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Review of  The Pragmatics of Humour across Discourse Domains

Reviewer: Ksenia Mikhailovna Shilikhina
Book Title: The Pragmatics of Humour across Discourse Domains
Book Author: Marta Dynel
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 23.547

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EDITOR: Dynel, Marta
TITLE: The Pragmatics of Humour across Discourse Domains
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 210
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2011

Ksenia Shilikhina, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Voronezh
State University


“The Pragmatics of Humour across Discourse Domains” is an edited volume
published as a part of the “Pragmatics & Beyond New Series” by John Benjamins.
The book presents a collection of articles devoted to various aspects of
contemporary verbal humour research. Diverse forms of humour are subject to
investigations from different perspectives: pragmatic, cognitive, computational,
etc. The book comprises 382 pages and is divided into three parts. The
contributions are grouped according to the genres and types of humour used or
created in various spheres of communication. In my review I will briefly discuss
the main ideas of each contribution to show the diversity of research aims and
tasks and the approaches chosen by the contributors of the volume.

The volume opens with an introductory paper, “Pragmatic and linguistic research
into humour”, by the editor of the volume, Marta Dynel. She gives a brief
description of the growing field of linguistic approaches to verbal humour
research and outlines the contributions and the general structure of the volume.
She also introduces some basic concepts widely used in theorising on humour
(e.g. ‘incongruity’ or ‘script’) and stresses the importance of the recent merge
of cognitive and pragmatic approaches to linguistic phenomena, with humour being
one of them.

Part I. Stylistic figures as forms of humour

Part I opens with Rachel Giora’s paper, “Will anticipating irony facilitate it
immediately?”. As the question suggests, the paper focuses on the intractable
issue of understanding irony in discourse. The key concept of salience is used
in the explanation of the understanding of context-based (ironic) vs.
salience-based (non-ironic) meanings. Giora presents experimental findings which
go along with ‘the graded salience hypothesis’ advocated by Giora in other
sources (for details, see Giora 2007, Peleg & Giora 2011): even when the context
is strongly predictive of irony, it does not block salient meanings which are
processed first regardless of whether they are literal or non-literal.

Paul Simpson makes an attempt to unite existing theories of verbal irony in his
paper entitled “That’s not ironic, that’s just stupid”: Towards an eclectic
account of the discourse of irony”. After discussing existing theories of verbal
irony, he offers his own taxonomy, which is a result of eclectic unification of
the most popular approaches to verbal irony. The classification includes echoic
irony, oppositional (i.e. Gricean) irony, conferred irony, dramatic irony, and
ironic belief. While echoic, oppositional, and dramatic types of irony are
treated in detail by Sperber & Wilson (1981), Grice (1975) and Attardo (2007)
respectively, two other types -- conferred irony and ironic belief -- are
relatively new to readers. Simpson defines conferred irony as being a result of
deviation in the interpretation of a non-ironic text, while ironic belief
describes an intentional treatment of fictional texts “as if” they were real.

Eleni Kapogianni’s paper, “Irony via ‘surrealism’”, addresses a particular kind
of verbal irony -- the one that is created by an unrealistic and inappropriate
statement or question. The author illustrates this kind of irony with dialogues
like “Are you going to school tomorrow? – No, I am riding my unicorn to
Alaska!”, where the reply to the question is obviously surrealistic and ironic.
Kapogianni applies five criteria to distinguish this strategy from other ways of
creating irony. These criteria are the meaning derivation process, context
dependence, cancellability, the effectiveness of interpretation, and humorous
effect. The author claims that compared to other kinds of irony, “surrealistic”
ironies do not contain implicit negation and are less context-dependent, hence,
they are easier to recognize in spontaneous conversation. The obvious
inappropriateness brings “surrealistic” irony close to humour.

1.2 Puns and other wordplay.

This subsection contains contributions which discuss puns as a specific genre of
verbal humour.

Sarah Seewoester’s paper, “The role of syllables and morphemes as mechanisms in
humorous pun formation”, is a discussion of linguistic mechanisms involved in
the creation of puns. In particular, the author focuses on patterns of both
syllabic and morphological sources of ambiguity. Seewoester compares her results
with the results presented in Attardo et al. (1994) and Bucaria (2004) and
claims that it is phonological ambiguity, not syntactic or lexical, that is the
most common type found in English puns. For instance, Seewoester recategorizes
the pun “Best wishes from Mama and Pauper” as phonological rather than lexical.
Special attention is given to morphological mechanisms which are used in English
puns. These mechanisms are syllabic ambiguity, morphological ambiguity (which is
close to syllabic ambiguity because it is often based on the syllabic structure
of words), hanging syllables or morphemes, and morphemic inflation.

