4.2 From Style To Content

In his 1987 discussion on humour Palmer raises the question of what should be the unit of analysis - the individual joke or larger scale units such as comic narrative (p.20). We have just seen some of the difficulties in trying to create an exact delineation of humour along these lines, but this question does make us aware of the wide variety of stylistic resources available to the humorist. Following this lead we will here consider different aspects of style, first taking a brief look at linguistic items within the sentence, before going on to a fuller discussion of items beyond the sentence. Note, however, that style is not a matter of simply linguistic choice. Different choices can be identified formally, but, as we shall see, the meanings created by such choices are laden with social significance also. That is to say, this section will combine both a formalist and functionalist perspective.

Sherzer has observed that puns ‘manipulate different levels and aspects of language’ (1985:213), and we start with a simple one-line example of such which allows us to deal with morphological, lexical, phonological, and syntactic matters in one stroke.

I’d rather have a full bottle in front o’ me than a full frontal lobotomy.

When I first heard this it was credited to an utterance by the singer Tom Waits. However, Norrick (1993) discusses it (in a slightly different form) as an anonymous piece of graffito, that is, as a written joke. As the sound play is central it will be here treated as primarily a spoken joke.

The key items are ‘a full bottle in front o’ me’ and ‘a full frontal lobotomy’. Closer examination reveals not simply a neat morphological transposition but also a remarkable phonological symmetry.

Both items have the same number of syllables and precisely the same sequence of stress. The first two and last two syllables are repeated in exactly the same place in (a) and (b) with the same phonetic realisation. In a) these four syllables are all free morphemes (they can stand alone), whereas in b) 1 and 2 are free morphemes, but 7 and 8 are together part of the bound morpheme (cannot stand alone) ‘otomy’. Within the four central syllables number 4 is repeated in the same place in (a) and (b), and in (b) finds its ‘mirror image’ in the next syllable, number 9 (.)

Also within that central area syllables 3 and 6 in (a) are diagonally transposed in (b). The weakness of the play is that only seven of the eight syllables of (a) are repeated in (b); the one new syllable , number 9 in (b), replaces , number 5 of (a) but as it, like 5, is unstressed, it causes no dissonance.

All of this neat morphological, lexical, and phonological play also creates a new syntagm. Where a) is a noun phrase (NP) consisting of a determiner, an adjective, a noun, a preposition, a noun, another preposition, and another noun, thus:

noun phrase 1

b) is a simpler NP constituted as follows:

noun phrase 2

With its neat interplay of, in Saussurian terms, the paradigmatic (vertical) and syntagmatic (horizontal) [1915] (1966), and its identical rhythms, this creates not only a strikingly contrastive and humorous meaning (which, after all, is the point) but is also a strong example of Jakobson’s ‘poetic’. In his formulation he refers to the paradigmatic as selection and the syntagmatic as combination; selection is based on equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymity and antonymity; combination is based on sequence, contiguity.

The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence. In poetry one syllable is equalised with any other syllable of the same sequence; word stress is assumed to equal word stress, as unstress equals unstress
(1960:358 original emphasis)

Such play with forms allows the creation of humour which can also be used, if so desired, for social comment. Take the following simple play on words. It comes from a scene in the television situation comedy ‘Steptoe & Son’. The characters are a father and son who run a rag-and-bone business, from which they barely make a living. Here father Albert (A) and son Harold (H) are having a dispute about the state of the house, which H finds disgusting. As they sort through a pile of old newspapers in the living room A is delighted to remember some of the stories he comes across.

1. A: Here (1.0) I remember this. [Reads headline] ‘Mussolini Invades Albania.
2. King Zog Flees’
3. H: That’s nothing, mate, we’ve got king-size fleas here.

(Galton & Simpson 2000)

This is another play involving morphemes, sounds, and syntax in the two items (a) ‘King Zog flees’ and (b) ‘king-size fleas’. The morphological play involves transforming the two free morphemes of the title and name ‘King Zog’ into the compound adjective ‘king-size’, and the two morphemes of ‘flees’ (the free morpheme ‘flee’ + the third person singular bound morpheme ‘s’) into ‘fleas’ (the free morpheme ‘flea’ + the plural ending bound morpheme ‘s’). In the sound play the first and third morphemes in each item – (a) ‘king’ and ‘flees’, (b) ‘king’ and ‘fleas’ - have the same phonetic realisation : and , and the middle morpheme in each – ‘Zog’ and ‘size’ - has the same sibilant sound /z/. Both items (a) and (b) consist of three syllables. Normally, the compound adjective ‘king-size’ would carry the primary stress (1) on the first syllable with the second syllable taking secondary stress (2), and this would give (a) and (b) a different stress pattern of, respectively, 1-1-1, and 1-2-1. But H, to make the play complete, gives ‘size’ additional emphasis, thus giving the two items the same stress pattern, 1-1-1. The syntactic transformation is as follows:














