LINGUIST List 15.1438

Thu May 6 2004

Review: Sociolinguistics: Glenn (2003)

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  1. Christian F. Hempelmann, Laughter in Interaction

Message 1: Laughter in Interaction

Date: Tue, 4 May 2004 12:43:25 -0400 (EDT)
From: Christian F. Hempelmann <>
Subject: Laughter in Interaction

AUTHOR: Glenn, Phillip
TITLE: Laughter in Interaction
SERIES: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 18
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2003
Announced at

Christian F. Hempelmann, University of Memphis


LAUGHTER IN INTERACTION presents the results of a social interactional
approach that studies laughter as part of everyday human
communication. Typically for a study based on conversation analysis
(CA) the particular focus lies on laughter's role in the sequential
structure of the interaction, and what it tells us about the people
involved in these interactions.

Chapter 1 provides a cursory review of the pertinent literature, with
foci on the physiology of laughter, including a brief evolutionary
excursus, the psychology of laughter, including a section that
addresses in passing the research about the humorous stimuli that
elicit laughter, as well as social factors. The chapter serves as a
backdrop against which the author develops the rationale for his
approach to ''understanding laughter as communication by regarding
what it is doing socially rather than how it may be linked to some
stimulus or inner state'' (28).

Chapter 2 is an introduction to CA as the methodology of Glenn's
study. Previous results in CA research regarding the role of laughter
in structuring turn-taking are highlighted. Selected details of this
chapter will be addressed in more detail below, especially the concept
of 'laughable' (48f), the stimulus for laughter that the author avoids
to assign a definition beyond a structural one, namely anything in the
(unspecified) vicinity, usually in the preceding turn, of the laughter
that is elicited by it.

The body of the book starts with Chapter 3, where research results on
laughter of CA in general and by Glenn in particular are
presented. This chapter discusses the sequencing of shared laughter,
most importantly its initiation and possible extension: Typically, an
invitation- acceptance sequence starts laughter in conversation, if
necessary including repair strategies, but an adjacency pair of a
laughable and a volunteered laughter is also common. Extended
laughter can show strong appreciation of a single laughable or produce
additional laughables.

In addition to structure and sequence, Chapter 4 takes specific
participant constellations into account in an attempt to answer the
question, who laughs first. The main result shows that in two-party
conversations, the current speaker is usually the one to initiate
laughter, while in multi-party conversations this is done on by
another participant. Glenn assumes that the reason lies in the
avoidance of self-praise of the current speaker, who is typically the
producer of the laughable. Exceptions to these common sequences occur
in two-party conversations because of the necessity to share laughter,
and when the laughable is not credited to the current speaker, is
self-deprecating, or requires cueing as a laughable.

Even more than in the previous chapter, mutual participant orientation
is the center of the discussion of the short Chapter 5, in which the
difference between affiliative and disaffiliative laughter is
analyzed. The author identifies four distinguishing keys, three of
which are structural sequencing criteria, while the first in his list
is the type of 'laughable.' More precisely, disaffiliative 'laughing
at' is characterized by a co-present as the butt of the laughable, a
first laugh by someone else than the butt, and-- in multi-party
conversations--no second laugh or an additional one by someone else,
and subsequent talk on topic. Two short analyses of transformations
of kind of laughter into the other conclude the chapter.

The most detailed and final chapter of the body of the book, Chapter
6, starts with reviews of two CA articles on teasing and
improprieties. Laughter is found to play a crucial role in accepting
or rejecting the tease or impropriety, with reactions ranging from
disaffiliation to uptake and escalation. A further topic is errors and
ensuing continued shared laughter in a case, in which laughter also
functions as a frame marker for playful interaction. Another set of
analyses shows how laughing can be used to resist a topic. A final
section with a literature review briefly addresses the relevance of
gender as a parameter. The results are found to be open to
interpretation and the author concludes that the relation of gender
and laughter is a methodologically complex issue that requires further

Chapter 7 provides a summary and concluding remarks on the relevance
of the discussion for future research and practical applications. The
book has a short combined index of names and subjects


The close attention that the CA methodology forces the researcher to
pay to the sequencing structure of conversation leads to the very
relevant results that Glenn presents with transcripts and careful
analyses. This also holds for previous results of CA on laughter that
are summarized throughout the discussion. The role that laughter plays
in interaction is well described for several main types of
situations. On this basis, the orientation of participants is analyzed
and illustrated with transcripts to provide very insightful
results. Thus, the book should benefit CA researchers by providing an
overview and new results on the structuring role the one of the most
frequent elements in human interaction.

