Language-Games and the Fluidity of Meaning If some burly, impatient builder were

If some burly, impatient builder were to shout 'Slab!' at a construction site, and subsequently stare in my direction, what is my reaction to be' As his stare transforms to a glare, his eyes becoming more savage by the second, I begin to feel rather ill at ease. What meaning am I to extract from this single word statement' Am I to ponder the nature of the object just uttered' Am I to shout something equally arbitrary back in his direction' Or am I to fetch this object post-haste'

As anyone familiar with the 'language-game' of a construction site might tell me: surely the latter, if I don't want to be thrown from the side of the scaffolding.

The term 'language-game' was coined by the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) to refer to the idioms adopted by and peculiar to any given social grouping or 'form of life' (in the above example, the builders would constitute a specific 'form of life'). There are many different types of language-games, and people who 'play' one language game usually partake in many others; a man may belong to a literary circle, for instance, which houses its own specific terminology; he may also be a father, who makes nonsensical noises to his newly born child; he may be a football fan, familiar with all the slang associated with such an area.

Whatever the language-game, one thing is held in common: they must all presuppose, as a foundation, some prior linguistic framework which renders possible, and thus governs, their operations. In other words, there is more to a language-game than meets the eye (or ear, in this case); there are always unconscious or tacit dynamics at work, which then influence how people speak, rather than what they speak. When the above builder shouted 'Slab!', he did not simultaneously utter 'Bring me a slab!', though from within this particular social context or 'form of life', this is undoubtedly what the abbreviated version means to convey. Now, here comes the crux of the matter: how would somebody utterly unfamiliar with such a language-game proceed in 'catching-on' to its practical application'

The answer is simple, but sometimes not considered very re-assuring: the only remedy for lack of familiarity is, of course, familiarity itself. If somebody unacquainted with 21st century 'sms' culture received a text-message on their brand new mobile phone, saying 'u up2 neting l8r' wb asap', bewilderment may ensue, as it is a 'form of life' foreign to them. What are they to make of such mysterious symbolism' What could this stream of apparent nonsense mean' Well, the only way to gain insight into the matter would be to conduct a first-hand investigation. Replying to the text with 'I haven't clue what you just said' would be a good start. Sooner or later, with sufficient persistence, initiation into the secrets of this particular language-game will have been achieved.

It is evident that language is something which constantly evolves. As Wittgenstein says: 'ask yourself whether our language is complete; - whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated into it'. New 'suburbs' of language are constantly sprawling forth, and this has considerable ramifications for those whose job it is to teach language itself.

The teacher must be constantly aware that meaning is something fluid, something which transforms, evolves, in accordance with varying usage. A man shouting the word 'Slab!' on a building site expects a specific reaction; in a different scenario (say, at a football match), he would not, perhaps, be thus justified. Meaning is not something set in stone, forever fixed, and the language teacher, therefore, must always maintain an appreciation for this fact. For one who wishes to communicate sound meaning to his/her students, it is often necessary, as the French philosopher Henri Bergson once put it, to look 'beneath and behind the word.' It is only a teacher who possesses such a faculty that can truly impart the secrets of a 'language-game' to his/her students.


-Baghramian, Maria (editor): Modern Philosophy Of Language (J. M. Dent Publishers, London, 1998)

-Bergson, Henri: Key Writings (Continuum Press, New York, 2002)

-Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Philosophical Investigations (Basil Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1984)

-Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (Routledge Press, New York, 2004)