The significance here, however, is not simply the formal play but the way it is used by H in ‘a hierarchy of different acts whereby we do X by or while doing Y’ (van Dijk 1997:5, original emphasis). Thus, H does not simply indulge in word play, he also uses the play in his argument with his father to underline his own views concerning the dirtiness of the house. Elsewhere van Dijk notes, when discussing the developments in discourse analysis:

Whereas grammars would often be constrained to the possible grammatical forms of a given language system, style had to do with the context-dependent variations of language use. Thus sociolinguistics paid attention to the choice of a specific style as a function of social situation, class, or ethnic membership, or of social factors such as gender, age, status or power.

Such considerations clearly take us into the social world of motivated beings using language for specific purposes, that is, language in context. This leads us away from the purely formal aspects of language such as, for example, the sentence, into discourse, which at its simplest is ‘extended sequences of text and talk’ (Blum-Kulka 1997:38) in which utterances are the primary building block. We will consider utterances to be ‘contextualised sentences’ (Schiffrin 1994:41). Utterances make us think of both context and sequence and so ‘defining discourse as utterances seems to balance both the functional emphasis on how language is used in context and the formal emphasis of extended patterns’ (Schiffrin p.40). If we look at discourse used for humorous purposes we find points of concurrence among various commentators. Lodge, when discussing comic situation and comic style, comments that both ‘crucially depend upon timing, that is to say, the order in which the words, and the information they carry, are arranged’ (1992:110). For Palmer jokes have a two-part structure:

all jokes, verbal or visual, have two stages, the preparation stage and the culmination stage; and this is true of even the most minimal gag, such as the traditional custard pie in the face, for the custard pie in the face is the culmination of a brief sequence in which the preparation consists, minimally, of the face without custard pie all over it.

Note that this accords precisely with Sherzer’s view above (4.1).

Double, a practising comedian, would add that this basic structure is true for more complex performances also.

Even in the most conversational, anecdotal, observational routine in the world, where there’s no obvious split between build-up and punch line, where it all seems to be a seamless flow of thoughts, there are still punch lines…the audience needs some sort of cue to let them know it’s time to laugh.

Wilson and Sperber show the importance of all this when they contrast two ways of discussing what is essentially the same proposition:

(8) Two taxis collided and thirty Scotsmen were taken to hospital.
(Woody Allen)

(9) Scotsmen are very mean. They travel in enormously overcrowded taxis to avoid paying the full fare. Once two taxis containing thirty Scotsmen collided. The passengers were taken to hospital.

Both extracts can be seen to carry very similar information, but it is the syntactic arrangement of the professional comedian in (8) that is more liable to cause amusement. What seems also to be one of the important factors in (8) is that what is omitted is just as important as what is included. That is, the connection between Scotsmen and meanness is not made explicitly by the teller but is inferred by the audience from the cues supplied. The role of the audience is a factor which will receive much attention throughout this work.

It must not be thought, it is worth repeating, that all of this is about purely linguistic choices. We see how the taxi joke isn’t simply a play with words, but also provides social comment: all Scots are mean. Let us reconsider for a moment the miser joke.

The miser withdrew all his money from the bank for a holiday. When he thought it had had enough of a rest he put it all back.

A syntactic analysis would clearly show the locus of the joke to be the dual operation of the ambiguous prepositional phrase (PP) ‘for a holiday’. Attridge points out that most modern linguistic theories comfortably account for such ambiguities, especially transformational grammar: ‘indeed ambiguity plays a crucial part in the distinction between deep and surface structures which is central to transformational syntactic theory’ (1988:141). The founder of transformational grammar, Chomsky, when discussing verb subcategorisation, draws attention to such ambiguity: ‘in Verb-Prepositional Phrase constructions one can distinguish various degrees of “cohesion” between the verb and accompanying Prepositional Phrase’ (1965:101). Thus, to take a well-known example, the following sentence

