Speech Play and Verbal Art

[ Anthropology ]

Speech Play and Verbal Art

By Joel Sherzer

A cross-cultural look at speech play, from jokes to verbal duels.



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6 x 9 | 198 pp. | 1 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-77769-9

Puns, jokes, proverbs, riddles, play languages, verbal dueling, parallelism, metaphor, grammatical stretching and manipulation in poetry and song— people around the world enjoy these forms of speech play and verbal artistry which form an intrinsic part of the fabric of their lives. Verbal playfulness is not a frivolous pursuit. Often indicative of people's deepest values and worldview, speech play is a significant site of intersection among language, culture, society, and individual expression.

In this book, Joel Sherzer examines many kinds of speech play from places as diverse as the United States, France, Italy, Bali, and Latin America to offer the first full-scale study of speech play and verbal art. He brings together various speech-play forms and processes and shows what they have in common and how they overlap. He also demonstrates that speech play explores and indeed flirts with the boundaries of the socially, culturally, and linguistically possible and appropriate, thus making it relevant for anthropological and linguistic theory and practice, as well as for folklore and literary criticism.

  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The Grammar of Play and the Play of Grammar
  • 3. Forms of Speech Play in Context
  • 4. From Speech Play to Verbal Art
  • 5. Contexts for Speech Play
  • Notes
  • References
  • Credits
  • Index

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Everything that we have so far seen to be true of language points to the fact that it is the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved—nothing short of a finished form of expression for all communicable experience. This form may be endlessly varied by the individual without thereby losing its distinctive contours; and it is constantly reshaping itself as is all art. Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.
—Edward Sapir, Language

This book is about speech play, and particularly the significance of speech play in the intersection of language, culture, and society and in relation to verbal art. It is intended to be exploratory, suggestive, provocative, and fun(ny). My argument is that play, especially speech play, which has been marginalized and trivialized in the disciplines of anthropology and linguistics, among others, should actually be central to these disciplines, both theoretically and methodologically. Speech play provides implicit and explicit metacommentary—in the form of both the praxis of everyday life and artistic performance—on systems and structure, social and cultural as well as interactional and (socio)linguistic. It explores and indeed flirts with the boundaries of the socially, culturally, and linguistically possible and appropriate; for this reason it is often felt to be simultaneously humorous, serious, and aesthetically pleasing. Speech play can be deeply serious and significant. It is precisely because it is so important that it is so widespread in the world.

Definitions and Issues

Speech play is the manipulation of elements and components of language in relation to one another, in relation to the social and cultural contexts of language use, and against the backdrop of other verbal possibilities in which it is not foregrounded. The elements manipulated can be at any level of language, from sound patterns to syntax, semantics, and discourse; they can include the various languages used in multilingual situations, and can involve nonverbal communication. Speech play can be conscious or unconscious, noticed or not noticed, purposeful or nonpurposeful, and humorous or serious. Nonetheless, given the focus on manipulation, speech play typically involves a degree of selection and consciousness beyond that of ordinary language use.

The various meanings of the word play, in English as well as other languages, are all relevant to this book. One meaning is manipulation and along with it freedom, but always within a set of rules. We talk of the play of a door or window within their frames, the little give-and-take that they have so they are not completely tight. In language the different ways of pronouncing the same word or expressing the same or related ideas are quite analogous to this sense of play. No doubt Edward Sapir had this sense of play in mind when he used the term "consonantal play" in describing a fascinating case of sound symbolism in the Nootka language of Vancouver Island: "Consonantal play consists either in altering certain consonants of a word, in this case sibilants, to other consonants that are phonetically related to them, or in inserting meaningless consonants or consonant clusters in the body of the word. The physical classes indicated by these methods are children, unusually fat or heavy people, unusually short adults, those suffering from some defect of the eye, hunchbacks, those that are lame, left-handed persons, and circumcised males." Play is also an appropriate word to describe the lack of perfect fit between and among the various levels, components, and modules of language, what Sapir expressed in the provocative phrase "All grammars leak." This kind of play within language structure enables many of the verbal forms and processes I discuss. Another meaning of play is that of performance, as in the playing of a musical instrument. The concept of performance is crucial to my approach. Still another meaning of play is that of playing a game, which raises the interesting question of the relation between play and games. Not all play takes the form of games, with sides and winners and losers, but some forms, such as verbal dueling, quite clearly do. Finally there is the idea of play as the opposite of serious or literal, for which the Latin-derived term ludic has been used.

