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.

Misreading Literally, the Best Language Book Ever – I

Paul…Paul, Paul, Paul… I really do n’t think you understand what constitutes an adverb – at least, not on this occasion.  Your description: “In a basic sense, adverbs are words that answer the questions How?, When?, Where?, How much?, Why?, and to What extent? (Yeager, Best Language Book: p. 3)”  Yes, an adverb will usually answer such questions, but the core understanding of adverbs is that they modify verbs or other modifiers (adjectives and other adverbs).  I ‘m honing in on how what they do distinguishes them.

You take this to mean that ‘firstly’, ‘secondly’, and ‘lastly’ are poor form.  You may not like the sound of it, but your argument that ‘first’, ‘second’, and ‘last’ are adverbs is a bit unsound (to your credit, the likes of ‘Grammar Girl’ agrees with you).  In sequencing, I can nearly agree with your point; it ‘s superfluous and I ‘d be unlikely to use them in such a context.  Her argument, however, diverges from yours in that she sees ‘First’ at the beginning of a sequence referring to ‘the first point is’ ,in which case, we are dealing with an adjective.

I know I ‘m sifting too finely…but so are you.  It should be easy to recognize that ‘first’ and its counterparts function primarily as adjectives, but may be used as adverbs also without the need to add -ly.  I would much rather see you criticizing errors concerning function – you are n’t displaying much imagination in this aspect.

Finally, or the final point is, both you and Grammar girl bemoan where ‘common parlance supercedes proper usage’ as though written grammar is primary and spoken is derivative.  Again, language serves communication – communication may be constrained by linguistic norms, but grammar should serve us – not the other way around.  Your idea that common acceptance crystallizes errors is fair, but should n’t we primarily concern ourselves with that which blocks communication?

Misreading Literally, the Best Language Book Ever

Congratulations Paul Yeager for catching my eye with Literally, the Best Language Book Ever (Perigee, NY: 2008).  I have merely waded through the introduction to your humorous work.  I share your disdain for the trite and despise a certain subset of redundancies.  But before I give you any glowing marks, there ‘s a matter or two we should see to (I hope you are n’t one of those who think the split infinitive confuses communication in the slightest, or we ‘re going to have issues).

You bring up the verbifying of nouns with the examples of ‘tasking’ instead of ‘assigning a task’, ‘dialoguing’ instead of ‘having a dialogue’, and ‘transitioning’ instead of ‘making a transition’.  I ‘m nearly convinced that you think language is static and that there persists a right and wrong in lingual (or written) communication.  Are you well aware that language serves us, not we it?   Certainly there are better and worse normalcies in communication by means of language, but until all communicants die out any specific tongue will continue to change.  There is enough of a grand return that you should n’t be distressed — ‘breakfast’ is the nounified form of ‘to break (one’s) fast’ (and we still pay homage to this when we employ ‘breakfast’ as a verb).

Further, redundancies naturally creep into language.  Sure ‘completely finished’ and ‘absolutely essential’ are unnecessary – especially for those liberally applying Ockham’s razor.  You ‘re right to note that our speech has become overly dramatic (with the profusion of an absolute like ‘ever’), but I ‘m afraid here you ‘re picking one nit too many.  One might display mental laziness by choosing one’s words poorly (and so be passed over for promotions) – but we should more clearly define when errors are truly leading to communication distress.  So, let ‘s be a bit more careful what errors we spend energy pushing back against.

Let me finally agree that ‘I could care less’ is an unhelpful statement.  I do sincerely hope that those items you have chosen to pick at are actually helpful ones.  I must say I ‘m a bit put off at the beginning – shall we redeem what is left of your work?  Otherwise, I might take issue with your title selection.


*update: this is the only book both picked up and completely put aside in twenty-twelve.  I feel I ‘ve forgotten more useful concepts and insights than were available herein.  Of course, it ‘s difficult to keep up the false self-righteous reading for diatribe’s sake and this was a necessary casualty.  But am I the casualty of myself in this case? that is, am I merely exercising my own pretentiousness without stepping towards exorcism?