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Review of  Multiple Perspectives on Language Play

Reviewer: Villy Tsakona
Book Title: Multiple Perspectives on Language Play
Book Author: Nancy Bell
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 29.3359

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A bias against playful, ludic, or humorous discursive phenomena has considerably postponed academic research on them. ‘Serious’ research was expected to concentrate exclusively on ‘serious’ topics, thus dismissing language play, humor, laughter, and related phenomena as unworthy objects of study (see among others Morreall 2009). This has, however, been reconsidered in the past few decades when (socio)linguistics and discourse analysis brought to the limelight the centrality of such phenomena in the discourse produced in a variety of contexts. Among others, Jakobson (1960) and De Beaugrande (1979) highlighted the significance of language play and linguistic creativity for attracting audience attention to the conveyed message and for contributing to language change.

More recently, particular emphasis has been placed on the fact that language play and linguistic creativity are not skills belonging exclusively to ‘charismatic’ individuals (e.g. poets, authors, artists, politicians known for their rhetorical skills). Instead, such phenomena originate and flourish in everyday encounters, and are therefore perceived as part of ordinary speakers’ experiences, discursive resources, and performances (Negus & Pickering 2004; on the democratization of linguistic creativity, see also Maybin & Swann 2007, Jones 2012: 2). Such a shift in perspective resulted from and in research in language play and linguistic creativity as pervasive, dynamic, and co-constructed in everyday interactions (see among others Carter 2004, Maybin & Swann 2006, Swann & Maybin 2007, Swann et al. 2011, Jones 2012, 2016). Sociopragmatic research, in particular, has consistently shown that playful, creative, and humorous uses of language encode ‘serious’ messages and constitute important discursive means for constructing social identities, conveying criticism, building rapport, or excluding outsiders, among other things. From such a functionalist perspective, it is therefore difficult to identify differences between playful and non-playful/‘serious’ uses of language, except perhaps for the fact that speakers appear to enjoy (and perhaps laugh at/with) bending and distorting linguistic forms and meanings while playing.

It is exactly in this context that the volume “Multiple perspectives on language play”, edited by Nancy Bell, comes to remind us of the ubiquity of playful phenomena in discourse and the various functions they fulfill. In her introduction, Nancy Bell discusses recent developments in research on language play, linguistic creativity, and humor, as well as on the interplay between these concepts. As she notes, there are certain aspects of language play, creativity, and humor that emerge as significant in the relevant research. First, it is indeed a challenging endeavor to define the boundaries between these overlapping concepts; hence scholars usually focus on one of them and do not attempt to examine them in a comparative perspective. Second, resorting to language play, linguistic creativity, and humor to convey messages in casual interaction involves a near-paradox: it may render communication more opaque and difficult, but simultaneously seems to be beneficial for interlocutors from a cognitive, social, and emotional perspective. Third, despite the fact that these discursive phenomena are negotiated and co-constructed in interaction, most research focuses either on their production or on their comprehension. Fourth, they are directly related to language variation and change, as they contribute to the production of new linguistic forms and meanings, thus enriching speakers’ repertoires. Finally, language play, linguistic creativity, and humor are culture-specific, context-dependent, and scalar phenomena: speakers often offer different assessments of what can be perceived as playful, creative, or humorous, and such divergent perceptions may also vary across communicative settings, historical eras, and/or linguocultural communities.

Neal R. Norrick’s opening article on “Language play in conversation” is based on the distinction between two kinds of language play: first, playing with language as an object; and, second, playing with language as a medium. In the first case, he discusses language games with a strong metalinguistic focus, such as crosswords, Scrabble, tongue twisters, word chains, and Pig Latin. In the second case, he refers to language play as emerging in interaction, whereby interlocutors bend or defy linguistic conventions to achieve an array of sociopragmatic functions including, among other things, creating rapport, showing aggression, and redirecting talk. The author explores how specific phenomena (i.e. formulaic speech, overstatement, address terms, puns, question/answer sequences) may belong to the first category of language games, but often surface in interaction, thus demonstrating the interplay between the two above-mentioned categories.

