5.1 Some Models Of Competence

Raskin, in the detailed formulation of his Semantic Script Theory of Humour (SSTH) discusses the idea of humour competence. The main hypothesis of the theory is that a text can be considered a humorous text if two conditions are satisfied. These are:

i) the text is compatible, fully or in part, with two different scripts
ii) the two scripts with which the text is compatible are opposite.

His concept of ‘scripts’ will be discussed below but first let us come immediately to this idea of competence.

The semantic theory of humour is…designed to model the native speaker’s intuition with regard to humor or, in other words, his humor competence. The theory models and thus defines the concept of funniness…[and] is formulated for an ideal speaker-hearer community i.e. for people whose senses of humor are exactly identical
(1985:58,original emphasis)

This is more strongly formulated by Attardo, someone with whom Raskin has collaborated.

The SSTH models the humorous competence of an idealised speaker/hearer who is unaffected by racial or gender biases, undisturbed by scatological, obscene or disgusting materials, not subject to boredom, and, most importantly, who has ‘never heard it before’ when presented with a joke.

For Attardo, the context of a joke’s telling is ‘irrelevant’ to its humorous nature (p.197). Clearly, then, this is a purely cognitive model (Raskin calls it ‘a mechanical symbol-manipulation device’ (p.58)) which echoes Chomsky’s notion of linguistic competence with its ‘ideal speaker-hearer’ (1965:3). Before commenting further on this we look at another model, that of Chiaro.

Her model involves the interaction of three systems to constitute the competence needed to get a joke. These are the linguistic, the sociocultural, and the poetic (1992:13). To illustrate this she offers the following children’s joke.

A: How many ears has Davy Crockett?
B: Two, hasn’t he?
A: No, three. He’s got a left ear, a right ear, and a wild frontier.

To understand even this simple joke, Chiaro argues, the hearer needs (a) linguistic competence to understand the meaning of the words and also that a joke is being signalled, (b) sociocultural competence to know who Davy Crockett was and also that the phrase ‘wild frontier’ comes from the theme song of the children’s television show about him, and (c) poetic competence to read ‘wild frontier’ as ‘wild front ear’. This formulation clearly includes a strong social dimension and would seem to be in contrast to Raskin’s model in the same way that, for example, Hymes’ ‘communicative competence’ (1972a) contrasts the earlier-mentioned linguistic competence of Chomsky, in that, whereas Raskin’s and Chomsky’s models are essentially cognitive, Chiaro’s and Hymes’ are grounded in actual use of language in the world.

However, Raskin does, in fact, include the social world in his theory in the notion of ‘scripts’. His semantic theory has two components - a lexicon and combinatorial rules. The lexicon is ‘script-based’, where a script is ‘a large chunk of semantic information surrounding the word or evoked by it. The script is a cognitive structure internalised by the native speaker and it represents the native speaker’s knowledge of a small part of the world’ (p.81). These scripts he divides into the linguistic and the non-linguistic, with the latter consisting of general knowledge scripts, relative knowledge scripts, and individual scripts (pp.134-5). We can flesh these out with some examples, respectively: the Earth is round (general knowledge); the English Football Association headquarters are in Soho Square, London (relative knowledge); I know where I keep my passport (individual knowledge). This is straightforward enough, yet in this reading it does seem to pose problems for the SSTH model. If one of the key components of the theory – the lexicon – is based on scripts which can clearly differ greatly from person to person, then individuals’ internalised cognitive structures will also differ. If this is so, then it surely follows that there is a differential competence and this cannot accord with his idealised humour competence which is ‘identical’ for everyone. If this is the case, then it seriously undermines his claim that the output of the theory, which is the assignment of the feature of funniness to texts, should coincide with ‘the native speaker’s judgement of texts’ (p.58) when such judgements will differ significantly. There are other ideas on humour competence which also make a similar point about its variability and it is to these we now turn. In order, we will look at the notions of Raju, Carrell, and Hay.

Raju (1991) states that humour can be compared to a triptych painting with the three interrelated panels of response, structure, and disposition (p.72). She concentrates on response and divides the ‘mental operations’ in getting the joke into three: perception, understanding, and appreciation, and it is this last feature which is of interest to us here. She refers to people’s ‘reference groups’ and ‘identification groups’, the former being the social groups in which other people place individuals, the latter being groups with which people identify themselves. These social factors have a strong bearing on people’s ability to appreciate humour.

