Toru Iwatani's Escalator
Compass Reading

Language Games

Wittgenstein1_1What does a word mean? How are we able to understand language? Why does so much confusion and argumentation result from apparently such gentle variation in the way individuals employ their words? To explore these issues, we can turn to the philosophical notion of language games.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, contributing significantly to numerous areas but perhaps most importantly to the philosophy of language. Wittgenstein was the source of the idea that “the meaning of a word is how it is used” or “meaning is use”. But to fully understand what is meant by this phrase, it is helpful to explore his concept of a language game.

Wittgenstein’s magnum opus, Philosophical Investigations, commences in a manner which can be a source of great surprise to the unprepared. It begins with concise descriptions of situations involving the usage of words. The first involves the purchase of five red apples; the second describes two people using language at a construction site:

We shall imagine a language… Let this language serve the purpose of communication between a builder A and his assistant B. A is constructing a building out of building stones: blocks, columns, slabs, and beams. B is to bring the building stones, in the order A needs them. For that purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “column”, “slab”, “beam”. A calls out the words and B brings the stone he has learned to bring at this call… Think of this as a complete, primitive language.

Wittgenstein calls “a complete primitive language” a language game (sprachspiel in his native German). The concept is introduced and developed in a set of notes which he circulated privately between his students and others in the 1930s commonly known as The Blue Book and The Brown Book – which in many ways are a lot like reading Wittgenstein’s blog (although of course no such concept existed at the time). The Brown Book in particular is intimately connected with the notion of a language game, and consists of a series of numbered descriptions of particular language games, accompanied by rambling commentaries in which it is hard to determine if Wittgenstein is attempting to explain his reasoning to a reader, or to elucidate his meaning for his own benefit.

Key to the way this is presented is that each language game is described in terms of how it is taught, and that we are invited to consider for each language game that it might exist in isolation – imagine a hypothetical tribe whose only means of communication is the “primitive language” of any given game, like the builder’s game above. As it says in The Brown Book:

Let us imagine a society in which this is the only system of language. The child learns this language from the grown-ups by being trained to its use… Part of this training is that we point to a building stone, direct the attention of the child towards it, and pronounce a word. In the actual use of this language, one man calls out the words as orders, the other acts according to them.”

Why introduce this peculiar concept of a language game? Part of the purpose is to stress how language is learned in the first place; the focus is on how children learn to speak for the first time. This, after all, is how language is acquired. Additionally, the training situations which are possible depend upon inborn capabilities. In the builder’s game, the capacity to carry rocks (which would not, for instance, be possible for a snake or a fish since they have no capacity to lift) is essential to the existence of the game and hence of the words involved. The emphasis in the use of language games is always towards the practical: “The term ‘language game’ is meant to emphasise that the speaking of a language is part of an activity or a form of life.”

It is easy to see, therefore, how by examining the use of language in these terms leads to a different understanding of the process of language in toto:

The whole, the language and the activities with which it is interwoven: this I will also call the “language game.”

Wittgenstein believed that the purpose of philosophy was clarity; he speaks often of muddles and befuddlement, and of philosophy aiming to remove these confusions. In formulating the concept of language games, he was able to explore how many philosophical problems originate in misunderstandings as to the meaning of words.

Following the concept of a language game, the purpose of a word is the use that it serves within its language game. He cogently examines a number of different philosophical problems in terms of the words used, and frequently demonstrates that often the problem is that a word is used in two separate language games, but appears to the individual to be the same word because the word (as a symbol; it’s letters or phonemes) is unchanged. But the word only has meaning in the context of its language game, and so if the word is used in a different context, its meaning need not be the same. (Sadly, examples to this effect are difficult to précis efficiently. The interested reader should turn to Wittgenstein’s work to explore this).

Taking this idea further, he demonstrates how we can use words in contexts that extend far beyond their original usages. For example, the terms ‘darker’ and ‘lighter’ belong in a language game of comparison of shade, associated with instructions such as “paint me a patch of colour darker than the one I am showing you.” But we could say: “Listen to the five vowels a, e, i, o and u and arrange them in order of darkness.” Many people will look puzzled and be unable to reply, but some will respond by arranging the vowels in a certain order (amazingly, this order tends to be i, e, a, o, u – which was, incidentally, my wife’s immediate response when I asked her this paradoxical question). This is a curious development! But it shows our tremendous capacity to apply words taught in a specific context to other settings which may have little or no logical connection with the original game. Given that we can have such an apparently nonsensical question answered at all, it is hopefully evident that any notion that words have objective Platonic meanings is at least problematic, and at worst beyond fallacious.