The word and the concept of play have a truly remarkable set of intersecting meanings and uses. Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language has two pages of definitions for play. Just some of these definitions, for play as a noun, are:

  1. act of briskly handling, using, or plying a sword or other weapon or instrument: "gun play."
  2. particular act, maneuver, or point in a game.
  3. recreational activity.
  4. jest, fun: "said or done in play."
  5. deal, venture: "land play."
  6. brisk, lively, or light activity involving change, variation, transition, or alternation: "the play of light and shadow on the dancing waves."
  7. free of unimpeded motion (as part of a machine): "the cylinder has about an inch of play."
  8. a move or series of moves calculated to arouse affection: "make a play for him."
  9. alive: "in play."

And for play as a verb:

  1. to toy or move aimlessly to and fro: "his hand was playing on the edge of the bed."
  2. to deal or behave frivolously or mockingly.
  3. to deal in a light or speculative manner: "to play the stock market."
  4. to have an effect: "played upon my emotions."
  5. pretend: "he played at being a doctor."
  6. to put on a performance.
  7. to put into action or motion.

Other languages and cultures combine these definitions and meanings of play in different ways. French jouer like English play is used for manipulation, musical performance, games, and non serious behavior such as joking and jesting. The Spanish cognate word jugar is used for manipulation and games as well as nonseriousness, while tocar (literally 'touch') is used for musical performance. In Kuna, totoe is used for playing and joking in the sense of tricking and fooling as well as playing games and dancing. The Indonesian word main signifies playing games as well as nonseriousness. In English and French, the word play is used for theatrical performance. In these languages and in fact in the Romance and Germanic languages more generally, as well as in Indonesian languages, it is also used with sexual denotations and connotations. In Kuna the word pinsa, placed before verbs, has the meaning 'for the fun of' or 'just for play,' as in pinsa yartakke 'tricking someone for the fun of it.' A similar function is achieved in Indonesian languages by means of reduplication, which is used to indicate that an object or activity is nonserious or for play. Thus Indonesian mobil 'car,' and mobilmobilan 'toy car.'

These different meanings of play lead us to the very useful notions of frame and metacommunication, as developed by such scholars as Gregory Bateson and Erving Goffman. Frame is the definition, conception, or organization of an activity as either real or literal, rehearsed, practiced, talked about, lied about, dreamt, or fantasized. Play then is a type of frame. Related to frame is the concept of function of language and of communication more generally. In addition to functioning referentially, naming things and providing information about them, language functions socially, expressively, metacommunicatively, and poetically. Speech play combines several of these functions. In turn, speech play, as a form of language use, has various functions, psychological, cultural, humorous, and artistic or poetic.

These functions of language in general and speech play in particular overlap with one another and can be minimized or foregrounded in particular instances. At one level no language use occurs without speech play and verbal art being involved to some degree. At the same time there are verbal forms in which speech play and/or verbal art are the central and total foci. The notion of consciousness and purpose is interesting here. Some forms of play are unconscious and unintended—certain sound or word associations, for example. Others are conscious, intended, and performed, such as jokes or stories. And there are various possibilities in between, as when an unintended pun draws laughter and becomes the focus of commentary. This provides us with an insight into the nature of humor, clearly related intimately to play. Many scholars, including Freud and Bergson, have noticed that humor results from surprise juxtapositions. The sudden coming into consciousness and public awareness of an unintended verbal play, along with the subsequent commentary, is a good example. Add to this the backdrop of entangled cultural and personal presuppositions and assumptions and we can begin to understand particular instances of humor, which can be quite complex.

Speech play is inherent in the formal structure of language. The intrinsic play aspects of language are exploited in rhetorical and poetic forms as well as in discourse more generally. They are also located in everyday speech, in the form of word associations, repetitions and parallelisms, and clever responses and comebacks which feel creatively poetic. Play is located, again both actually and potentially, in sociolinguistic situations, in the juxtaposition of languages, dialects, and styles in use. Yet while speech play is present to some degree in all speech—whether informal, formal, conversational, or artistic—it is most evident and focused in certain conventional forms of play found in many societies. These include play languages, puns, jokes, verbal dueling, proverbs, and riddles.

There is a close connection between speech play and verbal art. Speech play provides the means and resources, such as metaphor, parallelism, and narrative manipulations, out of which verbal art is created. At the same time, it serves various and overlapping ends: comic or humorous, religious, rhetorical, mnemonic, competitive, imitative, experimental, and artistic. Play, especially the juxtaposition of languages and verbal forms in various ways, is thus a major source of aesthetic creativity and innovation, in both oral and literate traditions.

