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Review of  Understanding Language through Humor

Reviewer: Kirstie Marie Lock
Book Title: Understanding Language through Humor
Book Author: Stanley Dubinsky Chris Holcomb
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.3036

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‘Understanding Language through Humor’ is primarily written as a supplement to a more traditional introduction to linguistics textbook. It does not intend to replace a standard linguistics textbook. This book is written for university students who speak English as their native language and have the cultural background to understand and appreciate American and British humor. It is not written to teach linguistic vocabulary, nor does it present traditional, ground-breaking research in each of the linguistic sub-fields. Its goal is to explain language features using humor, which has the unique ability to illustrate linguistic principles by breaking intrinsically understood linguistic rules. The authors claim that this book could prove useful and interesting to linguists at any stage of their study and career by giving them tools to explain linguistic concepts to people around them through cartoons and jokes.

Because this book is meant as supplementary material, it follows the normal structure of a linguistics textbook. The first chapter introduces the purpose of the book and successive chapters take a look at human versus animal communication, phonology, morphology and lexicography, grammar, pragmatics, discourse, language acquisition in children, language variation, cross-cultural communication, language standardization, and more resources.

Chapter 1
In this short chapter, the authors explain that they are not explaining humor, but rather using humor to illustrate linguistic principles.

Chapter 2
This chapter uses cartoons featuring animals to illustrate the difference between human and animal communication. The authors list the three main properties of communication: a medium, some meaning, and a purpose. The arbitrariness of sounds, or signs, and their meaning are also introduced, which leads the authors into some differences between animal communication and human language. First, we can talk about things that are neither directly in front of us, nor happening right now. Furthermore, human language is productive, creative, and recursive.

Chapter 3
The first concept the authors cover in this chapter, on phonology, is the difference between orthography and the actual sounds made by the speakers. The difference is illustrated by a poem about the frustration a native French speaker, who is learning English, has with the ‘–ough’ ending being pronounced in so many different ways. This chapter then helps the reader understand that English has a phonemic system and gives some illustrations of sounds that cannot occur at the beginning of English words, but might be perfectly acceptable initial sounds for other languages. The authors go on to talk about the ambiguities that arise when articulation is not clear, as with insertion, deletion, and combining sounds at word boundaries. A description of spoonerisms, malapropisms, and mondegreens finishes out the chapter.

Chapter 4
The chapter on morphology and lexicography starts by introducing affixes. The authors give two very nice illustrations of infixes from ‘The Simpsons’: Homer’s –ma-, and Ned Flanders’ -diddly-. They also talk about some of the prefixes and suffixes in English and some of the words that could be made with affixes, but aren’t. The words ‘derivational’ and ‘inflectional’ are introduced, defined, and illustrated. Compound words are then dealt with, followed by shortening and lengthening words, idioms, reduplication, and narrowing of terms versus genericization of brands. The meanings of homophone, homograph, homonym, and polyseme are introduced and illustrated as well. The chapter finishes with a look at new words coined by famous people like Stephen Colbert and George W. Bush.

Chapter 5
The authors take a different approach with the chapter on grammar than they have with other chapters. There is still humor scattered throughout to illustrate word order, however, they also attempt to explain word order by using math formulas. This is intended to help the reader understand how adjectives, prepositional phrases, and relative clauses modify nouns. Next, this chapter takes a very brief look at verbs and the objects they require, before moving on to explain the purpose of pronouns and humorous uses of the ambiguity they enable. Finally, the authors explain the semantic ambiguities that can occur with the words ‘one’, ‘some’, ‘every’, and ‘all’.

Chapter 6
In this chapter, on pragmatics, the authors introduce the idea that the grammatical form of a sentence may not be the intended speech act. Humor can be found when one member of a conversation intentionally breaks the assumed cooperative nature of conversation and takes the sentence literally. The authors deal with deixis and its ambiguities, and then move on to describe speech acts in greater detail. The Cooperative Principle is described next, and examples are given of the ways interlocutors can break these principles for humorous effect. The chapter ends with illustrations of presuppositions.

Chapter 7
The discourse chapter explains how we look at the structure of a text. The authors describe the use of repetition, pronouns, moving from old to new information, conceptual patterns, and conversational structure to move a discourse along. The chapter goes on to talk about the context of the text, including the relationship between speakers and listeners, and where and when conversations take place. Most of the text examples for these two sections are in the form of monologues from stand-up comedy, or conversations from sitcom TV shows. The next section of the chapter lists some of the different kinds of discourse that can be analyzed, including speaking, as well as actual texts, and combinations of speech and text. The last section in the chapter describes genres, and goes into a few sub-genres of humor.

