Language and creativity
Language and creativity

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Language and creativity

2.2 Creativity in everyday language

In this section you will listen to an interview with Professor Ronald Carter, in which he discusses creativity in everyday language use.

Activity 3

As you listen to the interview with Professor Ronald Carter, consider the following questions:

  • What different types of linguistic creativity does Carter identify?
  • How does Carter’s notion of linguistic creativity fit with Kaufmann and Sternberg’s definition?
  • Why does Carter think it is important to study linguistic creativity?
  • What does he suggest are the differences between everyday creativity and creativity in literature?
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Professor Ronald Carter on creativity in everyday language
Skip transcript: Professor Ronald Carter on creativity in everyday language

Transcript: Professor Ronald Carter on creativity in everyday language

For some time, I’ve studied stylistics, which is the application of linguistics to the study of literary texts. But I got particularly interested in linguistic creativity when I’d been looking at the daily examples of people talking to each other; I became very, very interested in how frequently we all, in our everyday communication, play with words, and are creative with each other. We see lots of examples of creativity in our studies of literature, but here were examples of creativity in non-literary contexts and involving everyday communication.
Can you give us some examples of what you mean here by ‘linguistic creativity’?
Well, I think there are two main types. I mean one involves repetition, and we can all think of examples of everyday rhetorical communication, for example, by politicians – Tony Blair saying ‘Education, education, education,’ for example – or structures like ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ But also important are breaks with pattern. I mean one of our students at the university recently sent us a comment on a website that we had been designing, and he didn’t like it particularly much, so he simply wrote ‘I came, I saw, I logged off.’
And that break with pattern, break with expectation, knowing that there was a previous pattern that was well known to us, and already in our minds, is an example of just daily playfulness with language, sometimes used for critical purposes, but sometimes simply for playful purposes. Another good example was of a couple of social workers who had been discussing a problematic case and the difficulty one of their colleagues had in identifying too closely with the particular people she was working with.
And in talking about the colleague, one of them said ‘The trouble with her is she puts all her socialist cards before the horse.’ And that draws on a standard idiom, a standard phrase, ‘Don’t put the cart before the horse.’ In other words, get your priorities right. But it plays with it in, interesting and, for me, creative ways, and yet it’s just an example of two people chatting in an office about a third person. And we commonly do this: we commonly do it in order to entertain, in order to simply be playful, in order to enjoy the language, sometimes to criticise, sometimes to make a point more forceful – to emphasise something.
So those are the functions that you see for creative uses of language, but why do you think it’s actually important to study it?
I think it tells us a lot about what we do when we communicate. When we communicate, we don’t simply convey information: our interactions are often not just simply transactional, they’re not transmissive, they’re interactional and they’re interpersonal, and they involve building relationships and sustaining and reinforcing those relationships. And playing with words, playing with grammatical patterns, playing with lexical patterns is an important part of maintaining those relationships. It’s an essentially interpersonal function – therefore, something that tells us a lot about how we communicate with each other, why we communicate, in what context we do it and in what context we don’t do it.
I mean, there are certain contexts, for example, we don’t do it. We often don’t play with language when we’re being cross-examined in a court of law, when a policeman stops us on the motorway for speeding – we do not play with language or use jokey expressions or divergent grammars, but we do in other contexts. And it’s understanding this connection between creative language, context and inter personal relations between people that fascinate me.
And is there a difference between creative language that you’re studying in everyday uses and the creative language that you had previously studied, say, in literature?
Well, that’s a very good question, and, yes, there are differences: literary creativity is for me something that grows much more organically and incrementally over several pages of text, or several chapters of a novel, or several individual stances of a poem. But, much depends on what we mean by ‘literature’. So how do you conceptualise this? Well, it’s a very complex thing to be able to do. Literature is something which is very variable, it means different things to different people, it means different things to people in different communities, it depends, also, on the kinds of reading purposes you have. So we do have to be very careful when using the word literature.
End transcript: Professor Ronald Carter on creativity in everyday language
Professor Ronald Carter on creativity in everyday language
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Carter highlights two main types of linguistic creativity, both related to patterning: repitition and breaks with pattern. He suggests that repetition can be found, for example, in the type of rhetorical communication used by politicians, but it can also be a way to build a relationship or show interest in what someone is saying.

As we have seen, Kaufmann and Sternberg (2010) suggest that something is creative if it is novel, of high quality and appropriate to the task in hand. Carter found examples of people being creative in everyday language to entertain, be playful, criticise, or make a point more forceful. His examples illustrate language use that is appropriate to the task and novel in the sense that the speaker has adapted the language for a particular purpose and context. However, it is debatable whether he would agree that all the examples of creativity in everyday language he has found would be considered of ‘high quality’.

Carter suggests that it is important to study creativity because it tells us something about how and why we communicate, showing that communication is more than just conveying information – it is also interactional and interpersonal, helping to build relationships. By studying language creativity we begin to understand the contexts where it is used. In this way we come to understand more about the relationship between playful language, context and people.

Carter seems to suggest that creativity in everyday language is brief and ‘spur of the moment’, whereas literary creativity grows ‘organically’ through a text, perhaps over several pages or chapters in a novel or in different stanzas of a poem. He does, however, warn that ‘literature’ means different things to different people and so there are different understandings of what counts as ‘literary creativity’.


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