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BY 3.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter 2018

The dynamics of wordplay and the modern novel: A paired case study

From the book Cultures and Traditions of Wordplay and Wordplay Research

  • Dirk Delabastita


The article opens by outlining a multidimensional definition of wordplay, designed to do justice to the “dynamic” nature of this complex field of phenomena. Of these various dimensions, the “communicative significance” of wordplay is the main focus of the present analysis, which investigates the wordplay in two recent English-language novels: My Sister, My Love (2008) by Joyce Carol Oates and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) by Xiaolu Guo. The latter may be described as a “global novel”. It turns out to offer different wordplay readings to different readerships, depending on their cultural background and multilingual literacies. Like Guo’s novel, Oates’s My Sister, My Love abounds in wordplay, much of it of the malapropian variety, too, and with an equally elusive quality about it. However, Oates’s novel, which is more firmly rooted in a single culture, also shows a complex multi-voiced postmodern narrative style which endows its wordplay with an elusiveness of a very different kind. Its readerships are likely to be linguistically and culturally more homogeneous but these readers will not always quite know to which character or narrative voice in this novel with its various levels of discursive embedding the wordplays and malapropisms have to be attributed. The corpus analysed is far too small to permit generalisation but the “global” and the “postmodern” qualities of the respective novels invite extrapolations and comparison with wider corpora. The discussion demonstrates the absolute need for dynamic approaches to wordplay in the novel no less than in other genres or speech situations.

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Munich/Boston
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