Writing for Language

Craig Dworkin shared his unique writing and substitution experiment during a session of the English Reading Series.

DworkinPhotoDeJesuPROVO, Utah (Jan. 29, 2015)—In 1892, the philosopher Gottlob Frege said, “On the introduction of a name for something simple, a definition is not possible; there is nothing for it but to lead the reader or hearer, by means of hints, to understand the words as is intended.” Craig Dworkin – professor of English at the University of Utah – used this as his starting point for a unique experiment in literature.

“I wanted to see what language can do,” Dworkin explained in an installment of the English Reading Series. “If we define words by other words, if we imagine denotations being equivalents, then we should be able to keep substituting.” By substituting every word for its definition – drawn from Noah Webster’s 1806 A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language – Dworkin expanded Frege’s original quote into a novel-length book.

Describing the process, Dworkin said, “What I did was substitute each of those words for its dictionary definition, and then take that sentence and substitute those words for their dictionary definitions, and so on.” The end result is ten 35,000-word long sentences “which, theoretically, if you could hold everything in mind, . . . [are] grammatically correct.”

Dworkin’s experiment draws on a tradition of definitional literature that began with members of the post-war French literary group Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (workshop of potential literature). They theorized that if language were truly substitutional, then with enough substitution, any two sentences could be made to say the same thing. One of the group’s experiments involved a sentence taken from a cheap genre novel of the time and the French equivalent of Karl Marx’s rallying cry “Workers of the world, unite!” The experiment failed, with the writers concluding that the sentences belonged to incompatible alien languages.

For his own experiment, Dworkin did little to alter the text beyond adding punctuation and phrases such as “that is to say” to introduce new definitions. So he was surprised to find moments of unintended poetic meaning within the text. Though the work is intended for publication, Dworkin hasn’t been writing for an audience so much as for the experience. He said, “Experimental work isn’t written for an audience; it’s written for language.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.

Photo courtesy of Craig Dworkin