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English Language Essays - Language play in Literature

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1567 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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What is the role of language play in literature?

Language play, the use of words and language to create new and unusual meanings and correspondences, has long been used by authors to ensure that their words have an impact on readers. Poets, playwrights and novelists, both classic and contemporary, use language play to conjure the readers’ imagination without wordy descriptions or long explanations. Language play affords writers the opportunity to say more with less, evoking vivid imagery causing the reader to feel the action, rather than simply reading words on a page.

“Literary language is different from everyday language because it draws attention to some property of the language itself, and highlights or foregrounds it. This foregrounding surprises the reader into a fresh perception and appreciation of the subject matter.” (Jeffries, 1996, p. 163)

There are many different type of foregrounding used by authors, most of which are also considered to be types of language play. Out of the tradition of language play comes the phrase “to play on words” which usually refers to the most basic form of language play, punning. But this phrase can also be taken in this context to refer to other types of language play including: metaphors, similes, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, and many other more technical forms of language play.

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Many authors use language play to create their own distinct style, not only setting their words and ideas apart, but also themselves as writers. These authors have used language play to break literary conventions and create their own literary trademarks. One of the most notable authors known to persistently use language play in their literature is William Shakespeare, who broke conventions of subject matter and language use far before his time.

Shakespeare’s use of language play has ensured that his plays remain relevant to this day, while the works of his contemporaries often appear dated or irrelevant today. Shakespeare instilled timelessness in his works by using numerous language play conventions to create visual pictures for his readers and audiences.

He mixed the use of poetry and prose in his plays to mark changes in the narrative, notably the movement from conversation to soliloquies. This use of language play is effective both when reading the texts and listening to the words aloud. As text the movement from prose to poetry has a distinctly different look on the page, just as the rhythm of speech changes when read aloud. In his poetry he often uses rhyme, alliteration (the repetition of consonants), assonance (the repetition of vowels) and onomatopoeia (words that sound like the things or actions they describe, such as, pop) to create a distinct, memorable rhythm within the text. This use of language play within the text also creates text which is notably easier for actors to recite and remember.

But probably the most notable language play convention used by Shakespeare is punning, which he used to great effect both in his tragedies and comedies. “Shakespeare was a dedicated punster, not only for comic but also tragic purpose…. An example is Hamlet’s cry:
Is thy union here?
Hamlet, v. iii. 340)

When he realises that his mother has drunk the wine laced with a poisoned pearl (a union) by the man she has joined in union or marriage, thus bringing about her union with death. Here a pun compresses meanings and emotions in a powerful and poignant manner. (Cook, 1996, p. 220–221).

Shakespeare also used punning for comedic purposes in his comedies and romances. There are numerous examples of banter in Shakespeare’s comedies. These banters often not only serve a comedic purpose but also move to develop characters or shed insight on to the plot. In Twelfth Night the fool or clown character, Feste, appears by the end of the play to be the most intelligent and insightful character, and as a result he is loved and respected by all.

FESTE                   Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?

OLIVIA                 Good Fool, for my brother’s death.

FESTE                   I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

OLIVIA                 I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

FESTE                   The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul,

                               being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

(Shakespeare, Act. 1 Scene 5)

In this passage Shakespeare uses word frequency to focus the readers attention on the role of Feste as the fool. The effect of word frequency is that as words are repeated they gain a greater effect upon the reader, (Graddol, et. al. 1994, p. 227-228). As the word fool is repeated throughout the passage, and throughout the play, it focuses the readers attention to the irony in that the one character that can see everything that is going on within the complicated play if Feste, the fool. At the beginning of scene five Olivia calls for Feste to be taken away because she does not understand what he is trying to say, he then proves himself to be more sound of mind then she, the true Shakespearean fool.

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“People’s understanding of texts not only depend on a general knowledge of the world, but also involve strategies of comprehension which are not peculiar to language (Graddol, et. al. 1994, p. 218). In this sense authors often depend on reader’s knowledge, assumptions and opinions to gain the reactions they desire from their readers. Thus, in Twelfth Night even though Feste is referred to as the fool the audience soon learns to listen to him for insight into the story.

Just as Shakespeare uses language play to enrich his plays and ensure their timelessness, similarly, Gabriel Garcia Marquez infuses his works with evocations of the magical and surreal, while remaining within the classification of literary fiction, rather than crossing the boundary into science fiction, although many of his story-lines could easily be classified as science fiction or fantasy. Marquez uses unusual metaphors to create a unique world where, often, the past present and future coincide, yet Marquez presents his narratives in such a visual and powerful fashion, that they not do not appear strange.

‘Through the window he contemplated the sea grown drowsy in the ennui of four o’clock, and realised with a heavy heart the swallows had returned,’ (Marquez, 1995, p. 20). In this passage Marquez uses language play in a number of ways. Firstly he uses the reader’s assumptions of what certain words should mean and which other words they should be grouped with, these assumptions are referred to as schemas and frames (Graddol, et. al., 1994, p. 216-8).

Furthermore he uses collocation (Jeffries, 1996, p. 169), which is linked to the idea of schemas and frames, using the idea of grouping unusual words to create an impact upon the reader. In his description of the “sea grown drowsy” Marquez uses the idea that most readers would see the sea as unruly and goes against that by describing it as drowsy, creating a sense of melancholy with only a few words. He also uses the readers understanding of the phrases “heavy heart” and “swallows returning” to express the idea of sadness in time passing. Without saying that time has passed the use of the phrase “the swallows had returned” indicates to the reader that it is now spring and the character in question is unhappy about it.

Both authors manage to resist being pigeonholed by using language play to paint vivid dynamic pictures in the reader’s imagination. They depend on the reader to fill in the details of what they are describing, and in doing so avoiding the need to describe details which could confine them to a specific period or genre of literature.

If there were no language play, there would be no literature because there would be only one way of saying any one thing. Language play affords authors the ability to personalise their thoughts, and those of their characters, creating dynamic narratives. Much of literature is referential, but without the use of language play we would merely have repetition rather than reference. “No text is produced which is not in some way affected by texts, both spoken and written, literary and non-literary, that have gone before it’ (Jeffries, 1996, p. 181). It is their use of language rather than their ideas, which set authors apart from one another.


Cook, G. “Language play in English” (pp. 198-227). In: Maybin, J. and Mercer, N. (1996). Using English: From conversation to canon. London: Routledge.

Graddol, D., Cheshire, J. & Swann, J. (1994). Describing Language. “7.4: Written Language.” (pp. 214-234). Buckingham Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Jeffries, L. “What makes English into art?” (pp. 162-184). In: Maybin, J. and Mercer, N. (1996). Using English: From conversation to canon. London: Routledge.

Marquez, G.G. (1995) Of Love and other Demons (translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman). Toronto: Knopf Canada.

Shakespeare, W. Twelfth Night. Act 1, Scene 5. In: http://www.shakespeare-literature.com/Twelfth_Night/5.html


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