Becoming a participant in discourses (aka language games)

Main Text  I  References  I  Comments


Guiding students through these subtle areas of language development is complex, and involves more than the teaching of specific language features (grammars, vocabularies, and structures). It involves initiating students into the ways of using language to perform different roles with language, whether in constructing knowledge, imaginative recreation or actively impacting the world and the people around them.

In general, discourse refers to the language forms used to communicate at any given moment in any given culture or any sphere of influence. Discourse refers to both oral and printed language activities and textual artefacts, including conversations, speeches, essays, letters, reports, dissertations, etc. Discourse forms exert a shaping force upon language and the use of language that is based upon the historical and social positions, uses and interpretations of language. Since discourses are social and historical, they flexible and influenced by the culture, ideas and uses of which it is part. 

Discourses play epistemological and ideological roles by containing implicit rules that determine what is and what is not permissible and meaningful in the communication act. Users must navigate through and negotiate these rules, which may not be accessible to all. As a result, a discourse study of literacy needs to focus upon how students and institutions come to select, become exposed to, value, engage with, interpret and develop the discourses (or ways of using language) encountered and advantaged in school as well as in local and broader social contexts.


Main text

“It is their particular and precise, living relation to the practical circumstances of their use that give our words their precise meaning in practice.” (Shotter, 1996, pg 3)

“I shall in the future again and again draw your attention to what I shall call language games. There are ways of using signs simpler than those in which we use the signs of our highly complicated everyday language ... If we want to study the problems of truth and falsehood, of the agreement and disagreement of propositions with reality, of the nature of assertion, assumption, and question, we shall with great advantage look at primitive forms of language in which these forms of thinking appear without the confusing background of highly complicated processes of thought.” (quoting Wittgenstein in Monk, 2005, p 69)

PI 23: Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a life-form.

  • Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:
  • Giving orders, and obeying them --
  • Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements --
  • Constructing an objection from a description (a drawing) --
  • Reporting an event --
  • Speculating about an event --  
  • Forming and testing a hypothesis --
  • Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams --
  • Making up a story; and reading it --
  • Play-acting --
  • Singing catches --
  • Guessing riddles --
  • Making a joke, telling it --
  • Solving a problem of practical arithmetic --
  • Translating from one language into another --
  • Requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

-- It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of tools in language and of the ways they are used, multiplicity of kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of language. (Including the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.)

“Following a rule, making a report, giving an order, and so on, are customs, uses, practices or institutions. They presuppose a human society, and our form of life.” (Phillips, 1977, p 36)

PI 2: That philosophical concept of meaning has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions. But one may also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.

Let us imagine a language for which the description by Augustine is right. The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “pillar”, “slab”, “beam”. A calls them out; -- B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. --- Conceive of this as a complete primitive language.

PI 7: In the practice of the use of language (2) one party calls out the words, the other acts on them. But in instruction in the language the following process will occur: the learner names the objects; that is, he utters the word when the teacher points to the stone. -- And there will be this still simpler exercise: the pupil repeats the words after the teacher --- both of these being processes resembling language. 

We can also think of the whole process of using words in (2) as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language. I will call these games “language-games” and will sometimes speak of a primitive language as a language-game.  And the processes of naming the stones and of repeating words after someone might also be called language-games. Think of much of the use of words in games like ring-a-ring-a-roses. I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and action into which it is woven, a “language game”.

PI 21: Imagine a language-game in which A asks and B reports the number of slabs or blocks in a pile, or the colours and shapes of the building-stones that are stacked in such-and-such a place.-- Such a report might run: “Five slabs”. Now what is the difference between the report or statement “Five slabs” and the order “Five slabs!”? -- Well, it is the part which uttering these words play in the language game. No doubt the tone of voice and the look with which they are uttered, and much else besides, will also be different. But we could also imagine the tone’s being the same -- for an order and a report can be spoken in a variety of tones of voice and with various expressions of face -- the difference only in the application. (Of course, we might use the words “statement” and “command” to stand for grammatical forms of sentence and intonations; we do in fact call “Isn’t the weather glorious today?” a question, although it is used a statement.)

PI 19: It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle. -- Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others. -- And to imagine a language means to imagine a life-form.

“When the boy or grown-up learns what one might call specific technical languages, e.g. the use of charts and diagrams, descriptive geometry, chemical symbolism, etc. he learns more language games. (Remark: The picture we have of the language of the grown-up is that of a nebulous mass of language, his mother tongue, surrounded by discrete and more or less clear-cut language games, the technical languages ... Here the term ‘language game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life ...” (Wittgenstein quoted in Phillips, 1977, pp 29 - 31)

“The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying, have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, specifying the location of pain, and so on), then is there some question left as to whether the pupil has to find warning, informing, amusing, promising, counting, beseeching, chastising, and so on themselves worth doing? If it is part of teaching to undertake to validate these measures of interest, then it would be quite as if teaching must, as it were, undertake to show a reason for speaking at all.” (Cavell, 2005, pg 115)

  • PI 595: It is natural for us to say a sentence in such-and-such surroundings, and unnatural to say it in isolation. Are we to say that there is a particular feeling accompanying the utterance of every sentence when we say naturally?
  • PI 581: An expectation is imbedded in a situation, from which it arises. The expectation of an explosion may, for example, arise from a situation in which an explosion is to be expected.
  • Z 218: I interpret words; yes - but do I also interpret looks? Do interpret facial expressions as threatening or kind? -- That may happen.
  • Z 651: Shrugging of shoulders, head shakes, nods and so on we call signs first and foremost because they are embedded in the use of our verbal language. 

“Wittgenstein says that those words, together with their tone and glance ‘seem indeed to carry within themselves every last nuance of the meaning they have’. To this he replies that this is so ‘only because we know them as part of a particular scene around those words so as to show that the special spirit they have resides in the story in which they come.’” -- (Stern, 2004, pg 69)

  • PI II, xi: What has to be accepted, the given, is -- so one could say -- forms of life.

References  (back to top)

    • Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In S. Cavell, Philosophy the day after tomorrow. (pp. 111 - 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
    • Monk, R. (2005). How to read Wittgenstein. London: Granta Books.
    • Phillips, D. (1977) Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge.  London: MacMillan Press
    • Shotter, J. (1996). Talking of saying, showing, gesturing and feeling in Wittgenstein and Vygotsky. In Communication Review Vol 1, No. 4. pp 471 - 495.
    • Stern, D. (2004). Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
    • _____________  (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press.