Saturday 30 November 2013

You must be joking.

When we tell someone that they must be joking we don’t mean that they must be joking: we mean we don’t believe what they’re saying. They may not be lying, but what they’re saying strikes us as making sense only in the realm of make-believe. We say this in a tone of voice that rules out acknowledgement of shared merriment. And we don’t laugh at the presumed “joke”. So why the word joking, then? Quirks of linguistic formulaic devices, surely, but that’s what languages are: formulaic devices. We need to learn when and how telling people that they must be joking is appropriate, because we don’t say this to people whom we know are joking. So how do we know they’re not?

At the turn of last century, in a monograph titled Le Rire: Essai sur la Signification du Comique which has withstood the test of time, Henri Bergson argued that what makes us laugh, “le comique, [c’est] du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant”. Stumbles and/or falls, for example, trigger our mirth because (more or less) supple living bodies fall prey to mechanical stiffness – and I suspect there must be something mechanical at work, too, in what makes us laugh over and over again at whatever makes us laugh. Perhaps the converse of Bergson’s take, plating life onto machines, is one reason why machines aren’t that good at laughing at what makes us laugh? Or rather, why we aren’t that good at creating laughter-inducing software. Richard Powers puts it this way, in Galatea 2.2: Helen, the mechanical protagonist, “was strange. [...] She sped laugh-free through Green Eggs and Ham”. Helen isn’t the only one having issues with laughter in this novel, by the way: if you’re curious, have a look in Fran McDonald’s chapter Wrong laughter: Laughing away the human in Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2.

Bergson also explained why laughter confirms a successfully shared joke: “Notre rire est toujours le rire d’un groupe.” 


As we learn our languages, whether we’re young or old, we learn what’s shared through them among fellow-users. Human beings are natural merrymakers, regardless of culture, so it’s no wonder that one of the main purposes of language use is entertaining, along with informing and persuading. Since jokes make sense to insiders, learning to make and get jokes isn’t as frivolous as it may appear on first thought. Happily, given the not-for-laughs nature of most language teaching materials, humour is being increasingly understood as a very effective language learning tool. Research by Nancy Bell shows, for example, that fostering joking in a new language enhances linguistic proficiency, by promoting creative ways of using those new linguistic resources. Catherine Davies provides an additional reason for getting to grips with humour in the language classroom: her study How English-learners joke with native speakers concludes that “Such fine-tuning of understanding is the core of why the ability to participate in such joking is important in the development of rapport.” Not only do we learn better what makes us laugh, learning what makes others laugh hails us as sanctioned linguistic insiders. My take is that people who joke together wire together.

Although I have yet to decide which of the two is more vexing, someone telling you that you must be joking when you are joking, or someone laughing at your joke when you’re not, I’m sure of one thing: prosody is often to blame for mishaps of this kind, as research included in this special issue of Pragmatics & Cognition, dedicated to Prosody and Humour, makes clear. We draw on language/culture-specific analogies and metaphors, bodily ones included, to create idiomatic sarcasm and irony, but language/culture-specific prosody is what allows their interpretation as humorous. Maybe the reason why Richard Powers’ Helen and our other human-like machines don’t know how to laugh is that programmers inherited the traditional view of languages as exhausting themselves in robot-friendly words + grammar. Just a thought.

Lastly, a healthy note: we know about an apple a day, but a laugh a day may have equally beneficial effects on our physiology and psychology. Here are two, for the child within each and every one of us: Howard L. Chace’s monolingual fairy tale, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut and Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s multilingual rhymes Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames. I’ll indulge in some more language play next time.

Davies, C. (2003). How English-learners joke with native speakers: an interactional sociolinguistic perspective on humor as collaborative discourse across cultures Journal of Pragmatics, 35 (9), 1361-1385 DOI: 10.1016/S0378-2166(02)00181-9

Goldstein, J. (1982). A Laugh A Day The Sciences, 22 (6), 21-25 DOI: 10.1002/j.2326-1951.1982.tb02088.x

McDonald, F. (2012). Wrong laughter: Laughing away the human in Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2. In Matos Alves, A. (ed.), Unveiling the Posthuman, Interdisciplinary Press.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual crosswords. Saturday 14th December 2013.

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