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I would like to thank my supervisor, Professor David Little, for his advice and encouragement over the last ten months. I am also extremely grateful to all the students who assisted me in my empirical research, and to the American College for allowing me to use its students in the study.

Many thanks to my parents for their unceasing support and encouragement during the past year. Heartfelt thanks also to Mrs. Jill Mynard, for all her typing; and to Mrs. Lynne Taylor, for helping to proofread. And ‘thank you’ to Christine Appel, for saving me at the last minute!

Last but not least, many thanks to my wife, Jo Mynard, for discussing the subject of humour with me; for her comments on my drafts; and for putting up with months of Fawlty Towers.


This dissertation examines the subject of humour from the perspective of the advanced language learner. Referring specifically to English language humour, the dissertation asks why learners still have great difficulties understanding it, even when they possess a high level of proficiency in the language. The principal claim made in the dissertation is that, contrary to what many language teachers and learners themselves may think, advanced learners are not only frustrated by the sociocultural elements that are so important in humour. Such learners are often still hindered by insufficient knowledge of the systemic features of the target language itself. Phenomena such as incongruity and ambiguity, so fundamental to any linguistic analysis of humour, present major challenges to non-native speakers.

The empirical research described in the dissertation involves advanced learners of English being exposed to English language humour in the form of television situation comedy. The findings from this research suggest that, indeed, such learners do seem to be perplexed by a lot of the play on systemic features of language which forms an integral part of verbal humour. The area where learners are most likely to have difficulties are identified. The data also seem to cast doubt on the notion that learners will find pragmatic humour, based on the violation of norms of discourse, relatively easy to comprehend.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Section 1.1 What is Required for an Understanding of Humour?

Section 1.2 What is Humour?

Section 1.3 Ambiguity

Section 1.4 Puns

Section 1.5 What’s in a Gag?

Section 1.6 Back to Schemata

Section 1.7 Humour as a Violation of Discourse Norms

Chapter 2

Section 2.1 The Medium

Section 2.2 Visual and Verbal Humour

Section 2.3 Why Fawlty Towers?

Section 2.4 The Study

Chapter 3

Section 3.1 Preliminary Questionnaire on Humour

Section 3.2 First Episode - “The Kipper and the Corpse”

Section 3.3 Second Episode - “The Hotel Inspectors”

Section 3.4 Third Episode - “Gourmet Night”

Chapter 4 - Conclusions



I said salad cream stupid

Gourmet Night


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