ANT 393  (31400)   LIN 393 (40874)       Stross       W 4-7 pm   SAC 4.116


Office SAC 4.124   Office hours  TTH 12:30-1:30 & by appointment


Fall 2012





This course is a graduate seminar on speech play and verbal art within a framework of the anthropological study of language.   Speech play, associated with the ludic impulse common in humanity, and verbal art, emphasizing an association with the aesthetic, are overlapping categories of performance involving manipulations of the form component of the speech act, and both could be subsumed under the label speech play.   Speech play is generally found in more informal contexts while verbal art occurs in more formal contexts.  Because (oral and written) narratives often contain speech play and verbal art, we will be including narratives in this semester’s consideration.


Speech play as a manifestation of culture in discourse, sometimes trivialized in the literature, can also be seen as central to the anthropological enterprise of documenting, translating, and understanding both culture and discourse, because in use it highlights boundaries, points out limits, and illuminates competence conventions derived from patterns of performance.  It is particularly important in providing a useful methodological perspective from which to look through the window that separates one’s own culture from that of an other.


We will commence with Dell Hymes’ formulation of speech act components and functions, using it as an initial basis for investigating speech play and verbal art.  


No prior training in linguistics is required, expected, or assumed.. 




  1) Class preparation and appropriate class participation (including reading articles, chapters, and or books; and being class facilitator for 1 or more class assignment discussions, depending on the size of the class)


  2) Three short papers based on projects assigned during the semester; deadlines to be found on the syllabus (5-10 pages each)



  1) Class preparation and appropriate class participation (including reading articles, chapters, and or books; and being class facilitator for 1 or more class assignment discussions, depending on the size of the class)


  2) Three short papers based on projects assigned during the semester; deadlines to be found on the syllabus (5-10 pages each)


First paper will be a personal language and speech play profile -  an individual language and speech play profile of yourself, including such information as what languages you speak, how well, when you learned them, dialects you maintain in your repertoire, how and when you use them, linguistic peculiarities you may have, attitudes you have towards language and toward specific languages.  Then do an auto-ethnographic data collection, including taking notes about your speech in a number of interactions, and then analyzing such things as how you perceive your speech, how others might perceive it, what you think about your voice and what others might think as well as other relevant criteria or parameters that you can think of,  and then a discussion of your own relationships to and abilities with speech play and verbal art.   For example, do you consider yourself as having a good appreciation for speech play; what kinds do you prefer?  Do you tell jokes well?  Are you bothered by other people who overuse speech play.  What kinds of speech play are your favorites?  Do you recall anyone as you were growing up being particularly good at speech play.  Do you remember any poems, rhymes, etc. from when you were little?   You may get some ideas from your own profile about projects, hypotheses, or questions to deal with in the second and third papers.


Second paper:  pick an example of speech play / verbal art and analyze it from one or more perspectives (e.g. what cultural presuppositions are implicit or necessary for “getting” it,  what rules are used and/or broken in its construction, what performance features stand out,  what is/are the message(s), what can it tell us about the language(s) it represents, how can it best be translated into another language, what kinds of people are tellers, what kinds of people are audience.

Alternatively for the second paper pick a genre of speech play (or verbal art) and try to operationally define it, characterize it, catalog its various manifestations, find and explore some of its functions.   Examples of genres of speech play –  puns, riddle, jokes on words, malapropisms, tongue twisters, nonsense words, whistled speech, children's word games, adult word games, jingles, slogans, mnemonic acronyms, argots, play languages, secret languages, spoonerisms, and verbal dueling

Third paper:   Document and analyze a specific performance of speech play (or verbal art), or several performances if that suits your purposes.   Among other things note the communicative means by which the performance is keyed,  as well as the setting, genre(s), participants, message forms and channels, the code, cultural presuppositions entailed, and so on.   Among other things, relate the specific peformance to competence of the individuals involved in the peformance and to the performance as a generalized cultural system in the speech community involved.  Note also the interplay between communicative resoureces, individual competence, and the goals of the participants within the context of particular situations.  And where appropriate note the speech play performance as  representing residual culture as well as emergent culture    DUE WEEK 13

Alternatively for the third paper: write a research proposal dealing in some manner with speech play or verbal art (up to 10 pages) to be presented orally as well during final weeks of the semester if time allows.  Some general suggestions for a research grant proposal can be found here.




