Creativity and Language

Creativity in language has conventionally been regarded as the preserve of institutionalised discourses such as literature and advertising, and individual gifted minds. In this exclusive interview, Ronald Carter, Emeritus Professor of Modern English and bestselling author, explores the idea that creativity, far from being simply a property of exceptional people, is an exceptional property of all people.

Ronald Carter

Ronald Carter

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Ronald Carter: I am Research Professor of Modern English Language at the University of Nottingham and am also now attached to the University of Cambridge, researching with the Cambridge Language Sciences group on work with and for Cambridge University Press.

I have long-standing interests in corpus and computational linguistics, grammar and lexicology and in the interfaces between language and literature and have produced as author, co-author and editor over forty books and over one hundred academic research papers in these fields. Recent publications on language and creativity include: Language and Creativity (Routledge Linguistics Classics, London, 2015), Creativity in Language and Literature: The state of the art (Palgrave, 2010) (ed with Joan Swann and Rob Pope).

RB: In terms of literature and language, your main interest is in the relationship between language and creativity, particularly in spoken discourse. Can creativity be defined and, if so, how would you define what creativity is?

RC: It’s not easy, is it (!). Creativity is a quite protean term and is widely applied these days. Schools of English world-wide are employing creative writers as faculty members in greater numbers than ever before; research continues to be undertaken widely from experimental psychology to business and management studies and it is worth noting how the word creativity has begun to acquire connotations and functions in much contemporary discourse – both in the UK and increasingly world-wide – in an ever expanding range of official publications, including educational policy documents.

Indeed, the word creative doesn’t now only collocate with ‘writing’ or ‘literature’ or ‘art’ or ‘poetic’; it collocates with an astonishing variety of concepts and words such as silence, business, professional, media practices, classroom learning, internet, public relations, architecture, digital, scientific, personal relationships, improvisation, computational, humour, industries and play.  The word has been used repeatedly by politicians in budget statements and debates and is commonly employed in discussions of the creative economy.

And in the links of creativity with language play, creativity is allied not just with ‘serious’ production but is also properly linked in both a literal and metaphoric sense with re-creation. A very interesting recent book (The Routledge Handbook of Language and Creativity (ed. Rodney Jones) (Routledge, 2015) illustrates creativity in action in all these domains.

From a more literary focus creativity is seen principally as an act of individual self-expression with a creative process that results in a distinctively personal vision. (note that in several other domains creativity is seen more collectively and collaboratively, as produced even in teams). This version of creativity is confined largely to writing and defined largely both by means of formal aesthetic criteria and by evaluative criteria that seek to establish the originality of a work of verbal art. I suppose the main concern is to establish and to demonstrate the ways in which things are made new, as a result of norms being broken or as a result of challenges to established ways of seeing. The norms here are in the first instance textual and linguistic forms. But departing from established forms can also be a challenge to established practice which is more divergent from cultural and ideological norms as well simply from the norms of literary forms and techniques. (This view of the individual creative artist is widespread today but it does derive from the late eighteenth century and from Romantics in art and literature. Pre-Romantic creativity was seen less individualistically).

In other words, a work cannot simply be original in itself; it is normally seen as original, inventive and enduring with reference to a background norm or horizon of expectations A  key word here is ‘enduring’ as it underlines that the greatest art is a permanent and enduring challenge not simply to present culture but to all culture. It is of its time and yet comparatively free of (without transcending) the controlling and shaping forces of history. It’s easy to sound a bit pompous when defining creativity, of course, and I have just succeeded in doing this, even though it’s a fairly standard definition.

The following endorses this more classical definition:

The creative act does not create something out of nothing, like the God of the Old Testament; it combines, reshuffles and relates already existing but hitherto separate ideas, facts, frames of perception, associative contexts.

(Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, 1964)

This broad definition of creativity is the most culturally powerful definition of creativity and is enshrined in numerous high prestige cultural events and products. Examples would be literary prizes such as the Booker prize, the award of Nobel prizes for literature, the authors studied in most university degree courses in literature, designations by publishers of works as ‘modern classics’ and so on.

My own interests in creativity have taken a different direction, however.

RB: Your book, Language and Creativity, explores the creativity inherent in everyday spoken language. Is creativity a common property?

RC: I wouldn’t want to underplay the significance of the conventional ways of seeing creativity; but I am also interested in the continuum between everyday language and literary language, in other words in a range of common, demotic, largely spoken language used by all of us in daily exchanges and interactions. These range from conversations in the family, among friends or in the workplace to the ‘conversations’ in spoken-written styles of internet communication. Such language use, when it can be said to be creative, is necessarily less considered or prepared or revised or shaped but occurs in the ebb and flow of interpersonal relationships, is normally co-constructed as part of a dialogue or multi-party exchanges; yet it is still, I would maintain, unique, distinctive and creative. We often don’t notice it as creative as such because we are accustomed to seeing linguistic creativity as something written and more static and finished.

So we tend to see any such instances of creative wordplay, puns, layered repetitions, metaphoric invention, rhythmical echoing in our everyday conversations as having only limited context-specific significance. In fact, for many people this kind of thing isn’t really creative at all because it is so ephemeral and done on the hoof.  Of course, such examples would not normally be seen as enduring in the sense we use when referring to a Shakespeare sonnet.

RB: Can anyone create linguistic creativity?

