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Linguistic Approaches to Humor. Professor Dr. N. R. Norrick Saarland University FR 4.3 English Linguistics SS 2009. Practical goals Learn how to tell a joke/make a pun in English Learn English/American joking styles Find humor on the internet. Theoretical goals

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Linguistic Approaches to Humor

Professor Dr. N. R. Norrick

Saarland University

FR 4.3 English Linguistics

SS 2009


Practical goals

Learn how to tell a joke/make a pun in English

Learn English/American joking styles

Find humor on the internet


Theoretical goals

Linguistic terminology

Descriptive linguistic principles

Theories of humor

Analysis of humor in spoken/written discourse

Corpus-based research


1. Linguistic features of humor

verbal humor: written and spoken

generally ignore actions, pictures, gestures, facial expressions

descriptive linguistic principles

even with Freud, focus is “techniques” rather than psychology

wherever possible attempt formal specification of phonological, morphological, syntactic features, semantic scripts, oppositions


2. Code of humor

Is there are single principle underlying all humor?

Or at least all verbal humor?

Superiority theory (also aggression or schadenfreude theories) Plato; Hobbes “sudden glory”; Bergson “mechanical encrusted on human”

focus on relations between source, victim/butt and audience


Incongruity theory (also bisociation or script opposition theory)

Freud, Bateson, Koestler, Raskin

focus on the stimulus to laughter

Typically we can find a linguistic explanation of incongruity

and an explanation of aggressive “tendency” in superiority/schadenfreude


Consider an example where structural ambiguity leads to a joke:

Allen jogs with his wife twice a week, and so does Paul

Allen sleeps with his wife twice a week, and so does Paul

Cohesive device “so does” requires search for verb phrase in previous clause

It’s the “pivot” or “script switch trigger” of the joke

Anaphoric pronoun “his” requires search for co-referential noun

“his” usually refers back to closest preceding, as in first clause,

but in scope of “so” the whole phrase [with Allen’s wife] can be accessed


This yields structural ambiguity and the incongruity necessary for humor

Allen sleeps with his (Allen’s) wife twice a week,

and so does Paul [sleep with his (Paul’s/Allen’s) wife twice a week]

In structurally parallel examples, only the one involving sex makes us work out the less salient, but more salacious interpretation, while we’re satisfied with the "innocent" interpretation in the example where each man jogs with his own wife


Ambiguity due to polysemy works in a similar way

“buns” with its dual meaning potential acts as the pivot of the joke

the polysemy of “buns” makes the whole second clause ambiguous,

and less salient meaning surfaces if a sexy interpretation beckons

Jenny Schwarz made the best muffins in town, but it was her father's luscious buns that kept the crowds coming.

Lenny Schwarz made the best muffins in town, but it was his daughter's luscious buns that kept the crowds coming.



First analyze the linguistic structures leading to incongruity

Then identify the aggressive tendency

--There may be multiple targets/butts

If Jesus was a Jew, why’d they give him a Puerto Rican name?

This graffito seems both anti-Christian and anti-Puerto Rican

How do I set my laser printer on stun?

This rhetorical question seems to target both computer terminology and Star Trek


--Some kinds of humor have no obvious target

Are Santa's helpers subordinate clauses?

What happens if you get scared half to death twice?

The phonological identity of the name “Claus” and the linguistic term “clause” suggests a pun with no apparent aggression

Taking literally the idiom “to scare someone half to death” leads to a paradox, but again there’s no target


Humor and laughter

  • Laughter as evidence of mirth and humorous stimulus
  • with conversational data first listen for laughter, then find the joke
  • with written materials, films etc. explain how you know it’s funny
  • However, we don’t always laugh, even when something’s funny,
  • but there are other signals that we recognize humor
  • Laughter also arises from tickling, relief, embarrassment: are these
  • kinds of laughter related to the mirthful laughter in humor?
  • And if there are different kinds of laughter, why not different sources
  • of humor?

