Playing with language

A recent article in The New York Times, “My Life’s Sentences,” by the author Jhumpa Lahiri, mentioned one of her favorite sentences. It is in the short story Araby, by James Joyce: “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” Since we had just read this story in class, I shared the sentence, noting that authors play with language, craft it carefully, and gain the same kind of pleasure as a sculptor does working in her medium. The students dutifully took in my comment, but it was my challenge to have them experience an author’s playfulness and pleasure when playing with language, not just tell them about other people’s pleasure.

When my class read another short story, A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner, I asked them to identify their favorite language bit – it could be a sentence, a phrase, a character’s name, or any other fragment of the story.  The results were interesting and fun. Still, they needed to create something themselves, so we did the exercise below, which seemed to hit the spot.

Exercise:  Arrange the class in groups of three or four, and ask them to create character names.  What would be a scary character’s name, a funny one’s, a loving nanny or crusty grandfather’s name?  What would be your name for the family’s summer home in the mountains? On the shore? Somewhere else?  The first name they came up with was Tracy Pickle, which tickled me.

An extra twist to this exercise could be investigating the languages and cultures which the names came from.  Tracy Pickle seems in the Dickens tradition, but Swami Aroundaboutananda is Indian perhaps.


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