Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Language

By Laurence Sterne


Tristram is the guy you'd never want to play at Scrabulous. He likes to mess with the meaning of words, make jokes and puns, and suggest words that he doesn't actually mean. He also gives each of his characters specific types of language (see "Speech and Dialogue" for more about this). A literary critic named Mikhail Bakhtin argued that one of the key features of a novel as opposed to other types of writing is that novels contain lots of different types of language, which he called "discourse." Prime example: Tristram Shandy. It's not just that Tristram's friends and family all have different types of language, but he uses ways of speaking from lots of different areas of life: religious, legal, medical, folk tales, travel narratives, and more. It's like being in the monkey cages at the zoo.

Questions About Language

  1. In Tristram Shandy, does language help meaning become clear, or does it make meaning harder to understand? How do you know?
  2. Tristram Shandy contains many kinds of language. Does one type seem to be better than others? Does Tristram favor one style of talking or writing?
  3. Words matter in Tristram Shandy. What do they do? What kinds of consequences arise from using the wrong words?

Chew on This

All the characters in Tristram Shandy use such different types of language that they cannot truly communicate with each other.

Language provides a key to character. In Tristram Shandy, you can tell who a person is by how he or she speaks.

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