The Art of English: Researching and Teaching Linguistic Creativity: Joan Swann Discusses Recent Research into Language and Creativity, and Examines Some of the Ways in Which Teaching Everyday and Literary Creativity Can Bring the Study of Language and Literature Together

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Language and creativity

In February 2007, English Drama Media carried an article by Ronald Carter on the creativity of everyday speech. Carter's argument was that everyday spoken interaction includes linguistic devices more commonly associated with literary language. Wordplay, figures of speech, repetition and echoing of words and phrases abound in everyday discourse. This has led Carter (2004:3) to claim that 'creativity, far from being simply a property of exceptional people, is an exceptional property of all people.'

Carter's work is part of a trend in English studies towards recognising the literary-like properties of everyday speech and writing. Other influential work includes Guy Cook's study of language play, and its implications for language learning (Cook, 2000) and Deborah Tannen's earlier study of repetition, dialogue and imagery in conversation (Tannen, 1989). Such work poses significant challenges to conventional views of language and literature, and also has implications for the teaching of English at school and HE level.

At the Open University we have been seeking to develop and extend some of these ideas, both in our English language curriculum and in research. Below I give some examples from an OU course, The art of English. First, though, some research, including work that developed from this course and that continues to inform our teaching.

Researching language and creativity

Studies of creativity in everyday language don't suggest that this is identical to that found in literary language. They do, however, claim that there is some continuity between everyday and literary creativity. There are two broad ways in which this may be framed: first, by reviewing all language use as creative; and, second, by retaining a focus on creative language that is in some way special or distinctive, but seeing this nevertheless as common in everyday discourse. These are not inconsistent with one another, but they have different emphases.

1) All language use as creative

The more general, theoretical framing of all language use as creative is evident in contemporary research in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics that would see language users as constantly refashioning or remaking communicative resources, rather than as reproducing static rules of language use.

An example would be Gunther Kress's work on new communications media. Kress (1998, 2003) has developed the concept of 'design' to account for the integration of different modes in the production and interpretation of texts. For Kress, design necessarily involves transformation, however slight, and creativity in this sense is therefore ordinary, or normal: 'it is the everyday process of semiotic work as making meaning' (2003: 40). While Kress is referring here to the integration of, say, verbal language alongside visual imagery in the production of electronic texts, the concept can in principle be applied to any instance of language use.

2) Distinctive uses of creativity in everyday language In some recent work I've carried out with an OU colleague, Janet Maybin, our focus was on the second conception of linguistic creativity as, in various ways, distinctive. Examples of creativity in this sense would include conversational punning and other forms of wordplay, as in the following example of an interaction in a park when a family (speakers A, B, C and D) were throwing picnic scraps to pigeons. They discussed a somewhat bedraggled pigeon who had driven away another bird:

A He might look scruffy but he's seen off that one over there

B Obviously a thug amongst pigeons

C Al Capigeon

D The godfeather

Laughter overlaps C & D

The play with language form in this extract--a blend of pigeon and Al Capone, and a near pun based on the godfather--constitutes a brief linguistic display, greeted by laughter from the audience. It's an example of 'poetic language', in the sense in which the term is used by Roman Jakobson--an episode in which language draws attention to itself: linguistic choices are motivated not simply in terms of sense-making, but to provide a 'focus on the message for its own sake' (Jakobson 1960: 356). …