Even though most studies on language play describe it using the traditional levels of linguistic analysis (phonetics/phonology, morphology, syntax, lexis, pragmatics), Thorsten Huth attempts to expand the definition of language play by analyzing its occurrence in patterns of interaction. In his chapter titled “Playing with turns, playing with action? A social-interactionist perspective”, he adopts a conversation analytic perspective to account for interactants’ tendency to consciously manipulate interactional mechanisms and patterns to play with language. The data examined comes from interactions between American learners of German as an L2 and reveals how they rely on their metapragmatic awareness in both L1 and L2 to jointly bend basic rules of interaction in L2. In particular, learners take advantage of the different patterns of organizing compliments in American English and German and mark their deviations from the expected (German) patterns using metapragmatic markers such as laughter.

In “The shape of tweets to come: Automating language play in social networks”, Tony Veale discusses the generation of metaphors and irony by Twitterbots, namely “high-concept, low-complexity generative systems that transplant the aleatoric methods and constraints of the early surrealists, the Oulipo group and the ‘beat’ writers […] into the realms of digital content, social networks and online publishing” (p. 75). Twitterbots follow specific rules and employ various sources of knowledge to generate tweets, usually through manipulating utterances attested in Twitter and using words in more or less unexpected ways. After a detailed description of how such generative systems work, the author concentrates on two of them, that is, @MetaphorMagnet and @MetaphorMinute, and tests their products to assess their success in generating creative metaphors. In particular, randomly selected tweets are evaluated by informants for their comprehensibility, novelty, and retweetability. The author concludes that “we humans […] do others the courtesy of assuming their utterances to be freighted with real meaning and creative intent, and will often work hard to uncover that meaning for them” (p. 88). This, however, does not entail that we will all arrive at the same meaning/interpretation.

In her chapter titled “‘This system’s so slow’: Negotiating sequences of laughter and laughables in call-center interaction”, Elizabeth Holt examines extracts of calls to a gas-supply company, during which interactants tend to move from institutional talk to less serious and more playful exchanges while commenting on the slowness of the online system of the company. Conversation analysis allows the author to demonstrate in detail how the transition from institutional/serious talk to more informal/non-serious talk is usually accomplished gradually: in most cases, a clear-cut distinction between the two discursive modes cannot be established. In this context, laughter plays a significant role as it helps interactants to negotiate the transition over several turns. Laughter does not only mark the exchanges as (potentially) playful or non-serious but, most importantly, exhibits an affiliative function fostering rapport between the caller and the employee, even though their interaction involves callers’ complaints against the company and employees’ complaints and accounts for the slowness of the online system.

In “Laughter as a ‘serious business’: Clients’ laughter in prenatal screening for Down’s syndrome”, Olga Zayts & Stephanie Schnurr examine the functions of laughter in medical consultation encounters between nurses and pregnant women. Their focus is on the second parts of laughter sequences where pregnant women reciprocate the laughter offered by nurses. Adopting a conversation analytic perspective and combining it with ethnographic information on the encounters under scrutiny, the authors identify three kinds of shared laughter in their data: shared laughter as a means of managing risk talk when nurses attempt to reassure the women and to create rapport with them; shared laughter as a means of negotiating epistemic statuses and stances when the information provided by the nurses is judged as redundant or inadequate by pregnant women; laughter as a means of negotiating deontic authority when nurses resist pregnant women’s decisions or when the latter resist the former’s offers for information or advice. This study confirms and elaborates on previous research on the affiliative or disaffiliative functions of laughter, and underlines its use to display epistemic or deontic statuses in settings where participants seem to have asymmetrical roles of authority or expertise.

In his chapter titled “Jocular language play, social action and (dis)affiliation in conversational interaction”, Michael Haugh discusses cases where a negative stance is expressed by an interlocutor towards him/herself, his/her addressee, or a third absent party, and language play is employed to affiliate or disaffiliate with this stance. In particular, language play occurs in “various kinds of sensitive social actions, such as accusations, criticisms, complaints and disagreements” (p. 146). Concurrently, Haugh exploits the distinction between ‘playing with language’ and ‘playing in language’: the first involves bending linguistic conventions for playful purposes, while the latter employing language to engage in play (see among others Bell 2012). Hence, the data examined includes both interactions where wordplay and puns are attested (cf. ‘playing with language’), and joint fantasizing where fictional scenarios are co-constructed by participants for entertainment purposes (cf. playing in language). The author’s preference for an interactional pragmatic analysis helps bring to the surface how interactants negotiate diverse stances without overtly endangering their social relationships.

