Jokes and the Linguistic Mind
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Jokes and the Linguistic Mind

Debra Aarons

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Jokes and the Linguistic Mind

Debra Aarons

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Through the lens of cognitive science, Jokes and the Linguistic Mind investigates jokes that play on some aspect of the structure and function of language. In so doing, Debra Aarons shows that these 'linguistic jokes' can evoke our tacit knowledge of the language we use. Analyzing hilarious examples from movies, plays and books, Jokes and the Linguistic Mind demonstrates that tacit linguistic knowledge must become conscious for linguistic jokes to be understood. The book examines jokes that exploit pragmatic, semantic, morphological, phonological and semantic features of language, as well as jokes that use more than one language and jokes that are about language itself. Additionally, the text explores the relationship between cryptic crossword clues and linguistic jokes in order to demonstrate the difference between tacit knowledge of language and rules of language use that are articulated for a particular purpose. With its use of jokes as data and its highly accessible explanations of complex linguistic concepts, this book is an engaging supplementary text for introductory courses in linguistics, psycholinguistics and cognitive science. It will also be of interest to scholars in translation studies, applied linguistics and philosophy of language.

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Jokes And The Linguistic Mind
1.0 Introduction
In this chapter I discuss my interest in the topic of jokes and what they tell us about the linguistic mind, and present the outline of my central claims. I detail the theoretical concerns and approach of this investigation and show how it makes a contribution to the study of Linguistics and Cognitive Science. I explain why the book is crucially about linguistics and not about humor, per se. In so doing, as a contrast, and for interested readers, I provide a very brief outline of some of the work in Humor Studies.
2.0 What Can the Study of Jokes Teach Us About Linguistics?
2.1 Linguistic Analysis and Evidence as Revealed Through Jokes
2.1.1 Analyzing the Language of Jokes
For years now, as a teacher of linguistics, I have noticed that every major idea in linguistics can be illustrated elegantly and memorably through an appropriate joke.1 The joke usually makes the linguistic point in a pithier way than an explanation can. This has always made sense to me on an intuitive level. In studying linguistics,2 after all, as well as viewing language as a window into the mind, we also observe, describe and analyze it as an object, made up of other smaller objects. Analyzing language performance is an indirect way for us to speculate on the mental representations underlying actual or possible utterances. It has been persuasively argued by Fromkin (1980, 1997, 2000) that the analysis of speech errors (e.g., slips of the tongue) provides access to the mental representation and organization of some important linguistic features. Salvatore Attardo, in his comprehensive work, Linguistic Theories of Humor (1994), remarks on the use of puns as a source of linguistic evidence for mental representations.3
A possible drawback in the use of puns as linguistic evidence may be the fact that, as has been stressed, puns are a conscious phenomenon, and so the data they present may be contaminated; the conscious nature of the use of puns should not be confused with an awareness of the mechanisms at play in the production and understanding of puns… they [speakers] are not at all aware of the rules that govern the appropriate strings for punning, of what qualifies as “similar” strings, or of how the two senses of the utterance are brought together. This allows the safe conclusion that puns do not present a worse quality of data than speech errors. As a matter of fact, they may provide a broader range of data (for instance, on pragmatic facts) and may not be subject in the same measure to the drawbacks that speech errors present when used as linguistic evidence.
(Attardo1994, pp. 141–2)
I extend this claim to a range of jokes, encompassing different kinds of linguistic phenomena, in an attempt to demonstrate that linguistic humor4—humor that is de dicto (verbal) as opposed to de re (referential)—is a valuable source of evidence for our tacit knowledge of the mental representations of phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax and pragmalinguistics, and the rules which govern these.
2.1.2 Playing with the Parts of Language
