Language-game (philosophy)

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A language-game (German: Sprachspiel) is a philosophical concept developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Waismann, referring to simple examples of language use and the actions into which the language is woven.


In his work, Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein regularly referred to the concept of language games.[1] Wittgenstein rejected the idea that language is somehow separate, and corresponding to reality and argued that concepts do not need to be clearly defined to be meaningful.[2] Wittgenstein used the term "language-game" to designate forms of language simpler than the entirety of a language itself, "consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven" (PI 7), and connected by family resemblance (Familienähnlichkeit). The concept was intended "to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life" (PI 23) which gives language its meaning.

The term 'language game' is used to refer to:

  • Fictional examples of language use that are simpler than our own everyday language. (e.g. PI 2)
  • Simple uses of language with which children are first taught language (training in language).
  • Specific regions of our language with their own grammars and relations to other language-games.
  • All of a natural language seen as comprising a family of language-games.

These meanings are not separated from each other by sharp boundaries, but blend into one another (as suggested by the idea of family resemblance). The concept is based on the following analogy: The rules of language are analogous to the rules of games; thus saying something in a language is analogous to making a move in a game. The analogy between a language and a game demonstrates that words have meaning depending on the uses made of them in the various and multiform activities of human life. (The concept is not meant to suggest that there is anything trivial about language, or that language is "just a game.")


The classic example of a language-game is the so-called "builder's language" introduced in §2 of the Philosophical Investigations:

Later "this" and "there" are added (with functions analogous to the function these words have in natural language), and "a, b, c, d" as numerals. An example of its use: builder A says "d — slab — there" and points, and builder B counts four slabs, "a, b, c, d..." and moves them to the place pointed to by A. The builder's language is an activity into which is woven something we would recognize as language, but in a simpler form. This language-game resembles the simple forms of language taught to children, and Wittgenstein asks that we conceive of it as "a complete primitive language" for a tribe of builders.

Postmodernist interpretation

Jean-François Lyotard explicitly drew upon Wittgenstein's concept of language-games in developing his own notion of metanarratives in The Postmodern Condition. However, Wittgenstein's concept is, from its inception, of a plurality of language games; their plurality is not taken to be a feature solely of contemporary discourse. Lyotard's discussion is primarily applied in the contexts of authority, power and legitimation, where Wittgenstein's is concerned to mark distinctions between a wide range of activities in which language users engage.


  1. Biletzki, Anat (2009) [2002]. "Ludwig Wittgenstein". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved April 4, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Jago 2007, p. 55
  3. Michael Foord. "Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations - Aphorisms 1-10". Retrieved 2013-12-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Jago, Mark (2007). Wittgenstein. Humanities-Ebooks.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1942). Blue and Brown Books. Harper Perennial.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading