Towards some varieties and peculiarities of language play

The article "filles russes" tells how to meet a Russian or Ukrainian woman. The article says that you need to know the humor and traditions of Russians and Ukrainians. In this article we will talk about many subtleties of humor. The article examines in some detail ludicrous language play and punning, which have always been popular forms of playful verbal behavior. Whereas punning has been studied in detail, language play has been studied only perfunctorily. The article demonstrates that punning and language play possess a common trait, in the sense that almost any adult person who is not verbally handicapped can successfully play with his/her native tongue. The article represents different examples and classifications of language play. It proves that from methodological point of view, the introduction of language play into teaching is deemed as part of the simplification principle, which is aimed at making language acquisition more enjoyable and less traumatic.

J. Swift once remarked that "punning is a talent which no man affects to despise, but he that is without it" [2, 5]. Ch. Morley once said that pun is "language on vacation". Whatever the definition, ludicrous language play and punning have always been popular forms of playful verbal behavior. Ludicrous language has traditionally been perfunctorily studied. Facetious manipulation of a language amounts to doing something abnormal to a linguistic unit, which inevitably involves bending or/and breaking the rules, predominantly with a non-informative goal in mind. Bearing this in mind, it is only logical to presume that the "transmission-of-information-and-knowledge" function is subdued or, at least, is less pronounced in facetious communication. Pun is one of the commonest types of language play is, though the latter is not confined to it. The part of the word which is the focus of the pun is usually pronounced in a more careful or prominent manner, and the speaker often looks quizzical or smug [2]. It stands to reason that punning involves juggling words which most people know. According to D. Crystal, those who do not practice one form of language play always favor another.

Punning and language play possess a common trait, in the sense that almost any adult person who is not verbally handicapped can successfully play with his/her native tongue. Language play, however, is characterized by certain constraints, one of them being the principle accepted in methodology - "the-one-type-of-difficulty" principle. This is, however, applicable to an ideal language play. It is more polite and potentially beneficial both for the hearer and for the author to play either with morphology (grammar), lexis or phonetics (phonology). Humorous language play has often been appraised in terms of laughter it is likely to illicit. If there is no laughter, it is highly suspected that no language play has taken place. It has been maintained, however, that enjoyment rather than humor or laughter proper are chief characteristics of language play [2]. Language play should be set apart from jokes, which may not necessarily be based on word-play. One of the popular types of language play, although trite, is based on the exaggerated perception of foreigners and traits stereotypically ascribed to them, which are mostly not true to life. This misconception goes back to earlier than Middle Ages, when a lot of places and countries were undiscovered, and people fantasized about the appearance and habits of those who might inhabit them. Language games and jokes are one of the ways of achieving social rapport and creating a bond between representatives of one and the same group or of different groups. A popular example of morphological play is etymological rederivation of words with remnant suffixes: gruntled, kempt, shevelled. Rhyming slang, which is another example of language play, originated as a form of speech disguise, a way of hiding the meaning of a message.

Examples and classifications of language play are inexhaustible. Let us furnish some of them (introduced in D. Crystal, 1998). The first one is univocality - a principle according to which a piece of writing is characterized by the predominance of one vowel. This principle is sometimes called "linguistic surrealism". The opposite type of language play is a lipogram. This genre of language play is one of the most ancient ones, known from classical Greek of the sixth century BC, and ever since practiced in many languages. It avoids the usage of one particular letter. A pangram has the aim of constructing a sentence using all the letters of the alphabet, the sentence being meaningful and grammatical. An example cited by D. Crystal is "Veldt jinx grimps waqf zho buck". A palindrome is another type of language play, which is based on constructing a word or a sentence that reads the same way forwards and backwards. A rhopalic (a Greek term for a "club which thickens from the handle to the head") is making up sentences in which each word contains one letter or one syllable more than the previous word.

Language play is very popular in advertising, which makes active use of particular word building patterns, such as, for instance, blending, or contamination. The reason why blending is made use of is that this model can be described with some riders as morphologically marked, because 90 percent of such words are not registered by dictionaries, nor are they stylistically neutral. Some examples of such words, cited by D. Crystal, are "exsxcwepsionally" (an advertisement of a soft drink), "peelability" (oranges), "tempational" (chocolate). Examples recently spotted by the author of the present article in Montenegro are "yogood" (yoghurt + good) and "sunbrella" (sun + umbrella). Language play in advertising as well as periodicals should not be too arcane or sophisticated to avoid the risk of putting the readers off.

Euphemistic circumlocution can also be regarded as a specific type of language play, because it strives to stray away from the direct reference to an object. This referential distance may vary with the result that the farther it is, the funnier the effect. Thus, the facetious "to bite the dust" (= to die) can be given as an example thereof. Another example of language play is the ambigram - words designed to be read upside down, back to front or looking in the mirror.

