The Language of Riddles

New Perspectives

W. J. Pepicello and Thomas A. Green


Literary Criticism / Semiotics & Theory
169 pp. 6x9

$19.95 paper 978-0-8142-5345-8
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What has teeth but cannot eat? What has a heart that’s in its head? What has eyes but cannot see? What turns but never moves? What lock is there no key can open?

Riddles such as these, though long familiar to everyone, remain somehow endlessly fascinating. Like litanies that, if faithfully recited, will eventually give up the mysteries they invoke, riddles seem possessed of an almost necromantic power and force.

For the folklorists and linguists who are serious students of what has been designated “a minor genre,” the riddle, far from being merely the witty bit of entertainment it is commonly supposed to be, is, in fact, a complex linguistic and aesthetic structure that, when subjected to systematic and scientific study, reveals a great deal about the major human systems—such as language, culture, and art—with which it is inextricably bound up.

Riddles conform to a model of communication made up of a code and an encoded message that is first transmitted and then decoded. As what Professors Pepicello and Green term “a licensed artful communication,” the riddle employs quite ordinary language in conventional ways to satisfy the demands placed upon it as the art form that it is. And as an art form, the riddle is subject to constraints that are semiotic (some primary graphic, aural, or other code), aesthetic (artistic conventions that are also semiotic), and grammatical (linguistic restrictions). The riddle operates, therefore, within a cultural framework that is entirely predetermined, and represents what Pepicello and Green designate “a conventional performance.”

The significance of riddles is not easily defined; and indeed it is possible—perhaps even necessary—to distinguish several signata. All riddles, the authors point out, whether they are based on grammatical or metaphorical ambiguity or represent one of the transitional types they identify, are solvable within the confines of the culture in which they have been constructed and in which they are posed. But the signified of a riddle is not its answer. Nor is it an object or a situation. Rather it is the code employed by the riddle itself. Riddles are, therefore, metalinguistic: ways of using language to deal with language—ways of using language to gain mastery over language.

Unlike proverbs, the other minor genre with which they are often compared, riddles do not enhance sociability. They serve, to the contrary, to generate tension in an atmosphere of competition they themselves induce. The riddler seeks deliberately to confuse his audience; and though the conflict he provokes is resolved with the decoding of the answer when his rival gives up, his aim has never been to ameliorate or even relieve the tension he has caused. For in riddling, one is permitted—even required—to be rude. And it is, perhaps, in its power to disconcert, to discomfort, and to disarm, within limits prescribed and sanctioned by convention, an adversary of one’s own selection, in an assault that is excused, that we find in large part the source of the riddle’s perennial appeal.

W. J. Pepicello is director of humanities and social sciences in the School of Allied Health Professions at Hahnemann University in Philadelphia. Thomas A. Green is associate professor of English at Texas A&M University.