Books: A lifelong talent to abuse

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The Independent Culture
Language Play

by David Crystal

Penguin, pounds 7.99, 256pp

"ROUND AND round the garden", "A for 'orses, Beef or mutton", "Drinka pinta milka day", "There was a young girl of Majorca", "river run, past Eve and Adam's". All these, and many more, are language play; word games, if you will, of greater or lesser sophistication, baby-talk and riddles through to the sophisticated constructions of James Joyce. But every one is play: the ludic ("of or pertaining to undirected and spontaneous playful behaviour"; OED) aspect of language.

Like the sports section, the playful aspects of language usually end up at the back of the linguistic book. In this relatively short analysis (stripped of the many illuminating and amusing examples, it would make around half its length), Professor David Crystal, best known for his Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, has given it pride of place.

He is, among other things, editor of the Language Library, founded by the slang lexicographer Eric Partridge, and superficially this is very much a Partridge production. In this case, that means a discussion of word-related games, be they puns, crosswords, lipograms, comic alphabets, funny voices culled from dialect or popular culture, limericks, scat singing, the linguistic prestidigitation of the Goons and Monty Python, the "difficult" texts of Finnegans Wake or Georges Perec's e-less novel La Disparition, and much more. But Partridge was, in the end, an amateur, albeit of the most dedicated variety, and the professor is a serious linguist. The compendium of word-based humour is but the background for deeper considerations.

Games - whether schoolyard rituals, mind-twisting conundra, the boardgames of yesterday, the computer extravaganzas of today - operate, we have come to accept, on two levels. First comes the game itself, then the social interactions it masks. David Crystal is not so much interested in the "war without weapons" side of all this, but in its substantial importance as regards the growth of youthful literacy. If the first four chapters of offer what one can but term the playing field, the rest turn to the players themselves.

Word-based play, he suggests, is so endemic to cultural progress, so much a part of a child's development, that the extent to which it has been sidelined up to now is almost scandalous. Why hobble a child with the dreary constraints of John and Janet and their wretched monosyllabic round when that child has already begun to absorb a far more sophisticated take on language while lying across a doting parent's knee to hear the first of all word games ("Who's a pretty boy/sweet girl then"), and the nonsense chorus that underpins such mutual adoration? Just as they play with toys, children literally play with words.

By three they enjoy spontaneous rhyming, by four they have a vocabulary (thrillingly enhanced at school with a lexicon of "dirty words") of primitive insults. At five, nicknames arrive. At six, they appreciate jokes, riddles and move out on to an unbroken path of play that continues throughout life.

Why, Crystal asks, should the reading schemes, through which children inevitably proceed, deny them so much of this? Only in informal books do they get some of "what comes naturally". But "play" is "bad", and the conservative mindset, as ever, serves only to destroy.

This is hardly the first consideration of word games, but it transcends the traditional "wacky world of words" compilations. It's fun, undoubtedly, but like the games it celebrates, fun with a subtext. Without play there is, it would appear, no language. And without language ...