Language as Game: Chess et de Sausseure

There are certain sociological expectations accompanying the classification of one as a nerd.  I ‘ve never quite lived up to many of these expectations.  Never have I solved a Rubik’s Cube, or owned a pocket protector, or learned to speak in Klingon (Quenya is far more of a worthy pursuit…and perhaps it will be tackled whenever I get around to learning Old Welsh), or religiously followed Star Trek, or radically altered my computer.

In terms of games, my sudoku and crossword puzzle times are acceptable but not exceptional.  Boggle is more my style than Scrabble.  But, perhaps most uncharacteristically, I never became a master chess player (I can still be unpredictable enough at Stratego to be dangerous).

This is about where I level out in most games – I ‘ll surprise you if you are n’t careful, but if you play any single game enough that you know the rhythms of the games (memorize all the two letter words for Scrabble or the algorithms to the Rubik’s cube or memorize the cards played during a hand of Rummy).  In almost any game, I quickly learn to be serviceable – interpreting the flow generally comes naturally to me.  But I can’t say that any game in particular is my game.  Intuition fills in some of the gaps instinctively that a knowledge of the game’s algorithms, or strategies for winning within the framework of the rules, but it can only do so to a certain extent.


The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Sausseure (1857-1913) is known to have compared languages to chess.  While this was useful to illustrate several points about language, I mean only to consider the roles of ‘convention’ and ‘form’ as they relate to how the game is played.

Concerning the role of convention in language, we can easily see that whatever the manner in which one communicates could be achieved in another, perhaps equally effectual way.  We could amend the rules of chess, or institute ‘house rules’, so that the knight may not cross over another piece or the bishop may move from the dark square to the light following a successful en passante.  But we will only be playing the same game effectually when the conventions are agreed upon.  So too in the exercise of language, particular shades of meaning come to color certain phrases for classmates, teammates, co-workers, or fraternity members.  One best understands and is understood, i.e. plays the game well, when one operates according to the rules established by that community – its conventional way of doing things.  (This illustrates to some extent the manner in which language and culture mirror games – we are quick to notice both when one ‘plays’ exceptionally well and when another violates the established conventions.

In terms of chess, I take ‘form’ to be that which distinguishes one item from another.  Chess pieces may look very different, but their function will provide enough context to tell us what form they are taking.  I.e., if we see a piece moving only horizontally and vertically we may assume it to be a castle or rook.  If we know its initial position to have been on the corner of the board, we can confirm that, if general convention is being followed, it is in fact a rook.  I will repeat, the form tells us the function and the function expresses the form.  This role is determined, arbitrarily, according to convention (for it certainly could have been otherwise) but the piece will follow the expected rules if we are to be playing the same game.


What is most fascinating to me in this analogy though, is realizing that not all languages are playing the same game, for the forms and functions of language are established by conventions (and quite often, our way of thinking is ‘unconventional’ in another linguistic context).  Whereas the pawns set the landscape of the battlefield, the knights are then able to counter and flank while the bishops, queen, and rooks unleash deadly arrows from safe vantage points.  A good chess player knows how to attack and pressure effectively so that her opponent will defeat himself.

I suppose this brings up a potential weakness in the analogy.  While it serves many uses, I have made no mention of de Sausseure’s distinction between synchronic and diachronic ways of viewing linguistics, the purpose of chess is clearly to win.  Whatever sacrifices and calculated moves one must make to attain this goal, one is justified in doing so to achieve the win.  But the goal of language is, in most cases, not to win a battle on an even playing field.  Like a game, if one does not play according to convention, i.e. misuses the available forms, he will not achieve his aims.  But in language, the goal is mutual.  One cannot ‘communicate’without the other playing at an adequate level.

Further, language is always shifting so long as the language is ‘alive’ (i.e. so long as there are communicators).  While certain conventions are more strongly enforced than others (as some are more central to the cultural viewpoint expressed by the linguistic system), we can certainly see that the rules are in a state of flux.  ‘Google’ is now a verb, for instance.  When was that vote?  If one insists on playing the language game as it existed at one particular point in time, she will be able to communicate with fewer and fewer people as time progresses.