RC: I think it’s important to underline that creativity is not just the property of special people but a special property of all people. So, yes, I think we are all inherently creative and can be creative linguistically. Of course, some conditions and contexts are more conducive to being creative than others. We are less likely to be verbally creative during a job interview or in cross-examination in a court or if stopped by the police for a traffic offence. These contexts tend to be more asymmetrical and unequal in the relations between the people involved. We are more likely to be verbally inventive and creative in more socially symmetrical situations where we are more among equals, with people and in contexts where we can feel less threatened and, commonly, where we are interacting and joking with others.

RB: Can you give an example of ‘everyday’ creative speech in action?

RC: These brief examples are taken from a multi-million-word corpus database of spoken English complied by Cambridge University Press.©  They illustrate, I hope, how creatively we play, across speaking turns, with word meanings, with echoes of sound and meaning and with the idiomatic richness of the language. Of course, we only notice such things when we have such recorded data in front of us and, compared with how available written text has been for centuries, recordings of speech are very recent.

(Two students in Bristol are talking about the landlord of a mutual friends):

<SO1>Yes, he must have a bob or two

<SO2>Whatever he does he makes money out of it just like that

<SO1>Bob’s your uncle

<SO2>He’s quite a lot of money erm tied up in property and things. He’s got a finger in all kinds of pies and houses and stuff.  A couple in Bristol, one in Cleveland I think.


(Two female colleagues in Leicester, who are social workers, are discussing a third colleague who has a tendency to become too involved in individual cases):

<SO1>I don’t know but she seems to have picked up all kinds of lame ducks and traumas along the way.

<SO2>That that’s her vocation.

<SO1>Perhaps it is.  She should have been a counsellor.

<SO2> Yeah but the trouble with her is she puts all her socialist carts before the horses

Note, of course, that we are reading this here. And that’s a paradox; spoken creativity does have to be heard in context. And of course, everyday creativity is not simply a matter of spontaneous spoken exchanges.  They can emerge from many different contexts and can be more constructed.  Advertising is an obvious example. The names of some Sunday football league teams are deliberately playful in a creative way. One such team is from Newcastle Employment Office and called North Career (apparently noted for their devotion to their team leader and president); another, from Nottingham, involving a team of ethnically Indian restaurateurs and echoing Real Madrid, is called Real Madras.

Similarly, creativity is commonly evidenced in internet exchanges. One student who was asked to review a recent website in my university and on which the teaching staff involved had, after devoting weeks to its construction, elicited comment and got a reply which said:

I came, I saw, I logged off.

Everyday wordplay in text exchanges are particularly widespread indicating the often relaxed, informal banter associated with such communication styles. Here is an example taken from Caroline Tagg’s excellent book on The Discourse of Text Messaging (Bloomsbury, 2012):

A: Ooh, 4got, i’m gonna start belly dancing in moseley weds 6.30 if u want 2 join me, they have a cafe too.

B:  Not sure I have the stomach for it …

A: Yeah right! I’ll bring my tape measure fri!

B:  Ho ho – big belly laugh! See ya tomo x

RB: Do written and spoken creativity differ?

RC: Yes, and the examples from e-discourse, which are a kind of hybrid form of spoken and written communication show that it’s very much a continuum across the range of speech and writing.  In general, though, written creativity is the result of re-writings, revisions and re-shaping, carefully constructed over time and likely therefore to be more intricately layered. Meanings resonate and reinforce other meanings with a greater semantic density than is possible in more spontaneous everyday chat where there are limited opportunities for recasting or revising anything.  None of this should, however, mean that we overlook or devalue the extent to which we are all creative in our everyday speech. As a human phenomenon it is much more widespread and impressive than has been normally credited. All forms of creativity are linked and the greatest writers draw on the richness of everyday speech.

RB: Is intuition part of creativity and the intellectual process?

RC: I’m not sure about this. It’s a good question.  I think it plays a part and we certainly intuit relationships and the evolving dynamic of conversational interaction and sense intuitively when we can play verbally with the contexts and people we are with.

RB: Can we improve our own creativity and, if so, how?

RC: This is another good question. Yes, but the more we study it, the more self-conscious and inhibited we can become, although the rapid rise of the teaching of creative writing belies this. A book called Active reading (Knights and Thurgar-Dawson, Continuum, 2006) is a good example of how re-writing and transformative writing can help develop creativity.

I’m not really sure if I have any ideas that are known to ‘improve’ our spoken creativity. Reading or listening to lots of jokes or watching stand-up comedians is certainly a rich source of verbal creativity. And reading advertisements and headlines in newspapers and magazines more closely is also a rich of source of everyday creativity; and simply using a digital tape recorder to capture TV and radio comedies and panel shows (as well as our own chat and that of our friends) makes us more alert to demotic creativity.  We also need to be aware that everyday verbal spoken creativity also often has extra dimensions to it: a visual dimension and a gestural dimension, for example.

The following extract from the French cultural theorist Michel de Certeau is worth bearing in mind when opening up ourselves to the richness of everyday creativity:

Every culture proliferates along its margins. Iruptions take place that are called ‘creations’ in relation to stagnancies. Bubbling out of swamps and bogs, a thousand flashes at once scintillate and are extinguished all over the surface of a society…… Daily life is scattered with marvels, a froth on the long rhythm of language and history that is as dazzling as that of writers and artists.  (de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life).

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