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Humour as the killer-app of language A view from Cognitive Linguistics

Language is the ultimate “killer app” of the human mind. No other application of human cognition is so flexible, so extensible or so richly-featured, and none does a better job of showing off the diverse functionality of its underlying hardware. The refrain “there’s an app for that” is commonplace in our everyday discussions of what our technologies can and should do for us. But language is no less a technology than our software, and has long given us the refrain “there’s a word for that”. Language, like a universal computer, allows for its own extension and adaptation to the contexts of its use. It allows us to invent words that give solid form to inchoate concepts or newly-birthed and still-unsettled ideas. As Goethe famously put it, words are most useful precisely when our ideas fail us. But language does more than paper over the cracks in our conceptual edifices. Humorous language actively seeks out these cracks, makes them evident to all, and proposes a means of filling the gaps that, if not always entirely practical, is nonetheless entertaining and thought-provoking (Fauconnier 1994; Coulson, this volume; Bergen and Binsted, this volume; Veale 2012; Veale, Feyaerts and Forceville et al. 2013). If language is the ultimate killer-app of the mind, it can often seem that humour - as a powerful conceptual, communicative and social application - is the killer-app of language, in the deepest and most subversive sense of “killer” (Giora 2003; Giora et al., this volume; Feyaerts and Oben 2014).

Language has a unifying power, one that allows us to condense a complex swirl of feelings and ideas into a single, highly evocative word or phrase. It allows us to construct a unified front around cognitive phenomena that are related but far from unified. This power, if unchecked by careful introspection and empirical analysis, can make essentialists of us all. Simplicity comes from having a single convenient word for a complex of related ideas, but simplicity also promotes over-simplification. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, we are too often bewitched by language, beguiled into thinking that a certain concept - such as KNOWLEDGE - is simple and uniform and uncomplicated - because language has furnished us with a single, simple word like “know”. Because we know how to use a word like “know”, we tell ourselves that we must also know how to understand the underlying concept of KNOWLEDGE. Much the same dilemma presents itself when we aim to study humour from a linguistic, cognitive or computational perspective. The ease with which we use words like “humour” or “wit” or “joke” beguiles us into viewing HUMOUR as an essentially uniform concept: though it may take on diverse forms in language, we are bewitched into thinking that there is a single coherent deep-structure that gives rise to them all. But this need not be the case: just as Wittgenstein and a generation of cognitive psychologists after him (e.g. Rosch 1978) have shown, we frequently use words like “game” or “fake” that give an unearned impression of simplicity to complex ideas that lack both sharp boundaries and an essentialist, easy-to-define core. As cognitively-minded researchers of HUMOUR, we must admit the same complexity in the study of whatever it is that the word “humour” denotes.

In this regard, the field of Cognitive Linguistics (CL) is ideally positioned to support the study of humour in language (see Brone, Feyaerts and Veale 2006; Brone 2008, 2010, 2012; Feyaerts 2013 for similar arguments). CL acknowledges that, as the killer-app of the mind, language can leverage many diverse aspects of human cognition to explore, shape and communicate our feelings, beliefs and ideas. Likewise, there is no crevice in language into which humour cannot force a wedge. Our jokes and witticisms can exploit the highest structural levels of language, from discourse and genre conventions to narrative forms, down through sentence structures, word-order conventions, agreement constraints, all the way down to morphology, spelling, pronunciation and stress patterns (cf. Attardo 1994, 2001; Ritchie 2004; Raskin 2008; Aarons 2011; Ruiz Gurillo and Alvarado 2013; Dynel 2013; Antonopoulou, Nikiforidou and Tsakona, this volume). There is no automatic process in language that, with sufficient cleverness, humour cannot force us to de-automatize. Humour can wrest control back from the most autonomous of linguistic processes, and force these processes to bring arbitrary aspects of world knowledge or the vagaries of a specific context to bear on their otherwise scripted behaviours. All humour is subversive, and linguistic humour subverts utterly the idea that any part of our linguistic apparatus has any real autonomy (Giora 2003; Giora et al. 2004, this volume).