The more different language games are combined in any given culture (as language and culture are inextricably intertwined), the greater the potential for confusion. The word ‘God’ has meaning principally in a religious or spiritual language game, the word ‘True’ has meaning only in a logical language game, and the word ‘Theory’ has meaning chiefly in a scientific language game. But in everyday life, we use all of these words together in one grand system combining all the language games we have ever learned. Small wonder that careless use of words leads to bewilderment and conflict.

There is a further source of potential perplexity in the way words are employed. The fixed nature of a written word gives it the illusion of stability and invites us to consider all words as being equivalent in function. But words do not have such an equivalence; they serve very different functions. Wittgenstein suggests: “Think of the tools in a tool chest. There is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a ruler, a glue jar, glue, nails, and screws…. The function of words is as varied as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities).”

This leads to the idea of words being defined not in terms of idealised eternal concepts, but rather acting in a manner akin to family resemblance:

Consider, for example, the proceedings we call “games”. I mean board games, card games, ball games, athletic games, etc. What is common to all of these? – Don’t say: “They have to have something in common or they would not be called games” – but rather look and see if there is something common to all of them… you will see similarities and relationships – a whole series of them… We see a complicated network of similarities intersecting and overlapping one another – similarities large and small. I can give no better characterization of these similarities than “family resemblances”; for it is in just this way that the various resemblances to be found among members of a family overlap and intersect: build, facial features, eye colour, gait, temperament, etc., etc. – And I will say: ‘games’ form a family.

Language games are similarly related to one another by family resemblance, and as with other games, rules are of some significance in the formulation of many (but not all) language games. Consider how the builder’s game is predicated upon the rules which define the names of the stones: blocks, columns, slabs, and beams. The naming of things, Wittgenstein suggests, “is no move in the language game”. When one sets up the pieces on the board for a game of chess, this is not a move in the game but rather the preparation for the playing of the game. Similarly, the naming of things is not a move in a language game, but rather part of the preparation for the play of that language game.

Only by understanding what was meant by a language game are we ready to understand Wittgenstein’s most famous dictum:

For a large class of cases of the use of the word “meaning” – even if not for all cases – the word can be explained thus: The meaning of a word is its use in language.

Words are tools for communication, and these symbols have purpose only in the context in which they are employed. In discussing our choices of words and their definitions, we are serving to delineate the language games in which these signs are employed, and thus avoiding any future misunderstanding in their application. Perhaps this too is a language game of a particular sort, as it is an activity with a purpose, and our words adapt to this process as they would to any other.

The temptation to interpret words as having “true meanings” is untenable in this context. Truth is a concept from the language games of logic, and difficult or even impossible to apply to our everyday existence. A word means solely what it implies to those who use it, and what it means to them is encapsulated in how it is used. By understanding words as the pieces of a language game, we escape all manner of confusing problems which have haunted us since antiquity, and move forward into a world where our discourses can attain greater clarity. For this, we have Wittgenstein to thank.


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frequently demonstrates that often the problem is that a word is used in two separate language games, but appears to the individual to be the same word because the word (as a symbol; it’s letters or phonemes) is unchanged. But the word only has meaning in the context of its language game, and so if the word is used in a different context, its meaning need not be the same.

Mario apparently appears in both of the games Super Mario Bros and Mario Tennis; he has the same name and appearance, but a close examination of his interactions with his context reveals him to be functionally a completely different "noun".

A person playing Super Smash Brothers may assert that Luigi is the ultimate character; a person playing Super Mario Bros would say that no, he's about on a level with Mario. They believe they're talking about the same "noun" but in fact they're discussing two completely different ones that happen to share certain traits, or consonants.

Thus no individual word or game element can be defined except by reference to the way it interacts with its environment; by what environmental factors and processes create it and by what values and abilities it holds within the setting in which it occurs.

Thanks for this post; I've never really "got" your posts on the nexus between games and language before - but this makes it all a lot clearer.

Huh; When I read that part, the word "adventure" leapt into mind. In any case, good article.