the boy saw the man with the telescope

can be interpreted in two ways due to the ambiguous positioning of the PP ‘with the telescope’. This PP can modify the verb ‘saw’, and as the boy is the doer of the action of seeing we can interpret this to mean the boy had the telescope. However, the PP can also modify the object ‘man’, making possible the interpretation that it was the man who had the telescope (Fromkin and Rodman 1998:117). So, in one interpretation (A) of the miser joke, ‘for a holiday’ would modify the verb ‘withdrew’, the subject of which (the ‘doer’ of the action), is the miser, and this favours the miser having a holiday. (This interpretation is also abetted by our knowledge of the world – having a holiday is essentially a human activity.) Another interpretation (B) is that the PP modifies the noun ‘money’ and this favours the money having a holiday. This second one, despite its clash with the ‘normalcy of facts’ (van Dijk 1985b:111) is the one that coheres in the text, as the second sentence uses the pronoun ‘it’ twice as a cohesive device.

However, let us assume for moment that the joke was as follows:

A Scot withdrew all his money from the bank for a holiday. When he thought it had had enough of a holiday he put it all back.

(A Scot was actually the subject when I first read it in Chiaro (1992:40).) The syntactic analysis for this joke would be as it was for the miser joke, the one slight difference being that it would show the head of the leftmost NP was the N ‘Scot’ rather than ‘miser’. Though useful, this would tell us nothing about inferred national traits. (Freud would note the difference here between an ‘innocent joke’ and a ‘tendentious joke’.) Here is yet another version:

A Jew withdrew all his money from the bank…

Given the consequences of anti-Semitism within living memory, the joke now has even greater potential to offend, and this due to a simple lexical choice which itself does not affect the syntactic mechanics of the joke. This can be taken a step further:

A yid withdrew all his money from the bank…

With this choice we not only get a social comment on the mean-ness of Jews, but the teller’s use of the pejorative ‘yid’ explicitly informs us of his/her racist intent. Ervin-Tripp discusses such choices in terms of alternation and co-occurrence, where the former is the choice of alternative ways of speaking, and the latter the interdependence within a chosen alternative. She provides the following strong example of an interaction between a white policeman (P) and a black doctor (D) in the southern US in the 1960s.

P: What’s your name boy?
D: Doctor Poussaint. I’m a physician.
P: What’s your first name boy?
D: Alvin.

Here the social hierarchy and the participants’ adherence to it (or not) are manifested in the choice of terms of address. Thus, the term ‘boy’, considered as a linguistic item, has the common denotation in English of ‘young male’ but here is realised in the racist discourse of the policeman as a term of subordination, that is, its use in this way gives it a racist connotation. Kress, in a discussion of ideological structures in discourse, comments:

It is because linguistic forms always appear in a text and therefore in a systematic form as the sign of the system of meaning embodied in specific discourse that we can attribute ideological significance to them. The defined and delimited set of statements that constitute a discourse are themselves expressive of and organised by a specific ideology.

The following exchange is a particularly rich comedic example of playing with these notions. It comes from the film ‘Monty Python And The Holy Grail’ and in this scene King Arthur is travelling the land to recruit knights to help him in his quest for the Holy Grail. He encounters two peasants who are members of an anarcho-syndicalist commune who do not understand the concept of monarchy and challenge Arthur’s status, much to his annoyance. They ask him how he became king.

Arthur: [In noble tones, head turned skyward, with angelic choir in the background] The lady of the lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. [End of choir. Turns to peasants. In sharp tones] That is why I am your king.
Male Peasant: [Working-class accent] Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
A: Be quiet!
MP: You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just cos some watery tart threw a sword at you!
A: Shut up!
MP: I mean, if I went round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away.
A: Shut up! Will you shut up! [Attacks peasant]
(Chapman et al 1974)

Superficially, the humour is here centred on the use of synonyms to describe the same process - Arthur receiving Excalibur - and the clash between the connotations of the king’s choice and the peasant’s choice, which are presented in the following table.

Arthur’s words

MP’s words

lady of the lake

strange women lying in ponds
watery tart
moistened bint

held aloft




divine providence

mandate from the masses

to carry Excalibur/ I am your king

supreme executive power
system of government
wield executive power

The lady of the lake (...) to carry Excalibur

farcical aquatic ceremony

Table 2. Stylistic choice in ‘Monty Python And The Holy Grail’.

