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Chapter 1

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Section 1.1:What is required for an understanding of humour ?

Language and laughter are both human universals, yet when we examine the stimuli that cause laughter, we see a great variety between different cultures. In the words of Chiaro (1992:5):

The concept of what people find funny appears to be surrounded by linguistic, geographical, diachronic, sociocultural and personal boundaries. The problems faced by non-native speakers of English in overcoming the linguistic and sociocultural obstacles posed by humour in the English language will be the recurring theme of this dissertation.

As a starting point we can put forth an obvious point: jokes have to be understood in order to be found funny. This is a simple statement, yet it conceals a complex subject. Nash (1985:xi) is struck by:

what we are required to know, what social competence we must possess, what intellectual operations we may have to perform before we can grasp even a simple joke. For learners of a second language (English in our case), the ability to comprehend target language humour is affected by linguistic and sociocultural factors. These elements are intricately intertwined. To get a joke, the recipient needs to understand the code in which the joke is delivered, but in addition she requires a substantial amount of sociocultural information, ranging from common everyday experiences to encyclopaedic, or ‘world’ knowledge (Chiaro 1992:11-12). To aid comprehension some information must be available to the recipient before the joke is delivered. Palmer (1994:150) speaks of a common “frame of mind”, where at least some information is shared by participants in a humorous interaction. All jokes contain inherent presuppositions about the world and always mobilise “background knowledge” (Palmer 1994:152). Such knowledge can be sociocultural or linguistic. ( When talking about linguistic knowledge or humour, I am referring to formal linguistic, or systemic, features of language, not pragmatic features. )Without this knowledge humour becomes incomprehensible. Bearing this in mind we can see the truth of Nash's (1985:xi) point that any analysis of humour must deal with:

the workings of our language, the varieties of our social experience, and our habitual modes of thought. Each of these is so intimately involved with the others as to defy abstraction for the purposes of analysis.

Clearly humour is grounded in culture as much as in language, and comprehension of humour is frequently dependant on an awareness of the assumptions that prevail in particular cultural environments. Yet for learners of English this problem cannot be detached from the more ‘linguistic’ difficulties that exist. Already we have spoken of linguistic and sociocultural aspects of humour being “intimately involved” and “intricately intertwined”. This is not merely empty verbiage. This dissertation is looking at advanced learners of English and the difficulties they have understanding English language humour. The fact that they have a high level of English does not mean that they only lack sociocultural background knowledge. There are still large gaps in their linguistic knowledge which make it hard to appreciate humour. There is no point where a learner can say: “Right, I've got the linguistic knowledge, now to look after the sociocultural bit”. Different types of humour require varying degrees of linguistic and sociocultural awareness. Consider this joke from the 1950s, for example:

How many ears has Davy Crockett got?

Two, hasn't he?

No, three. He's got a left ear, a right ear and a wild frontier.

Obviously this joke requires the recipient to be acquainted with the legend of Davy Crockett, but it also poses severe linguistic problems. As Chiaro (1992:13) says,

The recipient of a joke often needs to be able to recognise instances of broken (or merely bent) linguistic rules. In other words his/her linguistic knowledge requires a high standard of proficiency to be able to deal with the ambiguities and hidden traps of . . . the English language. So we can think of jokes as occupying locations on a continuum. Some require more sociocultural knowledge than others; some place greater emphasis on linguistic competence. There is no clear divide, no black and white distinction, between jokes which are ‘linguistic’ and jokes which are ‘sociocultural’. Nash (1985:13-15) looks at the following joke: “Living in Coventry is like watching a plank warp”. As Nash rightly points out, “if we lack the linguistic competence to grasp [the joke's] multiple implications, the humour of the remark must be greatly enfeebled” (1985:15). A learner of English would not need to be an expert on Coventry or life in the English Midlands in order to get the joke; instead she would need sufficient linguistic competence to infer that Coventry is a dull town. She could in fact replace Coventry with a town from her own country and still get the same message. It is the linguistic challenges posed by this joke which are formidable. The verb “warp” is the epicentre of the joke, an ideal word suggestive of “distortion” and “deformity”; but it is not the whole joke. The equation of “living” with “watching” implies a tedious process, and the noun “plank” is perfect, as it connotes “dullness” and “stupidity”. So this particular joke is complex from the linguistic point of view, while not requiring much sociocultural knowledge on the part of the recipient.

