Nash (1985) in his study of language and humour puts forward a thesis which proposes ‘that the “act” of humour has three principle references’ (p.9). These are (with his elaborations):
(a) A ‘genus’ or derivation, in culture, institutions, attitudes, beliefs, typical practices, characteristic artefacts, etc (whence the adjective ‘generic’). The generic includes
the social and historical facts most of us can be assumed to know, the customary patterns of behaviour, the dominant or traditional attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes, the conventional themes and theme-related designs of literature and art.
(b) A characteristic design, presentation, or verbal packaging by virtue
of which the humorous intention is indicated and recognised: ‘The intention
to joke... can be announced by a form, and there are many microforms which
invite the respondent to play the jesting game.’
(c) A locus in language; some word or phrase that is indispensable to the joke; the point at which humour is held and discharged: ‘the language of humour has to draw on the patterns and implications of phonology and graphology, of syntactic structure, of lexical form, of semantic field’. While studying it. ‘we may observe humorous language shares a characteristic of poetic language, in the frequent convergence of stylistic traits; rhyme or alliteration, for example, may sharply contour a striking grammatical structure that houses some form of lexical play’(pp.9- 12).
Chiaro (1992) presents a very similar model in plainer terms: ‘We can...say
that three systems interact with each other in order to make up the sort of
competence required to get a joke: linguistic [Nash’s (b)] , sociocultural
[(a)] , and ‘poetic’’ [(c)] (p.13).
She offers a child’s joke to illustrate this:
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 the hearer needs linguistic competence to understand the sentence meaning and also to recognise that a joke is being signalled, 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 poetic competence to read ‘wild frontier’ (here called Ml) as ‘wild front ear’ (M2).
There are a multitude of linguistic forms which can carry such a complex fusion of meanings and both Nash and Chiaro offer extensive taxonomies of such forms. From Chiaro’s (with examples):
- playing with graphology -words or letters are omitted or added. For example, ‘Without primeval pants we’d still have carbon dioxide of around 15% instead of the present trace quantity.’
- anagrams - ‘Alas poor Yorlik, I knew him well.’ (graffito)
- palindromes - ‘Was it Eliot’s toilet I saw?’
- sound play - ‘What’s the difference between a doormat and a
bottle of beer?’
‘One’s taken up and shaken, the other’s shaken up and taken.’
- manoeuvring phonology - ‘How do you make a cat drink? Easy. Put it in a liquidiser.’ (Stress on CAT)
- playing with word boundaries - ‘If Typhoo put the “T” in Britain, who put the ‘arse’ in Marseilles?’
- playing with syntax - ‘Hear about the miser who took all his money out of the bank for a holiday? When he thought that it had had enough of a holiday he put it all back.’
- play with conversation rules - ‘I hear you buried your wife last week .‘ I had to. She was dead.’
This list is by no means exhaustive but it gives a clear example of the
scope available to those wishing to use language for humorous ends. However,
neither the list nor the explanation of the various competences fully describes
how a joke works linguistically. On this point Dascal (1985) offers a simple
and effective explanation of the linguistic mechanisms at work in jokes. For
him all understanding is pragmatic understanding and this comprises:
sentence meaning - understanding a speaker’s words
utterance meaning - the words’ specific meaning in the context of
speaker meaning - the speaker’s intention of uttering those words in that
This is closely related to Austin’s (1962) locutionary and illocutionary meanings of propositions, where the former refers to literal meanings and the latter to implied meanings. For example, the statement ‘I’m cold’ can have a straightforward, information-giving meaning, in which case the saying of it would be a locutionary act, or it could mean by implication ‘Close the window’, in which case the saying of it would be an illocutionary act (pp.99-100). This can go further. If the hearer takes up the illocutionary meaning and closes the window, then Austin says the proposition has perlocutionary force (pp.99-100). In the joke frame under discussion this would be the equivalent of the hearer getting the joke, that is, taking up the humorous intent of the speaker. But this discussion is running ahead of itself. To return to Dascal.
He points out that there are two ways to convey speaker’s meaning, directly and indirectly. It is direct when it is identical to utterance meaning. ‘In this case pragmatic interpretation is nothing but the “endorsement” of the utterance meaning by the listener’ (p.96). It is indirect when language is used figuratively (the ‘poetic’ once again) or when conversational implications are conveyed (‘I’m cold’ = ‘Close the window’). In this indirect case, the listener has to try and infer what is meant, to compute implicatures. Jokes systematically exploit this indirectness, that is, they make use of the pragmatic devices that allow for indirectness. The verbal material of the joke deliberately leaves open the number of possible interpretations (speaker’s meanings). The straightforward meaning (Ml) is only hinted at (rather heavily, admittedly) for if it was made explicit, leaving little or no gap between sentence meaning and utterance meaning on the one hand and speaker meaning on the other, then the alternative interpretation (M2) would be excluded and would be difficult or impossible to recover. The comic effect arises when an alternative, non-favoured and therefore non-expected interpretation is revealed, at the punch line, as the correct one (pp.96-7). Thus, ‘Jokes…depend for their effectiveness on the existence of sociopragmatic devices that make indirectness possible’ (p.98).
To sum up, then. Jokes can be made through a seemingly endless variety of linguistic forms and the recipient needs linguistic, sociocultural, and poetic competence in order to interpret them as intended. To use language with humorous intent in the first place requires the use of sociopragmatic devices which allow the signalling of multiple meanings. The search among these meanings involves the cognitive processes and it is to a deeper discussion of these and other psychological factors which this dissertation now turns.