Treating language as an object, or a collection of objects, allows us to play with these objects, much like a child plays with toys. We can arrange the objects in different ways, build, construct, disassemble, bend, stretch and even break them. We can work with toys of all sizes, shapes, colors, textures, flexibility and rigidity. We can use them as weapons, vehicles or dolls. Watching a child play with the most basic of toys, including items such as matchboxes and bottle tops, we see that imagination is the limit of what can be done. Interestingly, it seems to me, a child playing with language does the same: the sounds are arranged, rearranged, repeated, turned inside out and upside down, sung, shouted, whispered, stretched and lengthened, simply as play for its own sake. Minimally, all the child has is a set of elements; some finite limitations provided by the elements themselves; and his/her own mind.5
It occurs to me that some kinds of jokes are just this: they are the product of playing around with language to see what is possible and what happens. Playing is fun: it results in delight. Play of the kind I discuss here is not particularly purposive. Every person has a set of toys (the parts of language and the rules for their combination) at their immediate disposal; not all of us recognize that the objects that we use for serious and telic activities are also available as toys. The semiotician, Pierre Guiraud (1976, 1981), has called this activity the “defunctionalization” of language—that is the use of language for play, not for other purposes. The ways in which people play with objects can tell us something about the nature of the objects, as well as the nature of the mind of the player. Jokes are self-contained units that give us information about the nature of language and the nature of the mind that processes it. What I refer to as “linguistic jokes” provide excellent data for the exploration of the nature of linguistic knowledge and the human mind from which it is inseparable.6 Although people may chuckle at private jokes on their own, jokes are an essentially social phenomenon, as is language use in most of its functions. We can and do use language ideationally in a solitary way, but this constitutes only one of language’s many functions. Typically, jokes are shared in interaction. Language play, however, is not restricted to either communicative or private functions. Aquinas describes the playful use of language thus.
Those words and deeds in which nothing is sought beyond the soul’s pleasure called playful or humorous and it is necessary to make use of them at times for solace of soul.
(Aquinas, Summa Theologia, Question 168)
Of course, using language in a defunctionalized way is also one of language’s functions, and although language use might be for its own sake, it may not always be for the speaker’s sake only. Although we entertain ourselves by playing, it is much more fun to play with others. In that sense, play with language may be both interactional and reflective.
Play with language, or the ludic use of language, has been discussed by a number of scholars. The Dutch cultural historian, Huizinga (1938), produced a magnum opus, Homo Ludens, in which he identified the essence of the human as playfulness. Huizinga claimed that playfulness was the fundamental human drive and that human cultural history emerged and developed out of play. Although his work was not specifically concerned with language, but rather with human cultural development as a whole, this encompassed language use. Playing, with language and in language, is, then, part of the basic human drive.
Gregory Bateson (1976), the anthropologist and polymath, discusses play, and also, more specifically, the notion of language play. Bateson shows that play (of the type that is found in jokes, etc.) is characterized by the addition of a meta-communicative act, a comment (or a new frame) that is outside the denotative level of communication. “These actions, in which we now engage, do not denote what would be denoted by these actions which these actions denote. The playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite” (Bateson, 1976 p. 121). For Bateson, language play is about the tension between the communication and the meta-communication. In language play, there is constant tugging between la langue and all the different tokens of parole (Saussure, 1993). What makes it play is that, “(a) the messages or signals exchanged in play are in a certain sense untrue or not meant; and (b) that which is denoted by these signals is non-existent” (Bateson, 1976, p. 123).
Karl Groos, a psychologist working within a tradition of evolutionary biology, regarded play as preparation for the ongoing activities of life (Groos, 1901). Nevertheless, despite his overall instrumentalist vision of play, he saw the virtue of the purely ludic use of language. In talking about the humorous use of language, he remarked that it is close to the way children play with words. Groos seems to have had a direct influence on Freud and his views of play. We see this in Freud’s view of language play, specifically with respect to the non-tendentious or innocent uses of jokes, although it seems that play with language is not incompatible with jokes that are tendentious (Freud 1905/2002). Apter and Smith (1977) and Apter (1982) in comparing playfulness and serious-mindedness, consider humor to be paratelic, i.e., concerned with play.