Interdiscoursal humor

  • Special focus this semester on humor across languages, cultures,
  • media, generations, genders and other “communities of practice”
  • With the goal of identifying common features of accommodation and
  • translation of humor between groups, media and languages.
  • How do we communicate forms of humor across cultures, groups,
  • languages and media?
  • How does an oral joke performance differ from a written joke text?

Freud and Hockett: Joke techniques and structures

1.Freud (1901) The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

Freud extended the notion of parapraxis (Fehlleistung) from neuroses to normal mental lapses like forgetting names and bungled actions (Vergreifen)


Best known are the slips of the tongue known as Freudian slips

Slips are also likely to be humorous and similar to jokes

e.g. Transposition

Queer old dean for Dear old queen

Basic thesis: There are two levels of mental activity and repressed thoughts from the subconscious surface involuntarily (as in dreams)


2. Freud (1905) Joke and their Relation to the Unconscious

Freud liked jokes; he kept a notebook of jokes

He became interested in the relation between the workings of jokes, slips of the tongue and dreams

Basic question in first part: “What makes a remark a joke?”

e.g. Baron Rothschild treated me quite famillionairely

Not thought expressed, but form of expression makes jokes


So: what are the techniques?

--Condensation (Blending)




Compare: alcoholidays

--Multiple use of same material

e.g. Antigone - Antik, oh nee!

Want ad: Lion tamer seeks tamer lion

Note: -er in noun tamer is noun-forming suffix, -er on adjective tamer is comparative inflectional suffix


--Double Meaning

e.g. Though William shakes his spear, Anne hath a way


A: Hast du genommen ein Bad?

B: Warum, fehlt eins?

double meaning of nehmen allows displacement

from take a bath = ‘bathe’ to take a bath = ‘remove a bath’

in Displacement, a Substitution (of one idea for another) takes place

The process of Condensation, too, involves formation of a substitute

e.g. millionaire for familiar


Freud also identifies as joke techniques: Absurdity, Silliness, Faulty reasoning, Allusion, Analogy etc.

But they all involve displacement/substitution/representation by opposite

And they relate joke-work to dream-work:

Superficial word/text/scene corresponds to underlying word/text/scene

Some incongruity in superficial scene triggers entry into repressed underlying scene


Freud also discusses the tendencies of jokes:

Exposing (obscene), aggressive (hostile), cynical (blasphemous)

Freud considers the functions of jokes as a social process

And the relation of jokes to comedy

Consequently, Freud presents an Incongruity theory of the form of jokes and an Aggression theory of the functions of jokes


3. Hockett “Where the tongue slips, there slip I”

Hockett wrote “Where the tongue slips, there slip I” as a response to Freud (1901) and “Jokes” as a response to Freud (1905)

Hockett provides linguistic background on slips of the tongue


--Blending (Freud’s Condensation)

don’t shell so loud shout + yell


sometimes speakers catch their own slips and correct them, as in:

She’s anxious to get a yawn- yard in


speakers may produce a new blend in an attempt to edit a slip

We weren’t sure we could avord- affoid it

from afford and avoid


looked at wonder- at one another in wonder


--Metathesis (Freud’s Transposition)

Initial sounds:tons of soil for sons of toil

Internal sounds: I fool so feelish for I feel so foolish


we should be reminisce in our duty if we did not investigate

reminisce for remiss

Hockett relates slips of the tongue to puns and considers slips as evidence for a theory of speech production


4. Hockett “Jokes”

Hockett approaches jokes as an art form, a genre of literature

Jokes can be poetic (language based) or prosaic (situation based)

Poetic jokes are generally untranslatable:

“Tough luck,” said the egg in the monastery,

“out of the frying pan and into the friar.”

Prosaic jokes work in any language:

An irate man came into a drugstore. “Yesterday I came in here for hair tonic,” he complained, “but what you sold me was glue. This morning I tried to tip my hat, and lifted myself two inches off the sidewalk.”