From methodological point of view, the introduction of language play into teaching is deemed as part of the simplification principle, which is aimed to make language acquisition more enjoyable and less traumatic.

Language play is resorted to for a variety of reasons, among which are providinhg a way out of a difficult situation, a means of telling someone to keep their distance, a means of tricking someone into doing something silly, a commentary on what someone has just done, the desire to demonstrate one's wit.

Language play does not always pursue noble purposes. Mocking is the reverse side of it: "jeering at such targets as spoilsports, swats, dunces, copy-cats, nosey-parkers, swanks, staters (stare cats), cowards, cry-babies, sneaks (tell-tale-tits), and other unfortunates" [2, 177].

Language play is an integral part of children's activities: it is actively used in counting out rhymes, jumping rope, or bouncing ball. For the most part the verbal accompaniment of such games is nonsensical and is merely practiced for fun. Language play can also "be considered as a sort of bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar linguistic world" [2, 187]. According to the findings, preschoolers are more prone to language games than older children. In particular, a higher number of metaphors are observed for preschoolers than for any other age group. On the one hand, these findings may reflect incomplete knowledge of the meaning of the word, on the other hand, it is more suggestive of an ability to be creative (K. Richards, 1992). Language play is also a signal of intimacy, of a healthy relationship; conversely, if one feels disaffected with somebody's language play, it actually means that the relationship is flawed.

Language play may also be a helpful tool of conflict resolution. This view is shared by D.Crystal: "I expect thousands of schoolchildren have managed to avoid being bullied or achieved a prestige standing within their class by using their abilities in language play" [2, 225].

Contamination (mentioned above) is becoming a popular device of facetious language interaction.There are whole books based on contamination as a stylistic device. One such book is D. Maurer's "Brocabulary", 90 percent of which is represented by blends (obviously, the number represents the vocabulary items thereof, not the words used to describe them). The book consists of a "brologue", twelve sections (the titles of nine of which are blends) and "sacknowledgements". The book is written as a sort of guide for a prototypical and a stereotypical macho (bro), each section contains pertinent, although facetious, vocabulary items to be used by bros. From axiological point of view the book is very sarcastic and partially sacrilegious, therefore it cannot be recommended as a serious piece of reading (or, subjectively, writing). For the reader to get a better idea of what kind of words the book contains the following quotation could be furnished:

"Responsenility - Being senile about your responsibilities - usually as pertains to your relationship. Those who suffer from responsenility often forget that, for instance, they were supposed to get...up very early to take out the trash. Or they neglect to remember they were supposed to get their boo a birthday present instead of going to the ballgame. The only way to cure this condition is to get a female friend to remind you when your girlfriend's birthday is". [3, 143]. "Brocabulary" is not the only book of such kind. "The Bro Code" by B. Stinson (2008) is redolent of "Brocabulary" and is in fact constructed along the same lines. Being of no pronounced practical, sentimental or aesthetic value, these books can, however, be prized from scholastic point of view, inasmuch as they reflect modern tendencies in facetious verbal techniques.

Given that slang is usually based on vivid metaphor and imagery, it can also be regarded as a specific type of language play. Like contamination slang can become the basis of some series or serials. As an example the popular series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" could be cited. The emergence of slang words may reflect the dissatisfaction with traditional language practices. Normative language may be perceived as lacking in expressive and emotional force, it does not admit of ingenious usage, or so it seems to some social and age groups. Slang can be defined as "an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in the highest walks produces poets and poems...slang, too, is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language..." [1, 34]. Given this, slang definitely presents a specific type of language play, for it aims to run counter to traditional words and expressions, very often denigrating referents for which a slang item is invented. Slang "proves that we can outsmart ancient wisdom and be just innovative enough within a plethora of constraints to identify ourselves against the mundane, as well as the eternal. If we plan to taunt convention, not to mention mortality, we had better have the necessary words" [1, 85]. Given these citations about slang, it seems that slang is characterized by mean, sometimes wicked playfulness, which allots it a specific place in the category of verbal play. Slang is a sure sign of the dynamic nature of language. On the morphological and lexical levels it manifests itself in producing the so-called morphological doublets - occasional non-standard synonyms to existing vocabulary items. However, a rider must be made here that there is usually a slight difference in meaning. The examples that will be cited below are borrowed form the book by M. Adams "A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon" (2003). According to M. Adams, some of the most productive affixes in slang are "un-" and "-age". They tend to build words that may be considered superfluous from the vantage point of word building. Thus, "undead" means neither living nor dead and is used to refer to the impossibility to die the way a human being is supposed to. It seems that the suffix "-age", though, is more often than not synonymous to the "-ing" form of the gerund and deverbal nouns. This opinion is partially shared by M. Adams: "If someone is engaged in drinkage, she is just drinking; and the difference between the professions of slayage and slaying is purely morphological, unless one takes the social and stylistic values of slang seriously enough to justify redundant forms" [1, 40]. The suffix "-ness" is also quite productive in slang, it is added to adjectives, in which case it forms morphological synonyms to existing words, to prepositions and even to abbreviations. The respective examples are "activeness" (propensity to do illicit things), "afterness" (residual effects), "AIMness" (having access to AOL instant messenger).The facetious nature of slang also reveals itself in the active use of proper names as common nouns, in stylistics this device as known as "antonomasia". Thus, "David Lynch" stands for "non-linear": "Its presence in our dimention causes a sort of temporal disturbance". "So that's why time went all David Lynch" [1,167]. (David Lynch is the name of American television and film director). Here the facetious nature of the nomination is all the more palpable because of the conversion of a noun into an adjecticve. The expression "Gene and Roger" stands for "strong criticism" (Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are the names of newspaper and television film critics who worked as a team on television). The verb "to Jimmy Hoffa" means "to disappear", Jimmy Hoffa being the nickname of James Riddle Hoffa, U.S. Labour leader, presumably abducted and murdered by organized crime, whose body has never been found. "To Sherlock" means "to investigate", the allusion being quite transparent.