Indeed, Raskin’s (1985) characterization of linguistic humor as Non bona fide (NBF) communication, is a modern version of the notion of ludic language, a form of play with language in which we engage, that seems to be governed by its own rules. Raskin does not make any claims, one way or the other, about the purpose of the humorous exchange, as his concern is essentialist, and deliberately uncommitted to theories of teleology. Talking about the purpose of humor, as he points out, does not tell us much about the essential nature of the phenomenon, linguistic humor—for that we need to analyze the phenomenon itself.
Crystal (1998) in his book, Language Play, is concerned to demonstrate that everybody plays with language, and he dwells on the questions of why this is so. Finally, he makes a case for why the ludic (or playful) function of language is of interest to our thinking about linguistic issues. He proposes, crucially, that it is language play that is the fundamental instinct that drives language acquisition.
2.2 The Linguistic Data
In this book, I use the term “linguistic humor” to refer to any kind of humor that reveals play with language objects at any and all of the different levels of language structure and additionally, that exploits playing around with rules governing pragmatic force. Here I am concerned only with humor that is de dicto.
2.2.1 Jokes de dicto and de re
Since jokes occur in the medium of language, they all use language. However, some jokes are dependent for their humor on the form of the language in which they are told, and others are independent of linguistic form as the source of humor. Those jokes that are independent of linguistic form for their humor are known as jokes de re (about things).
Joke 1, below, plausibly retains its humorous effect if expressed in any language. It is also not necessarily reliant on cultural stereotypes, but these are handy shortcuts into the joke atmosphere.
Joke 1 – de re humor
Texas tourist: Back home it takes me the best part of a day to drive from one side of my ranch to the other.
Local farmer: Ah sure, I had a car like that once!7
In contrast, the humor in Joke 2 below is entirely dependent on the linguistic form of the relevant parts of the joke. Jokes of this sort are known as jokes de dicto (jokes that are about words). I refer to this kind of humor as “linguistic humor”.
Joke 2 – de dicto humor
Q: What do ducks do before they grow up?
A: They grow down.
3.0 Linguistic Humor: Evidence for Tacit Knowledge of Language
3.1 The Study of Jokes from a Linguistic Perspective
The study of jokes from the perspective of linguistic theory opens up some interesting areas of exploration. I look at those uses of language that I find to be clever, surprising, witty and fresh, and which are distinguished from straightforward, predictable bona fide communication by being non-casual uses of language, that are aesthetic or artistic.8 By aesthetic I mean linguistically patterned above and beyond what is strictly necessary for the direct and conventional communication of the message. In this sense, jokes are language artifacts. They are not simply unintended “found language”; their originators intend them to be special utterances. The kinds of jokes I analyze in this work are all crafted (except in the cases of accidental humor, which I treat as lucky accidents that bear analysis) in that they highlight a particular aspect of language structure or function of which we are normally unaware.9
3.2 The Phenomenon: Linguistic Jokes
3.2.1 What will Analyzing the Phenomenon Linguistically Tell Us?
In focussing on the phenomenon of linguistic humor I attend most specifically to jokes that turn on some element expressible in terms of linguistic rules. My central concern is to show that although much of our knowledge of language is tacit, it can be activated by these kinds of jokes.
Of course, jokes are always part of performance, as are any utterance tokens. However, it seems to me that jokes activate something that normal interactions don’t: they cause us to reflect on language.
Apart from those in the reflections-on-language business, not everyone is aware that, when we engage with these kinds of jokes, reflecting on language is an important part of what we do. I think it is entirely reasonable to suggest that although not everyone is a joke maker, any person who knows his or her native language can, in principle, get a joke. Raskin (1985) has, in fact, proposed that we all have an innate humor competence that simply needs to be activated.10 I don’t take issue with this claim, however my assumption is a little more minimal. I am simply assuming that humans appear to have the capacity to play with language and be amused by language play. I assume as well, that jokes work by means of certain mechanisms, although the particular mechanisms I am interested in are specifically linguistic and not necessarily driven by psychological considerations such as processing.
There is no reason to assume, outside of the study of formal linguistics, that people have any idea what the formal concepts—phone, phoneme, syllable, morpheme, lexeme, and phrase—refer to. Yet, it can...