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Chapter 1 (2)

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Section 1.4:Puns

Arthur Koestler (1974:8) colourfully defines the pun as “two disparate strings of thought tied with an acoustic knot”. This brings us back to our earlier distinction between ambiguity and incongruity. In punning, the presence of an ambiguous element requires that the recipient of the joke switch from one schema to another. In Koestler's (1974:5-6) terminology:

            both the creation of a subtle joke and the re-creative act of perceiving the joke involve the delightful mental jolt of a sudden leap from one plane or
            associative context to another.

This idea of jumping from one schema to another is echoed in Raskin's (1985 cit. Davis 1993:20) “script-based semantic theory” of humour which “analyzes jokes into the paired opposing scripts whose conjunction produces them”.

Puns tend to involve ambiguity between the primary and secondary meanings of words, as well as between their literal and figurative meanings. An example will serve to illustrate this:

Did you hear Daniel O'Donnell got a 14 year old girl into trouble?


Yeah, he told her mother he'd seen her smoking.

In this joke the phrase “to get someone into trouble” has a figurative meaning (especially when applied to 14 year old girls), which has superseded the literal meaning to a large extent. On hearing the first question, most recipients' schemata will include elements like “pregnancy”, “abortion”, “unwanted child” etc. On resolution, however, the schemata will change to the more mundane ones concerning common teenage occurrences. Another example mentioned by Davis (1993:20), fits into Raskin's script-based theory. In this joke, the opposing “Doctor” and “Lover” scripts are paired:

“Is the doctor at home?” the patient asked in his bronchial whisper:

“No”, the doctor's young and pretty wife whispered in reply: “Come right in”.

Puns are often defined as tropes, which means that a pun is “a point at which an ambiguous word shifts the meaning of the rest of the sentence” (Davis 1993:46). So when a man waiting to go out to dinner calls to his wife: “Can't you slip on something and come down?”, we activate a schema involving the woman deciding what to wear; so when she promptly slips on the top step and comes down, the ambiguity of the verb “slip” activates an alternative schema, and the whole meaning of the initial question is drastically altered. Palmer (1987:52-3) gives an example which once again demonstrates how an ambiguous word causes a shift from one schema to another. His example concerns the graffito, “Jesus saves”, which is followed by another: “ ...and Keegan scores on the rebound!” Here the earlier meaning of “save” is subverted by the later meaning.

It seems obvious that for a non-native speaker of English, this abundance of puns is a potential nightmare. The ambiguity residing in a phrase, word, or sound can, in a native speaker, switch on a host of different schemata. To attain this degree of automaticity is an arduous task for a non-native speaker. Each individual joke is a minefield to be traversed with caution. In the next section I will look briefly at the internal structure of the joke, returning inevitably to the marriage between linguistic and sociocultural influences.

Section 1.5:What’s in a Gag?

I wish to look first at Palmer's (1987) discussion of what constitutes a joke or a gag. As mentioned above, Palmer deals with the question of ambiguity, approaching it in an interesting way. For Palmer (1987:43), a joke consists of:

(i) A peripeteia (from the ancient Greek word for ‘shock’) which is constructed by the narrative; and

(ii) Two syllogisms which lead to contradictory conclusions - the first being that the process is totally implausible, and the second that the process does have some plausibility (which is, however, less than the implausibility).

According to Palmer it is the balance between the plausibility and the implausibility which converts the peripeteia (which is not in itself a pleasurable experience) into comic surprise. Too much implausibility results in silliness; too much plausibility can transform sarcastic comedy, say, into disturbingly authentic nastiness. To return to the “Jesus saves” graffito (Palmer 1987:52-3), and the response to it, the comic surprise is created by the presence of plausibility and implausibility. A substantial part of our surprise comes from our realisation that a word can have more than one meaning. Palmer (1987:54) provides an old Bob Hope line as a further example:

I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.

On the one hand this gag is highly implausible due to the obvious impossibility of its premise; yet on the other hand it is plausible when one bears in mind the stereotyped roles, characterised by purity, that Doris Day used to play. One interesting aspect of Palmer's account is the light it throws on individual sense of humour (1987:57). Palmer claims that the reason many people today find old silent comic movies silly is because they only see the implausible side of the actions portrayed. Contemporaries, however, often found the wit too black, too close to the bone for comfort, as they placed too much emphasis on the plausibility syllogism. Similarly, when Fawlty Towers was first shown, many viewers thought it too abrasive to enjoy.

Palmer's analysis of the structure of jokes is highly illuminating, but it must be remembered that many jokes do not just pivot on a linguistic element. It is useful therefore, to consider Nash's (1985:9-10) definition of the humorous act , or joke. In Nash's view, a joke has three principal references:

(i) The “locus” in language, around which the joke revolves, as in puns for example;

(ii) The characteristic design or presentation by which humorous intention is indicated;

(iii) The “genus” or derivation from culture, social attitudes, beliefs etc.

So we are back to the idea of jokes requiring shared knowledge, both linguistic and sociocultural. Nash (1985:31) sees jokes as “superstructures with some underlay of reference which the reader/listener needs to have in his grasp”. We saw in the first section of this chapter that humour comprehension relies on the intertwined factors of linguistic and sociocultural competence. We have also seen the role of schemata in the notions of incongruity and ambiguity. In the next section I will return to sociocultural factors and look at how the idea of schemata is important in understanding the difficulties faced by non-native speakers of English.

Section 1.6:Back to Schemata

We have seen how incongruity is fundamental to humour. Something is incongruous “relative to someone's conceptual scheme” (Morreall 1983:50). Of course, as Morreall adds, (ibid:62):

what a person finds incongruous depends on what he finds congruous, and ... the latter is based on the conceptual patterns which have been built up in his experience.

