LINGUIST List 19.3677

Mon Dec 01 2008

Review: Sociolinguistics: Chafe (2007)

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        1.    Andreea Calude, The Importance of Not Being Earnest

Message 1: The Importance of Not Being Earnest
Date: 01-Dec-2008
From: Andreea Calude <>
Subject: The Importance of Not Being Earnest
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Announced at AUTHOR: Chafe, WallaceTITLE: The Importance of Not Being EarnestSUBTITLE: The Feeling Behind Laughter and HumorSERIES: Consciousness & Emotion Book Series 3PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2007

Andreea S. Calude, Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics,University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

INTRODUCTIONThis book is a very light and enjoyable read on the topic of humour andlaughter. Chafe adopts the term ''nonseriousness'' in favour of the slipperynotions of ''laughter'' and ''humour'', for the purpose of discussing the feelingthat is understood as ''a reaction to situations it would be counterproductive totake seriously'' (p. 13). Such counterproductivity may arise from the fact thatwhat 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 insome way. Chafe investigates the physical characteristics of nonseriousness, aswell as how it arises in various types of discourse (planned and unplanned, oraland written). He also includes a short section on cross-cultural examples ofnonseriousness.

The book is written in a casual, popular-science style, occasionally sprinkledwith pictures of spectrograms, cartoons, and the odd academic reference. Theauthor does not address any particular type of audience specifically; however,the book may be of interest to researchers who know little about the topic andwho 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 ofinformation, this book has the usual Chafian clear, unpretentious and delightfultone, extremely fitting with the topic at hand.

SUMMARYThe structure of the book is as follows. There are three parts. Part One dealswith 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, ''PullingThings Together'', does exactly that over three chapters. Prior to embarking onthe three parts of the book, Chafe starts with a general introductory chapter,setting the scene, defining nonseriousness, and mentioning the data he used forthe findings presented (namely, mostly examples from the Corpus of SpokenAmerican English). He uses this opportunity to discuss the difficulty inanalyzing this feeling and behavior associated with it (laughter, though this isnot always present).

Following this, Chapter Two (''The Essential Ingredients of Laughter'') focuses onthe physical aspects of laughter, described as ''one or more spasmodic explosionsof air from the lungs'' (p. 23), containing examples of real speech excerpts andtheir associated spectrograms. Here, Chafe states one of the main theses of thebook, which is that ''laughter hinders the person who is laughing from performingserious physical or mental activity [at the same time]'' (p. 23).

Chapter 3 (''Varieties of Laughter'') goes into further detail of the types oflaughter found, affected by the change in vowel quality and the presence orabsence of nasality. Further spectrograms are given to support the discussion.

Despite the fact that laughter is to a certain extent seen as debilitatingspeakers so that they cannot concomitantly perform other physical acts, it isstill the case that we experience laughter while speaking. This is the topic forChapter 4 (''Laughing While Speaking''), and in particular, how it is possiblethat we can indeed experience such a phenomenon.

Part One concludes with Chapter 5 (''Beyond the Vocal Tract''), where other organsaffected by laughter are considered, such as the face, the brain and otherinternal changes, and including the documented benefits of laughter towardshealth in general. Chafe picks up on the interesting dichotomy of ''disablement''on the one hand (since speakers are typically understood to be prevented fromundertaking any other physical activity while laughing), and ''pleasure'' on theother (since laughter brings about a pleasant state and a positive socialatmosphere).

Part Two focuses on the reasons we laugh. Chapter 6 (''The feeling ofnonseriousness'') seeks to untangle what is meant by, and involved in, theconcept of an ''emotion''. Chafe gives a brief overview of the literature on thesubject, dating back to the contribution of William James (1884). Here are alsodiscussed six main properties shared by emotions generally, namely, being (1)''triggered by events that are beyond the volition of the person experiencingthem'', (2) ''being experienced to a greater or lesser degree'', (3) ''persistinglonger than other segments of thought'', (4) ''being contagious'', (5) ''beinguniversal'', and (6) ''being not easy to describe with language'' (p. 66-67). Thechapter closes with a very short discussion on the evolution of the feeling ofnonseriousness and a summary of the contents of the upcoming chapters.

Chapters 7 and 8 are in a sense complementary. Chapter 7 (''Nonseriousnesswithout Humor'') focuses on situations where the feeling of nonseriousness isunintended. In contrast to Chapter 7, Chapter 8 (''Unplanned Humor'') focuses ondeliberate arousal of the feeling of nonseriousness. Unintended nonseriousnesscan come about from various sources, such as when things found in theconversation may be undesirable, such as there being profane language used, whenthe speaker is uncertain with regard to language/word choice, or the speakerbeing (inappropriately) interrupted, or being engaged in self-deprecation, or insituations when the speaker is feeling regret, embarrassment, extreme sadness ordepression (i.e., bereavement), awkwardness, surprise, and so on. Nonseriousnessin all these situations is both unplanned and unintended. However, sometimeshumor is deliberately intended, though not actually planned. This is the focusof Chapter 8. Here, Chafe gives examples of how in spontaneous conversation,participants can cooperatively contribute to building up a feeling ofnonseriousness, and thereby build humor upon humor, to engage in opportunistictriggering of humor and ridicule.

Similarly to how chapters 7 and 8 form a thematic unit, chapters 9 and 10 arealso complementary. Both these chapters are concerned with plannednonseriousness. Chapter 9 (''Planned Humor in Oral Tradition'') detailsnonseriousness in planned oral discourse, whereas Chapter 10 (Planned Humor inWriting) 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 inwriting is concerned, he looks at humor in film (p. 117) and literary satire (p.120).

The final chapter in Part Two is Chapter 11 (Humor in Other Cultures), whereChafe 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 ofthe ten key points made throughout (Chapter 12, ''Recapitulation''), followed bytheir placement within the wider context of previous work (Chapter 13,''Reconciliation with other studies''), and some final closing notes in Chapter 14(''Coda'').

EVALUATIONThis is a very enjoyable read for anyone (whether seasoned academics, graduateor undergraduate students of any subject, or lay person) who is interested inhumor and laughter, or even anyone who may have never actually given such ideasall that much thought. The approachable writing style and the easy manner withwhich Chafe invites his readers on the page make the book rather hard to putdown. In particular, the real-life examples from the corpus provide a furtherpotential point of interest for the reader. Certainly, Chafe is a great activistfor the use of real-life language data (Chafe 1992, 1994 and 2001) and hereagain, he excels in his goal. Additionally, the spectrograms used in the initialpart 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 withinformation and indeed, may be too superficial for anyone working in the area ofhumor and laughter already. Also, I would have been interested in a moredetailed discussion of humor and laughter in other cultures, treated in Chapter11. Such a discussion could be of great interest to many linguists, such assecond language acquisition researchers (in light of the link between languageproficiency and understanding and manipulation of humor in the second language),as well as researchers in pragmatics and cross-cultural communication.

REFERENCESChafe, 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 displacementof conscious experience in speaking and writing_. University of Chicago Press,Chicago.

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 REVIEWERAndreea Calude has recently finished her PhD in cognitive linguistics at theUniversity of Auckland. Her primary interest lies in the grammar of spokenlanguage, but she has published on various topics, including machinetranslation, morphology of Romanian, the middle voice in Romanian, formulaiclanguage, clefting and extraposition, and the philosophy of mathematics injournals such as _Studia Linguistica_, _ICAME_ and _Annual Review of CognitiveLinguistics_. She is soon to start a postdoc position at the University ofReading, in the areas of language evolution and historical linguistics.