            J. Sherzer    (2002)  Speech Play and Verbal Art.   Univ of Texas Press.  ISBN 0-292-77769-8  (pbk)  





Week 1           Ethnography of Speaking – the Speech Act   [8/29]

                        Language, discourse, performance, message, words and meanings, speech act


                        ASSIGNMENT (to be read for week 2):   Read  Hymes – the ethnography of Speaking

                                    Come to class prepared to discuss this article.

                                    Write the first paper – your language/speech profile, featuring speech play and verbal art, and

                                    bring it to class


Week 2           Speech Play and Verbal Art  -  Definitions  & Introduction  [9/5]

                                Ludic and aesthetic impulses, meanings of play; What is speech play?  What is verbal art?

                        Who engages in speech play; verbal art?  When?  Where? Why?

                        Is this speech play?


                        ASSIGNMENT (to be read for week 3)   Read Sherzer  Chs. 1 Introduction, and 2  The Grammar of

                                    Play and the play of grammar;     J. Sherzer "Talking backwards in Cuna..." 

(Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 343-353)


Week 3           Recording, Transcription, and Translation  - notational conventions, rules of the code  [9/12]

                        How does one infer the rules of the code?

Providing context and outlining cultural presuppositions?   

                        What is context - as distinct from setting and scene?


                        ASSIGNMENT (to be read for week 4)  Read Sherzer  Ch. 3  Forms of Speech

                                    Play in Context;  Stross, “Eight Reinterpretation of Submerged Symbolism

In the Mayan Popol Vuh” Anthropological Linguistics [2007]  49(3-4): 388-423.  



Week 4           Forms of Speech Play in Context   (Catalog of genres)  [9/19]

                What is genre? Categories and classification. 

What are figures of speech?   rhetorical devices?  How do these relate to genre?

Do different genres have different functions?

Mapping of genres as you see them relating to one another.

Mapping of a genre as it relates to context. 

Mapping of a genre as it relates to message channel (e.g.  Joking – in a film,  on the street, in a blog,

newspaper –does it or its interpretation differ according to the medium it is in)


                        ASSIGNMENT  (for week 5)   Read Sherzer  Ch. 4  From Speech Play to Verbal Art;

                                    Stross, “K'u: The Divine Monkey.”  Journal of Mesoamerican Languages

 and Linguistics 1: 1-34


Week 5           From Speech Play to Verbal Art   [9/26]        Keith

                                How do these classes/kinds of speech relate to one another? 

                        On the continuum of creativity where do various genres of speech play and verbal art fall?

                                    (e.g. reciting a well known palindrome, aphorism, proverb, vs making one up)

                                    (e.g. the Popol Vuh vs a novel) 

                        Different genres – the text vs the performance

                        What is appropriate to a performance (in various genres)?  How do we state such rules?

                        What is appropriate reaction to another’s performance?  (e.g. groaning at puns)


                        ASSIGNMENT   (for week 6) Read Sherzer  Ch. 5   Contexts for Speech Play;

                                    Stross, “A Mayan Iconographic 'Literary' Convention".  U-Mut Maya 5: 21‑29. 

                                    5: 21‑29. 


Week 6           Contexts for Speech Play  [10/3]              Elliot

                                Participants, Goals,  Messages, Settings.


                        ASSIGNMENT:  Write second paper and bring it to class for week 7.   Also think about

                                    ways  that social segmentation (i.e. differences, such as race, class, age)  can be seen

manifested in speech play and verbal art.   Read  Stross, “Metaphor in the speech play

of Tzeltal children.”  Anthropological Linguistics  l7 (l975): 305‑323.


Week 7           Social Segmentation and Speech Play (race, class, age)   [10/10]      Corinne

                        What correlations can be made between forms (and functions) of speech play and social

differentiation (grouping)?


                                ASSIGNMENT (due week 8)  read intro chapter of one of the following books, or some

equivalent, and come prepared to discuss it in class.

            Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature       

Geoffrey Miller, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature  


Week 8           Social Segmentation and Speech Play  (gender and evolution)  [10/17]    Axel    

                        How does gender figure into the evolution of speech play?   What gender distinctions are

evident with respect to different kinds or genres of speech play? 


                        ASSIGNMENT   read Keith Basso.  1979.  Portraits of the Whiteman, Stross, “Reconstructed

Humor in a Tzeltal Ritual Formula” International Journal of American Linguistics 

39  (l973): 32‑43.

                                    (optional – read Mahadev Apte  1985.  Humor and laughter:   An Anthropological Approach.)


Week 9           Humor  in Speech Play    [10/24]         Omar

                        What makes something funny, or humorous?   Are there different kinds of  “funny”  (e.g. nb. That

one may be supposed to groan at puns, go silent when contemplating poetry, laugh at jokes, etc.). 

