9.2 Verbal Art and Speech Play

Verbal art is any art form that contains spoken (or sung) language. The most common example of verbal art is songs and the study of verbal art is a major part of ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology is the interdisciplinary field that studies how human cultures create and use music. In addition to music, many linguists consider verbal art to also cover things like poetry, storytelling, and speech play (also called word play) (Fitzgerald, 2017).

Speech play is playful manipulation of any aspect of a language, from the sounds to the sentence structure to making up playful words (Sherzer & Webster, 2017). Things like puns, riddles, mnemonics, and even tongue twisters can be considered forms of speech play.

The importance of verbal art and speech play

Music and storytelling is a critical part of the human experience. Therefore, it is closely tied to language and human communication. Documenting verbal art and speech play is important for two reasons:

  1. Cultural Context -- verbal art gives a rich cultural context for language use and can truly enrich an archival collection. These contexts show creative ways in which language is used and can also give insight into cultural practices such as religious hymns or chants, folk songs and dance, and stories or fables.
  2. Linguistic Insight -- verbal art also sheds valuable light on certain linguistic features in a language. The way native speakers manipulate sounds and words and weave linguistic tapestries can highlight certain phonological, morphological, and syntactic information about a language’s structure. The metaphorical nature of much verbal art can also be an extremely fascinating area of semantic research.

Learn more

Verbal art and ethnomusicology are major topics in their own right, and could be a course on their own. If you’d like to learn more about verbal art, ethnomusicology, and how to elicit this kind of information for language documentation projects, you can start with these recommended resources:

Speech Play, Verbal Art, and Linguistic Anthropology (2015) by Joel Sherzer and Anthony Webster. Free Online Oxford Handbooks.


Fitzgerald, Colleen M. 2017. Motivating the Documentation of the Verbal Arts: Arguments from Theory and Practice. Language Documentation & Conservation. 11, 114-132.

Sherzer, Joel & Anthony Webster. 2015. Speech Play, Verbal Art, and Linguistic Anthropology. Oxford Handbooks Online. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935345.013.33