But the author has to sell these results short because of the high
fence that he erects, and repeatedly fortifies in his discussion,
between his CA-based functionalist, empirical, 'qualitative' research
on laughter and essentialist, theoretical, 'aprioristic' research on
humor. A look over the self-erected fence or, even better, cooperation
with those assumed to be 'on the other side' would mutually benefit CA
research on laughter as well as (linguistic) research on laughter and

This is, of course, not the place for a general evaluation of the
premisses of CA (or ethnomethodology or phenomenology), nor is the
reviewer the right person for such a task. But as far as these
premisses lead to unnecessary shortcomings of Glenn's analysis, they
are briefly addressed. This holds primarily for his underdefined
notion of the 'laughable,' which is closely related to the other, more
irritating than harmful, symptom, namely his repeated demotion of a
strawman version of existing theory-based humor research. The latter
illustrates the motivation that leads to the former.

The author correctly points out the important dissociation between
humor and laughter (23). They are indeed inadequately described as
stimulus (humor) and response (laughter), because either can occur
without the other. In a typical statement, the author accordingly
calls for ''shifting from cause-effect terms that treat people as
passive or involuntary creatures to a vocabulary that treats people as
willful social actors'' (33). This sounds empowering indeed. And at
least, since Chomsky's (1959) review of Skinner, we know that
oversimplified cause-effect accounts are inadequate to describe social
behavior, and in particular, language. But humor and laughter very
significantly correlate. And to deny a causal relationship makes one
blind to the important role that humor plays for laughter.

The author's oversimplification of humor as 'anything goes' is shown
by the following quote: ''Virtually any utterance or action could draw
laughter, under the right (or wrong) circumstances. This fact dooms
any theory that attempts to account coherently for why people laugh''
(49). This is an astonishing remark, because to try to account for
this, albeit with a functionalistic bias, is exactly what Glenn
attempts to do. His method aims to capture those ''right (or wrong)''
circumstances in detail in its descriptive, empirical approach.

But the analysis of laughables shows that it is not at all possible to
use any utterance and transform it to a cause for laughter under the
right circumstance. Only utterances (and actions) with a very specific
semantic structure, crucially including parameters that are often
relegated to pragmatics, are a laughable. Sadly, the author feels
compelled to consciously ignore the theoretical linguistic research in
the field of humor studies. Together with his results, this could have
told us even more about laughter than his astute study already does.

That this ignorance is not just a shortcoming, but also a mistake lies
in the fact that the author also distinguishes types of laughables
according to their meaning for his results, most prominently in
Chapter 5, where a laughable that has a co-present as the butt is a
key indicator for 'laughing at.' That is, the laughable is no longer
just defined sequentially, but, very loosely, according to its

Sacks (1972, 1974, 1978), the founder of CA, focuses specifically-and
to a large degree fruitfully-on differences of 'laughables,' too,
namely the sequential structure of canned jokes and puns in contrast
to other stimuli. Naturally, his definitions of puns and canned jokes
are structural and functional, that is, where do/can they occur in the
sequence of turns. But to make the distinction between these
laughables and others is implying an essential, not just structural,
difference that represents a transgression of the assumed boundaries
between CA and theoretical linguistics.

Why not pursue this avenue further and combine CA and humor research?
This will be a most productive undertaking in view of the insightful
results that Glenn presents. For this LAUGHTER IN INTERACTION will a
most valuable starting point.


Chomsky, Noam. 1959. ''Review of Verbal Behavior.'' Language 35-1:

Sacks, Harvey. 1972. ''On some Puns: With some Intimations.'' In:
Roger W. Shuy. Ed. Sociolinguistics: Current Trends and
Prospects. Washington, DC: Georgetown U P. 135-144.

Sacks, Harvey. 1974. ''An Analysis of the Course of a Joke's Telling
in Conversation'. In: J. Sherzer, R. Bauman, Eds. Explorations in the
Ethnography of Speaking. London: Cambridge U P. 337-353.

Sacks, Harvey. 1978. ''Some Technical Considerations of a Dirty
Joke.'' In: Schenkein, Jim. Ed. Studies in the Organization of
Conversational Interaction. New York: Academic. 249-70.


Christian F. Hempelmann graduated from Purdue University with a
Ph.D. in linguistics in August 2003, specializing in humor studies and
computational linguistics. He is about to join the University of
Memphis as a postdoctoral researcher in computational
linguistics. Apart from theoretical computational linguistics and
linguistic humor studies, his research interests include historical
linguistics and phonology.
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