God bless German philosophers. I'd heard of Wittgenstein being mentioned tangentially in a lot of different books or articles, but never really had a primer on the man's work specifically. Excellent and vital work--I'm sure at various points in his life he had those long "arguments" that in the end turned out to be two parties arguing over two completely different word meanings. :)

It makes me think of the convention of clarifying specific meaning of key words in philosophical articles/texts, and how important that process is to setting up the argument--and, in turn, how vitally important that is to achieve any strong and consistent understanding between people. To realize which language games we're playing at any given time and be sure that we're playing the same language game with someone we mean to be clear with is really of vital import throughout life.

These days, my personal vision of hell is everyone talking, but nobody hearing or at least getting what other people are saying. Without the work of thinkers like Wittgenstein, it's easy to think of how much harder it would be keep a firm handle on interpersonal communication. Thanks Chris.

Very exciting. We've not got a langauge game to play together that happens to have all the verbs we'll need. By "we" I mean all interactive designers.

This post has given me the sense that Chris Crawford has made a tremendous breakthrough. Storytron is essentially an engine for conducting meshes of language games. The primary act of storybuilding AND game design is defining the verbs, then the nouns, adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions. By prepositions I mean global states, such as a boolean, to give the simplest example. Roles in Storytron, the boolean tag that determines what reaction script an Actor follows, act in this sense.

Storytron requires the author to design langauge games in advance, but to take it further, we can imagine creating constraints that determine how social symbolic elements self-organize into langauge games, which can produce new social symbolic elements allowing the cycle to continue. I'm talking about fractal stories, organic meta-games, a breathing co-creation.

No time for a discussion this morning, alas, but I feel I should clarify that Wittgenstein was born in Vienna, and therefore was Austrian and not German. Same language, different country. :)

And a cursory googling fails me yet again. I did actually try and check that he was from Germany before posting, I just didn't do it thoroughly enough. An internet search engine not yielding reliable information? It can scarcely be believed!

Thanks for the pointer, Chris - I now feel more motivated to read some of Wittgenstein's work.

If you haven't already done so, you might wish to browse Tom Stoppard's "Dogg's Hamlet", where some of the builder's language game is examined.

I think the futility of looking for universal definitions becomes clearer the more you search for them - consider poor old David Hilbert.

Greg: I've found that very few day-to-day arguments are substantive. Those that are not the result of differences such as the one you describe here (words being used in different senses) are usually the result of differences in personal values (which can be identified, but not resolved). Fortunately, awareness of these issues does wonders for avoiding empty arguments. :)

Mory: Game genre terms are magnificently wooly. :) It's a wonder we can have any meaningful discussions on genre at all!

Jack: It has always seemed to me that Wittgenstein was something of a troubled individual, and I've never seen a picture of him with a smile. And yet his final words were "Tell them I've had a wonderful life." I'm enormously grateful to Wittgenstein for giving me the tools to solve problems of language that have afflicted me in my own life.

Patrick: Storytron is an interesting experiment, to be sure; let's not forget that the resolution of verbs in Storytron is abstract and not concrete (as I understand it) i.e. not fully interactive. Therefore it should support story play better than other kinds of play. Of course, the story play is the harder problem to solve! :) I'm looking forward to seeing it in action.

Peter: thanks for the tip - my knowledge of playwrights is rather abysmal; outside of Shakespeare, I haven't much experience. I loved Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead: Stoppard has always intrigued me because of his links to Shakespeare, and Dogg's Hamlet sounds especially interesting (as does Cahoot's Macbeth, for that matter!) I hadn't heard of either before you mentioned Dogg. I'll keep my eyes open in my next book store crawl.

ZenBen: I don't know much about Hilbert, but I understand he contributed significantly to mathematics during his lifetime. Was Hilbert frustrated by his inability to find universal definitions?

Hilbert tried to compose an absolute standard of mathematics, and I believe was involved, at least in spirit, in the writing of Principia Mathematica, an attempt to lay down the law of formal systems. Kurt Godel famously debunked this, and unleashed a radical new form of thinking, with his incompleteness theorem, which proved that any formal system with a finite number of axioms (first principles) would produce statements undecidable given the system's axioms, a statement such as "this statement cannot be proved in this system." This means that contradictions will inevitably arise, and thus even a langauge game, with its verbic axioms, can allow actions (induced through play) which aren't supported by the system. Hence emergent behavior.

Storytron is abstract in its verbs, you are correct, to borrow your system of control in 21st Century GD, it has one dimension, maybe two, in that its interface allows you to pick from one dimensional lists nested amoung a two dimensional sentance diagram.

