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Wednesday, 18 May 2011


In Reservation Blues (1996) the second novel from popular Native American writer Sherman Alexie, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the stories central protagonist, has a curious and somewhat bemusing preponderance for performing stories and songs in every (and for every) situation that arises as a way to reflect and recapitulate his day-to-day tribulations. Although Alexie uses the character to make reference to (and gently send up) the traditional notion of narrative and rhyme as a healing art in Native American culture, it raises interesting questions about the inclination of all humans to utilise language play (in this instance songs, stories and parables) as a fundamental part of their conversational strategies.
Indeed as I began to read Guy Cooke’sWhy play with language’, it became clear that this tendency for language play is not merely the domain of artists (or medicine men for that matter) but the bread and butter of daily social interaction in many cultures regardless of age or background. Of course, as Cooke himself points out in the introduction (There’s a Bison down by the lake), some are often tempted to overlook this fact and conceive of language solely in mechanical terms; a device of information sharing and a means of ‘getting the job done’. Not content with this limited explanation Cooke’s wider suggestion is that our everyday manipulation of words and our endless appreciation of forms that display it, may go so far as to change the way in which we see the world, allowing connections and juxtapositions otherwise unavailable in standard discourse.  An interesting assertion and one for which he offers some tantalising evidence.

The language play of Children

Citing children’s language play as an opening argument against the interpretation of language as solely information oriented, Cooke points out that if this was the case children would very early on put aside nonsensical rhymes and improbable stories once the early stages of acquiring their mother tongue had passed. However, as everyone knows, the opposite is in fact true; as children gain confidence in their newly acquired skills they create ever more complex methods of language play.
Cook identifies three main features of this play: it tends to be characterised by repetition, rhythm and rhymes, paying great attention to exact wording. Fictional worlds seem to play a large part in many children’s games, stories and activities, whether they be straight narratives or pretending to be someone else. Finally it has the effect of ‘bonding those who use it together and in doing so it necessarily excludes others’ (Cooke 2006). This raises an important point about group social function and one that is also taken up by Rukimini Bhaya Nair (2006) when she infers that stories tend to be tailored specifically to be inclusive of the receiving group (therefore excluding others outside the group).  By identifying these elements Cooke goes on to point out that we may recognise the prevalence of creative use in many areas of human activity and that manipulation of language for these purposes is common not only in the school yard.


Language play in the adult world

Regardless of the fact that many adults probably take themselves a bit more seriously than children, everyone could probably think of many examples within their personal lives, where they create and manipulate their words for the purpose of bonding or for expressing affection. Cooke quotes a variety of amusing examples from magazine and newspaper Valentine’s Day classifieds to prove his point but most people probably utilise (although they maybe reluctant to admit it) some form of made up language with their partners or children, a language where perhaps rhythm and rhyme take precedence over meaning and which gets sillier as it becomes more intimate. 
It’s also true that adults share a fondness for all types of creative language use. As Cooke states, and I’m sure to which anyone could attest, novels are the most popular category of books, popular songs are amongst the most highly rated musical recordings and cinema and TV have arguably never been bigger. These facts are hard to account for without acknowledging the intrinsic creativity of our day-to-day discourse. Furthermore these mediums allow us to partake in shared sense of group identity, enabling us to define ourselves in relation to what we like and don’t like and ‘when establishing relationships, making frequent reference to this shared experience and knowledge’ (Cooke 1996). Certainly researchers such as Neal R Norrick see recollection of joint experience ‘as building rapport and group identity’ (Toolan 2006): ‘retelling a particular story or type of story helps to coalesce group perspectives and values’ (Norrick 2006). Further clarification comes in Cooke’s investigation into some of the other ways in which these uses manifest themselves in more public situations.
          Having already referred to mediums such as television and popular songs, which are after all usually enjoyed in private or family environments, he gives another example of public use of adult language displaying elements found in children’s word play: advertising. Again, anyone who has ever found some clever witticism, memorable phrase or amusing pun playing ‘on a loop’ inside there head after being exposed to a TV or radio ad would no doubt agree with him when he states that ‘it is the form of the message, just as much as the meaning, that is crucial to the effect as a whole (Cooke 2006).
This ability to ‘get into your head’ can be seen to be shared by many other ‘adult forms’ from the relatively simple (and confrontational) football chant to the rather more complex (inasmuch as it relies upon a readers knowledge of the collocations of words) tabloid journalism. Whom after all, with their use of metaphorical meanings and paraphrases qualify them as purveyors of language play just as much as the serious writers, poets, song writers and of course, don’t forget the kids.
This point is a valid one because as Cooke rightly points out ‘radical differences in the status of participants and situations’ (Cooke 2006) can all too often obscure otherwise apparent similarities in form. Thus the poet is deemed an artist, the tabloid journalist a hack, the graffiti artist a public nuisance the composer of haikus a master of form. The point being that all of the above share the common features associated with creative language use, it is only the context that makes the difference. 

