Language and Meaning

From: Steve Drew (
Date: Sun Apr 07 2002 - 20:57:29 BST

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    Hi Grant,

    > Date: Fri, 05 Apr 2002 19:12:39 -0800
    > From: "Grant Callaghan" <>
    > Subject: Re: memetics-digest V1 #1008

    > Thanks, Steve. One of the interesting things about language is the fact
    > that we use it in a playful way that constantly creates new ways of using
    > words and sentences. Peter Farb wrote a book called "Word Play" that
    > covered most of the stuff I learned in linguistics 101 but his basic theme
    > was that language is a game played for high stakes that can have life
    > altering effects based on your skill and usage. He says,
    > "The language game shares certain characteristics with all other true games.
    > First of all, it has a minimum of two players (the private,
    > incomprrehensible speech of a schizophrenic is no more a true game than is
    > solitare). Second, a person within speaking distance of any stranger can be
    > forced by social pressure to commit himself to play, in the same way that a
    > bystander in the vicinity of any other kind of game may be asked to play or
    > to look on. Third, something must be at stake and both players must strive
    > to win it -- whether the reward be a tangible gain like convincing an
    > employer of the need for a raise or an intangible one like the satisfaction
    > of besting someone in an argument. Fourth, a player of any game has a
    > particular style that distinguishes him as well as the ability to shift
    > styles depending upon where the game is played and who the other players
    > are. [I might refer here to a story, made into a movie, called The Circus
    > of Doctor Lau. It was a perfect illustration of what Farb is talking about]
    > In the case of the language game, the style might be a preference for
    > certain expressions or a folksy way of speaking, and the style shift might
    > be the bringing into play of different verbal strategies when speaking in
    > the home, at the office, one the street, or in a place of worship."
    > Black English is especially noteworthy in the creative use of words and one
    > of the favorite games on the street is called "The Dozens," in which people
    > make veiled and scabrous references to another's family, particularly one's
    > mother. Another way is to twist pronounciation of an old word to produce a
    > new effect.
    > Example:
    > "Girl, you are yoogley!"
    > "What do you mean by that?"
    > "It takes ten thousand uglies to make one yoogley, and that's you, girl."

    My friends and I engaged in the same thing at school. In fact we were at it
    at a stag do last night. We always assumed it was because we were abnormal!
    > As you can see, scoring points with insults confers status on the one doing
    > the scoring. This was an actual conversation I heard on the streets of
    > Washington D.C. some years ago.
    > Scoring points in an academic environment can also consist of put downs and
    > are also used to score points in an argument. I remember asking a question
    > in class one day and the instructor coming back with "I don't find that to
    > be interesting." meaning he thought I was asking a dumb question despite
    > the general attitude pushed by the faculty that "there are no dumb
    > questions." The language may sound different, but the game is the same.
    > Cheers,
    > Grant

    Still learning about langauge (and a thousand other things since I joined
    this list!), but that was an interesting idea. I had not considered
    conversation in that way before. At present I'm working my way through a
    book on the social interpretation of language and meaning. I'm also going to
    have a look at a couple of papers on the evolution of language, as done on a
    computer simulation. If I can understand it I'll report back to the list

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