Using Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet To Lead Modern Students To Understanding Shakespeare’s Plays By Overcoming Language Barriers

“Outside of a dog,
a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.”
— Groucho Marx

by Robert H. Rempe, Ph.D., Chairman Dept. English, Bishop McDevitt High School, Harrisburg, PA.

[ Dr. Robert H. Rempe is chairman of the English Department at Bishop McDevitt High School, Harrisburg, PA. From 1977 to 1979 Dr, Rempe taught English at Colegio International de Carabobo, Valencia, Venezuela. Dr. Rempe has a Ph.D. in English from Michigan State. From 1996 to 1999 he was Assistant Professor of English and Rhetoric at the University of Charleston in West Virginia. At the University, Dr. Rempe directed the school-wide writing program and all Writing-Across-the-Curriculum activities. Dr. Rempe has been affiliated with Bishop McDevitt High School, Harrisburg, PA since September 1962. While at Bishop McDevitt High School he originated and has taught courses in Advanced Placement English IV, Shakespeare and Modern Drarna, Composition, Journalism, British Studies English and English I Honors Humanities.]


There I was sitting in the Charlotte, NC, airport with time on my hands waiting for the second leg of my journey to read the 2005 Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature and Composition in Daytona Beach, via Orlando, FL. I started a conversation with a colleague that I had remembered from last year’s reading. We included another person in the conversation who said that she too was going to be an AP reader. The conversation went on and on about the intricacies and rigors of the grading, scoring, and evaluation. We spoke of the richly rewarding experience and all the intellectual stimulation the week would prove to be. Then an announcement blasted over the P.A. system. It was not for Orlando. She said, “ That’s my flight,” and she gathered her things. We said, “But aren’t you going to Daytona Beach via Orlando?” She answered, “No, I am going to correct the Calculus AP exam.”
This conversation reminded me of the Wittgenstein scenario highlighted by Tom Stoppard in the Preface of Dogg’s Hamlet as the genesis of the play. Dogg's Hamlet derives from a section of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

Consider the following scene: A man is building a platform using pieces of wood of different shapes and sizes. These are thrown to him by a second man, one at a time, as they are called for. An observer notes that each time the first man shouts 'Plank!' he is thrown a long flat piece. Then he calls 'Slab!' and is thrown a piece of a different shape. This happens a few times. There is a call for 'Block!' and a third shape is thrown. Finally a call for 'Cube!' produces a fourth type of piece. An observer would probably conclude that the different words described different shapes and sizes of the material. But this is not the only possible interpretation (Tom Stoppard, Preface to Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth).


As I deal with my teaching of Hamlet and indeed my teaching of most of Shakespeare’s plays I posit the ideas of Jane Anderson of the University of New England in Australia who in her course outline and syllabus shows:

It is possible that some students may have problems not only with "Hamlet," but with any Shakespearean play because of the unfamiliar language, and therefore develop a mental block against understanding that language. "Dogg's Hamlet" . . . by Tom Stoppard, could be useful in overcoming this. This play starts off in a completely unfamiliar language, putting different and unexpected meanings to everyday English words. This language, known as 'Dogg', usually succeeds in getting the audience completely confused, until the characters break into a version of "Hamlet" that they are rehearsing for. The Shakespearean language comes as a relief to the audience, as it is so much easier to understand than 'Dogg'. This could be helpful in overcoming the understanding barriers that some students may have developed. The fact that the characters in "Dogg's Hamlet" are rehearsing for a play, which ends up as a play within a play, is interesting because it is a technique that Shakespeare also uses in "Hamlet". Perhaps a compare and contrast exercise between how these two authors use this particular dramatic technique could be a worthwhile extension activity for the brighter students (Jane Anderson, Course Syllabus, University of New England, Australia).

And Cornell University’s Steward Davis asks,

Is Shakespearean language a problem today (for viewers, readers, learners,
users)? Is it alien or alienating? Is it banal, too well known to everyone who has read Shakespeare in school and void of human meaning, and contemporary relevance? Is it obscure, too archaic and difficult for anyone but rote learners and English teachers . . . to understand? To “set off” Shakespearean language and to emphasize both its problematicity and its resourcefulness, he has invented yet another problematic language to set beside the English of Hamlet . . .. That language is Dogg, and he explains (some of) its principles in his Preface
(Steward Davis, Course Packet, English 386 – Philosophic Fictions, Cornell University).

