AUTHOR: Chafe, Wallace
TITLE: The Importance of Not Being Earnest
SUBTITLE: The Feeling Behind Laughter and Humor
SERIES: Consciousness & Emotion Book Series 3
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Andreea S. Calude, Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics,
University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
This book is a very light and enjoyable read on the topic of humour and
laughter. Chafe adopts the term ''nonseriousness'' in favour of the slippery
notions of ''laughter'' and ''humour'', for the purpose of discussing the feeling
that is understood as ''a reaction to situations it would be counterproductive to
take seriously'' (p. 13). Such counterproductivity may arise from the fact that
what is being said contradicts our ''normal'' view of world or state of affairs,
or from the situation in which what is being said is uncomfortable or awkward in
some way. Chafe investigates the physical characteristics of nonseriousness, as
well as how it arises in various types of discourse (planned and unplanned, oral
and written). He also includes a short section on cross-cultural examples of
The book is written in a casual, popular-science style, occasionally sprinkled
with pictures of spectrograms, cartoons, and the odd academic reference. The
author does not address any particular type of audience specifically; however,
the book may be of interest to researchers who know little about the topic and
who are looking for a gentle introduction, and/or to those seeking an enjoyable,
and at the same time, stimulating read. While not promising a multitude of
information, this book has the usual Chafian clear, unpretentious and delightful
tone, extremely fitting with the topic at hand.
The structure of the book is as follows. There are three parts. Part One deals
with physical characteristics of nonseriousness and is entitled ''How We Laugh'',
and contains four chapters. Part Two discusses the reasons for nonseriousness,
that is, ''Why We Laugh'', and has six chapters. Finally, Part Three, ''Pulling
Things Together'', does exactly that over three chapters. Prior to embarking on
the three parts of the book, Chafe starts with a general introductory chapter,
setting the scene, defining nonseriousness, and mentioning the data he used for
the findings presented (namely, mostly examples from the Corpus of Spoken
American English). He uses this opportunity to discuss the difficulty in
analyzing this feeling and behavior associated with it (laughter, though this is
not always present).
Following this, Chapter Two (''The Essential Ingredients of Laughter'') focuses on
the physical aspects of laughter, described as ''one or more spasmodic explosions
of air from the lungs'' (p. 23), containing examples of real speech excerpts and
their associated spectrograms. Here, Chafe states one of the main theses of the
book, which is that ''laughter hinders the person who is laughing from performing
serious physical or mental activity [at the same time]'' (p. 23).
Chapter 3 (''Varieties of Laughter'') goes into further detail of the types of
laughter found, affected by the change in vowel quality and the presence or
absence of nasality. Further spectrograms are given to support the discussion.
Despite the fact that laughter is to a certain extent seen as debilitating
speakers so that they cannot concomitantly perform other physical acts, it is
still the case that we experience laughter while speaking. This is the topic for
Chapter 4 (''Laughing While Speaking''), and in particular, how it is possible
that we can indeed experience such a phenomenon.
Part One concludes with Chapter 5 (''Beyond the Vocal Tract''), where other organs
affected by laughter are considered, such as the face, the brain and other
internal changes, and including the documented benefits of laughter towards
health in general. Chafe picks up on the interesting dichotomy of ''disablement''
on the one hand (since speakers are typically understood to be prevented from
undertaking any other physical activity while laughing), and ''pleasure'' on the
other (since laughter brings about a pleasant state and a positive social
Part Two focuses on the reasons we laugh. Chapter 6 (''The feeling of
nonseriousness'') seeks to untangle what is meant by, and involved in, the
concept of an ''emotion''. Chafe gives a brief overview of the literature on the
subject, dating back to the contribution of William James (1884). Here are also
discussed six main properties shared by emotions generally, namely, being (1)
''triggered by events that are beyond the volition of the person experiencing
them'', (2) ''being experienced to a greater or lesser degree'', (3) ''persisting
longer than other segments of thought'', (4) ''being contagious'', (5) ''being
universal'', and (6) ''being not easy to describe with language'' (p. 66-67). The
chapter closes with a very short discussion on the evolution of the feeling of
nonseriousness and a summary of the contents of the upcoming chapters.
