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Summary Details

Query:   sum: language games
Author:  Lynne Murphy
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   General Linguistics

Summary:   Thanks to the folks who helped me out with language games. For those
interested, here's a cut-and-paste summary of what I learned. I'll be
using a lot of this in my upcoming linguistic games continuing ed
class. I will try to get a syllabus for the class on my website
sometime in October or so.

Thanks, thanks, thanks!
Lynne Murphy
(summary follows)

M. Lynne Murphy, Assistant Professor in Linguistics
Department of English, Baylor University
PO Box 97404, Waco, TX 76798 USA
Phone: 254-710-6983 Fax: 254-710-3894
- -

From: Caroline Wiltshire <>

There was a game we played at some parties when I was in grad school
at the University of Chicago -- these parties were for the Linguistic
department, so I don't know if normal people would want to play. As
far as I recall, people would write sentences on slips of paper that
went into one hat, and speech acts, illocutionary or perlocutionary
forces, on slips of paper that would go into a separate hat.

The contestant would draw a slip from each hat and have to invent a
situation in which the given sentence could be used to accomplish the
specified speech act. Nobody ever lost. It might be a fun game for
your students, and it would certainly make them think about

- -

From: James Vanden Bosch <>

Please consider using books by Richard Lederer if you wish to find
more resources for word play. His web site is at the following

- -

From: Keira Ballantyne <>

There is a book called "The book of surrealist games" which has a lot
of different types of games, including quite a lot of language games.
One in particular, 'the exquisite corpse' is a game where the first
player writes an adjective, the next a noun, the next a verb, then an
adjective and a noun, to give an entire sentence. Sort of the
language equivalent of the monster drawing game where I draw the head,
you draw the torso and someone else draws the legs. But it does
exploit what people know about category assignment.

[I ordered this book from's great--lynne]

- -

From: mike_maxwell@SIL.ORG

>...candidates are things like the "dictionary game"

I've heard this called "Fictionary", which I always thought was a
delightful blend. I presume you don't need to know any more than you
already know about this particular game, but let me know if I'm wrong.
Or better yet, let me know if you can get a group of people together
to play it!

I also have in my garage a commercially-produced game called
"Syntactics". It's another game that I could never find anyone to
play it with, so I can't tell you exactly how it works. It's supposed
to be something like Boggle, but using words to make up sentences, I
think. I can find the instructions if you're interested.

And finally, I vaguely recall another commercially produced game that
was invented by linguists (Ross's name comes to mind, but I'm probably
wrong--real help today, aren't I?). I think the idea was that one
player would make up a set of syntactic rules (probably PS rules), and
the others were to guess the rules, probably on the basis of possible
and impossible sentences of the language. The game was a commercial
flop, I suppose...

- -

From: Emily Bender <>

My family has played this game for a few years. I don't think we made
it up, but I don't know where it came from. Basically, it starts by
someone using (intentionally or unintentionally) a word that is
phonologically similar to the one they `meant' to use, but not the
right word. So, for example, "Did you hear the new Car Wars movie is
coming out?" The next player would pick that up and say, "No, no, you
mean _Star_ Wars, and that's the opposite of near. You know, I want
to go star, star away from here." At which point the next player can
pick it up. There is a little room to pick up surrounding
phonological material. So the next turn might be either, "No, no, you
mean _far_, and that's part of the scoring of golf."

- -

From: (George Elgin, Suzette Haden Elgin)

Lynne, I'm assuming you've seen the game John Grinder and I put in our
ancient linguistics textbook (Grinder and Elgin, from Holt Rinehart,
in the 60s), called "Native Speaker." I'm not sure it's what you
want, since the rules can come from *any* aspect of language, but I
mention it just in case.