Crucial to the theoretical perspective I advocate in this book is the existence of a loose fit, a loose coupling, between and among the various components of language—phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse—and between language and the various contexts and contextualizations of its use, both sociocultural and social interactional. This loose coupling generates literally endless forms of speech play and verbal art.


In this book I draw on my own research and observations of speech play and verbal art in various places: the United States; western Europe, especially France and Italy; Latin America, especially among the Kuna Indians of Panama and Panama more generally, as well as Mexico, Brazil, and the Caribbean; and Bali, Indonesia.

There is a significance to the ethnographic juxtaposition of these places. The United States is a paradigm, perhaps the paradigm, of a modern, complex, urban, multiethnic society. It is currently undergoing remarkable changes as the result of population movements and contacts and technological innovations. Social and cultural reality in the United States is both expressed and defined through traditional forms of speech play such as puns, jokes, and humorous stories; the fleeting speech play embedded in everyday interaction; and newly emerging forms such as the switching and mixing of languages and dialects and the invention of playful answering-machine messages and email communications.

As in all societies, in the United States speech play can be contrasted with referential, transactional speech. And again, as in all societies, in the United States speech play has its own special and particular ways of relating to referential and transactional speech. Speech play occurs among friends, and its informality is a marker of the social relationship we call friendship. It also occurs in interactions among individuals who are not necessarily friends but who participate together in various sorts of events. Thus speech play can be an icebreaker, as it is called in American English, at such events as casual meetings and parties. The metaphor here is revealing. Referential and transactional speech is cold, even icy or frigid, whereas speech play is warm. Notice also that such speech play occurs within "small talk"—another revealing metaphor, presumably to be contrasted with "big talk," which is serious. Speech play is time out and time off from the otherwise seriousness of the referential and transactional flow of life.

No study of speech play in the United States would be complete without paying attention to its remarkable social, cultural, and linguistic diversity, including, among others, the speech play of Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Jewish Americans, as well as various crisscrossing and intersecting diasporas.

As in the United States, speech play in France contrasts with referential and transactional speech. France has a long yet continually evolving tradition of slang, called argot, which is extremely playful and creative. While French politeness can be remarkably formal and personal space carefully protected from verbal intrusion, at the same time French conviviality enables the exchange of small talk and verbal play, even in such unlikely settings (at least to American observers) as between tables in restaurants. Nonetheless, in France, as elsewhere, the more informal the setting the more likely speech play will occur. The setting par excellence for French speech play continues to be the public, outdoor market, a setting going back to the Middle Ages that is still very much alive today.

In Latin America, speech play and verbal art have evolved from mixtures and blendings of indigenous, European (especially Iberian), and African traditions, and involve intersections of musical and verbal practice. They are manifested in everyday interaction and especially in the vibrant festivals characteristic of these places. In Brazil, both the ethic of the importance of extremely friendly, lighthearted interactions and their actual practice exist against the backdrop of brutal class differences and conflicts. In Brazil as well as elsewhere in Latin America, traditional, indeed centuries-old forms of speech play such as the public telling of medieval epics coexist with the most contemporary of forms, providing a laboratory for the study of the relationship between orality and literacy. There are many rituals and festivals throughout Latin America, in indigenous, European-origin, and Indian and African diasporic communities. These include indigenous curing and puberty rites, Mardi Gras celebrations and carnivals, and town and village patron-saint fiestas. These rituals and festivals constitute a rich, complex tradition and form the center of community and regional life—from social, cultural, historical, economic, ethnic, and religious points of view.

The Panamanian Kuna are a tropical-forest and island community who have managed to maintain their rich indigenous traditions in the context of living along the border of the encroaching, technological Western world. Among the Kuna, play and joking turn up everywhere, side by side and within the most serious forms of speech and action, and especially in conjunction with verbal art. Speech play and verbal art clearly constitute cultural foci for the Kuna. They are continually and consciously aware of the aesthetic properties of language, most strikingly in ritual speech but in everyday speech as well. While Kuna speaking practices can be approached in terms of the sociocultural functions of speech, social control, political maneuvering, curing, magic, and puberty rituals, these functions are inextricably tied to the aesthetic function, to the pleasing playful and artistic properties of language. Indeed, it is by means of verbally artistic language that these other functions are achieved. In addition, the aesthetic and play functions of language are semi-independent of the referential or purely informational and transactional functions, working in the service of the latter while maintaining a potential for freedom of expression.

