Language as an Object, But Make It Themeless


As many of you know, I'm a linguist. As many of you also know, I also live in my own head. It's noisy up here.

Before my spiel, I've included the image of what I'm lovingly calling The Language Sphincter so you can see how these different levels of linguistic analysis interact with one another, which will be relevant later on. The inner circles are the smallest units of analysis (at the sound level), and radiate outward to the largest units (at the capital D Discourse level). As you can see, none of these levels of analysis are entirely separate - they all inform and influence one another while still being discrete. For the sake of puzzles, I'm conflating orthography and phonemics, which is...close enough, A for effort, spiel for a different time.

With that being said, I've been thinking a lot recently about "crosswordese". Like, what actually is it? It's obviously not a language or a dialect (and really, where do we even draw the line between those? spiel for a different time) in the literal sense, like the "-ese" morpheme would imply. I do think we can all agree that it's something along the lines of "a set of words that we don't come across all the time, BUT are used frequently in crosswords precisely because their orthographic/phonemic patterns make them easy to slot into puzzles". But I've also come to the conclusion that "crosswordese" a very particular kind of objectification of language. (As a side note, I think any sort of classification is necessarily a project of objectification and creating markedness/difference, but, y'know, spiel for another time). I also want to say here that I mean objectification in the literal sense of "equating to/turning something into an object".

A crossword grid deals with language in a way that's almost counterintuitive to natural language in conversation or even writing. This marked material difference is even obvious in the way we capitalize fill -  say, CATS (i.e., fill) versus cats (i.e. non-fill). It reminds me a bit of the mention vs. use distinction, which is a distinction between metalanguage (i.e., talk about talk) and non-metalanguage (i.e., talk itself), respectively. Grids' "mentioning" of a word reckon with words almost solely in an orthographic/phonemic manner and almost never in a semantic one. Ultimately, so long as you've learned to detect your English vowel and consonant patterns, you can fill out a grid relatively effectively, even without any semantic cues (e.g. a downs-only solve that fills the entire grid). 

To me, sometimes, gridding (or even solving!) feels like not getting the full effect of language - engaging with a word on an orthographic/phonemic level is fundamentally not the same as engaging with it on a semantic/pragmatic level, as evidenced by The Language Sphincter. It would be obscene to say spelling a word is exactly the same as knowing what it means. I find that putting a word in a grid objectifies the word in a way - it treats the word simply as a pattern of letters, devoid of meaning-making context. Filling out a grid strips the word of its semantic/pragmatic meaning, removes it from any real context and chain of signification, and conflates the signifier with the signified. So what's the end result of that? It collapses, in a way, into a linguistic object whose sole purpose is to be an object. Grids and gridding necessarily turn words into trinket-like things that we, as solvers/constructors, tinker with until the puzzle is solved/created. To me, grids feel like kitschy junk drawers, in a way. (As a trinket lover, I mean this lovingly.)

Sometimes, this junk-drawer-ification is harmless as with words like EEL, EFT, or GNU. But what happens when words that denote culturally-specific rites/objects/people are rendered to trinkets, particularly with curt clues like "Arab leader" or "Japanese sash"? "Plains people"? What are we, as constructors, saying when we put these in grids at an orthogrpahic level and don't take the effort to flesh out the clues to provide culturally-sensitive context at a semantic level? What are we, as solvers, saying when we throw these into puzzles without fully reading the curt clues or understanding these words in a larger, cultural context? What are we actually doing when we recognize the orthotactics of a word and refuse to engage much further? My other issue here is also that the definition of "crosswordese" deals with word (in)frequency - so whose imagined vocabulary are we actually talking about here? I pose these largely as points of reflection, but I do think so much of "crosswordese" boils down to "language trivialization where white Standard English is the assumed metric". With this in mind, words like EMIR, OBI, and OTOE do not deserve to be treated solely as lexical objects that prop up the other fill in the grid.

My point is an epistemic one as much as I feel it's an ethical one: I'm personally becoming less and less concerned with "fairness" in my (blog) puzzles. So much of "fairness" in crosswords hinges on solvers being able to deduce the words in a grid based on their orthotactic patterns and rendering them as lexical objects. While this is a highly impressive skill, it doesn't engage solvers in the way I would personally like to engage people who solve my puzzles. I want you to interact. I (not that I am a Cultural Arbiter of Cultural Arbiters) don't mind if a word you've never heard is "road bump" in your solve - in this age of information, it is a learning opportunity. You can reveal the letter or the word, and you can look it up during your solve. In fact, you have my blessing to do so! The mindset of looking things up being "cheating" feels ridiculous - any kind of assumption that we all know everything all the time is not only unrealistic, but keeps us from being active, curious, cultural participants. Knowledge is a collaborative project, and I believe in your ability!

(P.S. - I'm also in no way saying I've been perfect about all of this either! However, writing this all out has really helped me get my thoughts together, which means I can be more thoughtful about all of this moving forward.)



P.P.S. - someone (I forget who!) posted about how fun it is to make a quick little diagonal grid like this. They were right! If you remember the tweet/who it was, please let me know so I can credit them.

P.P.S. - Update - it was Brooke!

fullscreen solve


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