The wide-ranging CL perspective is much-needed for the study of humorous language, as the need to appear sober and scientific in the study of what many consider to be a frivolous subject has driven many young researchers into the arms of the two least attractive aspects of the scientific enterprise: essentialism and reductionism. All too often, interesting theories on humour are reduced to the closest thing they have to an essentialist core, to yield a snappy label or phrase that fails to accommodate many of the interesting nuances that the underlying theories have to offer. It is as though a humour theory can gain no traction if it cannot be reduced to a pithy two-word oxymoron, whether incongruity resolution, appropriate incongruity, relevant inappropriateness, benign violation, mutual vulnerability, or any other pairing of opposites one cares to mention. These are convenient labels to be sure, and convey some flavor of the theories they attach too, but they can also do more harm than good for the study of humour. Humour theorists would do well to distance themselves from these labels. Victor Raskin, for instance, has always shown a wily reluctance to accept the label of incongruity resolution for the theory Semantic Script Theory of Humour (SSTH, Raskin 1985) and for its evolution into the General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH, Attardo and Raskin 1991; Attardo 1994, 2001). This reluctance seems odd when one considers that both the SSTH and GTVH give a key role to incongruity resolution, but this reluctance seems more sensible than odd when one considers that their creators consider these theories to offer much more than just incongruity resolution.

By providing a broad foundation of cognitive mechanisms into which one can anchor a study of humour, CL offers a way out of the essentialist trap. Humorous language need not hinge on a single cognitive mechanism, but can avail of them all. Ideas like incongruity resolution, appropriate incongruity, relevant inappropriateness and benign violation are all still useful in a CL account of humour, but they no longer have to serve as enigmatic ciphers for an otherwise ineffable quality or poorly-understood process. Instead, they can serve as convenient short-hands for the complex of interactions between cognitive mechanisms that ultimately give them their meanings. This is the true meaning of Goethe’s maxim about words and ideas: words and labels are IOUs when we are temporarily out of cash, or scaffoldings for conceptual buildings that are yet to be completed. Just as Wittgenstein described philosophy as a ladder that one kicks away when one reaches the understanding at the top, our convenient labels in humour research are designed to be cashed out, to be replaced by real cognitive understanding. The papers that comprise this volume each show researchers at different levels on their individual ladders. None is anywhere near reaching the top and kicking away either their ladders or their convenient labels, but each uses CL to climb their ladder, rung by rung. We ask you to judge for yourselves the progress they are making toward their goal, and the relative merits of the different ladders.

Given the focus of this volume on the application of concepts and tools from the broad field of CL, including classical notions such as metaphors, frames, mental spaces, conceptual integration, conceptual salience and grammatical constructions, to a wide range of phenomena that can be subsumed under the category HUMOUR, we do not primarily aim at an extensive review of the literature in humour research (see e.g. Raskin 2008, Martin 2007 for excellent reviews of the literature, and Brone, Feyaerts and Veale (2006), Brone and Feyaerts (2004) and Brone (2010) for a critical review of the position of CL vis-a-vis linguistic humour theories). Rather, the volume is intended as a collection of papers that explore the explanatory potential of the cognitive mechanisms that have played a central role in the field of CL. In this sense, this collection aims to cater for a broad public, including cognitive linguists interested in the empirical elasticity and ‘valorization potential’ of their conceptual apparatus, cognitive scientists interested in the phenomenon of humour as the playground for the fluid conceptual system and humour researchers seeking additional analytical tools.