On a similar tack the PBS documentary “In Search of Shakespeare” makes the equivalent analysis of the difficulty of Shakespeare’s language,

One of the most difficult challenges of studying Shakespeare is breaking the language barrier. There are several factors that often confuse the reader about the language of Shakespeare: the use of obsolete words, the order of sentence wording, and puns that depended on the meaning, usage, and pronunciation of words. For the first time reader of Shakespeare, the text may seem confusing and hard to translate, but it is important to understand that Shakespeare did indeed write in English, just a slightly different version of what we consider to be modern English (In Search of Shakespeare PBS, “Shakespeare's Language – The ‘Punny’ Language of Shakespeare).

Randal Robinson of Michigan State also delves into the problem that modern students face with most of the encounters they have with Shakespeare’s language. In his seminal work on Shakespeare’s language and student understanding he says the problem is with “unusual words,”

Unusual Words -- Most of us run into problems when we come across archaic words that are no longer used in Modern English. Or worse, when we run across words that are still used today but have much different meanings than when Shakespeare used (or invented!) the words. This is particularly troublesome, because we think we know what the word means, but the line still doesn't make sense. Although it is frustrating when we come across these unknown words, it is not surprising (Randal Robinson, Unlocking Shakespeare’s Language, NCTE, 1989) [Emphasis added].

Ed Friedlander, M.D. a pathologist with the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in his popular and highly regarded Pathguy Internet website called “Enjoying Hamlet” affirms and encourages, that:

Once you get past the minor difficulties posed by the language, you'll probably enjoy "Hamlet" -- and not just for its action (Ed Friedlander, M.D. Enjoying "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare [Emphasis added].

Another popular on-line Drama Module indicates that:

Shakespeare’s vocabulary can be a stumbling block, especially for readers of his plays. In the theater, the speaking actor frequently relies on tone, semantic drive, narrative context and body language to communicate the sense of utterly unfamiliar terms, references and phrases, but on the page such words can be impenetrable for the modern speaker of English ( [Emphasis added].

When he refers to human communication depicted in Stoppard’s plays, the major modern drama critic, Martin Esslin, discloses that:

The human condition being what it is, with man small, helpless, insecure, and unable ever to fathom the world in all its hopelessness, death, and absurdity, the theatre has to confront him with the bitter truth that most human endeavor is irrational and senseless, that communication between human beings is well-nigh impossible, and that the world will forever remain an impenetrable mystery. At the same time, the recognition of all these bitter truths will have a liberating effect: if we realize the basic absurdity of most of our objectives we are freed from being obsessed with them and this release expresses itself in laughter (Martin Esslin. The Theatre of the Absurd. London: Penguin Books, 1986, 345) [Emphasis added].


Tom Stoppard plays intellectual games with Wittgenstein’s theories of language. Hanna Scolnicov of Tel Aviv University deals with the essence of Stoppard’s putting into practice these game-like theories of Wittgenstein. She describes the play Dogg’s Hamlet by saying,

Stoppard was intrigued by the idea of ‘writing a play which had to teach the audience the language the play was written in.’ In the play, he demands of his audience to learn a new language, a language made up largely of English words that have totally changed their grammatical and pragmatic functions. We are introduced into Dogg language playfully, without any kind of formal initiation or learning process. The reader, as well as the potential actor, are provided with an English translation in parentheses, at least at first. Not so the spectator, whose exposure to Dogg language comes as a total surprise and who must pick it up, unaided, from the dramatic situation and tone of voice (Hanna Scolnicov, “Stoppard's intertextual web." Assaph: Studies in the Theatre 11 (1995), pp. 19-37 as found in (

As most of the critics show, Dogg is not just the erudite theory of
Wittgenstein nor is it merely a random word substitution, but rather it is a touch of Stoppard’s early genius. As E-notes puts it,

In this play [Dogg’s Hamlet], however, he [Stoppard] creates an entirely new language, Dogg. Although at first it seems like the language is random, as Stoppard shows through his characters' interactions, he has chosen many of his words very carefully. For example, in some cases, harmless English words translate into insults or inappropriate slang in Dogg. In Dogg's Hamlet, Easy tries to say ‘‘Afternoon, squire'' to Dogg, the supervisor on the job. However, as Stoppard notes in the translation brackets: ‘‘[This means in Dogg, *Get stuffed, you bastard.]’’ (From E-notes,

Modern research tells us that all language acquisition goes through stages,

The language acquisition process is often considered to involve three successive stages: . . . phonetics, semantics, and syntax (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Sherzer). Related to syntax (sentence structure) is accidence, a language’s rules for the forms words take when they are combined to make phrases and sentences. Together, phonetics, syntax, and accidence constitute a language’s grammar (Oxford English Dictionary Online) [Emphasis added].