Bali is one of the most studied places in the world, the subject of research by anthropologists; art, drama, and music critics and performers; amateur and professional dancers and puppeteers; and tourists. It is a classically traditional and complex Asian society struggling to maintain its fascinating identity in the face of incredibly drastic change. Since anthropology has not entered play into its list of favored topics, even in societies such as Bali where it is clearly a cultural focus, very little has been written on the subject. And yet in Balinese society—so well known for its grace, decorum, poise, etiquette, elegance, and refinement—wit, banter, and boisterous humor are omnipresent and cut across the boundaries of the everyday and the ceremonial and ritual, in part as a way of negotiating and constructing a unique identity within the Indonesian nation and the modern world. Much of Balinese speech play focuses on multilingualism and alternative speech levels and styles.

By examining speech play in these various places, I am able to provide a cross-cultural, comparative perspective which I believe is essential to the study of speech play and verbal art.

History and Relevance

The history of the study of speech play relates to several disciplines, including anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, literary criticism, and folklore.12 Anthropologists have treated play and humor as either marginal or secondary to concerns traditionally considered more basic, such as social organization and kinship, or, more recently, political economy, ideology, ethnic or social identity, and transnationalism. Those studies of speech play that do exist tend not to analyze linguistic detail, even in places like Bali, where speech play is a cultural focus of considerable significance (as has been noted in passing by many scholars who have carried out research on this Indonesian island). Contemporary writing in both literary criticism and anthropology, from poststructuralist and postmodern perspectives, considers the concept of play as central to its enterprise, but, once again, rarely provides extended and detailed linguistic analysis of specific forms. In contrast, a linguistic orientation and detailed linguistic analysis are central to my project. At the same time, my approach is relevant to poststructuralist and postmodern concerns.

The study of speech play is relevant to ethnography in several ways. Play is often a cultural and linguistic theme, located in both grammar and culture. In fact, through testing, experimenting with, and sometimes creating the boundaries of appropriate behavior, it is often at the heart of intersections among language, culture, society, and individual expression. While there is always some play for play's sake, play often involves culture exploring and working out both its essence and the limits of its possibilities. In this view, language and culture and their interaction and intersection are dynamic, not static, and in flux, not fixed. The study of people's speech play gives us a glimpse of their coming to terms with their language and culture and is therefore a means of our coming to terms with their language and culture.

Like speech play and humor, verbal art has not entered anthropology's canon of major research topics. Yet its study has figured prominently in the development of one subfield of anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and especially the approach that has come to be known as the ethnography of speaking. The ethnography of speaking studies the relationships between language and culture and language and society from an ethnographic perspective. Empirical analyses of actual instances of language use, derived from extended field research, are related to native cultural conceptions and practices of speaking. Much work in the ethnography of speaking, including my own, has become increasingly discourse-centered and, especially, has focused on verbally artistic performances of myths, stories, and magical chants, as well as everyday conversations. One offshoot of the ethnography of speaking is ethnopoetics—the representation, translation, and analysis of verbal art. Research in ethnopoetics is central to my approach to speech play and verbal art.

While linguistic analysis is also basic to my approach, the discipline of linguistics, like the disciplines of anthropology and literature, has marginalized and trivialized the study of play, though with some significant, mainly methodological exceptions. And yet speech play, as I conceive it, is critically relevant to linguistics. It enables me to deal with not only standard topics in the study of the grammars of languages but also and especially topics which are salient for the speakers of particular languages—for example, the orientation to and focus on form, shape, texture, movement, position, and direction in Kuna, or sound symbolism and onomatopoeia in both Kuna and Balinese. My orientation to speech play also leads me to recognize, indeed insist on, alternative rather than unitary solutions to analytical problems such as the underlying representation of the sound patterns of a language. More generally, my approach argues for a plurality of theories and methods, an openness to different ways of conceiving of language and to different ways of collecting and analyzing data. Finally, attention to speech play and verbal art forces me to pay much more serious attention to issues of representation and translation of instances and forms of language use (discourse), especially oral forms, than is customary in linguistics.

The study of speech play is relevant to the understanding of the nature of language in general, since play is an important component of language structure and language use. Speech play also offers insights into particular languages, indicating what parts are available for play, and how and why they are available. Methodologically, speech play is a valuable tool for the investigation of both language structure and language use, revealing the ways in which various elements of language can be manipulated in different contexts. From the perspective of sociolinguistics, since speech play often emerges from languages, styles, and varieties in contact, its study provides insights into the use of and attitudes towards the sociolinguistic repertoire of a community.