Outline of this volume

This volume consists of a total of 10 chapters, divided into four thematic sections, covering a variety of methodological and theoretical issues. The first section deals with the largely unexplored humorous potential of grammar, and the possibility to exploit the semantics and pragmatics of grammatical constructions for humorous purposes (Antonopoulou, Nikiforidou and Tsakona; Bergen and Binsted). The second section focuses on the classical CL notions of metaphor and figure/ground organization, which have been frequently linked to humour and creativity, but whose internal relationship requires further scrutiny (Veale; Attardo; Muller). The third section approaches humour from an experimental point-of-view, in an attempt to empirically substantiate key concepts that were introduced in the literature, as e.g. frame-shifting, optimal innovation and multimodal signaling of irony and humour (Giora, Fein, Kotler and Shuval; Bryant and Gibbs; Coulson). The fourth and final section includes two chapters that present corpus-based investigations of interactional humour, using concepts and insights from CL, such as staged communicative acts, conceptual blending and metaphor (Dore; Feyaerts, Brone and De Ceuckelaire). In what follows, we present a brief outline of the individual chapters.

In their chapter, Eleni Antonopoulou, Kiki Nikiforidou and Villy Tsakona investigate whether linguistic phenomena involving the realization of humorous incongruity may be systematically analyzed along the lines of construction grammar (cf. Bergen and Binsted, this volume). Starting point is the observation that although most construction-based analyses have focused on sentence-level phenomena (at best encompassing bi-clausal constructions such as conditionals), the framework may in principle be extended to cover larger pieces of discourse. The authors take up the challenge to analyze discourse-based instances of humorous incongruity as residing in constructional properties, and thus integrated in a theory of grammar. Accordingly, this paper focuses on linguistic units which emerge through their conventional association with specific discourse patterns or contexts, giving rise to humorous incongruity. In their corpus-based study, the authors also explore how conventional discourse patterns from a specific genre may be exploited in a different genre, so as to achieve a humorous effect. It is shown that the combination of discourse patterns originating in different genres does not necessarily result in the creation of a new genre, nor in the transformation of an existing one, but rather creates a unique discourse space, which is accessible to, and aims at amusing those readers who are familiar with the conventions of the genres involved. Construction grammar, defined as a usage-based model aiming to account for all types of linguistic knowledge, is argued to be the most adequate approach to provide cognitive grounding and a rigorous methodology for the analysis of large-scale patterns by recognizing that these patterns, just like sentence-level constructions, also consist of less and more fixed parts, of formal/schematic and substantive/lexical material.

Starting from a general theoretical perspective, Benjamin Bergen and Kim Binsted argue that of all modern language theories, those that go under the rubric of Cognitive Linguistics come closest to providing analytical and theoretical tools for studying the use of language for humorous purposes. The applicability of Cognitive Linguistics to humour derives from its emphasis on the embodiment of language - how it is used by humans with particular sorts of brains and bodies, with particular physical and social goals in specific physical and social contexts. The authors argue that an emphasis on the embodiment of language benefits an account of its role in humour for two reasons. First, the nature of the language used for humour is strongly influenced by the particular social contexts in which it is used and the social purposes it serves. Second, extralinguistic cognitive systems play an important role in processing humorous language. Humour makes use of constructional pragmatics and mental imagery, as well as metaphor and frames. Embodied (construction) grammars elucidate how language is used to produce and understand humour. Humour constitutes a domain of actual language use in which constructional pragmatics and mental imagery are not only obvious, but essential to the function of the language. Constructional pragmatics is acquired through exposure to language in particular social and discourse contexts, and as such, knowledge of them is strongly shaped by the individual’s particular experiential history. Similarly, the importance of imagery to the meaningfulness and effectiveness of linguistic humour emphasizes the role that components of the human cognitive system other than strictly grammatical capacities play in human linguistic behavior. Together, the importance of constructional pragmatics and mental imagery evident in humorous language testify to the importance of the individual human experience to language use.