Linguists, who if the truth be known have developed for themselves a language all their own. They refer to the category of language that Stoppard comes the closest to in his Dogg language as “Informese.”

The Inform parser understands a simple language, modeled on a small part of English, which we will call "Informese". The first, fairly easy, job of the translator is to change the vocabulary of Informese (the dictionary, so to speak) so that it matches the new language. ( if-archive/infocom/compilers/inform6/manuals/old/translators_manual.txt).

But Stoppard’s Dogg, a made-up language for the stage, defies the strict linguistic definition of “Informese,” and presents problems as students, readers and audience try to translate the “Informese” into a natural language.

Translating natural language to Informese. This might just do for Dogg, the imaginary language in which Tom Stoppard's play Dogg's Hamlet is written, where the words are more or less English words rearranged. [It begins with someone tapping a microphone and saying “Breakfast, breakfast… sun, dock, trog…”, and “Bicycles!” is an expletive.] ( [Emphasis added].

Stoppard cleverly teaches the audience his Dogg language by the use of counting and singing. These are context clues and sometimes, as in all vocabulary lessons learned from context, they are fraught with misunderstandings. The numbers in Dogg seem to be:

0 or Zero or (nil) = quite, 1 or (one) = sun, 2 or (two) = dock,
3 or (three) = trog, 4 or (four) = slack, 5 or (five) = pan,
6 or (six) = sock, 7 or (seven) = slight, 8 or (eight) = bright,
9 or (nine) = none, 10 or (ten) = tun, 11 or (eleven) = what,
12 or (twelve) = dunce. (Tom Stoppard, Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, 23, 32)

At the time Dogg’s Hamlet was written, the song “My Way, ” was very popular. The English-language version is an adaptation by Paul Anka of the French song Comme d'habitude, written by Claude François and Jacques Revaux. It became the signature song for Frank Sinatra, even though Sinatra himself did not rate the song highly. The lyrics of "My Way" picture a dying man, facing the "final curtain," looking back in his life and deciding that he is satisfied with the way he lived it (Wikipedia “My Way” []. Here I place the English language version of the song in an interlinear comparison with Stoppard’s Dogg language version. I have placed the “My Way” lyrics of the Paul Anka version from in a regular type font, and the Stoppard’s Dogg language version in a bold italics font type below it.


And now, the end is here
En-gage con-grat-ulate
And so I face the final curtain
More-o-ver state a-bysmal fair-ground
My friend, I'll say it clear
Be- gat per-am-bu-late
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain
This aer-o-drome choc-’late e-clair found
I've lived a life that's full
Mau-reen again (pe-can) dedum--
I traveled each and ev'ry highway
(Ma-rau-der fig) de--da Ul-ti-mate-ly cried egg
And more, much more than this,
Di-no-saurs re-ly in-doors
I did it my way
If sat-is-fied egg (“Satisfied Egg,” page 19 of the text, “My Way” from

As in all good language acquisition the audience learns the Dogg language slowly, as Stoppard teaches the audience the essentials of rudimentary linguistic survival in a place where Dogg is spoken. The audience becomes familiar with words for directions, as Cauliflower means “Left” (Dogg’s Hamlet 20). Onyx means “Right”(20), and Tissue means “Straight ahead” (20). They now know that Upside stands for “Have you seen it?” (17) and Useless represents “Good Day,” or “Good Afternoon” (17). Dogg appears to have gender as Git means “Sir,” while Get means “Madam” (16, 29). The connotations are all juxtaposed so that Pit-faced represents “Please” (16), Cutlery is “Excuse me” (30), Afternoon stands for “Get Stuffed” (16 ), Squire is the name for “Bastard” (21) and Vanilla is “Rotten”(16). Marmalade denotes “Approval” (25), while Gymshoes stands for “Excellent!!” (28).