Magdalena Adamczyk starts her paper, “Context-sensitive aspects of Shakespeare’s
use of puns in comedies: An enquiry into clowns’ and pages’ punning practices”,
with a discussion of the linguistic properties of puns. A pun is defined as a
juxtaposition of two similar forms and dissimilar meanings. This kind of
wordplay is one of the markers of Shakespeare’s style. Adamczyk analyses two of
Shakespeare’s comedies, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona”,
and two types of punsters: pages and clowns. The comparison shows significant
differences in their styles of punning; while pages demonstrate caustic style,
clowns employ down-to-earth humour, e.g., the pages’ jokes are centered on love
and related themes, while clowns’ jokes are related to the everyday functioning
of the human body, where many topics are considered taboo. Another difference
concerns the ability of the jokers to play with meanings; while pages
demonstrate good skills with subtle wordplay, clowns do not employ this strategy
of joking.

The cognitive and pragmatic complexity of humorous discourse is confirmed by
modest attempts to model it computationally. Chris Venour, Graeme Ritchie and
Chris Mellish discuss register-based humour from a computational perspective in
their paper, “Dimensions of incongruity in register humour”. They narrow the
scope of their research to stylistic clashes within texts with the aim of
creating a computational model of register-based humour. The concept of
incongruity is the starting point of their research. Though commonly used in
humour research, incongruity has no precise definition. In an attempt to
formalise the concept, the authors suggest a multi-dimensional stylistic space
model; the greater the distance between words, the more likely they belong to
different styles (e.g. archaic vs. modern, formal vs. informal). To compute the
coordinates of the words in the stylistic space model, first, the words are
weighted according to their informativeness. Then, the distance between the
text’s most outlying words is measured with Euclidean distance, Mahalanobis
distance, and cosine distance metrics. The authors claim that their findings can
be labeled as preliminary and that the topic needs further treatment.

Part 2 (Non)interactive forms of humour unites contributions

Subsection 2.1 contains papers devoted to ethnic forms of humour -- Russian and
Romanian jokes and Anglo-American anti-proverbs.

Nadine Thielemann addresses the question of gender in Russian jokes in her
paper, “Displays of “new” gender arrangements in Russian jokes”. Using the
General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH) as a theoretical framework, she shows how
gender is constructed in Russian ‘anekdots’, a specific genre of Russian urban
jokelore. The author focuses on new tendencies in displaying gender through
jokes, e.g., on a feminist tendency to reverse male and female roles and to
portray women as quick-witted. Thielemann argues that the GTVH in its classic
form cannot account for this reversal and has to be adapted by including a
module which could explain switches between two different perspectives or points
of view.

Carmen Popescu’s paper, “Understanding ethnic humour in Romanian jokes”, is
another contribution that discusses ethnic humour. The new social and cultural
context in Romanian society (e.g. transition from totalitarism to democracy,
advent of the Internet and globalisation, etc.) requires new values and
traditions. The author claims that the study of modern jokelore can shed light
on these values of Romanian post-Soviet life. Popescu discusses the question of
ethnic humour aggressiveness in connection with another question, namely, how
exactly jokes (including ethnic jokes) mirror reality. She also gives a brief
description of Raskin’s approach to ethnic humour. Raskin claims that ethnic
humour is based on specific scripts in which the majority is portrayed as normal
and the ethnic minority is treated as being different. Good examples of such
scripts are ‘canniness’ vs. ‘stupidity’, which are universal. Others are more
culture-specific, e.g., Germans are generally perceived as beer-loving.
Quantitative and qualitative analyses of the data show that Romanian one/two
nation jokes share either the script of stupidity, or its counterpart, canniness.

In her paper, “Sexuality in Anglo-American anti-proverbs”, Anna Litovkina
discusses how various aspects of human sexuality are treated in a specific
humorous genre of “anti-proverbs”, defined as intertextual parodies of sayings
and aphorisms. The controversial topic of sexuality is not often discussed
openly and is subject to taboos. Anti-proverbs, with their humorous effect,
become a way of avoiding social barriers and expressing attitudes towards
different groups and practices. Humorous treatment of proverbs involves placing
them in new contexts as well as wordplay.