In his contribution, Tony Veale embarks on an intriguing exercise of comparing the similarity between humour and thought experiments (or Gedanken experiments). The basis for this comparison is the observation of both activities as powerful cognitive abilities, through which human beings - in domains as different as scientific discourse and social intercourse - may explore and even influence category boundaries. Both activities aim at exposing and surpassing the limitations and inconsistencies of received wisdom and habitual thinking, thus bringing about alternative conceptual perspectives and/or previously unarticulated instincts, intuitions and emotions. In both activities, imagination plays a crucial role as it encourages us to occasionally explore our minds as a mental laboratory. Ultimately, Tony Veale argues that many jokes can be described in terms of humorous thought experiments, in which the models under revision are genre conventions, taboos and social norms (cf. Antonopoulou, Nikiforidou and Tsakona, this volume). Conversely, many thought experiments can be interpreted as philosophical jokes, in which the subversive logic of humour is used to induce a contradiction in an opponent’s theory. With regard to humour theories, Veale argues that this Gedanken-based subversion view of humour is complementary to the juxtaposition view as embodied in mechanisms like bisociation, script switching and frame shifting. According to Veale, the subversion view explains how and why new categories are created from old, thus explaining (rather than just describing) the creativity inherent in both joke production and joke understanding.

Why are some metaphors humorous and others not? How can we define the category of ‘humorous metaphors’? In his contribution, Salvatore Attardo problematizes this very concept arguing that at most it can be used as an umbrella term for at least three different phenomena: (1) metaphors that are funny in and of themselves, (2) metaphors that describe a referent that is inherently funny, and (3) failed metaphors. Any account of humorous metaphors which has attempted to define such an overarching category presents itself as a variant of the so-called ‘distance theory’, in which invariably some sort of threshold of ‘semantic distance’ between the two domains involved in a metaphorical mapping is postulated. This threshold is supposed to represent the norm, beyond which a metaphorical mapping gets overstretched and is therefore perceived as humorous. Problematic about these approaches, however, is the lack of any operationalization or quantification of this threshold. At best, Attardo argues, humorous metaphors may share a family resemblance, but it does not seem possible or even desirable to reduce the idea of ‘humorous metaphor’ to a unique category. In this paper, Attardo presents an alternative, not necessarily antagonistic approach, which is grounded in recent accounts of the incongruity-resolution approach in humour research.

Ralph Muller bases his contribution on the longstanding belief that there is a conceptual similarity between metaphor and humour. Yet, unlike previous studies in this domain, he also focuses on the fact that humorous experiences are often described in terms of metaphorical mappings. In this respect, Muller points out that not only theoretical terms such as ‘superiority’, ‘degradation’ and ‘incongruity’ are of metaphorical origin, but that even basic experiences such as ‘comic relief ’ or various kinds of laughter are often construed metaphorically. The paper addresses three major aspects of this link between metaphor and humour, the first of which offers a general overview of the rich literature on this topic. The second part investigates metaphorical mappings that describe humour in German and demonstrates that evaluation of humour and reasoning about its functions is strongly influenced by metaphors. A final aspect of the interplay between both phenomena concerns the question whether metaphors have a particular affinity to humour or vice versa.

In their contribution on creative metaphoric language use Rachel Giora, Ofer Fein, Nurit Kotler and Noa Shuval pursue two goals, the first of which is to demonstrate what processes are involved in language comprehension. The authors discuss a series of experiments in support of the Graded Salience Hypothesis (Giora 1997, 2003), from which can be concluded that less-salient interpretations are processed slower than salient ones, regardless of figurativeness. With respect to coherence, accordingly, it is shown that metaphoric and literal interpretations of utterances are not equally coherent. Only novel metaphor is viewed as hampering coherence, as predicted by the Graded Salience Hypothesis. Second, Giora and her colleagues provide experimental support for the Optimal Innovation Hypothesis according to which optimally innovative rather than metaphoric interpretations account for pleasurability. Accordingly, it is not figurativeness such as metaphor that induces pleasure, as would be expected from traditional views of ‘poetic’ language, but rather optimal innovativeness. It is only novel metaphor that is viewed as likable; familiar metaphors are just as pleasing as their familiar literal interpretations. What is likable about optimal innovativeness, it is argued, is the recognition of the salient in the novel.