As we read Shakespeare’s plays, we modern readers also have to deal with unfamiliar words,

Some of them are simply no longer used. . . . we find such words as “parle” (i.e., discussion, meeting), “soft” (an exclamation meaning “hold” or “enough” or “wait a minute”) and “marry” (an oath “by the Virgin Mary,” which had by Shakespeare’s time become a mere interjection, like “indeed”). . . . Some words are strange not because of changes in language but because Shakespeare is using them to create a dramatic world . . . in all of Shakespeare’s writing, the most problematic words are those that we still use but that we use with a different meaning . . . the word rivals is used where we would use “companions.” . . . we find the word his where we would use “its” and the word still used (as it most often is in Shakespeare) to mean “always.” Similarly, the word sensible means “confirmed by the senses”; extravagant means “wandering”; and cousin is used (as it is generally in Shakespeare) to mean simply “kinsman.” When Hamlet says, “I doubt some foul play,” we would say, “I suspect some treacherous action.” (The Folger Shakespeare Library Web Page, (http:// www.folger) [Emphasis added].

Shakespeare’s language shows to the modern student in almost every instance as many language problems and barriers to understanding as Stoppard’s Dogg,

Unlocking the meaning of Shakespeare's vocabulary can prove to be an interesting challenge. Such words include those which "have dropped from common use like 'bisson' (blind) or those that the playwright seems to have created from Latin roots . . . but that did not catch on, such as conspectuities' (eyesight or vision) or 'unplausive' (doubtful or disapproving). Especially confusing are those words that have shifted meaning over the intervening centuries, such as 'proper' (handsome), 'nice' (squeamish or delicate), 'silly' (innocent), . . . Because of semantic change, when Shakespeare uses 'conceit,' he does not mean 'vanity,' as we might understand it to be. Strictly following etymology, Shakespeare means a 'conception' or 'notion,' or possibly the 'imagination' itself (S. S. Moorty, “Shakespeare: Words, Words, Words,” Utah Shakespeare Festival”

Language and meaning often plague the student of Shakespeare. In a similar manner Stoppard’s Dogg language provides the same difficulties because as Robert Wilcher emphasizes in “Tom Stoppard and the Art of Communication,” that:
Each piece of language is only ‘a way of putting it.’ Other ways can be tried, but every attempt to complete the circuit of communication between writer and reader will be thwarted by the nature of language. The writer must wrestle to encode meaning in an appropriate pattern of words; the reader must wrestle to decode the meaning from the words. (Robert Wilcher. “Tom Stoppard and the Art of Communication,”

As with Stoppard’s Dogg the same can be said when students study and read Shakespeare’s language,

Much of the struggle in reading Shakespeare is simply trying to understand what is being said and what is going on. Professional actors often have the same struggles until they get "on their feet" and start to play around with the physicality of the language. (Idaho Shakespeare Festival web site

As with the theories of Wittgenstein embodied in Stoppard’s Dogg language, vocabulary also plays an important part

The language used in the works of the Bard is rich and colourful, but many of his odd words are no longer in current use or in the modern dictionary and the origins and meanings of the Elizabethan vocabulary are totally unfamiliar. William Shakespeare's works sometimes appears to have a language of its own. (William Shakespeare Elizabethan Dictionary



Anderson, Jane. Course syllabus, University of New England, Australia. (

Davis, Steward. Course Packet, English 386 – Philosophic Fictions, Cornell University

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. London: Penguin Books, 1986, 345.

E-notes, on Dogg’s Hamlet (

Folger Shakespeare Library Web Page, (http:// www.folger).

Friedlander, M.D., Ed. Enjoying "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare found at

Idaho Shakespeare Festival web site (

“Informese” defined, if-archive/infocom/compilers/inform6/manuals/old/translators_manual.txt)

In Search of Shakespeare, PBS, “Shakespeare's Language – The ‘Punny’ Language of Shakespeare. (

Moorty, S. S. “Shakespeare: Words, Words, Words,” Utah Shakespeare Festival”

“My Way” from

Nadel, Ira. Tom Stoppard: A Life. New York: Palgrave, MacMillan, 2002.

O.E.D., Oxford English Dictionary Online (

Robinson, Unlocking Shakespeare’s Language, NCTE, 1989)

Scolnicov, Hanna. “ An intertextual approach to teaching Shakespeare", Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995), 210-219.

Scolnicov, Hanna, “'Before' and 'after' in Stoppard’s Arcadia", Modern Drama 47 (2004), 480-499.

