Tag Archives: language games

L is for Language-Games

‘Language-games’ is Wittgenstein’s much used, much abused, much debated term which tries to capture something about his view of how language works: as something rule-guided, something inherently social, and something particular to specific contexts and communities.

How big is a language-game?

Wittgenstein’s own list of examples, in section 23 of the Philosophical Investigations, tends towards the ‘small’ – each is, in itself, quite a minor use of language. For example, he suggests “Reporting an event”, “guessing riddles”, and “solving a problem in applied arithmetic” as examples of language-games in this list, which is designed to stress the variety of language-games. Notably, and relevant to my previous post on language, some of them are clearly ‘linguistic’ (“translating from one language into another”, for example) but others use mathematics or images, such as “presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams”.

Later writers have tended to think of larger language-games. In the field of religion, for example, there’s been a move from Wittgenstein’s list, which includes “praying” to regarding whole religions as language-games, speaking of the ‘Christian language-game’ or some such. I think this unhelpfully blurs the issue, and prefer to keep the term ‘language-game’ for smaller activities – praying, giving a sermon, writing a Quaker minute, and so forth – and use Lindbeck’s religion-as-language analogy to speak of whole religious traditions as languages. The natural language English encompasses, obviously, many thousands of possible language-games; the ‘language’ Christianity also includes a whole range of possible language-games. This helps to clarify that not every speaker of the language needs to play every language-game within it.

Are ‘games’ a good analogy for language uses?

In the introduction to this post, I listed some of the reasons why we might compare the use of language with the playing of a game. Language uses, like games, have rules. Language uses, like games, have unacceptable and impermissible moves. Language uses, like games, need players, people to engage in them. Games are passed on in particular cultures and societies, and can be taught to others; games don’t have to make sense to people who aren’t playing them (or even, sometimes, the people who are).

The chief objection to the term language-games, apart from those who think that language doesn’t have one of the properties listed above, is that ‘games’ is a trivialising term. In particular, when a religion is called a language-game, people often read this as trivialising: “oh, it’s just a game.” “Don’t say that, religion is serious.”

Firstly, this is more likely to happen when the ‘language-game’ concept has been applied to something larger than in the original use of it. Secondly, anyone who knows a committed sports fan or player, or a keen video-gamer, can tell that games are not automatically trivial or unserious: a whole life can be very seriously bound up in the playing of a specific game. Thirdly, although I am happy to use other terms as well, ‘language uses’, ‘language practices’, ‘language patterns’ and so forth do not capture the full range of implications of the term ‘game’.

Which games are language-games most like?

Depends which language-game! Wittgenstein used the examples of simple board games and chess, among others; some scholars seem to default to team sports, such as football and cricket; because of the emphasis in some parts of the Philosophical Investigations on the role of language-games in learning a language, it might be natural to think of children’s games like Ring-a-Roses and Tag, or maybe role-playing games like Cops and Robbers or Doctors and Nurses, as a most obvious comparisons. I tend to use different examples depending which aspect of a language-game I want to bring out. When the rules seem complex, chess or Monopoly seem like fair comparisons. When the focus is on needing a community with whom to play, group games like Stuck-in-the-mud or bowling might be good analogies. Sometimes I wonder if there aren’t language-games which are actually more like Mornington Crescent, in which the actual rules and the rules as discussed within the game are completely different!


L is for Language

Language is, in some ways, central to everything I do. Writing a blog uses language, for starters (especially as, unlike some bloggers whose work I see regularly, I don’t usually post photographs or videos). Writing articles, giving conference papers, and running workshops all uses language. Even my hobbies – poetry, sci-fi and fantasy, watching TV – tend to use language. Some parts which apparently don’t – the images in a film or TV show – often do use levels of symbolism which can be analysed using the tools of textual analysis.

When people hear the word ‘language’, I think they usually imagine words first, perhaps body language second, and other forms of language, such as signs and diagrams, later on. That doesn’t change the fact that you have to be able to ‘speak’ ‘diagram’ in order to make sense of the ‘intuitive’, but profoundly non-naturalistic, London Underground map, let alone a circuit diagram. In a broad understanding of language, I think these skills should be included.

