The language of Contract Bridge?

In the card game Contract Bridge, players transmit information by making bids. So, is bidding in Contract Bridge a language?

Bidding systems used in Bridge:

  • are like language, because they use a vocabulary of words that convey meanings. But there are important differences between the 2 types of vocabulary.
  • are not like language, because they have no syntax for combining words into phrases, clauses and sentences.

The rest of this post discusses those points in more detail.

For readers not familiar with Contract Bridge, the appendix at the end of this post supplies background information on this game.

Functions of bidding

Bidding serves 2 purposes in Contract Bridge:

  • it determines which of the 2 pairs of players wins the auction, how many tricks that pair will try to make and which suit (if any) will be trumps.
  • the members of a pair use bidding to communicate with each other.

A bid commits a pair to a contract

By bidding (rather than ‘passing’), a player commits that the player and the player’s partner will enter into the contract specified by that bid if no other player bids. A bid specifies a number of tricks and a suit. For example, a bid of 1 club specifies 7 tricks and specifies clubs. (A bid of n specifies n+6 tricks.) The contract compels that pair to try to make at least the specified number of tricks with the specified suit as trumps (or, if applicable, with no trumps).  

Making a bid is one example of a use of language that is sometimes called a declarative speech act. This involves using spoken or written language to create a new state of affairs in the world. Other examples are when an authorised person conducts a wedding or when a judge issues a verdict and sentence. Merely by uttering particular words, the priest or judge causes the couple to become married or the accused to become guilty. Similarly, merely by making a bid, a player commits to enter into the contract specified by that bid.  

The rest of this post focuses on the other function of bidding in bridge: to pass information to the bidder’s partner. It examines:

  • vocabulary used in bidding
  • differences between Bridge vocabulary and language vocabulary
  • syntax

Vocabulary used in bidding

Most bids consist of phrases containing 2 components: a number and the name of a suit (or the name no trumps). Examples are 1 spade, 2 clubs, 3 hearts, 4 diamonds and 5 no trumps. There are also 3 other types of bid: no bid; double; and redouble.

Although most bids contain a sequence of 2 components, those two components do not have fixed, invariant meaning and so the meaning of the bid is not simply the sum of two separate meanings. For example:

  • many bidding systems use a bid of 1 no trump for a hand that is a narrow range of strengths but use a bid of 1 club for a much wider range of strengths. Thus, the ‘number of tricks’ component (1) does not have a fixed invariant meaning that is added to a fixed invariant meaning for or club for no trump.
  • the meaning of the ‘suit’ component of a bid often varies greatly depending on the number component combined with it. For example, in many bidding systems, a bid of 3 clubs indicates that the bidder has a large number of clubs, but a bid of 1 club says nothing at all about how many clubs the bidder has.   

So it is best to think of each 2-component sequence as a single compound word, not as 2 separate words.

Meanings depend on context

The meaning conveyed by a bid depends greatly on what other bids have already been made. For example, a bid of 1 spade will have different meanings in each of the following cases:

  • if the bidder is the first player with the opportunity to bid.
  • If the other 3 players have all passed.
  • If the bidder’s partner bid 1 club.
  • if an opponent bid 1 club.
  • if the bidder’s partner and an opponent have already bid.

Natural bids and artificial bids

Some bids have a meaning generally viewed as ‘natural’. For example, in many bidding systems, a bid of 1 heart indicates that the bidder has slightly more power than an average hand and has at least 4 hearts (or in some bidding systems, at least 5 hearts).

At the other end of the spectrum, the meaning of some bids is highly artificial. For example, in the convention known as multi-coloured 2 diamonds, a bid of 2 diamonds can indicate any one of 3 types of hand:

  • A weak hand with 6 hearts or 6 spades
  • A strong hand with no long suits and no short suits
  • A strong hand with 3 long suits and 1 short suit.

After an opening with the multi-coloured 2 diamonds, the bidder’s partner must bid. The opening bidder then clarifies with their next bid which of the 3 hand patterns they hold.

Instructing partner to act

By system, convention or bespoke agreement, some bids do not transfer information to the bidder’s partner, but instead instruct the partner to take some action:

  • Asking bids instruct the bidder’s partner to provide a specified piece of information. The pair will have agreed (by system, convention or bespoke agreement) a meaning for each possible response. One example of an asking bid is the Blackwood 4 no trumps mentioned below.
    Asking bids do not typically convey explicit information, though the bidder’s partner may draw some negative inferences from the fact that the bidder did not make another bid.
  • Relays instruct the bidder’s partner to bid again, making the lowest possible bid. Like asking bids, relays do not typically convey explicit information but may enable the bidder’s partner to draw some negative inferences.
    Relays allow bids to convey more information because relays almost double the number of available bids: the bidder can make any given bid either immediately (in 1 step) or via a relay (2 steps).

Where do the meanings come from?

