LINGUIST List 23.547

Thu Feb 02 2012

Review: Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics; Semantics: Dynel (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 02-Feb-2012
From: Ksenia Shilikhina <>
Subject: The Pragmatics of Humour across Discourse Domains
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at
EDITOR: Dynel, MartaTITLE: The Pragmatics of Humour across Discourse DomainsSERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 210PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2011

Ksenia Shilikhina, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, VoronezhState University


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

The volume opens with an introductory paper, “Pragmatic and linguistic researchinto humour”, by the editor of the volume, Marta Dynel. She gives a briefdescription of the growing field of linguistic approaches to verbal humourresearch 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 mergeof cognitive and pragmatic approaches to linguistic phenomena, with humour beingone of them.

Part I. Stylistic figures as forms of humour

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

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

Eleni Kapogianni’s paper, “Irony via ‘surrealism’”, addresses a particular kindof verbal irony -- the one that is created by an unrealistic and inappropriatestatement or question. The author illustrates this kind of irony with dialogueslike “Are you going to school tomorrow? – No, I am riding my unicorn toAlaska!”, where the reply to the question is obviously surrealistic and ironic.Kapogianni applies five criteria to distinguish this strategy from other ways ofcreating irony. These criteria are the meaning derivation process, contextdependence, cancellability, the effectiveness of interpretation, and humorouseffect. 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 obviousinappropriateness brings “surrealistic” irony close to humour.

1.2 Puns and other wordplay.

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

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

Magdalena Adamczyk starts her paper, “Context-sensitive aspects of Shakespeare’suse 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 ajuxtaposition of two similar forms and dissimilar meanings. This kind ofwordplay is one of the markers of Shakespeare’s style. Adamczyk analyses two ofShakespeare’s comedies, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona”,and two types of punsters: pages and clowns. The comparison shows significantdifferences in their styles of punning; while pages demonstrate caustic style,clowns employ down-to-earth humour, e.g., the pages’ jokes are centered on loveand related themes, while clowns’ jokes are related to the everyday functioningof the human body, where many topics are considered taboo. Another differenceconcerns the ability of the jokers to play with meanings; while pagesdemonstrate good skills with subtle wordplay, clowns do not employ this strategyof joking.

The cognitive and pragmatic complexity of humorous discourse is confirmed bymodest attempts to model it computationally. Chris Venour, Graeme Ritchie andChris Mellish discuss register-based humour from a computational perspective intheir paper, “Dimensions of incongruity in register humour”. They narrow thescope of their research to stylistic clashes within texts with the aim ofcreating a computational model of register-based humour. The concept ofincongruity is the starting point of their research. Though commonly used inhumour research, incongruity has no precise definition. In an attempt toformalise the concept, the authors suggest a multi-dimensional stylistic spacemodel; the greater the distance between words, the more likely they belong todifferent styles (e.g. archaic vs. modern, formal vs. informal). To compute thecoordinates of the words in the stylistic space model, first, the words areweighted according to their informativeness. Then, the distance between thetext’s most outlying words is measured with Euclidean distance, Mahalanobisdistance, and cosine distance metrics. The authors claim that their findings canbe 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 andRomanian jokes and Anglo-American anti-proverbs.

Nadine Thielemann addresses the question of gender in Russian jokes in herpaper, “Displays of “new” gender arrangements in Russian jokes”. Using theGeneral Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH) as a theoretical framework, she shows howgender is constructed in Russian ‘anekdots’, a specific genre of Russian urbanjokelore. The author focuses on new tendencies in displaying gender throughjokes, e.g., on a feminist tendency to reverse male and female roles and toportray women as quick-witted. Thielemann argues that the GTVH in its classicform cannot account for this reversal and has to be adapted by including amodule which could explain switches between two different perspectives or pointsof view.

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

In her paper, “Sexuality in Anglo-American anti-proverbs”, Anna Litovkinadiscusses how various aspects of human sexuality are treated in a specifichumorous genre of “anti-proverbs”, defined as intertextual parodies of sayingsand aphorisms. The controversial topic of sexuality is not often discussedopenly and is subject to taboos. Anti-proverbs, with their humorous effect,become a way of avoiding social barriers and expressing attitudes towardsdifferent groups and practices. Humorous treatment of proverbs involves placingthem in new contexts as well as wordplay.

Subsection 2.2 Conversational humour

Marta Dynel takes a cognitive-pragmatic perspective in her discussion ofinterrelation between humorous and non-humorous modes of conversation. Herpaper, “Joker in the pack. Towards determining the status of humorous framing inconversations”, focuses on cases of humorous and non-humorous framesoverlapping. Dynel introduces three concepts, a humorous frame (i.e. a cognitivetool for humorous meaning construction), humorous keying (i.e. transformation ofthe frame as a way of evaluation of the social reality), and carnival (i.e. amode of communication when the dominant style is subverted via humour), andapplies them to numerous examples of dyadic e-mail exchanges. She argues thathumour is not limited to playful activity, but rather that it is an importanttool for conveying meanings relevant to ongoing interactions. Because humour isalways a joint activity, Dynel discusses how speakers can mark its presence sothat the recipient can understand the intention. Special attention is given tocases of humorous and non-humorous frames overlapping when interlocutors switchfrom humorous modes to serious ways of speaking, and to the problem ofdistinguishing between the two types of frames.