With this awareness of the natural flux in language, we can understand why John Lyons insists that the only way to determine whether one ‘knows’ the language is to find if she “is capable of constructing new utterances which are recognized as normal and can be understood by other speakers of the language. (John Lyons, Introductionto Theoretical Linguistics, 1971, Cambridge: p. 36)”  The measure of fluency, then, is when one can communicate new thoughts in line with conventions independently.  That is, the person who has mastered the language has internalized enough of the forms and functions of the linguistic community that her voice would be recognizable.  Likewise, we measure the mastery of a chess player by the wisdom with which he functions as dictated by the available forms.  But the nature of the chess board is essentially static – if we change the rules it is n’t chess, and mastery is displayed not by independently thinking conventionally but by who you bested and how often.


3 responses to “Language as Game: Chess et de Sausseure

  1. Very intriguing piece, Josiah. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Sausseure but maybe I should return to him. I’m currently taking a Composition/Rhetoric grad class (and feeling very out of place since we’re not analyzing literature) and I’m building a course which will discuss and introduce ‘discourse’ communities to freshmen students, something you describe when you say, “So too in the exercise of language, particular shades of meaning come to color certain phrases for classmates, teammates, co-workers, or fraternity members. One best understands and is understood, i.e. plays the game well, when one operates according to the rules established by that community – its conventional way of doing things.” Basically this is a discourse community in a nutshell – a group of people who’ve agreed on certain conventions of communication and ‘ways of doing things.’ I’m going to be explaining it to them using visuals – hats that represent different communities: working class, upper class, academy, etc. Would love any input on this because I will need to be careful to avoid stereotyping (although my professor said that’s nearly impossible – it’s something the students can discuss and point out). Any suggestions ?

    Lots of food for thought here! Thanks! Are you currently studying Linguistics?

  2. I’m currently reading John Lyon’s ‘Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics’. My work and future study both will require further work in languages (survival Mandarin, possibly survival Korean later, more hopefully a firm base in Arabic, then reading proficiencies in Arabic, Farsi, German, and French). I’m tempted to consider a degree in Linguistics – if I can’t initially get into the program I want (some particular aspect focused on al-Ghazali, the Medieval Islamic Philosopher mentioned in the previous post), a degree in Linguistics is really intriguing.

    So, this is my response (rather stream of consciousness) to Lyon’s synopsis of Sausseure in the early chapters. It’s also colored by my own experiences of studying languages (mostly for the sake of reading and interpreting), a course in Anglo-American Postmodernity which looked at language games, and my preparations for ESL teaching. Bringing those experiences together in the context of games seemed a good connecting point so long as the purpose of the game is understood critically (does one language play baseball while another is akin to football or basketball – chess is, by the conventions which define it, distinct from checkers, etc.).

    It would seem then that you’re hoping to introduce your students to the roles inherent in that sub-society? Here’s a thought (at least it’s true for ESL) – see if you can move past illustrating by visuals to having the students participate in the roles. In this way they will demonstrate to you and to themselves whatever stereotypes color their approach to the subject at the start. I’ve tried explaining football or baseball to someone who doesn’t play before. It’s very difficult. One picks up the inherent logics more intuitively (although clumsily) when one plays. I wonder how you can help them not only look at this discourse community, but participate in it. Hmmm.

    I really like that you found some applications for these thoughts and could engage with them on this level – it’s almost like we’ve created a discourse community concerned with discourse communities, haha!

  3. Haha…very true indeed, Josiah! Since I’ve learned the vocabulary word (discourse community) I’ve used it in so many of my day-to-day interactions and observations (I think my husband is getting quite tired of hearing it).

    I think that’s a great idea to have them act out the roles instead of ‘giving’ them the roles/conventions/stereotypes; they can try to understand the different communities by acting them out – yes, a method often used for ESL students (I’ve only dappled in that for a little bit). Thanks for your suggestion and keep up the great posts!

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