My theoretical perspective in this book is that of a sociolinguistically informed, discourse-centered, ethnographic approach to language structure and language use. This contributes to and is indeed a logical continuation of the Boas-Sapir-Whorf tradition in anthropology and linguistics with regard to the relationship between language and culture—that is, linguistic structures on the one hand and worldview or perception on the other. While Boas, Sapir, and their students considered the writing down of texts to be an essential part of linguistic fieldwork and analysis, these texts tended not to be studied as verbal art and were not viewed as the place to look for intersections between language and culture. Rather, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as it has come to be known, is traditionally associated with a search for isomorphisms between grammar, conceived of in a narrow, abstract sense, and culture, conceived of as a separate, nonverbal entity. According to my approach, however, some aspects of linguistic form and linguistic structure only emerge through the study of language use in verbally playful and verbally artistic discourse. In fact, speech play and verbal art involve language in its essence, on display. Potentials inherent in language are packed and pushed to their highest limits. Playfully imaginative and artistically creative language constitutes the richest point of intersection between language, culture, society, and individual expression and therefore the place in which language, cognition, perception, and worldview come together in their most distilled form. Heteroglossia (languages, dialects, and speech styles in contact and competition within communities) and intertextuality (various kinds of combinations of forms of discourse) can be both sources of play and results of play.

While many forms of speech play and verbal art are quite widespread and can be analyzed in terms of general cross-cultural dimensions, it is ultimately particular communities, cultures, and individuals who define speech play and verbal art, by talking about it, by using it, and by performing it. And it is the task of ethnography to approach speech play and verbal art from these local, community-based definitions and enactments.

Juxtapositions of items that intertextually surprise, arouse, enlighten, annoy, or challenge readers and observers constitute a major form of the postmodern experience. I feel it to be quite appropriate, then, that I have juxtaposed and indeed loosely coupled so many different verbal forms in this book—puns, jokes, riddles, limericks, verbal dueling, proverbs, play languages, code switching, trickster tales, palindromes, anagrams, song lyrics, traditional indigenous chants, and modern European poetry. I consider these juxtapositions of different forms of verbal play, creating play out of play, to be one of my contributions to the aesthetics as well as the politics of play.

My focus on play, the way I conceive of it, fits well within current conceptions of discourse and culture (and I would add language) as constructed, imagined, negotiated, interpreted, (re)invented, and subverted. Instead of viewing language and culture as systems where everything holds together nicely and neatly, I see them as open systems with squishes, fuzziness, leaks, inventions, constructions, negotiations, and imaginations, and as constantly emergent. Discourse is crucial to the language-and-culture intersection, the locus of the actualization of potentials provided by both language and culture as well as personal experience. In this intersection, creativity, imagination, and play are essential. Another way to view this is that there is a lack of fit between words and world, so that while at times language reflects the world, it often creates experience and perception. Again, speech play and verbal art are at the heart of this process, and they help us to understand not only relationships among language, culture, and thought but also the creative spirit which constantly inspires new forms of expression and aesthetic creation.

We enter the twenty-first century with a complex of theoretical and methodological approaches to language and culture and their intersection, all of which are relevant to this book—structural linguistics, generative linguistics, and sociolinguistics; cognitive, interpretive, and dialogic anthropology; and the ethnography of speaking and communication, poststructuralism, and postmodernism. I offer here a detailed description and analysis of forms, processes, and patterns of speech play and verbal art, in terms of linguistic structures and performance parameters as well as cross-cultural and ethnographic contexts. I also propose a positioning of these forms, processes, patterns, and contexts, sometimes as expressions (and manipulations and negotiations) of status or identity, sometimes of authenticity, sometimes of change and adaptation, sometimes of hegemony or deference to hegemony, sometimes of counterhegemony and resistance, sometimes of resistance to resistance.

I intend for this book to be simultaneously theoretical, scholarly, interesting, playful, and fun(ny). Easy to say but not always easy to do. And as interesting, engaging, or humorous as each form of speech play might be in and for itself, my point is to show that when these different kinds of materials from different places are brought together and integrated with illustrative examples, analyzed in linguistic detail, and socially, culturally, and interactionally contextualized, they make a forceful argument for the significance of speech play (in conjunction with verbal art) in anthropology and linguistics.

Joel Sherzer is Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin.

"This book is impressive for its erudition and its thoroughness...Sherzer more than succeeds in proving his point that the study of speech play is central to understanding language use."
Journal of Sociolinguistics

[This book offers] the first general, unified, book-length treatment, from a linguistic-anthropological viewpoint, of 'speech play.'... Sherzer brings to bear a wide knowledge of relevant theory, as well as data from many human societies around the world. He succeeds in producing a 'state of the art' study, unique of its type, useful either as a textbook or as a reference volume."
—William Bright, Professor Adjoint of Linguistics, University of Colorado

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