Scolnicov, Hanna. "Making ears serve for eyes: Stoppard’s visual radio play", Word and Image 20 (2004), 63-83.

Scolnicov, Hanna. “Stoppard's intertextual web." Assaph: Studies in the Theatre 11 (1995), pp. 19-37. as found in: (

Stoppard, Tom Preface to Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth. New York: Samuel French, Inc.,1979.

"To What End Are All These Words?" MODULE 1
“Translating Natural Languages to Informese,” (
Wilcher, Robert. “Tom Stoppard and the Art of Communication”

“Williiam Shakespeare Elizabethan Dictionary, “ (

I really enjoyed reading this, Robert - being interested both in Wittgenstein and Shakespeare (and far from disinterested in Stoppard, for that matter!)

I have to suggest that it might have been easier to link to it than post it in the comments, though! :)

I'm going to have to keep my eyes open for a performance of Dogg's Hamlet - it sounds fascinating and bizarre!

what the hell are u trying to tell us with this game it does not make any sence you ****** **** tell me what the barrirs to language difficulties are in everyday life meaning i want to know what people most hard to understand eg: different backgrounds and languages.

I would appreciate it if you would refrain from swearing in the comments. I'll let this one slide, but in general comments that are deemed to be abusive will be deleted.

As for an example of difficulties in everyday language, take your comment as an example. I cannot make any sense of it at all. What on earth did you mean to ask?

When I read about this article I immediately remembered a question one of my friends in high school had asked our teacher. he said: 'were the words named by people or did they have names already and people used them?' What I thought and and what I think this article tell is people saw things in the nature and they attributed names to them. For example a man called the yellow circle shining in the sky 'sun' and now it is the name of it, or maybe man called sun differently first,but it evolved into 'sun' in time. from another aspect, the first people naming the fruit which is red,hard and delicious 'apple' could have called it 'banana' and we would be saying banana when talking about 'apple'which is what we call today. this is also the reason of why things are named differently in different languages,as well. people of these countries name them according to themselves and the other learn to call it.the process of learning a language continues until the child begins not to make mistakes in calling the names of the things. Just like a game, as Wittgeinstein says. exactly, this is what a language is, a game.

firstly.we can absolutely say that language acquisition is important in human life because people communicate with other people with the help of the language.we understand from the passage we read that Ludwig Wittgenstein made many investigations about the language.he thinks the language acqusition as a game and says lots of thing about language philosophy.we koow that a child acquire the language from his parents and from the environment of this is like a game(he thinks).also it can be acquired by understanding how the word is used!

This "The fixed nature of a written word gives it the illusion of stability" is an interesting point. I call this the illusion of the unity of the word, and it seems to me to be central to what LW was saying. Surprisingly though, clear statements of this point are not that easy to find in the secondary literature. O.K Bouwsma certainly seemed to get it (see his essay on the Blue Book) and Andrew Lugg (who had been one of Bouwsma's students) likewise. But apart from that, Family resemblance is mainly taken to be about things (like games) and not about the uses of any particular word.

I go into more detail about this here

Luther: "illusion of the unity of the word" is a nice turn of phrase. And yes, the 'family resemblance' discussion is all too frequently misread - Suits and Midgley both seem to believe Wittgenstein wanted to say that games are undefinable. But I don't see this as his goal at all - rather, his point is that some definitions are not definitions at all. Thanks for the link! I've posted a comment there, and added you to my "Other Curiosities" here.

All the best!

Games are undefinable, if by a definition one wants a set of necessary and sufficient conditions or some such thing. And that does come out of what LW said, but it is not what LW was saying. LW's point about games was an analogy for language - it was his new answer to "the great question that lay behind all these considerations" (PI: 65). Not some side-point, albeit profound.

I just put up a new piece on this called "The Use of the Word "Game". It's mostly pictures :)

In the original set of comments PROFANITY still remains. The profanity is still here. I suggest that it be removed. It really detracts from my scholarly paper. It was “cute” in 2006, it is problematic in 2020. So I ask the moderator to remove the one profanity-laden comment.
Robert H. Rempe, Ph.D.

Hi Robert,
It is actually not that easy to make changes to one of 8,000 comments without any internal search facility! :) But I believe I have found the offending text, and I have censored the profanity within it.

Hope this suffices,


Thanks for the removal of the profanity.

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