Language Games in Seinfield

From "How Seinfeld Made Something Out of Nothing" by Colin Dray in What Culture! (6 May 2013).


Wittgenstein, a philosopher concerned throughout his life with the way in which language functioned, came to see human communication as an endlessly expanding, continuously fluctuating organism governed by use – by grammar. In his second major work, Philosophical Investigations, he described language like a city, constantly expanding, being built upon, renovated and remade:

‘Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.’**

Whenever new terminologies are introduced (scientific and medical terms, new forms of technology, slang and definitions) our language – like a city – grows and adapts to make room for these words, and their new applications. But we have to know these terms and their meaning; see them applied, to learnthe grammar of their usage.

Otherwise, as Wittgenstein notes, we are so alienated from this grammar that we will fail to understand what is being said. As he observes later in the book in one of his most famous statements:

‘If I lion could talk, we could not understand him.’***

What Wittgenstein is essentially saying here – using the example of a beast given the power of speech – is that language requires more than just knowing the definitions of a list of words. It’s about being attuned to their context, to the subtleties of their use. In the case of the lion – magically granted the power of human speech or not – his grammar, his frames of reference (or in Wittgenstein’s terms, his ‘forms of life’), would nonetheless remain so alien, so divorced from our own experience, that we would still be unable to comprehend one another anyway.

It would, on a much smaller scale, be like getting dropped into the middle of a Seinfeld episode, suddenly witness, with no establishing perspective, to a bunch of people jabbering about ‘Mimbos’, ‘shrinkage’ and being ‘anti-dentite.’ Without the necessary back story, we would, like the lion, suddenly have no idea what these words meant – recognising their sounds, but oblivious to their unnatural applications, seemingly locked behind an abstracted code.

Wittgenstein therefore came to argue that the only means to explore the way in which language makes meaning was to examine its grammar – to look at how language is being applied at the very moment of its use, in localised examinations of speech that he called ‘language-games’. One such example of these games was an examination of various uses of the word ‘blue’. After all, the word ‘blue’ could be an adjective, a noun; it could be one of (or all of) a series of colours; even a state of mind:

‘Is this blue the same as the blue over there?  Do you see any difference?’–

You are mixing paint and you say ‘It’s hard to get the blue out of this sky.’

‘It’s turning fine, you can already see blue sky again.’

‘Look at what different effects these two blues have.’

‘Do you see the blue book over there? Bring it here.’

‘This blue signal-light means . . . .’

‘What’s this blue called? – Is it “indigo”?’****

‘Blue’, Wittgenstein reveals, is not simply a label applied to a physical or conceptual object. It can have a myriad of meanings in a multitude of circumstances, all defined by its grammar and discerned by language-users familiar with these uses effortlessly in the moment of its utterance.

And it is precisely these kinds of explorations of language that are undertaken in every episode of Seinfeld, as each week we watch these characters explore – through the myriad potential for meaning that they can engender in their discussions – their own linguistic suburb in the city of language.

Indeed, it helps explain why the show has created such a wide and ubiquitous lexicon. From ‘Yadda-yadda-yadda’, to putting something ‘in the vault’, to ‘re-gifting’, to ‘close-talkers’, ‘high-talkers’, and ‘low-talkers’, Seinfeld has arguably contributed more definitions and turns of phrase to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare.

And the reason that these definitions catch on – when other programs that try to mimic this style fail – is because Seinfeld scripts do not simply label some social phenomenon and expect the viewer to look on with a distanced, wry smile – they play it out, exhibit how applicable it is for its given circumstance. The show’s stories build their momentum by rolling around a premise and allowing its validity or otherwise be tested through application. The characters tease out its possibilities, with the viewer themself drawn into this conceptual exploration, invited to participate in the interrogation of social norms and pondering the foibles of human behaviour.