Jokes consist of a build-up, which comprises the body of the joke,

and a punch (or punchline), which structurally closes the joke.

The punch semantically reverses the sense we would expect from the build-up

We can often find a pivot as well, a word or phrase around which the dual meaning potential revolves, e.g. in the classic one-liner:

A panhandler came up to me today and said he hadn't had a bite in weeks, so I bit him


A panhandler came up to me today and said he hadn't had a bite in weeks, so I bit him

build-up consists in clauses A-B

clause C represents the punch-line

A A panhandler came up to me

B He said he hadn't had a bite in weeks

C I bit him

The ambiguous phrase "have a bite" constitutes the pivot

"had a bite" belongs structurally to the build-up,

while functioning semantically as the pivot.


BUILD-UP A panhandler came up to me today and said he hadn't

pivothad a bite in weeks,

PUNCH so I bit him

Like the first example, this is a pun based on a set phrase

Further, it’s a perfect pun, since “have a bite” is ambiguous


The first joke is an imperfect pun, since into the friar differs from into the fire

Puns sub-divide into end-puns like:

Mexican weather forecast: chilly today and hot tamale

And build-up puns like:

Confusius say:

Woman who cooks carrots and peas in same pot very unsanitary


This is also a garden-path joke—the recipient reads or listens on past the punchline, then registers the incongruity and goes back over the preceding text

Compare garden-path sentences like:

The horse raced past the barn fell


Hockett further identifies compound jokes with multiple punchlines

And complex jokes where one joke is contained within another

Like Freud, Hockett considers the joke-work—both from the perspective of the teller and the recipient

He also looks at riddles, games and verses, and considers sick jokes

Sample Jokes: Classify according to Hockett

Does the Little Mermaid wear an algebra?

Practice safe eating – always use condiments


A dentist had the habit of leaving his office each afternoon,

and going to a bar downstairs in the same building.

The bartender came to know him,

so when he saw the dentist coming,

he automatically prepared the dentist's favorite drink:

a daiquiri with some shreaded walnuts on top.

One afternoon the bartender saw the dentist coming,

but he couldn't find any walnuts,

so he looked around for a substitute,

and served the drink to the dentist without comment.

The dentist sips at the drink and says,

"This is good but it's a little different.

What did you do?"

The bartender says,

"Well, that's a hickory daiquiri, Doc."


A guy walks into a bar and orders a beer. He is standing there at the bar and he hears a voice say, "You're a great looking guy." He looks around, but there is nobody there. He turns back around and he hears the same voice say, "I think you're a really good person." It keeps happening and he keeps looking around, but he can't see anybody talking. Finally he says to the bartender, "What's going on here. I keep hearing a voice but when I look around there’s nobody there." And the bartender says, "It's the peanuts, they're complimentary."


A doctor calls a plumber at 3 am to fix a leaky toilet. When the plumber refuses to come, the doctor asks, "Wouldn't I help your daughter if she had a fever at night?"

To this the plumber replies, "Okay, throw two asprin in the bowl and call me in the morning."

Just as he finished putting a question to the class, a professor noticed that one student was nearly asleep, so he quickly added, "Jones, what do you think?" Jones jerked his eyes open and responded, "I'm not sure, Professor; what do you think?" The professor drew himself erect and said, "I don't think; I know." Jones replied, "Well, I don't think I know either.“


A Hindu, a Jew and a Pole are stuck in the country when their carbreaks down. They come to a farm and ask to stay the night. "I have a cabin with room for two," says the farmer, "And the third can sleep in the barn." The Hindu volunteers. But five minutes later he knocks at the cabin door and says, "I can't stay in the barn. There's a cow in there, and that's against my religion." So the Jew agrees to sleep in the barn. But five minutes later there's a knock at the door, and the Jew says, "I can't stay in the barn. There's a pig in there, and that's against my religion." So the Pole agrees to sleep in the barn. But five minutes later there's a knock at the door, and there stand the cow and pig.