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Language and creativity
Language and creativity

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1 Defining creativity

The terms ‘creativity’ and ‘creative’ are used in a variety of contexts. There are creative artists, thinkers, writers, designers and entrepreneurs; there can be creative talent, ideas, processes and minds. Creativity can be boundless and spontaneous, but it needs to be unleashed, fostered, stimulated and expressed, though sometimes it may be stifled. Creativity is also strongly associated with imagination, innovation, originality and genius. Similar lists and descriptions can be found in many discussions of the concept (e.g. Pope, 2005; Carter, 2011; Pope and Swann, 2011), and it is an area studied in a number of disciplines.

Psychologists and neuroscientists are investigating creativity to find out more about its relationship with the mind and the brain; ethnographic work is being done to explore its role in society; linguists are exploring creative language to understand more about how people communicate; and commercial organisations are constantly trying to find ways of making themselves and their employees more creative. Given this wide-ranging interest in the topic, it might be reasonable to assume that it is clear what ‘creativity’ means. But this is not necessarily the case: you will find that each field and discipline defines creativity slightly differently, and takes a different approach to investigating it.

Let us start by considering what we understand by creativity in relation to the use of language.

Activity 1

Look at the six examples given in Figure 1. On first reading, which ones do you think are creative? Which ones are not? Is it easy to put them into these two categories?

Described image
Figure 1 Examples of creativity?

Look over them again and think about what made you decide that some of them are creative and others are not. What aspects of the examples suggest creativity?


Your answers may differ from these, but we thought that the Atonement extract (example 1), the poem (example 6) and possibly even the cartoon (example 5) are creative. The joke (example 2), on the other hand, didn’t seem very creative. But how did you classify the tweet (example 3) and the graffiti (example 4)? Perhaps the binary distinction of ‘creative’ and ‘not creative’ feels too restrictive. We would say that examples 3 and 4 are perhaps less creative than the poem (example 6), but more creative than the joke (example 2).

There are several things that you could have considered when making your decisions. You might have asked yourself, ‘What kind of text is this?’, and decided that example 1 is creative because it is from a novel and that example 6 is creative because it is a poem. You might also have thought about what the examples look like and decided that example 6 is creative because of its unusual form (depending on what you’re comparing it to).

You might have looked in more detail at the language of the examples: perhaps you noticed metaphors in example 1 (e.g. ‘lazy creature’), the new word – or neologism – in example 3 (‘selfie-steem’) or repetition in example 2 (e.g. ‘Do you have any’, ‘Got any’). Maybe you noticed the humour in the apparent contradiction between ‘open plan’ and ‘maze’ in example 5. You might also say that the combination of words with images in example 5 – a mixture of different modes of communication – is also creative. Perhaps you thought about how long the examples took to produce, or how long lasting they might be. From this perspective, you might have decided that examples 3 and 4 are not creative: they probably didn’t take a lot of time to ‘invent’ and can be quickly forgotten, or example, 4 even painted over. But what if you looked at a caption and saw that example 4 is by Banksy – an award-winning graffiti artist? That might be enough to put it into the creative category. You could also say that there is creativity in Banksy’s use of two different fonts to represent two accents.

What about the effects of these examples on you? Did examples 2, 5, and perhaps 3, make you laugh? And would it matter if they only made you laugh but no one else? Did example 1 make you see pain differently and did you empathise with the character? Did you find the language beautiful? Perhaps these emotional effects on you could be considered to be instances of creativity.

Thinking about points such as these can reveal a surprising amount about how communication works, what it is for and how, as a society, we evaluate our world.