The facetious nature of slang can obliquely be shown by the fact that borrowing takes the last place in the process of slang formation: from the perceptional point of view, a playful item should be the one that would take a familiar form and change it in some way - either structurally or semantically, it must be done in such a way, however, that the resultant word does not conform to the rules and is an aberration. Once again credit to blends should be given, as they form an integral part of playful slang. Here are some examples from the series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer": Buffyverse (Buffy + Universe), Buffynator (Buffy + terminator), Buffyvore (Buffy + survivor), Buffypedia (Buffy + encyclopaedia), manimal (man + animal). Suffix "iiber" corresponds to the English "over", though it is not fully synonimous with it and is used to produce words of facetious nature. Attached to nouns, it denotes the highest quality of something. The humorous effect arises from the fact that the stem to which it is attached does not always admit of the measurement of its quality. Thus, the words "ubernerd" and "uberachiever" are meant to mock the referent they describe. In slang the suffix "y" attaches itself to specific nouns in such a way that the result is occasional facetious words that are sometimes hard to pronounce and hard to understand. The non-standard facetious nature of "y" slang words is due to several factors. First, it attaches itself to three- and more-syllable words, which is not typical of it: commandery, developmenty,discipliny. It is also attached to compound words: upper-lippy, crayon-breaky, girl-powery. Attached to some stems, "y" can form occasional adjectives that are opposite in meaning to ones that are registered by dictionaries, for example: pointless - pointy. Here the mismatch is between the abstract nature of the stem and the fact that the absolute majority of nouns with "y" are concrete: breezy, windy, cloudy, etc. The suffix "y" can also be added to a verb stem to form a shorter version of a vocabulary item, formations of this knd have often been criticized, for they seem to indicate lack of lexis knowledge: "slippy" instead of "slippery", "topicy" instead of "topical". It can also be added to phrasal verbs to form non-standard adjectives, such as "stay iny" (unwilling to reveal a secret or private matter publicly). It must be mentioned, however, that not all slang is taunting or facetious. When slanginess manifests itself on the syntactic level and is based on a shortened version of a sentence (in which case it could also be described as colloquiality), then the major function of slang is economy and compression, although facetiousness still accompanies it. As an example the following sentence could be furnished: "I am going to the cinema. Do you want to go with?" Here the latter sentence is a shortened version of the more detailed "Do you want to go with me?" or "Do you want to go

To recaputulate, the facetious nature of verbal play is multidimensional and manifests itself on different levels. First of all, it is the level of word-building, where non-standard morphology plays a pivotal role in bringing it about. In modern English one of the most prominent word building patterns that has grown to be associated with language play is contamination (blending), through this model lots of stylistically marked words are formed that are widespread in advertising and in periodicals. Punning is another way of creating facetious contexts, in its prototypical form it is mostly based on juggling several meanings of a word, or on playing with similar sounding words, or on playing with different types of homophones.

As a type of word play slang stands apart from both punning and nonstandard morphology, inasmuch as, first, it makes use of both, second, it is often based on metaphorical reification of word meaning, and third, may reveal itself on the level of syntax and phonology. One of the pertinent characteristics of verbal play is non-conformity, which manifests itself very early in ontogenesis: 24-months-old children are already quite adept at phonetic, morphological and, although in a less pronounced way, at word forming varieties of language play. Although linguistic non-conformity is probably not the best type of non-conformist behavior, it is a patent manifestation of verbal creativity, therefore it ought to be cherished and fostered.


  1. Adams M. A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon. Slayer Slang. - New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. - 308 p.
  2. Chrystal D. Language Play. - London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. - 249 p.
  3. Maurer D. Brocabulary. The New Mani-festo of Dude Talk. - New York, 2008. - 232 p.

Author: Lavrova N.A. ®, Ph.D, Associate Professor, Department of English Lexicology, Moscow State Pedagogical University


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