Grammar linguistics and lexicography Love English

Ludic language and the game of grammar

© PhotodiscIf asked to name the purpose of language, we might be inclined to say communication, or the imparting of information. But language has many purposes, some of which have nothing to do with sharing ideas or facts. If language were meant to serve solely as a means of exchanging information, why would we talk to ourselves? The truth is more complex, more interesting, and more fun.

Formal language gets a lot of attention, but most language in use is informal, and many of the reasons we talk, write, type and sign have more to do with peer-bonding, signalling personal or group identity, expressing feelings or personality, or just enjoying ourselves. We may wish simply to be creative and to play – a pleasurable activity in any medium.



Play is something we associate with children, but there’s nothing intrinsically childish about it, and language offers a large and inviting board on which to do it. This aspect of language helps explain the longstanding tradition of verbal play in informal discourse – what we might call ludic language, from the same root (Latin ludus ‘sport, play’) as ludo and ludicrous. And it’s popular in languages around the world – the latest Ling Space video has some great examples.

Structured language games are another feature. Puns and riddles allow for variation atop a familiar template, while Scrabble, rebuses and tongue twisters are perennially popular. Nor is the playful use of language always trivial. Some of the most enduring and beloved works of literature, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, abound in wordplay. Such verbal trickery can hinge on sophisticated linguistic manipulation, so as well as its emotional appeal it can offer intellectual challenges and satisfaction too.

Linguistic fads, memes and novelties are a common source of innovation in language use. They take many forms, whether entire styles such as lolspeak and doge or more syntactically restricted items like because X and can’t even. Anthimeria, such as the use of nouns as verbs, is another common form of language play (though of course play need not be the intention).

These innovations are often deliberately ungrammatical, even anti-grammatical. By flouting formal rules in informal settings, we gain the pleasure of being harmlessly subversive. Undermining grammatical norms – the structural rigidity that Bergson identified as lying behind a lot of humour – we get to make mischief without serious repercussions. As Jessica Love wrote, ‘Given grammar’s relatively low stakes, then, it is fodder for immediate humor.’

As users of language we have free rein to play with and mutate it as we wish. Formal English is more tightly managed, and rightly so, but in casual contexts we can play around with words for the sheer fun of it. And who knows what idiosyncratic fad of today will end up in common or even standard use?

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

3 Comments

  • “we get to make mischief without serious repercussions” This has long been my view. Every joke may need a butt, but if that butt is a word and not a person (or people) then we can laugh without guilt.

  • Very true, Stuart. And there are many parallels between wordplay and the kind of play we enjoy as children. I play an improvised game with my niece and nephew where I construct a ridiculous combination, like saying a cat goes Moooo, or calling something by a wrong name, and they love the silliness and unpredictability of it. It seems to me this is not at all dissimilar from messing around with words’ grammatical categories.

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