What does humor do for humans?  What does laughter do for humans?


                        ASSIGNMENT-   read  Verbal Play and Language Acquisition;   Poets in the Classroom


Week 10      Learning and Memory    [10/31]        Elliot

                        How does speech play relate to learning and memory?  What genres of speech play are specifically

related to learning (e.g. acronyms as mnemonic devices, ABC’s as sung)?  (How) does one remember /

memorize a joke, a pun, a poem?

Search the web for acronyms and other mnemonic devices that people have used to aid memory.  Think about if

the specific devices differ  from one time period to another.


                        ASSIGNMENT -  read Stross, 1983. “The language of Zuyua” American Ethnologist 10(1):150-164, 

Abrahams  “Playing the dozens.”  Journal of American Folklore  75:209-220; 

E. Ojo Arewa & A. Dundes 1964.  Proverbs and the ethnography of speaking folklore.  

American Anthropologist  66(6) (Part 2: The Ethnography of Communication):70-85)            


Week 11         Social Control  in Speech Play   (power, rulership, solidarity, group membership)  [11/7]   Keith   

                        What is social control?   How is it accomplished?  What kinds of power are there?  What is a

pecking order?  How does speech play figure into social control, power, solidarity, and/or group



                        ASSIGNMENT  read P.D. Beuchat 1957 “Riddles in Bantu.”  African Studies 16:133-149

(Also found in Dundes (ed.) The Study of Folklore),

                        W. Bright  1990.  “ With one lip, with two lips.”  Language 66:437-452.,

                        P. Noss, 2006.  “Gbaya riddles in changing times.”  Research in African Literatures

37:34-42.,  A. Taylor 1944, “American Indian riddles.”  Journal of American Folklore



Week 12         Aesthetic Pleasure in Speech Play / Verbal Art  (expressing, hearing, feeling, & evaluating)  [11/14]   Omar

                        From Speech Play to Integral Part of the Language -  (e.g. animal names for people – e.g. tad, kid, Hoss, Sapo,



                        ASSIGNMENT  Write third assigned paper and bring to Class on week 13, be prepared to discuss

it in class;

                                                Read   How to Ask for a Drink in Subanun by Charles O. Frake   (American Anthropologist,

New Series, Vol. 66, No. 6, Part 2: The Ethnography of Communication (Dec., 1964),

pp. 127-132)


Week 13         Performance (setting, performers, audience )  [11/21]     Axel

                                How does the competence - performance distinction affect speech play and its study?

                                What new dimensions are added to the study of speech play by considering performance factors?

                                What performance factors are important to consider?


                        ASSIGNMENT -  read E.T. Hall, “Improvisation as an Acquired, Multilevel Process

(Ethnomusicology, Vol. 36, No. 2 pp. 223-235 );  Stross,  “Creativity in Song” – to be distributed”;   

Levman, “Genesis of Music and Language” (Ethnomusicology, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 147-170.) 


Week 14         Music & Song   (expressing, listening, feeling, & evaluating)    [11/28]    Corinne

                        Song lyrics,  Whistled speech,  limits placed on these genres?


                        ASSIGNMENT:   watch this video, and think of ideas for other videos or kinds of video that could

                                    be made to illustrate through speech play some of the other institutional encounters that

                                    one might have (e.g. in court, at the doctor’s office, at school, etc.) and come prepared

                                    to discuss this during week 15.  


Week 15       Institutional Encounters, Routines,  and  Ritual Speech     [12/5]   Brian

                        What are institutions?  Which ones generate speech play about them?   What sorts of speech play are

encouraged or permitted within the framework of a given institution?







Background Reading




Mahadev Apte  1985.  Humor and laughter:   An Anthropological Approach.


Keith Basso.  1979.  Portraits of the Whiteman.    


Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer (eds.),  Explorations In The Ethnography of  Speaking


Victoria Bricker  1984  Ritual Humor in Highland Chiapas


Nikolas Coupland 2007.  Style:  Language Variation and Identity.


Christie Davies 19990.  Ethnic Humor Around the World:  A Comparative Analysis.


Peter Farb  Word Play 


Johan Huitzinga  1955.  Homo Ludens:  Study of the Play Element in Culture


Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, ed.  1976.  Speech Play: Research and Resources for Studying Linguistic Creativity


John McDowell  1979.  Children’s Riddling.


Kay Sammons and Joel Sherzer (eds.) 2000.  Translating Native Latin American Verbal Art: Ethnopoetics and Ethnography of Speaking.


