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The Prehistory of Language$
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Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199545872

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199545872.001.0001

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Playing with meaning: normative function and structure in play

Playing with meaning: normative function and structure in play

(p.122) 7 Playing with meaning: normative function and structure in play
The Prehistory of Language

Sonia Ragir

Sue Savage‐Rumbaugh

Oxford University Press

This chapter explores the potential of social play to generate shared fields of reference and simple rules in the co-construction of intentional actions and routines in which players demonstrate mutual awareness through structured signals, monitoring the attention of others, and cooperative engagement with an object. Co-constructed actions negotiate the means to mutually acceptable ends, and rules emerge that redirect the flow into familiar kinds of games. Repetition, with variation, creates rules that govern and bind a flexible repertory of basic motor skills, social responses, and communicative behavior. The response of a player redefines and/or limits another's intent; thus the shared semantic understandings of objects, actions, and/or gestures that signal, query, or motivate the next move emerge as a function of this interaction. Co-constructed intentions are inherently shared, and salient gestures, sounds, and ‘incipient acts’ evoke the meaning of moves that have been played into existence. Because play actions, movements, and gestures are often without their ‘real world’ consequences or instrumental functions, these salient acts can become free to ‘stand for’ or re-present their meaning in non-play contexts. In social play as in language, participants negotiate hierarchically ordered moves and exchanges that can be modified and rearranged through repetitive actions and shared goals into normative, rule-governed behavior. These dialogic structural and normative functions make social play a proper model for understanding the emergence of language as a negotiated, self-organizing system rather than a system of communication limited to modern human societies.

Keywords:   social play, co-construction, language development, language capacity, evolution

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