Chapter 8
This chapter, on child language acquisition, starts by differentiating learning from acquiring. It goes on to talk about the order in which children learn the sound systems of their native language. Overextension, underextension, and logical, but incorrect, word creation are the next topics in this chapter. The stages of syntactic development, from one word utterances to a child’s experimentation with morphology and negatives, are illustrated. The chapter ends with a brief description of caregiver speech and a warning about not letting the TV teach children to speak; rather, caregivers need to talk to them.

Chapter 9
The chapter on language variation starts by problematizing words like ‘accent’, and ‘dialect’, and explaining the choice of ‘variety’ to refer to the different ways speakers produce one language. To illustrate the understanding a native speaker has of the different varieties of his/her own language, there is a short activity, taken from the sitcom Frasier, asking students to match sentences to types of people. The following sections describe some of the sound, lexical, and grammatical differences between various English varieties, and end with comments on style-shifting.

Chapter 10
This chapter, on cross-cultural communication, describes some of the difficulties inherent in learning and using a second language. Sound system differences are briefly introduced, followed by differences in the semantic meaning of lexical items and an introduction to jargon. Language differences in speech speed, volume, turn delay, and intonation are described in the next section of this chapter, along with humorous cross-cultural situations that can be found because of these differences.

Chapter 11
The chapter on standardization begins with defining and illustrating the difference between hard and soft enforcement of language rules. Soft enforcement is social pressure to speak a certain way, usually for political or economic gain. Some of the pros (e.g. giving students a goal to reach for) and cons (e.g. creating a barrier for people who don’t speak the standard) of soft standardizations are described here. Hard language enforcement is government backed, and usually involves preserving the identity of the nation itself. The reasons for not having a national language in the United States are listed in this section and the reasons for other countries having national language policies are also described. This chapter ends with a discussion of offensive speech, and how humor can allow someone to say something that is otherwise socially unacceptable.

Chapter 12
The short, final chapter of this textbook introduces additional resources for students to pursue.


It is very easy to see how this textbook makes a good supplement to a standard introductory textbook. It is refreshing to see the foundational aspects of linguistics explained in the light of cartoons and jokes. Humor is a great tool for breaking and then explaining linguistic features, and also keeps this type of reading enjoyable and educational.

There are a few pitfalls that a professor who might want to use this book should watch out for. First, the authors regularly use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as an explanatory tool for certain jokes that rely on phonology before providing the IPA chart for the student. I am certain that the authors are expecting a primary textbook to cover this chart in detail, so they only cover it very briefly here. In addition, the authors use some kind of modified phonetics with IPA symbols. The authors’ intention is to appeal to a native speaker’s intuitive understanding of how words sound, or, as the authors describe it, “some plain-language description” (p. 29). This means that the phonetic descriptions which are written like IPA in this book and the IPA in other textbooks will be different. A professor might need to provide the student with a cross-reference of the differences between the IPA and phonetic descriptions used in this textbook.

Second, the authors regularly use linguistic vocabulary words without explaining them first. One of these instances is the use of the term ‘transitive’ (p. 43) in the description of inflectional affixes in the fourth chapter, covering morphology. Perhaps the authors are relying on the high school education of students to have taught them the difference between the possible transitivity options for verbs. Nevertheless, a brief definition of transitivity with a focus on how it is related to affix morphology would be useful here, especially since the audience for this book is students who are brand new to linguistic concepts. The word ‘transitive’ is defined in the book in Chapter Five, which is on syntax. However, Chapter Five then assumes students’ knowledge of direct and indirect objects, pronouns, and prepositional phrases, without explanations.

Finally, the authors themselves often write things in a dry humorous way, treating many linguistic topics tongue-in-cheek. Some of the humorous writing requires an understanding of European cultural contexts, as in the difference between ‘chianti’ and ‘hefewiezen’ (p. 21) when talking about Italian and Austrian bee dialects. Overall, the authors do a good job walking the fine line between funny and offensive jokes, and only the most overly sensitive people might find some of their comments out of place.

In conclusion, the authors of ‘Understanding Language through Humor’ reached their target audience of university students who are being introduced to linguistics for the first time and who have another introduction to linguistics textbook to rely on for linguistic vocabulary and foundational studies. However, this book would not work for anyone who does not intrinsically understand English and American or British culture. Students of English as a second language will struggle with this text as their sole introduction to English language linguistic topics. However, advanced English language learners attempting to gain a better understanding of how American and British humor works may find it helpful and interesting, especially if they already understand linguistic features. Professors looking to use this textbook will likely want it to be a supplement to a standard introduction to linguistics textbook, or they will need to fill in the assumed knowledge via lecture.
Kirstie Lock received her M.A. from Payap University's Linguistics Department. Her research interests are in developing effective teaching strategies for English language teaching, assisting English as a second language students in accomplishing their language learning goals, and minority language preservation, documentation, and revitalization.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780521713887
Pages: 212
Prices: U.S. $ 30.99