Teasing as a kind of language play and/or humor is the focus of Valeria Sinkeviciute’s study titled “‘Everything he says to me it’s like he stabs me in the face’: Frontstage and backstage reactions to teasing”. The author relies on Goffman’s (1959) distinction between frontstage and backstage behavior to describe contradicting reactions to, and perceptions of, teasing mostly by those who are targeted by it and those who witness it. She argues that, while in frontstage performance speakers tend to conform to social values and norms favoring the light-hearted, positive uptake of teasing, in backstage performances the same speakers express themselves more freely and disclose their negative feelings stemming from the teasing addressed to them or from the teasing they witnessed as third parties. Such behavior is discussed in view of widely accepted norms according to which speakers are expected to publicly display a sense of humor and not to take themselves too seriously in sociocultural communities such as the British and the Australian ones. The data analyzed comes from the British and the Australian ‘Big Brother’ reality shows which encourage participants metatalk on previous interactions among them. Similarities and differences between the two shows are also explored.

Emi Otsuji & Alastair Pennycook investigate language play in the context of metrolingualism in their chapter on “Cities, conviviality and double-edged language play”. Metrolingualism highlights both the fluidity and the fixity of linguistic resources allowing speakers to engage in language play. It refutes “the assumed connections between language and culture, ethnicity, nationality or geography” (p. 201) and explores “how such relations are produced, resisted, defied or rearranged” (Otsuji & Pennycook 2010: 246). Given the above, the authors analyze extracts from everyday interactions among speakers of different origins living in Sydney, Australia, and playing with various linguistic resources to create moments of conviviality in the workplace, to cross ethnolinguistic lines, or on the contrary to draw ethnic boundaries among different immigrant populations, and in some cases even to discriminate against ethnic groups. The authors also discuss how the landscape and spatial arrangements in contemporary multicultural cities play a significant role in bringing people of diverse origins together and in mixing, recontextualizing, and redefining their linguistic resources. They finally consider fluidity and fixity as equally important parameters for such purposes: “[w]e may […] live in a world of flows, but we also live in a world of fixities. Not only are there political and economic limits to the degrees to which languages and cultures can ebb and flow, but there are also strong attachments to fixed identifications” (p. 214).

David Hann’s contribution to the volume refers to “Building rapport and a sense of communal identity through play in a second language classroom”. The author investigates how language play during L2 courses can enhance group cohesion through common cultural reference points, despite the not particularly high level of learners’ proficiency in L2. More specifically, Hann focuses on a specific case study involving role-playing among learners: a pragmatically inappropriate utterance produced by one of them becomes a kind of running joke and is recontextualized at different stages of the course. The data examined reveals that such cases of language play significantly strengthen group bonds and involvement in the joint activities performed in class, while they also allow learners to create absurd scenarios and test the use of different voices therein. In other words, instances of language play that could otherwise be framed as “performative mistakes” (p. 238) and be ‘corrected’ so as to be avoided in the future, are employed by learners and teachers to enhance the formers’ pragmatic repertoires, and create a shared sense of identity and culture in the L2 classroom. This is particularly significant for L2 speakers who may “feel less able to control the social construction of self when operating in another language and culture” (p. 220).

In “The first English (EFL) lesson: Initial settings or the emergence of a playful classroom culture”, Jet Van Dam & Anne Bannick underline the importance of planned or unplanned language play in designing and performing a variety of activities for the L2 classroom, so as to enhance students’ interest and participation. The data examined comes from the first lesson of English for a class of 12- to 13-year-old Dutch students of varying competence in the target language. The analysis demonstrates how the different identities performed by either the teacher or the students (or both) lead to a “mix of situated play and task-orientedness” where the teacher and the students are “making fun of the lesson frame while being fully involved in it” (p. 274). Opting for a holistic, micro-ethnographic approach, the authors trace the “co-construction of a learning culture” (p. 247) not only via analyzing instances of classroom interaction but also via returning to the same class to observe and take field notes three weeks and then eight months after the beginning of the course. This method allows them to confirm the significant role of language play in establishing an engaging learning culture in class as well as the steady high levels of students’ participation and motivation in learning English as an L2.