Subsection 2.2 Conversational humour

Marta Dynel takes a cognitive-pragmatic perspective in her discussion of
interrelation between humorous and non-humorous modes of conversation. Her
paper, “Joker in the pack. Towards determining the status of humorous framing in
conversations”, focuses on cases of humorous and non-humorous frames
overlapping. Dynel introduces three concepts, a humorous frame (i.e. a cognitive
tool for humorous meaning construction), humorous keying (i.e. transformation of
the frame as a way of evaluation of the social reality), and carnival (i.e. a
mode of communication when the dominant style is subverted via humour), and
applies them to numerous examples of dyadic e-mail exchanges. She argues that
humour is not limited to playful activity, but rather that it is an important
tool for conveying meanings relevant to ongoing interactions. Because humour is
always a joint activity, Dynel discusses how speakers can mark its presence so
that the recipient can understand the intention. Special attention is given to
cases of humorous and non-humorous frames overlapping when interlocutors switch
from humorous modes to serious ways of speaking, and to the problem of
distinguishing between the two types of frames.

Jan Chovanec’s paper, “Humour in quasi-conversations: Constructing fun in online
sports journalism”, is a discussion of conversational humour in mass media
texts. A specific form of interaction, namely, a quasi-conversation, is defined
as an amalgam of natural dialogic interaction and a written form of fictional
dialogues. Quasi-conversations are characteristic of computer-mediated
communication (CMC), where authentic dialogues are performed in the written
mode. Live text commentary is one of the CMC hybrid genres; it draws its
interactional dialogic character from spoken sports commentaries and all verbal
activity is presented online in written form. The author claims that in this
form of CMC, interaction humour functions on two layers: one that refers to the
sports event and the other to interpersonal interaction between the journalist
and the audience. The dialogues show that a whole range of forms and genres of
conversational humour can be employed in such interactions.

In her paper, “Humour and the integration of new staff in the workplace: An
interactional study”, Patricia Pullin adopts a social constructionist model of
communication to discuss various aspects of humorous communication in the
workplace. The research is data-driven, as Pullin uses recordings from a number
of meetings in two UK companies. She emphasises the role of humour in
maintaining solidarity on the one hand, and managing power relations on the
other. Both solidarity and power are important for a healthy atmosphere in the
workplace. The author analyses transcripts of conversations in which humour
helps establish common grounds and maintain solidarity (which is especially
important in integrating new staff) and dialogues where humour serves as a tool
for exercising power and establishing social distance between senior and junior
level staff. Pullin also addresses a specific situation of subversive humour
used by subordinates to compete for authority and challenge power relations.

Part 3. Forms of humour in public discourse

Maciej Kaczorowski’s paper, “Parody in the light of the incongruity-resolution
model: The case of political sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, is an
application of the incongruity-resolution model of humour to parody. The paper
opens with a terminological discussion of what constitutes the genre of parody.
Further analysis centers on the application of the concept of script and the
incongruity-resolution theory of humour to the analysis of parody. The general
idea of the incongruity-resolution theory of humour is that the addressee finds
two incongruous elements and needs to find a reason for fitting them together.
Humorous interpretation can be a sound explanation for the incongruity. The
author offers two algorithmic models of parody processing: one for spontaneous
conversation and another for artistic practice. The models are tested on
excerpts from Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketches. It is claimed that the
two-staged incongruity-resolution model is a handy tool for the analysis of parody.

In her second paper, “I’ll be there for you!” On participation-based sitcom
humour”, Marta Dynel offers a detailed taxonomy of types of hearers and argues
that the classical dyadic model, with a single speaker and a single hearer, does
not work well for film discourse. Dynel claims that two communicative levels
should be taken into account, namely, the inter-characters’ level and the
recipients’ level. As for empirical data, the author addresses fictional media
discourse. In particular, she analyses transcripts from the sitcom “Friends” to
show how sitcom humour relies on different kinds of hearer roles.

Isabel Ermida offers a pragmatic analysis of Woody Allen’s short stories in her
paper, “Losers, poltroons and nudniks” in Woody Allen’s “Mere Anarchy”: A
linguistic approach to comic failure”. The theme of human failure and
unhappiness is central to all short stories included in the collection. However,
it becomes the object of humour, both situational and linguistic. The author
discusses thematic variations of loserdom and types of characters created by
Allen. The plot and the characters form the basis for situational humour. As for
linguistic humour, it is largely based on semantic opposition which is created
by a wide range of rhetorical strategies. However, the paper discusses in detail
only three of them: similes, understatements, and irony.

Giovannantonio Forabosco’s paper, “Notes on humour and persuasion in advertising
and legal discourse”, discusses the role of humour in persuasive discourse. The
languages of advertising and verbal humour are similar in many respects.
Forabosco discusses four parameters that unite humorous discourse and
advertising-- richness in rhetorical devices, contiguity, continuity, and
integration-- and suggests that the application of Raskin’s idea of Semantic
Scripts Opposition as the source of humour (when two incompatible scripts
overlap, causing humorous effect) to the research of humour in advertising can
be a promising approach. Turning to using humour in court, the author notes that
this is yet another sphere where humour can realise its persuasive potential.
The paper outlines possible problems for further research of persuasive humour.

