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Abstract

At Princeton University, I have for the past decade occasionally taught a course - a so-called freshman seminar - on the history and practice of wordplay: “Wordplay: A wry plod from Babel to Scrabble”. Zany, rigorous, and popular, the class gives students with interests from literature to mathematics the opportunity to explore the ludic side of language through a combination of three sorts of activities: the reading of primary literature, the consideration of secondary scholarship, and the regular and active creation of new instances of wordplay. The subject is not frivolous. With all due respect to colleagues who study “core” phenomena, I contend that pushing against what one might think of as the margins of language is fascinating in itself as well as an under-utilized but effective way to introduce people to the subject of linguistics. This paper attempts to give the flavor of this offbeat seminar, among other things by describing series of exercises designed to highlight some of the more simultaneously striking and easily exploitable orthographic, phonological, and lexical peculiarities of English. My hope is that this will be seen as a practical contribution to what the call for papers for the conference in Trier referred to as “systematic and analytical approaches to wordplay, its forms and functions”.

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