In his chapter titled “The emergence of creativity in L2 English: A usage-based study”, Søren W. Eskildsen sets out to investigate how emergent creativity in L2 contributes to L2 learning by expanding L2 patterns in and through talk. The study ascribes to usage-based linguistics and involves the comparison of L2 patterns at earlier and later stages of learning, and hence the detection of their evolution in time. Such a traceback methodology applied to data coming from authentic learning environments and interactions helps the researcher to detect subtle changes in learners’ language use, and account for the ways such changes emerge and are triggered by what happens in classroom interactions. In this context, language play seems to enable learners to break down, recycle, and manipulate a variety of recurring multiword expressions and thus to increase their linguistic awareness, which in turn facilitates language learning. Such a conceptualization of language play comes in sharp contrast to generative approaches proposing that innate rules of syntax govern the production of utterances, and eventually compromises the significance attached to the poverty of stimulus for language learning (Chomsky 1980).

Jiyun Kim’s study on “Teaching language learners how to understand sarcasm in L2 English” is based on the premise that phenomena subsumed under the labels of language play or humor, such as sarcasm, are universal but culture-specific. At the same time, it presupposes that L2 teachers have the necessary linguistic and analytical skills not only to detect the linguocultural differences in the production of sarcasm but also to explain them to their students. The study reports on a meticulously designed teaching experiment aimed at sensitizing Korean students of English to the pragmatic differences between Korean sarcasm and its English counterpart. The experiment begins with documenting and taking into serious consideration students’ conceptualizations of (mostly Korean) sarcasm and then exploits various material (e.g. diagrams, video clips, observational verbal data) to discuss the particularities of (English) sarcasm with the students and to point out its functions and goals in interaction. The post-test interviews reveal that such explicit teaching of sarcasm may have remarkable results in improving students’ detection and interpretation of L2 sarcasm and in their becoming aware of the differences between the L1 and L2 conceptualizations of the phenomenon.

In “Anti-language: Linguistic innovation, identity construction, and group affiliation among emerging speech communities”, Natalie Lefkowitz & John S. Hedgcock examine four types of anti-language: the French language game Verlan, the novel registers employed by francophone social media users, the deliberate underperformance of L2 learners of French and Spanish, and the non-standard varieties used by learners of Spanish as a heritage language. Adopting a sociolinguistic perspective, the authors draw on Halliday’s (1976) work underlining the marginalized, antagonistic, and exclusive nature of anti-languages. Furthermore, they discuss specific linguistic features and sociolinguistic functions occurring in the above-mentioned varieties. The linguistic features involve relexicalization, simplification, phonological and morphological innovation, lexical borrowing, taboo language, and registerial blurring, while the sociolinguistic functions involve identity maintenance and affirmation, opposition and defiance, covert prestige, the construction of alternative realities, mainstream disapproval, verbal competition, secrecy, solidarity, and othering. All the cases examined exhibit most of these features and functions, with Verlan emerging as a “prototype” (p. 370). Emphasis is also placed on the language ideologies concerning these varieties as expressed by their users and the outsiders.

Finally, in their sociolinguistic study titled “Celebrations of a satirical song: Ideologies of anti-racism in the media”, Julia McKinney & Elaine W. Chun explore the potential of anti-racist satire to convey more or less latent racist messages. The authors focus on a satirical love song written and published as a response to a racist video reproducing stereotypes against Asian minorities in the USA. In particular, the authors analyze the satirical love song in combination with media articles and interviews commenting on the conflict between the two media texts and on their producers’ identities. The media discourses on the two opposing texts appear to celebrate the satirical song by praising its condemnation of the initial racist video, the singer’s fame, talent, and skills, as well as the satirical song’s humorous, light-hearted, and positive style. Such praise, the authors suggest, alludes to racist discourses widely circulated in the USA, and implies that more serious, critical, and direct forms of anti-racist critique may be inappropriate or even illegitimate in public spaces. Thus, media reframings of, and metapragmatic talk on, the opposing texts may eventually divert the attention of the audience from the subtle racist messages conveyed in a text intended and perceived as anti-racist, to aspects of the conflict that only superficially touch upon the ideological assumptions and consequences of racist acts (cf. Archakis et al. to appear).


The majority of the studies included in the volume involve pragmatic, conversation analytic, and sociolinguistic theoretical frameworks and methodologies, while there is also a strong focus on how language play, linguistic creativity, and humor contribute to L2 teaching and learning. Following and expanding on recent research on these phenomena, the volume elaborates on their interactive nature and provides detailed analyses of how they are co-constructed in various communicative settings, whether institutional (e.g. classrooms) or not (e.g. peer interaction). What emerges from most of the data analyzed is the centrality of laughter as a metapragmatic marker signaling the transition from not playful to playful exchanges. Such similarities between the studies enhancing the coherence of the volume could have been more ostensibly demonstrated by more cross-references between the chapters.