The Irish intellectual, for example, may prefer to identify himself with ‘intellectuals’ not ‘Irishmen’, an elegant and friendly mother-in-law may prefer to identify herself with other elegant women of her age not with ‘The Mother-in-Law’, and so on. A person’s response to jokes which rely on racial or social stereotypes will therefore depend on how far his/her identification group corresponds with his/her reference group.

A first-hand account of such differences comes from Paul Davis, a black footballer discussing the problems of racism in English football in the 1980s.

I think that with me that was the biggest problem, the cultural thing – some of the humour wasn’t what I had grown up with. Not that they [jokes] were necessarily aimed at me, but the general joking around the dressing-room, I don’t know, it could be something they saw on TV that was funny to them, but less funny to me.
(Davis 2001:26)

Carrell (1997) makes an explicit criticism of Raskin with her distinction between ‘joke competence’ and ‘humor competence’. For her the former is the ‘ability of the native speaker (audience for the joke text) to recognise a text or a joke without determining whether or not the text is funny’, and the latter is the ability to then ‘pass judgement on the humorness of a specific text’ (p.174). She argues that while the former may seem simplistic, it is a discrete part of humor competence in the same way that humor competence is a discrete part of linguistic competence (p.175). She adds that ‘these processes most often operate at an unconscious or subconscious level and nearly simultaneously’ (p.179). In her opinion, Raskin’s notion of humour competence conflates the two (p.175). Her distinction is not without significance as this cognitive lacuna can be seen as a point of entry for phenomena from the physical and social worlds. She cites the following as being great influences on how individuals interpret particular situations: ‘hormonal imbalances, religious beliefs, political convictions, sexual orientation, psychological problems or hang-ups, and/or a recent or long-standing personal involvement with, for instance, a particular disease or death’ (p.183). Clearly, then, in her formulation a hearer may well recognise that a joke is being presented but its contents will have to pass through a fine filter before being adjudged humorous or not. And as our physical, mental, and social conditions, as well as our beliefs, differ widely, our humour competence will also differ.

Hay (2001) talks of qualified and unqualified humour support, the latter involving a scalar implicature (where ‘implicature’ is taken to mean communicative implication). The three implicatures are 1. recognition, 2. understanding, and 3. appreciation (p.67). (Note the similarity to Raju’s three ‘mental operations’ above.) In her formulation, 2 entails 1, and 3 entails both 1 and 2, which we can represent here diagrammatically.

1. recognition 2.understanding 3.appreciation

Fig.3. Hay’s scalar implicature of unqualified humour support.

On this scale we see once more there is a gap between understanding a joke and appreciating it (2 and 3), a gap which needs to be traversed across people’s differing belief systems. It is this, Hay adds, which enables an audience, if they so wish, to withhold full support i.e. show understanding but not appreciation (p.67). She then explicitly associates this with Carrell’s comments on joke and humour competences (p.68), discussed above.

Thus, what Carrell, Chiaro, Hay, and Raju would all agree on is that the social world and our places in it are crucial elements in any conception of humour competence, which cannot be simply a universal cognitive skill.

Powell would support much of this. His view of humour as deviance from the ideal operates at various levels – individual, group, and societal (1977:53). This model of humour as ‘normality vs. deviance’ recognises that different people/groups recognise different norms and rules and consequently find different ideas and events funny, or find the same stimuli funny for different reasons. For example, take an audience watching ‘Modern Times’, in which Chaplin plays an assembly worker having difficulties with the modern production process. Audience members of a left-wing persuasion might locate the problem in the conditions and relations of production and be amused by Chaplin’s resistance to these. Those of a right-wing bent might be amused by the incongruity of Chaplin’s failure to conform to acceptable norms. ‘We are not talking of abstract realities, but rather of a world of multiple realities and constructed meanings’ (p.54). This also means, as stated earlier, that what some people may find amusing others will find unamusing or even offensive. ‘The crucial point is that people respond according to what they think is the meaning of a given text’ (p.54). For example, we earlier had occasion to note (1.1) that Jacobson was not amused by the parody of Bernard Manning, whereas most of the audience were. This also raises the notion of permission, and it is to a discussion of this which now follows.

5. Competence, Permission, Ambivalence>

5.1 Some models of competence

5.2 Permission>

5.3 Ambivalence>