The structural Language of LEGO (a short observation)


What is LEGO? One answer comes from the often-misused plural use of the word LEGOs. Why is it incorrect to say I am building with LEGOs, and correct to say I am building with LEGO? The answer is that LEGO is defined as a system: a language of open interconnections between elements (pieces to you and me). LEGOs as a term is a misnomer, because as an individual element separated from the system, alone and unconnected, it is not LEGO. Of course an element holds the potential to become part of the system, based on its studs or other interconnective features; but it only truly becomes LEGO when operating with other pieces in the linguistic system of building. LEGO has a deep structural form. One in which the meaning or use of any element is not fixed. We may think a wrench piece unproblematically represents a wrench. However, its actual use is defined by the elements it is connected to, and the way it is connected to them. A LEGO wrench is not a wrench or even a representation of a wrench a priori. It is only a representation of a wrench if used in this way – held in a LEGO mini-figure’s hand.


So a LEGO element on its own is not LEGO until it is connected to another brick. And a LEGO element has no set or designated meaning in the LEGO system until connected with other elements so as to disclose a given function particular to each build. All of which leads to a paradox. Can you make a LEGO creation with a single brick? Of course you can make a statement, or even a work of art with a single brick, but what relation does it have to LEGO as a system? What you find is that by denying an element its connections, it highlights the system of connectivity by its absence, or need to be connected. By not being LEGO an element can speak to us about the nature of creative associations, as an idea. By not being LEGO an element can show us what LEGO is. Whilst building, every time we scan and consider the unconnected element, we welcome in the idea of the potential free creative system of signification, and the spirit of LEGO’s creativity is reborn anew.



10 thoughts on “The structural Language of LEGO (a short observation)

    1. I don’t think this alters the argument that LEGO is a system or language. If in the branding documentation it notes that the the term LEGO has to be applied to a given case (set, materials etc.), it doesn’t alter its operation as a system. What I’m doing here is analysing the LEGO part of those statements. So a LEGO set, would imply a set of pieces understood by the system LEGO.

      I guess if I were going to keep to the branding mantra, I would write LEGO system, every time I say LEGO, but the argument follows clearly I think without this change being applied.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do empathise. In this case, because I’m talking about LEGO outside of the marketing and normal product related discussions, and more as a form of expression, the terminology seems to work against the flow argument. I guess the main point is that LEGOs seems wrong, not just from the perspective of brand identity, but intuitively from the position of how one thinks of building with LEGO bricks. It comes to a head I think when you say: “I have made a LEGO creation” rather than “a creation made from LEGO bricks.”


  1. This speaks to a much wider subject and asks questions that are elemental in the interpretation and individualization of thought. Can a single brush stroke of alizarin crimson be a construct? Can it be art? Will that swatch of paint begin the conversation? As with Lego, it contains all the potential; but, is that wrench doing the same? Does the Magritte reference trigger a separate dialog within the viewer? I think the answer to all of these is yes. But as in Seurat’s works, a point of paint is not intended to be anything other than a direction. It was not until there were a bazillion of points did we get A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte.

    The odd paradox that happens when you present the Lego wrench is that our minds have already been tricked into the language of Lego. And as with all philosophies, the limitations of the language they are written and read in helps forge and determine the direction of thought. It is what we as observers bring to the construct that explains it’s existence; and, the observer effect will undoubtedly play a key role. It is not a wrench, it is not a Lego piece, it is not a picture, it is not a sequence of pixels arranged in a particular order on my monitor, it IS whatever my mind simplifies to it’s quantum state for sanity’s sake. And it is all of these. But sometimes, a pipe is still just a pipe and our filtering, semantically limited, post-modern brains can rest peacefully with our third beer.

    Outstanding posit, David. I find the inclusion of Lego into the mainstream of philosophy, art, and psychology to be absolutely refreshing and nutritious. I get the feeling that this has been discussed in the great halls of higher learning with brilliant minds of varying disciplines at many points of human history. I find myself thinking about how those stalwarts would view this simple building block. And all done with a single a Lego wrench is proof to your point.


    1. Thanks Matt. This is a short observation which forms a larger piece of thinking I’m doing. Of course the question of context is missing here; there’s another discussion to be had about the Lego readymade yet I’m sure. In the meantime I must ensure there are at least 3 beers in the fridge tonight!