Terminological issues can also be revisited, as these studies suggest. Most (if not all) contributors seem to imply that the concepts of language play, linguistic creativity, and humor overlap to such an extent that it is not easy (if not impossible) to tell them apart. This is clearly attested, for instance, in the literature review of many chapters, where studies referring to language play, linguistic creativity, and humor are cited one next to the other. Such practices underline the similarities of the addressed phenomena and call for further research to confirm and elaborate on such similarities or potential differences. In addition, this terminological overlap and blurring could be addressed by more research oriented towards the perception of language play and related phenomena. As Carter (2007: 600) suggests, “[a] clear requirement now is to embrace not simply the producer but the receiver of creative processes and to shift the analytical attention towards greater assessment and appraisal of creative outputs” (see also Swann 2012: 53-38). Even if researchers do not detect significant differences between language play, linguistic creativity, and humor, ordinary speakers/recipients might do.

Finally, this is the first volume of a new series by De Gruyter Mouton entitled “Language play and creativity” meant to host more research along these lines. It seems that language play and related phenomena do increasingly attract scholarly attention, which in turn could hopefully shed more light on why, how, when, and where speakers prefer to play with language rather than not. This particular book is definitely an inspiration for further research and hence highly recommended to researchers interested in the wide area of language play, linguistic creativity, and humor, especially if they work in pragmatics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, and L2 learning and teaching.


Archakis, Argiris, Sofia Lampropoulou & Villy Tsakona. to appear. “I’m not racist but I expect linguistic assimilation”: The concealing power of humor in an anti-racist campaign. Discourse, Context and Media. (5 December, 2017.)

Bell, Nancy. 2012. Formulaic language, creativity, and language play in a second language. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 32. 189-205.

Carter, Ronald. 2004. Language and creativity: The art of common talk. Routledge: London.

Carter, Ronald. 2007. Response to special issue of Applied Linguistics devoted to ‘Language creativity in everyday contexts’. Applied Linguistics 28(4). 597-608.

Chomsky, Noam. 1980. Rules and representations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

De Beaugrande, Robert-Alain. 1979. Toward a general theory of creativity. Poetics 8(3). 269-306.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Halliday, Michael Alexander Kirkwood. 1976. Anti-languages. American Anthropologist 78(3). 570-584.

Jakobson, Roman. 1960. Closing statement: Linguistics and poetics. In Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Style in language, 350-377. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Jones, Rodney (ed.). 2012. Discourse and creativity. Harlow: Pearson.

Jones, Rodney (ed.). 2016. The Routledge handbook of language and creativity. London: Routledge.

Maybin, Janet & Joan Swann (eds.). 2006. The art of English: Everyday creativity. Basingstoke/Milton Keynes: Palgrave MacMillan, The Open University.

Maybin, Janet & Joan Swann. 2007. Everyday creativity in language: Textuality, contextuality, and critique. Applied Linguistics 28(4). 497-517.

Morreall, John. 2009. Comic relief: A comprehensive philosophy of humor. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Negus, Keith & Michael Pickering. 2004. Creativity, communication and cultural value. London: Sage.

Otsuji, Emi & Alastair Pennycook. 2010. Metrolingualism: Fixity, fluidity and language in flux. International Journal of Multilingualism 7(3). 240-254.

Swann, Joan. 2012. Creative interpretations: Discourse analysis and literary reading. In Rodney Jones (ed.), Discourse and creativity, 53-71. Harlow: Pearson.

Swann, Joan & Janet Maybin. 2007. Introduction: Linguistic creativity in everyday contexts. Applied Linguistics 28(4). 491-496.

Swann, Joan, Rob Pope & Ronald Carter (eds.). 2011. Creativity in language and literature: The state of the art. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Villy Tsakona is Assistant Professor of Social and Educational Approaches to Language in the Department of Early Childhood Education, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. Her research interests include humor research, narrative, political and media discourse analysis, as well literacy theories and applications. She has co-authored The Narrative Construction of Identities in Critical Education with Argiris Archakis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), authored The Sociolinguistics of Humor: Theory, Functions, and Teaching (Grigoris Publications, 2013; in Greek), and co-edited The Dynamics of Interactional Humor: Creating and Negotiating Humor in Everyday Encounters with Jan Chovanec (John Benjamins, 2018). Personal webpage:

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ISBN-13: 9781501511844
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