Everyday Creativity is Always Dialogical in Bakhtin’s Sense

Everyday Creativity is Always Dialogical in Bakhtin’s Sense

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Everyday Creativity is Always Dialogical in Bakhtin’s Sense

Traditional definitions of language have often categorised creative activity in the ‘canonical’ literary uses we see in artistic works. However, contemporary definitions no longer confine creativity with language to the work of the novelist or poet. It is a well argued point that the seeds of such literary language reside in what may be described, as the mundane, practical uses of ‘everyday’ talk and writing. This shift in opinion and approach to language study may be largely attributed to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, who developed a social theory of language. Bakhtin’s main argument was that there should not be a special category in which to place literary language, as different and superior to the everyday, but that “literature was just one set of genres out of the wide range of different speech genres within social life” (Maybin, 2006, p.418). Bakhtin’s concern was not with the formal properties of language alone, but also in the recognition of the many genres of language, how it works and how it is affected by social, cultural and historical factors. (2006)

It is Bakhtin’s arguments, in relation to ‘everyday’ creativity that I shall consider here, focusing particularly on a key concept of his theory: ‘dialogism’. In this essay, I intend to argue that the nature of everyday creativity in language use is always dialogical. I will highlight examples from the work of others that support Bakhtinian concepts, in addition, I will contrast the inherency approach of Roman Jakobson and his notion of the poetic function of language with the more sociohistorical approach of Bakhtin.

Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism has significantly influenced the study of language and several other disciplines.

“[…] Dialogism is the idea that culture, or even existence[…], is inherently responsive,[…] involving individuals acting at a particular point in time […] in reaction to what has gone before and in expectation of what is to follow.” (http://homepages.nyu.edu/~klc1/)

In terms of language, dialogism describes the way all uses of language, spoken and written, are in some way a response to previous uses, whilst at the same time always addressed to an ‘audience’ in anticipation of its’ own response. (2006) A related concept is heteroglossia, for Bakhtin language consists of many voices, any word or phrase will always carry connotations from previous use in various social contexts as well as “a taste of previous speakers’ intentions.

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” (Maybin, 2006, p.419)

Deborah Tannen draws on Bakhtinian ideas in relation to reported speech, providing evidence for the heteroglossic and dialogic nature of language use. Tannen argues that reported speech in conversation is far from accurately ‘reported’ but is in fact constructed. She illustrates that in the new reporting context, reported utterances of a speaker, are always appropriated by the ‘reporting’ speaker. The reported utterance is always coloured by the influence of that new context and the new speaker’s own intentions. As Bakhtin explains; “ ..the context embracing another’s word is responsible for its dialogising background, whose influence can be very great.” (Bakhtin, cited in 2006, pp. 440/1) For Tannen, it is in this new construction of dialogue where the creativity lies, a speaker will shape a dialogue to suit and to create the greatest effect for their ‘story’ or point of view, thus illustrating the “dual nature of language […] transforming rather than transmitting..”. (Tannen, 2006, p.450) The creativity arises from an interactional and social process in which speakers appropriating each other’s words create a dialogue of ‘double-voices’.

Bakhtin’s ‘double-voicing’, is referred to by Ben Rampton in his essay on language crossing.(2006) Like Tannen, Rampton highlights the way in which a person may use another’s discourse for their own intentions “inserting a new semantic intention into a discourse which has [..] an intention of its own.” (Bakhtin, cited in Rampton, 2006, p.137) The adolescents in Rampton’s study used a language variety or ‘voice’ of which was not their own, in order to temporarily create or to challenge certain identities, there is also an element of performance and a number of interactional functions in the examples he describes. For example one student switches to a different language style in order get his own back on a teacher. (2006)

Bakhtin would argue that it is exactly this responsive and addressive, dialogic nature of interaction and communication that stimulates creativity in language use, affecting the form and meaning on all levels. (2006) With this in mind, it may seem surprising that this can also be exemplified in what is ordinarily considered to be the very private activity of keeping a diary or journal. Many diaries draw considerably on literary uses of language, such as parallelism, metaphor, rhythm and imagery. Janet Maybin (2006) explains that this use of language may help to express strong emotions in a way that more prosaic language could not communicate as effectively. Maybin relates diary writing to identity work, the literacy process “..providing a kind of backstage for the self, or a launching pad for an improved self..”.(Maybin, 2006, p.264) She highlights that whilst at one level diaries provide scope for very personal and intimate thoughts, in the writings of a diary “.. there is always [..] a sense of addressing someone else”; an absent friend, oneself or God. (Maybin, 2006, p.265) However, many diaries of course, were always written with the intention of their contents being read by a wider audience; autobiographies and political journals. This would inevitably have a great effect on the language use, creativity and the way in which the author expressed identity through writing.

