Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis

Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis

Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis

Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis


This book presents a theory of long humorous texts based on a revision and an upgrade of the General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH), a decade after its first proposal. The theory is informed by current research in psycholinguistics and cognitive science. It is predicated on the fact that there are humorous mechanisms in long texts that have no counterpart in jokes. The book includes a number of case studies, among them Oscar Wilde's Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Allais' story Han Rybeck. A ground-breaking discussion of the quantitative distribution of humor in select texts is presented.


This book presents a methodology to extend the analyses of the General Theory of Verbal Humor to all texts, regardless of length. It also presents a number of more or less long and comprehensive applications to texts taken from a variety of literatures, media, situations, and historical periods. It is also an update of the GTVH, a decade after its first proposal.

The book has existed in many forms. In 1997, I used a collection of work-inprogress pieces in a course on “humor on television”. These were reworked in an early draft for a seminar on humorous narratives in the spring of 1999. Part of the seminar consisted of the analysis of some sections of Wilde's story, in ch. (8). It was radically overhauled over my year-long sabbatical at ITC-BRST, in Trento.

This work is certainly not the last word on the issue of “long texts” in humor research. Its goal is to explore some aspects of this field, hopefully setting some markers that will be used by other researchers to further our knowledge. The same goes for the actual analyses. I say this because so much in what follows is tentative, hesitatingly put, or plain speculative that I considered changing the title to Out on a Limb. However, in a sense I knew what I was doing; this is the lot of those who venture outside charted areas: they run into lions.

0.1 A cautionary tale

In 1966, Violette Morin published—in the famous issue of Communications which popularized the structuralist analysis of texts—a short article on jokes, in which she postulated a tripartite organization of the joke text. This approach gathered a substantial following among European scholars (see Attardo 1994: 85–92). However, ulterior research showed that, far from being unique to jokes, a tripartite structure is common to all narrative forms. Therefore, instead of having discovered a defining feature of jokes, Morin had merely rediscovered the truism that jokes are narratives (consider that a good definition of joke could be “a short narrative text which is funny”). This is not to say that all humor is narrative, but merely that jokes are a type of text that is a subset of narratives (in French, this is clearer as joke translates as histoire drôle, i.e., funny story).

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