This has important implications for my consideration of religious language. ‘Religious language’ as a category can include many things:

  • Any language which people use in religious contexts – all of a sermon, the whole of a hymn, even (perhaps) the things we say over tea and biscuits after a service or during a church-related house group. This might include the jargon of the religion – the abbreviations referring to parts of the organisation’s structure, for example.
  • Language about specifically religious topics: about any Deity or Divinity, for example, or about heaven, hell, salvation, enlightenment, cosmology, and other topics regarded as the sole, or main, preserve of religion.
  • Religion as a language – as in ‘learning to speak Christian’ or ‘speaking fluent Quaker’. This is a quite different view, and one which opens up non-verbal parts of the religion to be seen as part of the ‘religious language’: the movements used during prayer, the visual imagery, the narratives which are enacted as well as told.

At one time, I tried to use ‘religious language’ as a synonym for ‘language about God/Spirit/the Divine’ because I was trying to avoid settling on any single term in that list, or offering a list myself. It didn’t really work, because people tended to default to broader interpretations – they expected me to talk about the language of liturgy and prayer, of Meetings for Worship for Business and discussions about current issues. All of those things are fascinating, and some of my work has attended to them, but ‘talking or not talking about God or whatever you call it‘ is actually a much more specific activity. It might even be its own language-game, depending how tightly you want to use that phrase. (Needless to say, Wittgenstein had a couple of different uses and later scholars have developed more, usually tending to broaden it.) Among Quakers, ‘writing about God’ is certainly a language-game in the sense that it has identifiable, if usually unspoken, rules which are followed in all but exceptional circumstances.

G is for Grammar

“Theology as grammar.”

Wittgenstein suggests this, parenthetically, in the Philosophical Investigations S373. In Wittgenstein’s work, grammar is a big thing: he asks us to distinguish between the surface grammar of a remark – perhaps we could say the linguistic grammar, or the rules governing the way a word can be used in language – and the depth grammar, the way in which a word can coherently be used. Getting at this difference is difficult, but perhaps it helps to think of Mad Libs, a game where words are replaced according to their surface grammar. “The cat sat in the tree” makes sense and “the cat sat in the joy” does not, even though both ‘tree’ and ‘joy’ are nouns, because the deeper grammar of ‘joy’ (not least that it is abstract) dictates that it’s not something cats can sit in.

The idea that theology or doctrine might be regarded as the grammar of religion, the part which tells you which new sentences are acceptable and which are not, was taken up by Lindbeck as part of his broader religion as language analogy (for more on this, see my post about fluency). In particular, I talk in that post about the idea that fluent speakers of a language or a religion will be able to detect grammatical errors instinctively, rather than rationally.

It’s worth remembering here that, despite the impression sometimes given by English teachers and people who sell books about grammar, grammar in language is something which evolves over time, which is flexible and creative, and which varies according to context, rather than a set of absolute rules. In particular, grammar arises from language which is spoken and written, it doesn’t spring into life as a fully formed rule-set. This is especially obvious where subcommunities develop their own grammar; for a recent and light-hearted example, read Anil Dash’s post on the grammar of Lolcats, Cats Can Has Grammar. (Or should that be ‘haz grammar’?) In religion, too, then, we expect there to be books which record the grammar at a particular time, and for there to be some consistency through time as well as some change, but the real judges of correct grammar are the fluent speakers and not the books.

In a recent post called Quakerism as a Second Language, Craig Barnett compares the position of Quakerism today with minority languages, such as Welsh, which need both active support and a continuing process of creating new and relevant ways of speaking. In some ways, the portrait he offers of Quakerism sounds more like a dead language, like Cornish, being revived from books in the absence of fluent speakers. I don’t think this is actually the situation, and to extend the picture I would add to Craig’s list of useful resources for learning the Quaker way. Specifically, I would add that other Quakers and conversations with them are a powerful part of any attempt to learning the living tradition.