- -

From: "Rachel R. Reynolds" <>

My former roommate and I used to take scrabble tiles, turn them upside
down and then we'd each simultaneously flip one over. The first
person to see a word that could be put together from the upturned
tiles would then yell out the word name and take possession of those
tiles, putting them in front of the group in spelled out form. Then,
you could "steal" words from your opponent if you saw a way to take
the word by switching its letters around and/or combining it with new
letters to create a new word. The main rule in this stealing maneuver
was that you had to create a new word from an entirely new
morphological root.

Here's an example:

Turn one: player 1 and 2 both flip over letters: A and D

Turn two: player 1 and 2 both flip over letters: E and R

player 1 shouts the word EAR! and gets to take those tiles

player 2 looks for a second and shouts the word DEAR and gets to take
those tiles

player 1 shouts the word READ and gets the tiles back

Turn three: player 1 and 2 both flip over letters: T and D

player 1 shouts out the word TREAD and gets the tiles from READ and
the T tile

Turn four: player 1 and 2 both flip over letters: I and B

player two shouts out the word BID and gets the B,I and D tiles

Illegal moves: you can't add, for instance, an "S" on TREAD to get
treads because you haven't changed the morphological root; also, you
can't steal back words using a root that was already mentioned, so you
can't say "read" or anything related to reading again.

I just loved this game. As far as I know, it originated among college
students at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

- -

From: Robert Orr <>

I have a language game I play at my day job, which is a translation
company. I have some colleagues who are german, and I play a game
called "Kremerdeutsch" (named after the intended target).

It involves taking an English sentence and transposing it into German
morpheme by morpheme, with NO appeal to syntax or semantics, e.g.,

Wollt euch leich ein Kaffee? Das'st blutig
gut Tun'cht tu das
Would you like a coffee? That's bloody
good Don't do that

and claiming the result's "German"

- -

From: Neal Norrick <>

Just in case you haven't seen these refs:

First, Crystal's new book LANGUAGE PLAY. London: Penguin, 1998.

Then the journal: Word Ways: Journal of Recreational Linguistics
with articles on acrostics, anagrams, pallindromes etc.

- -

From: Stephen Helmreich <>

Just saw your post on the Linguist List, which reminded me of some
"research" I did into British (English?) crossword puzzles. The clues
actually have a fairly constrained grammar (of sorts -- at least I
thought of it then as a grammar, but actually it's kind of a semantic
grammar, I guess).

Are you familiar with this type of crossword? The clue has two parts,
one part is a simple crossword definition (synonym) of the answer, the
other half is a word play definition of the same answer. The whole
clue has to be a phrase or sentence of English. There is a fairly
interesting and ambiguous "lexicon" which provides clues to the word

Example: Clue: Bum wore drab clothing Answer: wardrobe

Syntactic analysis: ("bum" is a lexical item that is a member of the
class that indicates "anagram")

ANAGRAM("wore drab") = SYNONYM(clothing)

The interesting aspect of all this was that clearly these clues are
not easy for people to figure out and probably doesn't constitute a
natural language. So the question is what aspects of it make it an
impossible human language. There are a number of candidates:

lexical ambiguity -- almost any word can function in any number of
different ways, as a semantic word (to provide the synonym) as its
lexicographic shape, as a marker for any of several (wordplay)

syntactic ambiguity -- there's lots of "deletion" rules in my grammar
of the clues, though now that I think about it, they could be
pragmatic interpretation rules (referring functions).

For example, quotes (markers of "de re" readings, the division markers
marking the halves of the clue, the identifier for SYNONYM,
ABBREVIATION etc. can all be empty. On the other hand, some things
cannot be deleted. E.g., if you want an anagram, that has to be
indicated lexically somehow.

the word play aspect -- we don't usually play with spelling forms, do
anagrams, etc., in typical language processing.

Then theres the global constraint -- the entire clue must be a phrase
of English -- this can be quite misleading in certain cases.

I'm not sure this is what you are looking for, but I thought I'd share

LL Issue: 10.819
Date Posted: 26-May-1999
Original Query: Read original query


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