A final aspect of all creative language use mentioned in the Reading is its ability to contribute towards group formation, whether it be the familiar anecdotes that families or friends tell and retell or mass participation as a member of an audience at a concert or congregation at a prayer service. Through recitations, chants and co-operation in narrating stories and events, playful or inventive uses do much to ‘create a uniform world-view among those that are participating (Cooke 2006). However, although this may seem to lend credence to the argument that language is mechanical, the fact remains that immense pleasure is to be gained in these activities as they broaden our horizons and chip away at our notions and everyday ideas. It would seem that all of the uses described in the article go someway towards challenging conformist values!  



So what are we to make of this apparently irresistible urge to mess with the shapes and meaning of words? Other linguistic researchers such as Carter (1999) hint that ‘creativity or literariness may reside in certain formal properties of the language’ (inherency) or that the seeds of literariness are planted in much more mundane everyday speech (Swann 2006). It is certainly accurate to say that metaphors are an intrinsic property of language given that the human mind tends to ‘understand one thing in terms of another’ (Swann 2006). 
That may be the case but perhaps Cooks wider assertion is also true. Throughout the course of the article he does much to advance his argument that we appreciate successful language play because it demonstrates mastery of an essential human faculty (Cooke 2006), that is why we afford such high status to the musician’s, poet and writers who most vigorously demonstrate the art.
Others such as Toolan and Bhaya Nair maintain that creativity is not just the exclusive domain of the artist but something we all do everyday; the prevalence of linguistic play and apparent fondness for fictional worlds evident in activities as seemingly disparate as children’s playground games, television advertising and Valentine’s Day cards suggest that this activity is a core part of our nature and the means by which we adjust and adapt to our changing circumstances (Toolan 2006) and maintain or forge relationships. It all goes to prove that Thomas Builds-the-Fire is by no means alone when it comes to using creativity to cushion the day to day!


Alexie, S (1996) Reservation Blues, London, Minerva 

Cooke, G. (2006) ‘Why Play with Language’ in J. Maybin and J. Swann The Art of English: Everyday Creativity  Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan/ The Open University p38, p40, p40, p42, p43, p45

Bhaya Nair, R. (2006) ‘Implicature and Impliculture in the short, short story and the tall, tall tale in J. Maybin and J. Swann The Art of English: Everyday Creativity  Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan/ The Open University p97

Toolan, M. (2006) ‘Telling Stories’ in J. Maybin and J. Swann The Art of English: Everyday Creativity  Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan/ The Open University p65, p76

Norrick, NR. (2006) ‘Extracts from twice told tales; collaborative narration of familiar stories’ in J. Maybin and J. Swann The Art of English: Everyday Creativity  Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan/ The Open University p65

Swann, J. (2006) ‘The Art of the everyday’ in J. Maybin and J. Swann The Art of English: Everyday Creativity Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan/ The Open University p3, p10

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