One particular example of a diary illustrates how dialogism can shape and form creativity and language use and even (through the responses and evaluations of others, the affordances of the medium and the sociohistorical factors of the time) become appropriated into a new types of genres, elevated from a simple weblog to a broadsheet newspaper and a book. (2006) In 2002 Salam Pax began keeping a personal weblog of life in Baghdad and the events running up to the American invasion of Iraq.
Due to the nature of the internet, the hybrid cross between his diary entries and letters to a friend, became increasing popular with other ‘bloggers’ around the world. In the first entry of his blog, Pax is clearly aware of his potential audience. He writes in English, despite using the medium as a way to contact his Arabic speaking friend and any Arabic terms or references are glossed for English speakers “(for you non-Arablish-speaking people it means ‘later/afterwards’)” (Pax, 2003, cited in 2006, p. 268) . As the popularity of his website grew, Pax responds and rather than addressing his blogs to his friend, he begins to address the international audience. Creativity is exemplified throughout Pax’s writing and there is a great deal of play with language. In one entry Pax creates an imaginary dialogue in order to convey life in Baghdad, he uses computer programming language “ [female-parent-unit]”, (Pax, 2003, cited in 2006, p. 268) and as Maybin comments, (2006) this provides a way to remove the emotion of the situation. He makes use of irony in his description of soldiers and there appears to be a rhetorical style to his writing. Through his writing Pax has created his own identity, “..witty, courageous […] and friendly to ‘non-Arablish’ people..” (Maybin, 2006, p.269) However, the ‘Baghdad Blogger’, as he became known, was a dialogic construction of identity that “..emerged through the responses of others..” (Maybin, 2006, p.269) and it was the responses of others and their evaluations of his writing, that enabled Pax’s personal log to become appropriated into new generic forms. (2006)

Dialogism forms part of Bakhtin’s wider theory of language which he developed in the 1920s in opposition to the formalist and Marxist theories of the time. Bakhtin saw language as a ‘living’ language, a constant struggle between the centripetal forces of unification, standardisation and elite literary styles and the centrifugal forces of diversity, dialect or slang. Without these opposing forces pulling against one another, Bakhtin suggests that communication would become impossible. In his view, the meaning of language arises from the variety of connotations of words, accumulated over time by their use in different speech genres and different social languages. Language creativity draws on and is stimulated by the heteroglot language, at the same time influenced by social interaction, cultural contexts and sociohistorical factors. (2006)

This kind of sociocultural model of language provides quite a contrast from the language ‘poetics’ of Jakobson. Jakobson’s was an inherency model of language creativity, with the focus at the level of the text as opposed to the wider social, cultural and historical concerns of Bakhtin. Bakhtin would argue that it was for this reason that creativity in the formalist’s view, was to be confined to high-art and traditional literary genres. This distinct separation of everyday and literary language was one of Bakhtin’s strongest criticisms. (2006) An inherency model of language emphasises the formal properties of language, such as metaphor, rhythm and sound patterns. (2006) These form part of the poetic function of language, foregrounding the language itself, a “..‘focus on the message for its own sake’..”. (Swann, 2006, p.10) For Jakobson this was the “..dominant, determining function of verbal art.” (Swann, 2006, p.10)

A framework of language analysis based on formal properties alone, would appear to be inadequate for a true understanding of language creativity, with the potential to mask a great deal of meaning and the dynamic process whereby creativity emerges from social interaction, cultural contexts and moments in history. (2006) Bakhtin’s theories and the work of many subsequent analysts using a sociocultural framework, highlight that creativity is not produced by an individual, skilfully exploiting an abstract linguistic system but is a collaborative, interactional process, affected by the social and contextual environment.

In this essay I have focused on Bakhtin’s notion of diologism in an attempt to show that everyday creativity is always dialogical. I have discussed several examples of everyday language that support Bakhtinian concepts. Deborah Tannen draws on Bakhtin’s dialogism in her essay relating to reported speech, emphasising that any reported utterance is always dialogized in the new context, in which the utterance is appropriated and creatively reconstructed to suit new intentions. Similar ideas are highlighted from Ben Rampton’s work on language crossing and ‘double-voicing’. I also used Janet Maybin’s comments relating to identity work and writing diaries and journals, (normally a very private activity) to show the way an ‘audience’ can affect and shape creative language use here. In discussion of Bakhtin’s wider arguments and theories, I contrasted his sociohistorical approach with that of the formalist Roman Jakboson, arguing that analysis based on formal properties of language alone could not provide a full understanding of language and creativity. The dialogic nature of language then, appears to be evident in a range of examples of everyday creativity. In addition to those I have discussed here, Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism could be applied to a large number of everyday creative activities and concepts, such as graffiti, letter writing and story telling or the idea of everyday performance and face work. Dialogicality underlies the very basis of communication, thus all language and everyday creativity, is always dialogical. (2006)


Maybin, J. Swann, J., The art of English: everyday creativity, 2006 The Open University, Palgrave Macmillan.

The Open University, Study Guide The art of English: everyday creativity, 2006, Palgrave Macmillan.

Cheddie, K, http://homepages.nyu.edu/~klc1/ accessed 20 May 2007
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