At the other end of the scale come witty allusions, which “make some demand on our competence as social beings with ready access to certain facts and commonplaces” (Nash 1985:76). How would a non-native speaker react to “Harwich for the continent, Frinton for the incontinent”? Indeed, how would a native speaker from anywhere but East Anglia respond to it? A non-native speaker would have to understand the juxtaposed words “continent” and “incontinent”, but this joke would remain barely intelligible because of its dense sociocultural content.

We can see that for our advanced learner of English, understanding humour is a question of possessing sufficient linguistic and sociocultural knowledge. These two aspects cannot be separated. According to Chiaro (1992:78);

[T]he intertwining of formal linguistic features and sociocultural elements contained in a joke is often so specific to a single language community that, beyond its frontiers, the joke is unlikely to succeed. The advanced learner has to grasp both the “formal linguistic features” and the “sociocultural elements” if she wishes to really appreciate humour in the English language. We shall return to the question of sociocultural knowledge later; but first it is important to see what characteristics of humour could be said to be universal. To do this I shall look briefly at the various philosophical and psychological theories of humour that have emerged over the centuries, focusing on the one which bears the most relevance to this study.

Section 1.2:What is Humour?

It is possible to identify three strands in the theoretical approach to humour. There have been numerous theories proposed, but most of these fall within the three principal strands, which have proved to be the most influential in analyzing humour (Wilson 1979; Morreall 1983; Davis 1993).

The first strand brings together what are known as relief theories. Such theories examine the biological function of laughter, for instance, as a way of releasing pent-up nervous energy. This approach to the study of humour and laughter was espoused by Herbert Spencer, and developed by Freud. The second strand consists of so called superiority theories. Within this conceptual framework laughter is viewed as being primarily a form of derision. This idea goes back to Plato and Aristotle, and was added to by philosophers in more recent times, the most prominent being Hobbes.

The third and final strand of theories to consider, and the one most relevant to our purposes, is that encompassing incongruity theories. These theories look at cognitive aspects of laughter and humour, placing the emphasis on our subjectiperceptions of the world. The idea seems to have been first developed by Kant, in his Critique of Judgement, and extended by Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation. The work of Kant led to a major conceptual shift, as more attention began to be paid to subjective interpretation of the physical world, rather than to attempts at comprehending the objective world in itself. This paradigm shift had implications for the study of humour, among other things, and today, as Davis (1993:11) makes clear:

most comic theorists no longer regard the objective world as intrinsically funny

but as somehow made funny by its human observers.

In this view, what is perceived as funny depends, as we have seen, on an individual's experiences, shaped by her environment, culture and language.

According to incongruity theory, we laugh at experiences which do not fit into the patterns which we perceive in the external world, and which we construct in our minds. We impose order on events in the world around us, and on the incoming data from our environment. In ordering the world and our perceptions of it we create systems, orderly plans composed of interrelated elements. These systems can be either objective or subjective. Such systems have been called “frames” (Goffman 1974); “associative contexts” (Koestler 1974); and “scripts” (Raskin 1985). I shall use the term “schemata” to describe these ordered systems.

Schemata are described by Norrick (1986: 229) as “ arrays of relations between variables that stand for agents, objects, instruments etc.” Schemata would be useless if they were not potentially predictable. Having an ordered system in our minds allows us to a large degree to anticipate what will happen next. Whenever something occurs which upsets the predictable pattern, we say that an incongruity exists. This fact is the foundation stone of incongruity theory; the idea that the unexpected occurrence which disrupts our comfortable set of expectations is the basis of humour. Of course, in itself incongruity is not necessarily funny: finding that someone has placed a venomous spider in your bed would be incongruous but far from amusing (except when recounted later as a funny story). Quite often, however, the incongruity proves to be humorous. It is important to note at this point that

incongruity is a relational concept: Nothing can be incongruous in itself but

only by standing out phenomenologically from an otherwise congruous system (Davis 1993:13).