The meaning of a bid is not intrinsic. It is determined only by explicit agreement between the members of a pair. Usually, pairs adopt:

  • an overall system. Some well-known systems are Acol, Precision Club and Standard American.
  • widely used conventions covering particular situations. Perhaps the best known of all conventions is Blackwood (named after its inventor, as many conventions are). In this convention, a bid of 4 no trumps instructs the bidder’s partner to make another bid indicating how many aces she holds. Sometimes conventions are an intrinsic part of a system, but many pairs chose to graft a few conventions into their overall system.
  • bespoke agreements for particular situations not specified by their system and by the conventions they have chosen to adopt.      

Even for pairs that play together regularly, it is impossible to agree on the precise meaning of every bid in every single sequence of bids. If a sequence occurs and the pair have not discussed it, they will have to rely on general understanding, their knowledge of general principles and intuition.

The opponents are listening too

A player directs bids at their partner, but of course the opposing players hear that bid. The opponents have the right to ask the bidder’s partner what the bid means according to the pair’s system, conventions and bespoke agreements. Also, the bidder’s partner must alert the opponents if a bid has an unusual agreed meaning that the opponents would probably not expect.

In theory, these safeguards mean that a bid tells the opponents as much it tells the bidder’s partner. In practice, of course, no explanation can be detailed enough to give the opponents so deep an understanding—especially if the bidder and the bidder’s partner have played together regularly over a long period.    

Differences between Bridge vocabulary and language vocabulary

Although bidding (in Bridge) and language both have a vocabulary, there are important differences:

  • languages have a large, open-ended and constantly changing and expanding vocabulary.
    In contrast, bidding has a closed vocabulary of only 38 words (35 combinations of 7 levels and 5 suits, plus the 3 bids of pass, double and redouble)
  • the meanings carried by words in a language arise organically through countless interactions between users of the language. And, although meanings are often documented in dictionaries and dictionaries sometimes influence usage, dictionaries do not create meaning.
    On the other hand, the meanings of bids in Bridge are assigned only by explicit agreement by a pair, either directly by bespoke agreement or indirectly through their adoption of a system or convention.
  • the meanings of words in human language vocabularies are typically fuzzy and difficult to describe explicitly and precisely. Meanings of bids in Bridge are explicit. In principle, those meanings must be capable of sufficiently precise explanation that the pair can give them to any opponent on request. In practice, of course, this is only an ideal. Over a long period, players almost certainly acquire from observing bidding by their regular partner some implicit understanding that is not easy to capture in explicit descriptions.
  • human language vocabularies contain many idioms made up of more than one word. The meanings of those idioms is not predictable from the meanings of the component words. An example of an English idiom is kick the bucket, meaning ‘die’. Bids in Bridge cannot combine into idioms—though perhaps a sequence of bids is somewhat akin to an idiom if that sequence has a conventionalised meaning.

Bidding lacks syntax

Real human language has syntax that assembles words into phrases, clauses and sentences. Syntax is, arguably, what distinguishes human language from all other forms of communication.

Bids in Bridge are each just a single (compound) word. No syntax is involved.

Conclusion

Bidding in Contract Bridge conveys information and has some of the same features as natural human language. But because bidding has no syntax, and because of major differences in the nature of the vocabularies, bidding is not a language.

It is best to think of bidding as a code, not as a language.

Signalling: not discussed in this post

This post does not discuss another way members of a pair transfer information to another, called signalling. Signalling occurs after the bidding, during the play of the cards. It relies on explicit agreements among a pair about the sequence in which they play cards.

For example, one common signalling agreement convention says that if a player plays a high card followed on a later trick by a low card in the same suit, that sequence shows that the player started with only those 2 cards in that suit.


Appendix: Background on Contract Bridge

Contract Bridge is a card game played with a pack (deck) of 52 cards, dived into 4 suits of 13 cards each. The suits are clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades. The game is a competition between 2 pairs of players.

The game is played in 2 phases: bidding (or auction) and play. In the auction, each player bids in turn for the right to undertake a contract to make at least a specified number of tricks with a specified suit as trumps (with no trumps). Each bid specifies:

  • how many tricks that player and their partner commit to make if that bid wins the auction; and  
  • which suit (if any) will be trumps if that bid wins the auction

Each bid must be higher than the last bid. That requirement means that the new bid must be either:

  • for more tricks; or
  • for the trump suit to be a suit higher ranking than the suit specified by the preceding bid. Suits rank in the following sequence: clubs (lowest), then diamonds, hearts, spades and no trumps (highest).

The lowest possible bid is to make 7 tricks (out of 13) with clubs as trumps. To make that bid, a player says ‘one club’.

If a player declines to bid, the player says ‘no bid’ or ‘pass’. After 3 successive passes, the auction ends. The auction is won by the bid that immediately preceded those 3 passes.

Next, the play phase occurs: the pair that won the auction tries to make the number of tricks specified in the winning bid. If they succeed, they gain points. If they fail, they lose points.

Two other types not mentioned above are double and redouble:

  • a pair can choose to bid double if the preceding bid was by the opposing pair. If that preceding bid then wins the auction, the double increases both the penalties and rewards for the opposing pair.
  • a pair can choose to bid redouble if the preceding bid was a ‘double’ by the opposing pair. If that preceding bid then wins the auction, the redouble increases even more the penalties and rewards for the pair that made the redouble.

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