In order to learn a language, there comes a point at which it is necessary to practice producing it for oneself. I do think that this needs to be supported by explicit teaching of grammar (one of the things which was missing from my school experience of learning languages, and which I have found most rewarding in studying Biblical languages and conlangs), and an encouragement to listen and read and go on listening and reading (for longer than might seem necessary; many people, including myself, can’t accurately repeat back a word or phrase having heard it only once or twice). However, eventually a learner needs a space in which they can try out what they are learning, safely make mistakes, and be corrected. Especially in recent years, I have been lucky to have these spaces among Quakers, with family, friends, and Friends who are willing to engage in these conversations. How can we provide them more generally?

G is for Games

Games, especially the idea that the ways we speak can be regarded as language games, are key to many of the ideas in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

How would we explain to someone what a game is? I think that we’d describe games to him, and we might add to the description: “This and similar things are called ‘games’.” And do we know any more ourselves? Is it just that we can’t tell others exactly what a game is? – But this is not ignorance. We don’t know the boundaries because none have been drawn. (Philosophical Investigations, trans. Anscombe, Hacker and Schulte, 4th Ed, 2009, S69 – n.b., Wittgenstein wrote in sections so references are to these rather than to pages.)

Do we know what a game is? We can use the word correctly; we know one when we see it; we can describe some general features shared by most, but not all, games. For example, it’s important to our understanding of language games that they are guided by rules, although not everything we would call a game has rules (Mornington Crescent!). A lot of people are led by the term ‘language game’ to assume that our language games are somehow trivial, for fun or for children – but plenty of games involve real work and large amounts of real money (all professional sports, for example, and all games of chance where there’s a house that can, and will, win). Similarly, not all games are entertaining, not all games have winners and losers, and so forth. (Wittgenstein discusses this in S66.) In fact, using the word ‘game’ is itself a language game – to convey the meaning of it, “one gives examples and intends them to be taken in a particular way”, which is “not an indirect way of explaining, in default of a better one” because “any general explanation may be misunderstood too”. Rather, giving examples to demonstrate what we mean by a word “is how we play the game. (I mean the language-game with the word “game”.)” (S71)

So what is a language game? It’s a game we play with words. In S23, Wittgenstein gives a list of examples. They’re all quite small (sometimes it’s tempting to call, for example, a whole religion ‘a language game’, but that’s clearly not Wittgenstein’s use). They are very varied. Here are the first few.

Giving orders, and acting on them –
Describing an object by its appearance, or by its measurements –
Constructing an object from a description (a drawing) –
Reporting an event –
Speculating about the event –
Forming and testing a hypothesis –

Several of these involve things which we might not usually think of as being part of language. Measurements, for example, are sometimes taken to be numbers rather than words and hence external to language, although I think it’s clear on reflection that scales of measurement are agreed within communities in the same way that the uses of other words are agreed (agreed, that is, and debated – should we use inches or centimetres? should we reclaim the term ‘queer’?). Drawings and diagrams might also be thought of as non-verbal and hence outside language. I think that even drawings follow a set of rules for interpretation – they don’t use words, but they do function in the community in the ways that language does. (Compare the mysterious geometric shapes found in some cave paintings with a circuit diagram. You need the community rules around the use of images in order to understand them.)

In general, language games can involve only a few people, and they are quite specific. They can be creative, entertaining, or serious, or mundane. Wittgenstein’s list finishes with:

Guessing riddles –
Cracking a joke; telling one –
Solving a problem in applied arithmetic –
Translating from one language into another –
Requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

(Obviously that last one is especially of interest to those who want to know how language games might figure in our understanding of religion.) Overall, Wittgenstein’s point is to emphasise the diversity of things for which language is used, however. This is a broad view of language, and it challenges much of what had been said about language by previous philosophers, including Wittgenstein himself. He goes on to say:

It is interesting to compare the diversity of the tools of language and of the ways they are used… with what logicians have said about the structure of language.

This is a caution to Wittgenstein himself – part of his motivation for revisiting issues in philosophy of language from a very different perspective – but also a worthwhile reminder to all of us. If we have a theory about language, does it take into account all this diversity? If we think we know what ‘a language game’ is, have we considered all the possibilities? Just like the category ‘games’, which turned out to include all sorts of mostly unconnected activities, ‘language games’ are diverse and it is easy to underestimate their complexity.