  2. Another wonderful read, as always.

    While perhaps not the point of this article, your introduction is fundamentally and grammatically incorrect: LEGO is neither a building block nor a system, it is only one thing: the name of a corporation. Products or systems made by corporations do not inherit the corporation’s name as their noun a priori. (e.g., You don’t have Apples in your computer, you have Apple software. You are not eating Hershey’ses, you are eating Hershey’s bars.).

    We do not doubt that a LEGO wrench is a wrench made by LEGO (the company), nor that a LEGO set is a set made by LEGO. It follows, then, that a LEGO event be an event hosted by LEGO; a LEGO sculpture would be a sculpture made by LEGO. These statements are true because LEGO is the company, not the toy. Grammatically speaking, a LEGO spaceship would be a spaceship made by LEGO (the company).

    The problem is clearly that of wordiness. American English often truncates these trailing descriptors as a means of grammatical simplification: “I use a Ford minivan” becomes “I use a Ford”. One would never truncate “I use a LEGO set” to “I use a LEGO” because of the plural nature of what is inside the box… thus the chiefly American and terribly incorrect “I use legos” is born. In the example “I use a Ford minivan”, one can also describe the generic by saying “I use a minivan”. This cannot, however, be done with LEGO because there is no noun to succinctly describe a LEGO product. “I use a LEGO set” cannot simply become “I use a set” because it does not have enough meaning to be relevant. In an attempt to truncate without pluralizing, we have created the commonly accepted but equally incorrect “I use LEGO”.

    LEGO is not a system of play, they’re a company. LEGO has created a system of play. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sean, thanks for the reply, this is really helpful, and will prove invaluable when I take these ideas forward. MCLegoboy, made a very similar if less exacting explication of the point (thanks to him too if I didn’t make that clear before).

      I think I need to take this into account, that where the term LEGO is used, due to its ownership by the LEGO company, it will always be subject to more stringent linguistic conventions than I anticipated. As you point out, I have deferred to the colloquial use of the term, which subverts the approved company usage; perhaps even the grammatical use. I’ll need to better qualify this as I take the idea forward.

      However, the argument behind the semantics still stands I think? And as I firmly believe, subverting the use of grammar in the particular, if consistent and able to convey new meaning, doesn’t remain incorrect only broadens, through the allowance of contradictions, the conventions of grammar – that’s the poet in me justifying poor writing ;). Thanks, for the comment, really it is very useful to me.


    2. A great response, Sean, and a valid point, but allow me to take it a step further well into the absurd. I do not Ford minivan, I don’t Hershey chocolate, nor do I Apple computer, but I do “play well.” The verb form of the company’s name from which it is derived follows that it is actually a request demanding us to obediently conform to their specific product. Perhaps we are rebellious in nature and are simply redefining our imprisonment to make it more appealing. So to say that I play with “play well” would be redundant and nonsensical. However, the terms Lego, Lego bricks/blocks/pieces/elements, and even Legos eventually mean the same thing as they are filtered by all our incarcerated minds. Therefore, the correct grammar, crossing the English/Danish channel, would be “I Lego with a plastic building block made by a company called Play Well that calls their product Play Well system of play.” Which is just plain silly. “I play with Lego” works so much easier and says everything concisely, it also works to not piss off the purists out there that cringe every time an article pops up that reads “Legos.” I could even say, “I Lego” to shorten it even further and still fulfill the time served requirement for contextual meaning. “I play with the company called Lego” sounds borderline illegal, which may be the reason we’re in this jail. XD Blissfully happy, but still in the prison of a semantically obscured bit of deviance due to a relaxed reliance on the colloquial nature of a corrupted language. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s always a pleasure to read your articles, David. Like breathing fresh air – when a lot of discussion about Lego on the web are very pragmatic, your blog made us think about higher debates !
    Sorry if I didn’t react too much on your marvellous article about FebRovery. I know it wasn’t just about my own work, but you had nice words about my involvment into this event, and honestly, I was so happy to read that, that I couldn’t think of a good way to express my feelings. To be quoted in a blog like yours is better than to have 200 faves on Flickr, really ! Thanks again, and I hope you’ll find time soon for other great articles 😀


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