Language at Play

There is nothing quite as extraordinary as language. No human endeavour could be achieved without it. But, it doesn´t always have to serve a productive purpose; we can play with it. In this way language always shows that it is more than just a communication tool, it is a living expression who we are, how we think, and, certainly, what makes us laugh!

We have an infinite amount of word games to play, we’ve turned them into board games (Scrabble and Taboo), television shows (Wheel of Fortune and Family Feud) and daily newspaper columns (crosswords and word searches). But beyond these everyday staples, we have a lot of even quirkier types of wordplay.

A palindrome is when a sentence reads the same both ways, such as “draw pupil´s lip upward” (luckily the sentence does not have to even make sense!). An anagram is made by reshuffling the letters in a word to form either another word or a sentence, hopefully giving something related to the original word, for example: Elvis à Lives.

Lipograms are an interesting one: They consist of writing a text, as long as you can make it, which excludes one or more letters of the alphabet. In 1969, French writer Georges Perec wrote an entire novel without the letter “E”, the most common letter of the alphabet in French. “La Disparition” (the Disappearance), as it is called, is built to clue the reader into the fact that something is missing. The plot itself follows a group of people searching for their missing friend – Anton Vowl. As the group draw nearer to solving the mystery, they risk death if they offend the unspoken rules of the text. They discuss the topic as “an incomplete circle, finished by a horizontal line” (the letter “e”), but it is up to the reader to make the final leap. Many of the initial book reviewers missed that the novel even was a lipogram.

But then Scottish novelist Gilbert Adair took it to the next level. Not only did he translate the book, but stuck to avoiding the letter “E”, which also happens to be the most common letter of the alphabet in English. The final result, “A Void”, received the Scott Moncrieff Prize in 1995, which is the highest award given every year for French to English translations.

Writers are famous for their wits (and their egos!). However, one competitive game of high witty writers have been playing for centuries does not involve verbose prose – but cunning brevity. The challenge is to write the shortest letter. The winner in this field is usually acknowledged as either the Roman orator Cicero, or the French author Victor Hugo. The first, when corresponding with a friend, received a letter saying “EO RUS” (I am going to the countryside). That friend felt a lot less clever when Cicero replied “I” (go). Hugo, when writing his editor about whether his flagship work, Les Misérables, had been successful, wrote “?”, to which his editor responded “!”. Both these anecdotes are probably apocryphal. We have not found any such letter bearing Cicero´s name, although his famous wit makes it easy to believe. The one about Hugo first appeared in “Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities” by William S. Walsh, published in 1892, thirty years after the publishing of Les Misérables, and has been repeated ever since. Nonetheless, the fact that authors enjoy engaging in this sort of restricted writing shows how much we love to play with our language, especially when we live off it.

Let´s not forget the oldest and most common type of wordplay: Riddles! A game where we try to find out what people are saying despite what they actually say. One of the most classical riddles occurs when Oedipus is walking to Thebes and on his way meets the Sphinx. It asked him its famous riddle: “What walks on four legs at dawn, two legs at noon and three legs at dusk?” Oedipus answers “Man”, after which the Sphinx, defeated, throws itself off a cliff, letting Oedipus through to the city. But, as far as we know, we are a bipedal species, so how does that answer even make sense? It does, but through wordplay: “Dawn”, “Noon” and “Dusk” refer to youth, adulthood and old age respectively, while the third leg in “three legs” is referring to a walking stick. Riddles are all about using language to offer a new perspective on things through the double meanings of words.

Our mother tongue language is as natural to us as breathing. Sometimes even more so, as we can forget to inhale when saying something, we consider very important. But the one thing you can´t do with breathing is play with it!

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