Delia Chiaro discusses problems of humour translation in her paper, “Comic
takeover or comic makeover?: Notes on humour-translating, translation and
(un)translatability”. Because the theory of translation is largely based on the
metaphor of problem-solving, practical questions of humour translation also tend
to be discussed in terms of identifying problems and solving them. The author
overviews linguistic and cultural features of humorous discourse and shows how
these features can become obstacles for translation. Different languages employ
different mechanisms of creating humour through polysemy, homonymy and other
types of ambiguity. It follows that the diversity in the structure of languages
impedes the translation of humour. As for cultural obstacles to successful
humour translation, they come from the differences in traditions and
socio-cultural knowledge of the sender and the recipient. A special section of
the paper is devoted to cases when translation itself becomes a source of humour.


The range of contributions included in the volume confirms the idea that humour
is probably one of the most challenging modes of language use to research. For
one thing, humour comes in many forms. For another, it occurs in various
settings. The diversity of topics and empirical data confirms these somewhat
trivial statements.

Not all contributions are equally easy to understand. For example, the
statistical procedures employed by Venour, Ritchie & Mellish in “Dimensions of
incongruity in register humour” for measuring the distance between words may not
be easy to grasp for an unprepared reader.
Some contributions to the volume (e.g. Forabosco’s paper) only outline further
possible ways of expanding humour research, without going into data analysis. I
think theoretical discussions would be more convincing if more empirical data
(e.g. from advertising in various languages and cultures) were presented to the

As for the linguistic part, it can be noted that despite criticisms (e.g. Dynel
2009), the GTVH and the Incongruity-Resolution theory remain by far the most
popular approaches in the field of humour research. As noted above, several
authors employ these theories to explain how humour “happens” in discourse and
to model the interrelation between cognitive and pragmatic aspects of humour. In
this sense the collection fits into existing paradigms of humour research
presented in Norrick & Chiaro (2010) and Raskin (2008). However, openly
expressed ambitions to combine pragmatic approaches with cognitive theories
represent a new step in this area.

Humour research would benefit if data from different languages were analysed,
e.g., in discussions of phonological and morphological mechanisms of humour.
Such analysis can reveal not only language-specific mechanisms, but also
universal techniques, and confirm the universality of cognitive mechanisms
employed for humour creation.

Overall, the volume offers both theoretical and empirical insights into humour
research. All contributions show a very strong link between theory and empirical
data. This is the reason why the book is likely to be of interest not only to
linguists, but also to psychologists and cognitive scientists involved in humour
research. The merge of pragmatic and cognitive paradigms looks very promising in
terms of its explanatory potential.


Attardo, Salvatore, Donnalee Hughes Attardo, Paul Bates and Mary Jo Petray.
1994. The linear organization of jokes: analysis of two thousand texts. Humor
7(1): 27-54.

Attardo, Salvatore. 2007. Irony as Relevant Inappropriateness. In Irony in
Language and Thought: A Cognitive Science Reader, 135-172. NY: Lawrence Erlbaum

Bucaria, Chiara. 2004. Lexical and syntactic ambiguity as a source of humor: the
case of newspaper headlines. Humor 17 (3): 279-309.

Dynel, Marta. 2009. Humorous Garden-Paths: A Pragmatic-Cognitive Study.
Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Giora, Rachel. 2007. “And Olmert is a responsible man”: On the priority of
salience-based yet incompatible interpretations in nonliteral language.
Cognitive Studies, 14(3), 269-281.

Grice, H. Paul. 1975. Logic and Conversation. In Syntax and Semantics: Vol.3.
Speech Acts, 41-58. -- New York: Academic Press.

Norrick, Neal R. & Delia Chiaro (eds.) 2010. Humor in Interaction.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins

Peleg, Orna and Rachel Giora. 2011. Salient meanings: The whens and wheres. In:
Kasia M. Jaszczolt and Keith Allan (eds.) Salience and Defaults in Utterance
Processing, 32 - 52. Mouton Series in Pragmatics, General Editor: Istvan
Kecskes. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Raskin, Viktor (ed.) 2008. The Primer of Humour Research. Berlin/New York:
Mouton de Gruyter.

Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson. 1981. Irony and the Use -- Mention Distinction.
In P. Cole (ed.). Radical Pragmatics, 295-318. New York: Academic Press.

Ksenia Shilikhina is an Associate Professor of linguistics at Voronezh State University, Russia. Her main research interests include semantics and pragmatics with a special focus on verbal irony. Another area of interest is corpus linguistics. She teaches courses in Linguistic Typology, Semiotics, Applied and Computational Linguistics and Formal Models in Linguistics.