We can say therefore that humour is characterised by incongruity, the conflict

between what is expected and what actually happens. However, as stated by Shultz (1976:12-13), for humour to exist there must be a point of resolution of the incongruity, a point where the recipient of the joke can identify where her schema has broken down and why. Where we have unresolvable incongruity, nonsense reigns. Humour must therefore be resolvable incongruity.

Incongruity can be seen as a universal characteristic of humour. If we consider non-verbal humour, this point becomes clear. Slapstick comedy, like Mr. Bean or Benny Hill, tends to stimulate laughter universally, as witnessed by the widespread appeal such shows have across cultures. Verbal humour, of course, has to play to a smaller audience, yet general topics of humour seem to be universal. For example, sexual jokes are incongruous in the context of social mores and traditions; ‘sick’ jokes are incongruous in the context of caring about the weakest members of society (e.g. baby jokes, leper jokes etc.); and black or grotesque jokes are incongruous in the context of the fear and awe in which death and bodily destruction are held. Of course, due to over-exposure, an incongruity can become a cliche‚ to the point where it is no longer incongruous but simply a congruous element of a new schema. An example of this is the perennial visual gag with the banana skin. Charlie Chaplin hit the nail on the head when he (reportedly) said that it was mildly amusing to see a banana skin on the pavement, then to close in on a man walking towards it, totally oblivious, with the (by now) predictable result; much funnier would be for the man to avoid the skin at the last moment, leaping over it triumphantly, only to fall into an open manhole.

Related to this is the fact that the number of incongruities present in a joke affect how funny that joke is. Initially, the presence of more than one will tend to make a joke funnier; however, a law of diminishing returns soon sets in. Too many incongruities will ruin the humorous effect, as the sequence of incongruities forms a new schema, where the previously bizarre becomes expected. An example of this might be a zany comedy where “anything goes!!”. After a while the viewer settles into an acceptance of highly improbable events which lose their humour because their further occurrence is easily predictable. Davis (1993:14) also makes the point that there are degrees of incongruity. He distinguishes “quality humour”, where the incongruous elements undermine a schema's core characteristics, from “mere silliness”, where they undermine its peripheral aspects.

The notion of incongruity is not, however the only foundation of humour. Also to be considered is the notion of ambiguity. There is usually one word or phrase on which the whole matter of the joke is centred (Nash 1985:7). As Chiaro (1992:122) points out:

            all natural languages contain ambiguities which can be deliberately exploited to create verbal duplicity.

As we shall see, this is especially true of English.

We have already seen how an “incongruous element... shatters an expectation system into nothing” (Davis 1993:16). In addition, humour also has its focus in the “congruous element that connects two opposing expectation systems” (ibid.). So if the ambiguity resides in a single word, that word is a congruous element, but in more that one schema. In the next section I will look in detail at the phenomenon of ambiguity.

Section 1.3:Ambiguity

Humour has now been revealed to have more than one epicentre: incongruity and ambiguity. The distinction between the two can be emphasised by looking at Davis' (1993:24) definitions of (a) incongruity:

the real difference between things that seem alike. An element of a system that is sufficiently unlike its other elements can destroy an audience's perception of the system's integrity; and (b) ambiguity: the real resemblance between things that seem to differ. An element of one system that is sufficiently like the elements of a second system can also destroy an audience's perception of the first system's integrity. Language, despite being rule-governed, is replete with ambiguities and incongruities, which operate at the different levels of linguistic organisation - phonological, morphological, lexical, syntactical and semantic. I will examine briefly the play that goes on with phonological, morphological and syntactical elements, before tackling in more depth the humour resulting from lexical and semantic ambiguity.

(i) Phonology - At the level of pronunciation, there exist natural mistakes which tend to have humorous effect. In Chiaro's (1992:17) words:

languages seem to contain hidden traps at all levels of linguistic analysis, so that a transposed sound or syllable or a misplaced preposition can potentially cause havoc to the general meaning of an utterance. Such havoc provokes laughter. Such slips of the tongue come in many shapes and sizes, one of the most common forms being metathesis, otherwise known as the spoonerism. The Rev. Spooner became legendary for his constant slips, producing gems such a “queer old dean” instead of “dear old queen”. Of course, many of Spooner's ‘slips’ may have been deliberate. Indeed, metathesizing has grown into a standard joking convention (Chiaro 1992:32), as shown by this example: “I'd rather have a full bottle in front of me than a full frontal lobotomy”.

