Children’s language games

This week’s Word of Mouth, the programme about language on BBC Radio 4, was devoted to the games children play with language. The presenter, Michael Rosen, and the contributors found out some of the rhymes and counting games children are currently using and compared them to ones they remembered from their own childhoods.

One interesting thing about children’s language games is that they are an oral tradition passed on from child to child, constantly evolving and adapting, with little or no adult involvement. Some of the games are very old and possibly preserve fragments of long-forgotten languages. This is an example of a vibrant, living tradition which seems to be as popular as ever, even though some of the people interviewed on the programme fear it’s dying out.

One point discussed on the programme was that it’s mainly girls who play the language games, especially the more complex ones involving rhymes, actions, skipping, etc. It was suggested that boys might not be able to remember them as well as girls.

Did you play any language games when you were a kid? Do you remember any of them?

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7 Responses to Children’s language games

  1. Junko Salmon says:

    I used to play this game when I was small in Japan called “shiritori.” Any number of people can play. Ones person says a word and another has to think of a word starting with the last letter (hiragana) of the word the first person has said.

    ex. hito(person) – tonbo(dragonfly) – bôshi(hat) – shippo(tail) -

    and so on and on. Anyone who says a word ending with “n”, loses. ex. “anpan”(sweet bean bread)

  2. Juliette says:

    “We had a very similar game as what Junko is describing when I was a kid in the Netherlands. Normally it would be played with geographical (place-)names and we always had fights about whether names of rivers, mountains and more such were allowed in or not.

    Using just placenames it would go like this: Amsterdam – Monnikendam – Muiderberg – Groningen – Nijmegen – Nieuwegein – etc etc

    The person who named a place which had already been named before or who couldn’t come up with a word with the required letter, would lose and end the game.

    We often played it while doing the dishes (yeah… that was in the time before dishwashing machines… don’t make me feel old now).”

  3. Paul says:

    In English, there’s the modern classic “word association football” made up of overlapping two-word phrases; which I think originated as a Monty Python sketch[?]. E.g.

    “word association”
    “association football”
    “football club”
    “club biscuit”
    “biscuit tin”
    “tin bath”
    “bath night”
    …etc.

    Completely pointless.

    I still do the washing-up by hand.

  4. yuko says:

    I used to, still like the “passing message game”.
    Do you call that “Chinese whisper” in England?
    In Japan, we call that “dengon game(伝言ゲーム)”

    Each team is given some sentence to remember and
    convey that from member to member.

    The team which passes the sentence correctly and faster most wins in the end.

    The more the sentence gets longer and complicated, the more the game gets difficult!
    Once I’ve seen people doing this game on the train.

  5. Yuko–I think that sounds like the game we call “telephone” here in the U.S. :-)

  6. Simon says:

    Yuko – we do call that game Chinese whispers in the UK.

  7. BG says:

    According to Wikipedia, “The game has many other names, including the telephone game, Broken Telephone, operator, grapevine, whisper down the lane and Pass It Down. In the United States, ‘Telephone’ is the most common name for the game. The name ‘Chinese whispers’ reflects the former stereotype in Europe of the Chinese language as being incomprehensible. It is little-used in the United States and may be considered offensive.”

    It does seem a little offensive, but most languages seem to say “It’s all Greek to me or it’s all Chinese to me.” (See Omniglot phrases for more). Greek was difficult to understand by Medievil scribes, Chinese by European explores, I’m guessing. It is very interesting to see what different languages think of other languages.