Verbal frolics

Language Play

November 13, 1998

Language play ... is usually presented as an end in itself, as a shop-window of fascinating linguistic frolics ... There is far more to language play than this." This is the theme song of this book by David Crystal, the well-known writer of linguistics encyclopaedias, who has added this slim paperback to his already impressive list of publications.

Ludic play has been badly neglected, he argues: it should be at the heart of any thinking about linguistic issues, and is of particular use as an educational tool in the reading process.

The book falls naturally into two parts: an exuberant cataloguing of different types of language play provides the first few chapters, in which Crystal illustrates the extensive and all-embracing nature of the phenomenon. A tub-thumping defence of its educational value constitutes the end section. These two parts are linked by a chapter on language play in children.

After a brief introductory chapter, he discusses first "The amateurs", that is, the general population who use verbal wit intermittently in various contexts, as jokes, dialect humour, limericks and oddities such as the so-called Cockney alphabet (A for 'orses, B for mutton ...). The next chapter "The enthusiasts" outlines those for whom word play is a serious pastime, such as crossword puzzle addicts and Scrabble players. "The professionals" chapter covers word play by advertisers, by headline writers ("Pain Stops Play" about an injured cricketer) and by comedians and comic writers.

These three chapters of light-hearted cataloguing are followed by a cross-over chapter, "The children", in which Crystal emphasises the ubiquitous nature of word play in children's language. He concludes this chapter by pointing out its surprising absence from classrooms: "Given the high profile of language play within adult society, its prominence during the years when children are learning to speak, and its relevance to literacy and verbal art, you would expect it to have a privileged place" among materials used to educate youngsters, especially reading schemes, he suggests. "Well, if you do have these expectations, you will be severely disappointed," he concludes.

In the following chapter, "The readers", Crystal claims to have read through some 200 early British readers from before the 1970s, and could not find a single example of language play, apart from the occasional riddle. He found relatively little in later works. Children, he argues, "come to reading prepared by their previous experience of language play to have fun, then find that there is no fun here". He concludes: "Reading and writing do not have to be a prison-house. Release is possible. And maybe language play can provide the key." His final chapter, "The future", speculates that "maybe language itself arose out of the playful manipulations of the vocal tract" - an untestable notion, though one which helps to dispel the erroneous belief that language is primarily for the transfer of information.

Crystal is perhaps the first person to put across the importance of this topic to a wider, general audience. And he is probably right that educationists have not given word play the prominence that it deserves. But he writes as if he alone has realised its significance. In fact, a huge body of work exists on ludic play, primarily by psychologists, of which he appears to be largely unaware. Admittedly, the work is somewhat fragmented, but it is fairly extensive: a major psychology journal recently had a special issue on the topic, for example. Even linguists (his own profession) have explored word play more carefully than he realises: there is considerable literature on, for example, spoonerisms and malapropisms, areas in which unintentional slips of the tongue overlap with intentional jokes. He is of course aware that literature makes extensive use of ludic usages, but does not attempt to link what he says to the teaching of poetry.

Furthermore, because this book is primarily an assemblage of examples, with exhortations to take the topic seriously, he does not attempt to explore the ways in which a child's appreciation of word play develops over the years. The evidence is admittedly somewhat contradictory, but an assessment of the relative prominence of, say, rhyme versus onomatopoeia might have been useful.

Overall, Crystal's fervent emphasis on the ubiquity of word play reminds one of the character in the French play who suddenly discovered he was speaking prose. But perhaps this very naivety gives the book a freshness that it might have lacked if he had been fully aware of the weight of previous research on the topic.

To conclude, this is a worthwhile book for those who need convincing of the centrality of word play, especially educators. And it is a fun book to read. Of the jokes and playful usages Crystal documents, it is hard to forget some of the inadvertent typos he discovered in the early print-outs of his encyclopaedias: the Wet (West) End of London, Index of Prohibited Boos (Books), and best of all the entry for laxative which was inadvertently run on to the end of the previous entry for Nigel Lawson. Information on the former chancellor concluded: "a drug which causes emptying of the bowel. Except when medically recommended, does more harm than good."

Jean Aitchison is professor of language and communication, University of Oxford.

Language Play

Author - David Crystal
ISBN - 0 140 385 9
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £7.99
Pages - 249

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