From this we can conclude that:

adults from different cultures often fail to appreciate each other's humour, because they don't have the same picture of the world and so do not find the same things incongruous (Morreall 1983:61).

So people from different cultures will develop very different schemata. This is a problem for learners of, say, English, who often have difficulties understanding schemata in the target language. As we have seen, ambiguity can be a very subtle phenomenon and can easily be missed by a non-native speaker, who may well understand that an element is congruous in one particular schema, but not in another. So with this joke:

How many Californians does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None. They screw in hot tubs,

the learner may be able to activate one schema with the word “screw” as a congruous element, but not be aware of any other schema where it is also congruous. This is on top of the sociocultural knowledge that may be required, as certain assumptions are made about Californians. This example strengthens the point that has already been made in this chapter: for advanced learners, theproblems with humour in the English language are not solely due to lack of sociocultural knowledge. We have seen that it is not possible to separate the linguistic and sociocultural aspects of humour. Even advanced learners have to face many linguistic difficulties, especially in grasping the multiple meanings of words in different contexts, a problem which causes total bafflement when it comes to ambiguity.

Palmer (1987) talks about the twin elements involved in humour comprehension when he discusses linguistic and ideological competence. According to Palmer (1987:80), “there is no boundary between linguistic competence and ideological competence”, and ideological, or cultural, competence is “inextricably part of linguistic competence in general” (1987:92). Even non-native speakers with a very high level of proficiency in English have problems with features like collocations and multiple meanings. These are systemic features which cause (as much as sociocultural elements do) the lack of ability to quickly activate alternative schemata in the face of ambiguous elements, a task which is automatic to native speakers. Is there then any aspect of humour in English which may be easier for non-native speakers to comprehend, and at an earlier stage of their language learning? The answer may be affirmative, if one considers the humour that results when ambiguity leads to disruption of the rules of conversation. That will be the subject of the final section of the chapter.

Section 1.7:Humour as Violation of Discourse Norms

The constant use of ambiguity in humorous exchanges causes misinterpretation, and sometimes total breakdown of communication. Humour, therefore, frequently operates on a suprasentential level, where the violation of accepted norms of discourse is amusing (Pretorius 1990 cit. Davis 1993:327 n 19). Morreall (1983;79-81) looks at this matter of pragmatic incongruity in some detail, with relation to the ideas of Grice (1975). Grice (1975:45) presents a general principle of conversation, called the Cooperative Principle, as well as a number of conversational conventions, or maxims, that speakers will normally obey. They are:

Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required, but not too informative;

Quality: Do not say what you believe to be false. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence;

Relation: Be relevant (this really covers all the other maxims);

Manner: Be perspicuous. Avoid ambiguity. Avoid obscurity of expression. Be brief. Be orderly.

Deliberate flouting of these maxims can be extremely irritating, but can also be humorous. Morreall looks at the humorous possibilities arising when these maxims are violated:

Quantity: It can be extremely funny when someone fails to contribute enough information during a conversation, as in only giving one-word answers to questions that clearly require more, or (in that stock comic device) giving evasive answers, such as repeating a question a few times. At the opposite end of the scale, giving too much information can be humorous, especially if the information is blindingly obvious;

Quality: Lies have long been used as a humorous device. Some of the humour

can come from our realisation that the other person is deliberately misusing what is supposed to be a medium for the communication of information

(Morreall 1983:80).

Wild speculations and desperate guesses can be as funny as exaggerations and lies. As Morreall (ibid:81) says:

[T]he person who pretends expertise in fields he knows little about is often a funny figure.

Manner: Obscurity can hinder or even prevent communication in an amusing way, while ambiguity is funny especially if we realise that the person is deliberately trying not to communicate. If conversation becomes too confusing, with too frequent interruptions and topic changes, the situation can fast become a comical one.

Violation of norms of discourse is common in riddles and children's humour, as in the example:

Constantinople is a long word, can you spell it?

“It” here can refer to “it” or “Constantinople”, and whichever of the two the respondent spells, the answer will be declared wrong. The question is ambiguous, obscure and not informative enough. One further example will suffice:

Where did King John sign the Magna Carta?

At the bottom.

This joke is

intentionally misleading, not only because of the many-sidedness of the item ‘where’, but above all because of the insufficient information given (quantity maxim), its obscurity (manner maxim), and its deception (quality maxim) (Chiaro 1992:44).

It has been claimed (Richardson 1989) that ‘pragmatic humour’, i.e. violation of discourse norms, is actually quite accessible to second language learners; certainly more so than humour with many sociocultural and semantic elements. It may well be that non-native speakers of English will learn more quickly to appreciate such suprasentential humour, but that humour based on ambiguity will be much more problematic. Hopefully the results of this study will shed some light on this matter.

The principal points to emerge from this first chapter are as follows:

  1. Simply because learners of English as a second language are at an advanced level, it does not follow that the difficulties they have understanding humour in English therefore come from outside the domain of linguistics. Sociocultural features of humour are clearly a formidable obstacle for such learners, yet we cannot ignore the fact that much of humour is based on playing with linguistic features.
  2. A lot of humour comes from incongruities and ambiguities in language. When we get a joke, we are recognising and resolving an incongruity or an ambiguity. This skill requires world knowledge and linguistic knowledge.
  3. It has been suggested by Richardson (1989) that language learners may find it easier to understand pragmatic humour, based on violation of norms of discourse, than linguistic (or systemic) humour.
This dissertation will consider these issues in the light of the findings of the empirical study.

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