Chapters 7 and 8 are in a sense complementary. Chapter 7 (''Nonseriousness
without Humor'') focuses on situations where the feeling of nonseriousness is
unintended. In contrast to Chapter 7, Chapter 8 (''Unplanned Humor'') focuses on
deliberate arousal of the feeling of nonseriousness. Unintended nonseriousness
can come about from various sources, such as when things found in the
conversation may be undesirable, such as there being profane language used, when
the speaker is uncertain with regard to language/word choice, or the speaker
being (inappropriately) interrupted, or being engaged in self-deprecation, or in
situations when the speaker is feeling regret, embarrassment, extreme sadness or
depression (i.e., bereavement), awkwardness, surprise, and so on. Nonseriousness
in all these situations is both unplanned and unintended. However, sometimes
humor is deliberately intended, though not actually planned. This is the focus
of Chapter 8. Here, Chafe gives examples of how in spontaneous conversation,
participants can cooperatively contribute to building up a feeling of
nonseriousness, and thereby build humor upon humor, to engage in opportunistic
triggering of humor and ridicule.
Similarly to how chapters 7 and 8 form a thematic unit, chapters 9 and 10 are
also complementary. Both these chapters are concerned with planned
nonseriousness. Chapter 9 (''Planned Humor in Oral Tradition'') details
nonseriousness in planned oral discourse, whereas Chapter 10 (Planned Humor in
Writing) occupies itself with written discourse. Chafe discusses jokes, riddles,
and limericks (though only focusing on the former) with regards to structure,
eye movements and devices for joke enhancement. As far as planned humor in
writing is concerned, he looks at humor in film (p. 117) and literary satire (p.
The final chapter in Part Two is Chapter 11 (Humor in Other Cultures), where
Chafe discusses – sadly only briefly – and exemplifies nonseriousness in Navajo
(p. 127), Chinese (p. 129), Iroquois (p. 130), and Japanese cultures (p. 132).
Part Three brings the discussion together by providing a bullet point summary of
the ten key points made throughout (Chapter 12, ''Recapitulation''), followed by
their placement within the wider context of previous work (Chapter 13,
''Reconciliation with other studies''), and some final closing notes in Chapter 14
This is a very enjoyable read for anyone (whether seasoned academics, graduate
or undergraduate students of any subject, or lay person) who is interested in
humor and laughter, or even anyone who may have never actually given such ideas
all that much thought. The approachable writing style and the easy manner with
which Chafe invites his readers on the page make the book rather hard to put
down. In particular, the real-life examples from the corpus provide a further
potential point of interest for the reader. Certainly, Chafe is a great activist
for the use of real-life language data (Chafe 1992, 1994 and 2001) and here
again, he excels in his goal. Additionally, the spectrograms used in the initial
part of the book may be of interest to phoneticians and speech therapists.
The trade-off, as there is always one, is that the book is not packed with
information and indeed, may be too superficial for anyone working in the area of
humor and laughter already. Also, I would have been interested in a more
detailed discussion of humor and laughter in other cultures, treated in Chapter
11. Such a discussion could be of great interest to many linguists, such as
second language acquisition researchers (in light of the link between language
proficiency and understanding and manipulation of humor in the second language),
as well as researchers in pragmatics and cross-cultural communication.
Chafe, W. (1992). Information Flow in speaking and writing. In Downing, P.,
Lima, S., and Noonan, M., editors, _The Linguistics of Literacy_, pages 17-29.
John Benjamins, Amsterdam, Philadelphia.
Chafe, W. (1994). _Discourse, consciousness, and time: the flow and displacement
of conscious experience in speaking and writing_. University of Chicago Press,
Chafe, W. (2001). The analysis of discourse flow. In Schiffrin, D., Tannen, D.,
and Hamilton, H., editors, _The Handbook of Discourse Analysis_, pages 673-687.
Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
James, William (1884). What is an Emotion?. _Mind_ 9: 188-205.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Andreea Calude has recently finished her PhD in cognitive linguistics at the
University of Auckland. Her primary interest lies in the grammar of spoken
language, but she has published on various topics, including machine
translation, morphology of Romanian, the middle voice in Romanian, formulaic
language, clefting and extraposition, and the philosophy of mathematics in
journals such as _Studia Linguistica_, _ICAME_ and _Annual Review of Cognitive
Linguistics_. She is soon to start a postdoc position at the University of
Reading, in the areas of language evolution and historical linguistics.