The play in semantic space has Arthur's choice of words occupying a place of formality, nobility, and awe - ‘lady’, ‘held aloft’, ‘divine providence’ (aided cinematically by an angelic choir), whereas the peasant’s choices are in the mixed registers of the vernacular and sexist – ‘tart/bint’, the administrative – distributing’, and the polemical – ‘mandate from the masses’ and ‘supreme executive power'. (There will be more to say about this ‘multivoicedness’ below.) The play, however, is not merely linguistic but also involves social and political juxtapositions (as well as a significant time warp), with the king’s words, spoken in received pronunciation, having ‘the divine right’ of majestic authority and the peasant’s, spoken in a working-class accent, having a combative, egalitarian, and demotic assertiveness. There is a close correspondence between the explicit views that each protagonist expresses and the forms in which they are expressed, or, as Kress would see it, between the discourse and the text (1985:27).

Such verbal ideological struggles are not uncommon, particularly where the subject matter itself is highly contentious. In this dialogue the struggle is between the divine right of monarchs and anarcho-syndicalism, a clear opposition. Concerning oppositions, Hodge and Kress (1993) analyse newspaper coverage of the Gulf War and develop the notion of an ‘ideological complex’. Such a complex has two components, ‘the S-form’, and ‘the P-form’: the S-form ‘represents the world in a way that blurs differences, antagonisms, differences of interest’ (solidarity function); the P-form ‘exacerbates difference, hostility, superiority’ (power function) (p.157). If we apply this to the Excalibur exchange we see there is no solidarity, the two opponents are at loggerheads, and their choices are P-forms. In sociolinguistic terms there is deliberate language divergence.

Comedy is often keen to point up social differences and an obvious way to do this is through contrastive language choices. The choices of King Arthur and the peasant are so divergent that they touch on what Ferguson (1959) calls ‘diglossia’. This refers to a situation where either two languages or two varieties of the same language co-exist in a speech community and they are used for different functions. Commonly one is a standard variety used in government, the courts, education, and the media (the H-variety), and the other is a less prestigious variety used in the family, among friends, and similar informal situations (L-variety). An example of a diglossic situation involving two varieties of one language is the German part of Switzerland, where the H-variety is Hochdeutsch (High German), and the L-variety is Schwyzertuutsch, a range of local dialects (Richards et al 1990:81-2). However, the distinctions are not always so clear cut, particularly where there is cultural heterogeneity. For example, Abrahams (1983) discusses diglossic situations in various parts of the Caribbean and notes that many Afro-Caribbeans recognise they have a diglossic H and L in their two forms ‘talking sweet’ (H) and ‘talking broad ‘ (L) (p.34). However, in certain of the usages of these forms the distinction between them is not always apparent, given the diverse cultural history of the users. He gives this example of a linguistic performance in a tea meeting speech contest.

Your honour, the judges, I see that you are fully impregnated with love of your people. I see that you are willing to fulfil the great duties of teachers, as spiritual guides. I see your love of your country. Your motto, sir, is to let those who have light give unto others. Sirs, tongues fail me, to consult my Webster for words to compare you, but I do hope that you will give justice unto whom justice belongs, when this meeting shall have come to its close.

Abrahams comments: ‘Whereas the content and H variety are obviously derived from European sources, the style and mode of use are not. Although performance H is primarily derived from oratorical style in Standard English, it is recognisably a substitution for similar codes found in Africa’ (p.38).

Naturally, a language situation can be even more complex. Platt (1977) talks of ‘polyglossia’ when discussing the language complexities of Singapore and Malaysia. For example, the repertoire of an English-educated Chinese in Malaysia might consist of up to seven languages and dialects (p.365). Platt’s continuum runs from H through M (Middle) to L varieties, depending on which domain is being spoken in (p.367).

Such examples of stylistic mixing are an obvious resource for anyone seeking to create humour; the incongruities come ‘ready-made’, as it were. But it is not necessary to look just at such obvious cultural heterogeneity; style-mixing occurs not simply in multicultural situations and not just between two different speakers from the same culture, but also occurs within one speaker, and this too is a convenient resource for comedy. We saw above how the peasant’s argument against Arthur came in different styles – vernacular, administrative, polemical. Bakhtin’s view of language is one that stresses such ‘multivoicedness’:

language is something that is historically real, a process of heteroglot development, a process teeming with future and former languages, with prim but moribund aristocrat-languages, with parvenu languages and with countless pretenders to the status of language…