Spoonerisms pose all sorts of problems for non-native speakers of English, especially if they have to infer some sociocultural knowledge from it. Consider the following joke:

What's the difference between a Radox bath and Louis Fremaux?

Radox bucks up the feet

The answer is incomplete, a fact which native speakers automatically recognise because they

possess prior knowledge of the fact that they will be required to transpose certain syllables in order to obtain the 'answer' (Chiaro 1992:32). Native speakers can work out that Fremaux is somehow connected with music by transposing the ‘f’ and the 'b' in the answer. This is extremely difficult for a non-native speaker.

As well as play on individual sounds, ambiguity at the phonological level demonstrates other features. For example, there is a lot of play on supra-segmental features, like stress (Chiaro 1992:33):

How do you make a cat drink?

Put it in the liquidiser

This joke switches prominence from “cat DRINK” (an activity a cat does) to “CAT drink” (a compound noun). Obviously humour like this is problematic for even advanced learners of English, who still have difficulties with stress and intonation. Another type of humour which is hard for the non-native speaker to comprehend is play with word boundaries. According to Chiaro (1992:35):

[T]he tendency in English to link words together to form a single stream of sound, a single phonological word, lends itself perfectly to this type of play. A fine example of this is the following:

Is a Buddhist monk refusing an injection at the dentist's trying to transcend dental medication?

(ii) Morphology - Violation of morphemic patterns often results in humorous creations (Moreall 1983:70), as in P.G. Wodehouse's line: “He may not have been actually disgruntled but he was certainly far from gruntled”. Such pseudo-morphology produces a humour which can be baffling:

If Typhoo puts the ‘T’ in Britain, who puts the ‘arse’ in Marseilles?

In this instance a non-native speaker would have to know:

(a) that Typhoo is a brand of tea;

(b) the advertising slogan Typhoo once used;

(c) the letter ‘T’ is a homophone of ‘tea’;

(d) the isolation of ‘arse’ from ‘Marseilles’ is designed to play on the humorous effect that the mention of lower body parts tends to have in English-speaking culture; and

(e) that there is no logical relation between the two clauses, leading to an absurdity which is in itself amusing.

(iii) Syntax - Rules of syntax can be violated for humorous purposes, though not so frequently as to destroy the sense. One common ambiguity in English concerns prepositions, an ambiguity which is often played on:

Child: Mummy, can I go out to play?

Mother: With those holes in your trousers?

Child: No, with the girl next door.

Another example of syntactical ambiguity in English is the dropping of objects after the verb, in order to avoid repetition. This is common in printed instructions, where the humour is unintentional:

Open tin and stand in boiling water for twenty minutes.

The use of the indefinite article in English is also a rich source of humour, as in the following joke, where its use to indicate specific and generic reference is the cause of confusion:

During a statistics lesson, the teacher says:

“In Tokyo a man gets run over every five hours”.

“Oh, poor thing!” remarks a pupil (Chiaro 1992:40-43).

It is at the lexical and semantic levels that the English language displays its richness, with plenty of opportunities for word play. Humour in English tends to be centred on the ambiguous word or phrase, which can radically alter the meaning of an utterance. This proliferation of puns can cause severe problems for non-native speakers, as we shall see. The plays on words and their meanings that are omnipresent in English humour can vary greatly in subtlety. For example, in this joke:

Is Karl Marx's tomb just another Communist plot?,

There is obviously a pun on the word “plot”. In the next example, there is still word play, but to a less obvious degree:

Mummy, mummy, I don't like Daddy!

Then leave him on the side of your plate and eat your vegetables.

This joke plays on different facets of “like”, but in a very subtle way.

There are numerous categories of puns (Davis 1993), including homophones:

The three ages of man:


Try weekly

Try weakly;

homonyms, as in the Karl Marx joke above; and polysemous lexical items, as in the "I don't like Daddy" joke above. I shall not go into such detail, however. Instead, I shall look at the role of puns, their place in the structure of jokes, and their importance in the context of opposing schemata.

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