The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes

The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes

The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes

The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes


This book starts from three observations. First, the use of humour is a complex, puzzling, and idiosyncratically human form of behaviour (and hence is of scientific interest). Second, there is currently no theory of how humour works. Third, one useful step towards a theory of humour is to analyze humorous items in precise detail, in order to understand their mechanisms.The author begins by considering how to study jokes rigorously: the assumptions to make, the guidelines to follow and the pitfalls to avoid. A critique of other work on humour is also provided. This introduces some important concepts, and also demonstrates the lack of agreement about what a theory of humour should look like. The language devices used in various jokes, such as puns or humour based on misinterpretation, are analysed in detail. The central part of the book develops, and demonstrates, proposals for how best to analyze the workings of simple jokes. Finally, the author makes some general suggestions about the language devices that seem to be central to the construction of jokes.The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes will be invaluable for researchers and advanced students of humour research, linguistics and cognitive science.


We set out the main aims of this book, and outline what its chapters contain.


Humour - a complex problem

The use of humour is a complex and intriguing aspect of human behaviour. Nash goes as far as to claim that 'humour is a specifying characteristic of humanity', comparable in this respect to 'the power of speech, the mathematical gift, the gripping thumb' (Nash 1985:1). Humour is present throughout social conventions and cultural artefacts, and the use of humour is highly valued in interactions between people. Despite this apparent importance, there is, as Raskin has observed, currently no major theory of humour, in the sense of something which 'explains what is funny, why it is funny, how it is funny, when it is funny, and to whom it is funny' (Raskin 1998:3, italics in original). This statement might seem to conflict with the literature on humour, where there are many proposals for dealing with humour, often claiming to be theories (e.g. Veatch (1998), Berger (1998), Latta (1999)). However, most of these 'theories' rarely define their basic terms formally, and are insufficiently developed to make precise falsifiable predictions. That is, they are at best interesting informal discussions, but are not formal theories or models. Nevertheless, we shall follow common practice and continue to refer to these ideas as 'theories'.

In contrast, the newer disciplines of artificial intelligence and cognitive science deal in formal, computationally testable models of human behaviour, and have investigated many complex phenomena, such as visual perception, physical mobility, language use, and reasoning. However, they have barely touched on humour. Two major encyclopaedias in these disciplines, Shapiro (1992) and Wilson and Kidd (1999), have no sections or index entries for 'humo(u)r'.

This book tries to bring together these strands of work - humour research and artificial intelligence - by studying the kinds of humorous phenomena which philosophers and others have already discussed, but applying as far

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