Postmodernism defines language’s function as its “play”; an important distinction that we should note being made between function and purpose- or means and ends. Language, from Dadaism onwards, has become something not lacking purpose, merely sidestepping the usual criteria of usefulness. Since it became self-aware, language need answer to no one but itself. In Derrida’s words,
“The study of the functioning of language, of its play, presupposes that the substance of meaning and, among other possible substances, that of sound, be placed in parenthesis. The unity of sound and of sense is indeed here, as I proposed above, the reassuring closing of plan.”
Similarly, according to Hjelmslev, economics and grammar are fallaciously and frequently compared, while semiotics on the Saussaurian model is overlooked, but presents a better explanation of language,
“An economic value is by definition a value with two faces: not only does it play the role of a constant vis-á-vis the concrete units of money, but it also itself plays the role of a variable vis-á-vis a fixed quantity of merchandise which serves it as a standard. In linguistics on the other hand there is nothing that corresponds to a standard. That is why the game of chess and not economic fact remains for Saussure the most faithful image of a grammar. The scheme of language is in the last analysis a game and nothing more.”
Derrida’s concept of play within language has however been vulnerable to considerable criticism. Derrida draws another false conclusion from this theory of Saussure. He believes that the arbitrary quality of sounds, letters, and meanings makes all meaning indeterminate or uncertain. According to the back cover of a collection of essays by Derrida titles Limited Inc, Derrida’s “most controversial idea” is “linguistic meaning is fundamentally indeterminate.” Derrida’s conclusion here is self-contradictory and therefore false because, if linguistic meaning is fundamentally indeterminate, then so is the linguistic meaning of that statement. To say that meaning is indeterminable is like saying, “I cannot utter a word of English.” It is silly intellectual nonsense that should be rejected by all thoughtful people.