Joel Sherzer  1990-   Verbal Art in San Blas


Joel Sherzer  1983   Kuna Ways of Speaking.  


Tedlock, Dennis  1983.  The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation.





Dundes et al.  1972.  “The strategy of Turkish boys’ verbal dueling.” In Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of communication, J. Gumperz and Dell Hymes, eds.


Douglas, Mary 1968.  “Jokes.”  Man 3:361-376.


Hockett, Charles F.  1973.  “Jokes”  in  Studies in Linguistics:  In Honor of George L. Trager,  M. Estellie Smith, ed.


Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, and Joel Sherzer.  1976.  “Introduction.”  In: Speech Play: Research and Resources for Studying Linguistic Creativity, B. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, ed.,  Philadelphia : U. of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 1-16. 


McDowell, John  1985.  “Verbal dueling.” In Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Vol. 3, Discourse and Dialogue,  Teun A Van Dijk, ed, pp. 203-211.


Miller, Eric.   2003.   Verbal play and language acquisition. 


Sanches, Mary, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.  1976.  “Children's traditional speech play and child language.”  In: Speech Play: Research and Resources for Studying Linguistic Creativity, B. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, ed., Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 65-110


Seeger, Anthony.  1986.  “Oratory is spoken, myth is told, and song is sung.”  In  Native South American Discourse, J. Sherzer and G. Urban, eds, pp. 59-82


Sherzer, Joel   1976.  “Play languages:  Implications for (Socio) Linguistics“    In: Speech Play: Research and Resources for Studying Linguistic Creativity, B. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, ed.,  Philadelphia : U. of Pennsylvania Press, pp


Sherzer, Joel  1993.  “On puns, comebacks, verbal dueling, and play languages: Speech play in Balinese verbal life.   Language in Society 22:217-233.








The following information comes from official UT policies

Please, read carefully

Academic Integrity

Each student in this course is expected to abide by the University Code of Academic Integrity. No plagiarized work will be accepted. Sources consulted from books, journals, or web pages should be acknowledged. Any work submitted by a student in this course for academic credit will be the student's own work. Papers bought online or otherwise plagiarized will receive a zero.

You are encouraged to study together and to discuss concepts covered in lecture and sessions. However, this permissible cooperation should never involve one student having possession of a copy of all or part of work done by someone else, in the form of an e mail, an e-mail attachment file, a diskette, or a hard copy. 

Should copying occur, both the student who copied work from another student and the student who gave material to be copied will both automatically receive a zero for the assignment. Penalty for violation of this Code can also be extended to include failure of the course and University disciplinary action. [During examinations, you must do your own work. Talking or discussion, comparing notes, and copying from others are not permitted during examinations. Any such behavior will result in failure of the exam, and may lead to failure of the course and University disciplinary action.]

Accommodations for students with disabilities

In compliance with the UT Austin policy and equal access laws, I am available to discuss appropriate academic accommodations that may be required for student with disabilities. Requests for academic accommodations are to be made during the first three weeks of the semester, except for unusual circumstances, so arrangements can be made. Students who require special accommodations need to get a letter that documents the disability from the Services for Students with Disabilities area of the Office of the Dean of Students (471-6259- voice or 471-4641 – TTY for users who are deaf or hard of hearing).  This letter should be presented to the instructor in each course at the beginning of the semester and accommodations needed should be discussed at that time.  Five business days before an exam the student should remind the instructor of any testing accommodations that will be needed. See Web site below for more information:

University Electronic Mail Notification Policy

(Use of E-mail for Official Correspondence to Students)

All students should become familiar with the University's official e-mail student notification policy.  It is the student's responsibility to keep the University informed as to changes in e-mail address.  It is recommended that e-mail be checked daily, but at a minimum, twice per week. The complete text of this policy and instructions for updating your e-mail address are available at

In this course e-mail will be used to communicate with students. You are responsible for checking your e-mail regularly for class announcements. 

The University of Texas Honor Code

The core values of The University of Texas at Austin are learning, discovery, freedom, leadership, individual opportunity, and responsibility. Each member of the University is expected to uphold these values through integrity, honesty, trust, fairness, and respect toward peers and community.

Religious Holidays

It is the policy of The University of Texas at Austin that you must notify each of your instructors at least fourteen days prior to the classes scheduled on dates you will be absent to observe a religious holy day. If you miss an examination, work assignment, or other project due to the observance of a religious holyday you will be given an opportunity to complete the work missed within a reasonable time after the absence. 

The instructor reserves the right to amend this syllabus