For him any single national language is not uniform and univocal but is made up of social dialects, professional jargon, languages of different age groups, of authorities, of various circles and passing fashions, languages serving specific sociopolitical purposes and so on (pp.262-3). This heteroglossia, the ‘multivoicedness’ referred to above, finds its aesthetic expression in, to give just one example from Bakhtin - the English comic novel of the 19th century, through such things as the forms of parliamentary eloquence, then the eloquence of the court, or particular forms of parliamentary protocol, or court protocol, or forms used by reporters, in newspaper articles, or the dry business language of the City, or the dealings of speculators, in the pedantic speech of scholars, or the high epic style, or Biblical style, or the style of the hypocritical moral sermon (p.301)

This section will close with an example to illustrate this notion of heteroglosssia. We return to the scene in Steptoe & Son where they are arguing about the state of the house. They have agreed to redecorate the house but are now disputing the nature of the redecoration. A = Albert, the father; H = Harold, the son. The scene has been edited.

1. H: We seems to have reached our usual impasse, don’t we?
2. A: If you like.
3. H: You won’t give way on anything will you? You don’t give a toss what colour
4. we have. You just want to go against me, don’t you? If I wanted flock wallpaper
5. in the bog, you wouldn’t. Whatever I want, you don’t.
6.A: I’m entitled to my opinion.
7.H: I, I’m not, I’m just not putting up with this filth any longer. Ugh! I’m warning
8. you, dad, unless something is done about it I shall be forced to make alternative
9. arrangements.
10. A: Do what you like.
11. H: I mean. I’m afraid our paths have now grown too diverse for any possibility of
12. reconciliation.
13. A: If you like.
14. H: And not to put too fine a point on it, dad, your very presence tends to impinge
15. on my aesfetic moments, my little bits of relaxation.
16. A: In other words, I get on yer tits.
17. H: It’s crude but apposite [Pause] Verefore vere’s only one course of action open
18. - one of us will have to go.

(Galton & Simpson 2000)

The focus here will be on Harold’s language. In the first part of the exchange (1-6) we see that Harold’s language is an unremarkable example of the vernacular of one working class male speaking to another: he gives the first person plural verb a third person singular ‘s’ in 1 – ‘we seems’; he uses the mild expletive ‘couldn’t give a toss’ (3); and refers to the toilet as ‘the bog’ (5). In the terms of Hodge and Kress these can be seen as S-forms, or in broader sociolinguistic terms, there is language convergence. However, when the argument becomes more heated there is a distinct change in Harold’s language. In order to stress the division between himself and his father he uses more formal and official expressions:

This is almost the language of a diplomatic press release when compared to his earlier utterances (1-6). But at the same time from his own mouth there is another voice speaking, the voice of the working class son. As he deliberately diverges from his father with his formal ‘I shall be forced…’ he at the same time addresses him as ‘dad’ (8). And what his father’s ‘very presence tends to impinge on’ is not Harold’s ‘aesthetic moments’ aesthetic but his ‘aesfetic moments’ aesfetic, this single simple vernacular phonemic choice speaking with a different voice from within the formal paradigmatic choice. In his next turn (17) we again get more than one voice; his response to his father’s ‘I get on yer tits’ is to use the divergent and formal ‘crude but apposite’, but in the same utterance his conclusion is not, ‘Therefore there’s only one course of action open…’ but ‘Verefore vere’s only one…’, another example of the clash between vernacular phonemic choice and formal paradigmatic choice. As Pollock has it:

Heteroglossia is a web of dotted lines within language – dialects, sociolects, idiolects, as well as national idioms – which allow for change. At these lines, or boundaries between idioms, are the “free zones”, where words can cross over from one contextual meaning to another. (1993:233)

And it is such ‘free zones’ which lend themselves so easily to comic manipulation.
In one sense, as we have seen, the entire language can be considered a ‘free zone’ inasmuch as those wishing to create a humorous meaning choose from the full range of linguistic resources available, from the smaller units to the larger units. Such choices can be used simply to amuse (Freud’s ‘innocent’) but also, if so desired, for other purposes (‘tendentious’), and this can be done either directly through denotation, or, as is more usual with humour, indirectly through connotation. Such indirectness presents problems in the assignment of meanings, and it is this grey area which is of central concern to this work as it lies at the heart of the problem to be encountered in Section 8. It raises the pertinent issue of why it is that the same material can have noticeably divergent responses, an issue with which we shall now deal in some detail.

4.1 Problems of Classification>

4.2 From Style to Content