For the Love of Prepositions Part 9b: Playing the Language Game

“Play” is another word that is on the rise. But it has brought together a whole different array of complex connotations from those of ‘game’. It means pretending, stage-acting; it distinguishes the main free action of a sport or game from its surrounding bureaucratic structure. Musical instruments are played. Children play. In contract bridge the ‘play’ is distinguished from the ‘bidding,’ although both are equally important parts of the game. People who like to joke are regarded as ‘playful’ and valued socially as comics, even, perhaps even especially, if they are not ‘playing the game’. Play has even—graced with a duly respectable-looking Latinate prefix—become a scientific word in the word ‘interplay,’ meaning the way that various forces interact with each other. A graceful ‘play of forces’ as opposed to a violent ‘game of thrones’.

There is a plangent irony when the two words are combined as in First World War propaganda (“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”) used to exhort cannon-fodder, or the modern concept of ‘gameplay’. A recent ad for Dell brandishes the double-imperative slogan: “Don’t just play. Game.” Underlining the extent to which the online gaming industry takes itself way too seriously.

To return to the beginning of this two-part post, there is a connection between the distinct metaphors of playing and gaming and the way that linguists and philosophers of language have traditionally viewed their prime object of study during the still brief existence of this novel social science.

Saussure effected a foundational revolution by establishing a distinction between langue and parole. He famously compared language to a game of chess: the form of the pieces and the board can be changed but this does not alter the rules of play. This metaphor already rigidifies the originally radical idea to some extent, in so far as it is not only the form of the pieces used in the game, but also the relation between them, and the very rules, that can be changed. Within that works the play.

Wittgenstein also saw language as a game, or a series of games. This has often been interpreted by post-modern philosophers as suggesting that Wittgenstein introduced an element of playfulness into the philosophy of language. It is worth looking a little into Wittgenstein’s biography to find the extent to which this was definitely not the case. Wittgenstein is unusual as a philosopher, in that (by his own insistence) he actually had experience of teaching children. Reports of his teaching methods, clearly show, however, that he regarded language learning and language as such as more ‘game’ than ‘play’. It is more about the imposition of the herd instinct of a rugby match by force than allowing children naturally to play. In the much-quoted passage of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein’s description of the primitive ‘language game’ sounds more like a chain-gang or a production-line than anything it would be fun to be involved in. Michel Pêcheux, in Le Discours: structure ou événement uses a strip cartoon to mock precisely this kind of factory-floor approach to language learning writ large as linguistic theory.

Wittgenstein’s game-theory of language is echoed to some extent by the Sapir-Whorf approach to language, in which language determines or is determined by the core values of the tribe, giving it a sentimental but no less authoritarian twist. Structuralism picked up this essentially sentimental and conservative linguistic anthropological ideology, especially in the work of Lévi-Strauss.

Enter Chomsky.

Chomsky emerged on the scene in the 1950s with a set of investigative tools far in advance of anything that Saussure or Wittgenstein could ever have imagined. He was concerned to counter both the apparent arbitrariness that Saussure had unleashed and the culture-bound relativism that Wittgenstein and Sapir-Whorf seemed to propound. He was also spurred by an unflagging, very American, view of the nobility of the rational human spirit, and was funded by IBM.

To this end, Chomsky set about fusing Saussure’s revelations with a more conservative grammatical approach to language, while attempting to eschew the illiberalism that, according to Wittgenstein and Sapir-Whorf, this approach would tend to entail.

Grammar, according to Chomsky, is normative but confined to the mind. It is not therefore something that governments or ideologies or cultures can impose. It is, of course, a pared down sort of ‘universal’ grammar and Chomsky’s theories immediately came up against an overwhelming body of empirical evidence to the effect that such mental grammars are invariably overruled by cultural conventions and pure playfulness. Chomsky and his colleagues thus ‘invented’ the notion of ‘transformational’ grammar to account for this mismatch, thereby fusing Saussurian arbitrariness with a sort of neo-Kantian prescriptivism.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Chomsky cashed in his intellectual chips at this point and turned his attention to a variety of liberal/left-wing causes that have sometimes verged on conspiracy theories. His followers were left with the messy business of cleaning up the contradictions he had left behind.
Leaderless yet uncomfortable with dissent, they opted for the arbitrary, while maintaining Chomsky’s originary faith in the rational human mind. A flurry of ‘transformational rules’ have subsequently merely re-written the traditional grammar books around a descriptivist but arguably less tolerant basis.

Transformational grammar merely revives a late-19th century debate that should have been laid to rest a long time ago. Should we respect people’s local way of speaking or encourage them, for the sake of self-advancement, to adopt a supposedly more rational norm? This is a very serious sociolinguistic contradiction dealt with playfully by George Bernard Shaw and George Cukor in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Like Henry Higgins, Liberal Chomskyan linguists tie themselves in knots to this day trying to reconcile these two contradictory aims.

Stephen Pinker, a liberal-minded Chomsky hanger-on and radical neo-Darwinist, bends over backwards to blandish the African-American community by suggesting (generously but patronizingly) that their argot is just as ‘rational’ as that of the white liberal élite, the implication being that, with tolerance and instruction, they could be incorporated into this elite. Black activist intellectuals argue that their discourse has more to do with a history of oppression and protest than with a common core of rationality shared with their historical oppressors. Pinker fails to do a similar analysis of the language of white trash, wherein lies a tale. In fact, he fails to do any serious analysis at all, basing his arguments on anecdote, presumption and hearsay. He arrogantly states at one point, that his argument could be proved true by a statistician in the course of an afternoon. So far as I am aware, no statistician has yet answered this puny call to arms.

Back in the trenches, a few linguists have started bucking the Chomskyan gravy-train. Word has it that the ouster of Chomsky is almost complete, as a result of a combination of serious scientific research and changing mores.

Chomsky is like the Queen of England. The grand old man whose dotty outdated view of the world academic linguists and language teachers who depend on his patronage will politely accept until he finally kicks off his clogs. After that the gloves are off, the game is on… I look forward to the fight.


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