Jan Chovanec’s paper, “Humour in quasi-conversations: Constructing fun in onlinesports journalism”, is a discussion of conversational humour in mass mediatexts. A specific form of interaction, namely, a quasi-conversation, is definedas an amalgam of natural dialogic interaction and a written form of fictionaldialogues. Quasi-conversations are characteristic of computer-mediatedcommunication (CMC), where authentic dialogues are performed in the writtenmode. Live text commentary is one of the CMC hybrid genres; it draws itsinteractional dialogic character from spoken sports commentaries and all verbalactivity is presented online in written form. The author claims that in thisform of CMC, interaction humour functions on two layers: one that refers to thesports event and the other to interpersonal interaction between the journalistand the audience. The dialogues show that a whole range of forms and genres ofconversational humour can be employed in such interactions.

In her paper, “Humour and the integration of new staff in the workplace: Aninteractional study”, Patricia Pullin adopts a social constructionist model ofcommunication to discuss various aspects of humorous communication in theworkplace. The research is data-driven, as Pullin uses recordings from a numberof meetings in two UK companies. She emphasises the role of humour inmaintaining solidarity on the one hand, and managing power relations on theother. Both solidarity and power are important for a healthy atmosphere in theworkplace. The author analyses transcripts of conversations in which humourhelps establish common grounds and maintain solidarity (which is especiallyimportant in integrating new staff) and dialogues where humour serves as a toolfor exercising power and establishing social distance between senior and juniorlevel staff. Pullin also addresses a specific situation of subversive humourused 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-resolutionmodel: The case of political sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, is anapplication of the incongruity-resolution model of humour to parody. The paperopens with a terminological discussion of what constitutes the genre of parody.Further analysis centers on the application of the concept of script and theincongruity-resolution theory of humour to the analysis of parody. The generalidea of the incongruity-resolution theory of humour is that the addressee findstwo incongruous elements and needs to find a reason for fitting them together.Humorous interpretation can be a sound explanation for the incongruity. Theauthor offers two algorithmic models of parody processing: one for spontaneousconversation and another for artistic practice. The models are tested onexcerpts from Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketches. It is claimed that thetwo-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 sitcomhumour”, Marta Dynel offers a detailed taxonomy of types of hearers and arguesthat the classical dyadic model, with a single speaker and a single hearer, doesnot work well for film discourse. Dynel claims that two communicative levelsshould be taken into account, namely, the inter-characters’ level and therecipients’ level. As for empirical data, the author addresses fictional mediadiscourse. In particular, she analyses transcripts from the sitcom “Friends” toshow how sitcom humour relies on different kinds of hearer roles.

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

Giovannantonio Forabosco’s paper, “Notes on humour and persuasion in advertisingand legal discourse”, discusses the role of humour in persuasive discourse. Thelanguages of advertising and verbal humour are similar in many respects.Forabosco discusses four parameters that unite humorous discourse andadvertising-- richness in rhetorical devices, contiguity, continuity, andintegration-- and suggests that the application of Raskin’s idea of SemanticScripts Opposition as the source of humour (when two incompatible scriptsoverlap, causing humorous effect) to the research of humour in advertising canbe a promising approach. Turning to using humour in court, the author notes thatthis 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, “Comictakeover or comic makeover?: Notes on humour-translating, translation and(un)translatability”. Because the theory of translation is largely based on themetaphor of problem-solving, practical questions of humour translation also tendto be discussed in terms of identifying problems and solving them. The authoroverviews linguistic and cultural features of humorous discourse and shows howthese features can become obstacles for translation. Different languages employdifferent mechanisms of creating humour through polysemy, homonymy and othertypes of ambiguity. It follows that the diversity in the structure of languagesimpedes the translation of humour. As for cultural obstacles to successfulhumour translation, they come from the differences in traditions andsocio-cultural knowledge of the sender and the recipient. A special section ofthe 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 humouris probably one of the most challenging modes of language use to research. Forone thing, humour comes in many forms. For another, it occurs in varioussettings. The diversity of topics and empirical data confirms these somewhattrivial statements.

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

As for the linguistic part, it can be noted that despite criticisms (e.g. Dynel2009), the GTVH and the Incongruity-Resolution theory remain by far the mostpopular approaches in the field of humour research. As noted above, severalauthors employ these theories to explain how humour “happens” in discourse andto model the interrelation between cognitive and pragmatic aspects of humour. Inthis sense the collection fits into existing paradigms of humour researchpresented in Norrick & Chiaro (2010) and Raskin (2008). However, openlyexpressed ambitions to combine pragmatic approaches with cognitive theoriesrepresent 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 alsouniversal techniques, and confirm the universality of cognitive mechanismsemployed for humour creation.

Overall, the volume offers both theoretical and empirical insights into humourresearch. All contributions show a very strong link between theory and empiricaldata. This is the reason why the book is likely to be of interest not only tolinguists, but also to psychologists and cognitive scientists involved in humourresearch. The merge of pragmatic and cognitive paradigms looks very promising interms 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. Humor7(1): 27-54.

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

Bucaria, Chiara. 2004. Lexical and syntactic ambiguity as a source of humor: thecase 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 ofsalience-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 UtteranceProcessing, 32 - 52. Mouton Series in Pragmatics, General Editor: IstvanKecskes. 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.

Page Updated: 02-Feb-2012