In their contribution, Gregory A. Bryant and Raymond W. Gibbs Jr. investigate when and how we judge what someone says as being humorous by considering contemporary empirical research on irony and laughter. It is argued that through its highly complex and varied nature, (humour in) irony cannot be reduced to a single cognitive or affective process. On the background of explanatory broad principles and mechanisms, identified and described in theoretical accounts such as humour studies and cognitive linguistics, Bryant and Gibbs suggest additional methods and principles need to be included in the investigation of both the processing and appreciation of ironic humorous speech via laughter. From their review of contemporary research on laughter, tone of voice, and ironic meaning, Bryant and Gibbs Jr. conclude that the appreciation and signaling of humorous situations through laughter depends on so many complex factors that no simple theory can adequately explain the diversity of the phenomenon. It appears that speakers employ a variety of contrastive strategies to mark their ironic or humorous intent. These strategies are essentially multimodal as they are not restricted to the linguistic channel of expression but also include bodily actions as different ways to enact ironic humour as a ‘staged communicative act’. In order to achieve this research goal, Bryant and Gibbs Jr. call for more behavioral, corpus-based studies, in which on the basis of different parameters the multimodal dimension of humorous-ironic conversation can be investigated.

In her contribution, Seana Coulson presents the space structuring model, first developed in Coulson (2000) as an integration of ideas from mental spaces theory, conceptual blending theory and cognitive grammar. According to this model, linguistic and non-linguistic elements in the discourse context selectively activate structures from background knowledge in the form of frames, which are distributed in different mental spaces and connected for the purpose of local meaning construction. The role of knowledge in long-term memory in this sense is primarily “one of constraining the topology of the mappings and completing unfilled slots in frames at different levels” (Coulson 2000: 159). In contrast to more traditional frame-based models (including to some extent the SSTH and GTVH), the space structuring model has a somewhat more flexible view in the sense that frames need not be explicitly tied to contextually available elements. Rather, frames are argued to serve to constrain the construction of cognitive models in specific discourse situations. Jokes and other forms of nonce sense provide prime examples of the type of flexible meaning construction covered by the space structuring model, as they often require a sudden and radical reorganization of the cognitive model of the message-level representation. This reorganization process, referred to as frame-shifting in the work by Coulson and colleagues, is obviously a much-debated phenomenon in humour research as well, better known by the term script-switching as it was coined by Raskin (1985).

After the theoretical introduction into the space structuring model, Coulson discusses a series of experiments, using different methodological paradigms, that demonstrate the psychological reality of frame-shifting. The complex relation between word meaning and contextual information in punch line jokes produces the hypothesis that frame-shifting requires a higher cognitive processing load than cases that do not force such a reconfiguration. This hypothesis was tested using self-paced reading (Coulson and Kutas 1998), the analysis of event- related brain potentials (ERP, Coulson and Kutas 2001) and eye-tracking (Coulson et al. 2006). The tests using these three experimental paradigms all confirm the basic hypothesis: reading times, brain wave patterns and gaze behaviour of test subjects are all indicative of the processing complexity of frame-shifting in one-line jokes. In addition the ERP experiment shows neural indices of the frame-shifting process after the final word of the joke has been processes, and the eye-movement data reveal that the higher processing cost is related to higher-level processing. In a following section, Coulson devotes specific attention to the neural substrate of frame-shifting, using a series of experiments that provide insights into the brain regions involved in the cognitive processing of jokes and puns. These experiments (reported in Coulson and Wu 2005, Coulson and Severens 2007) reveal a particular importance of the left hemisphere for pun comprehension (linked to the retrieval of word meaning), whereas narrative jokes draw more strongly on the right hemisphere (linked to frame semantic information). In a last section of the chapter, Coulson discusses the theoretical implications of phenomena like frame-shifting for frame-based models. She concludes that a model based on dynamic internal imagery and schematized simulation will be better equipped to account for the specific demands of joke comprehension.

In line with the contributions by Muller and Attardo (this volume), the study by Margherita Dore also sheds light on the often debated relationship between metaphor and humour. In her contribution, Dore focuses on metaphors taken from the first series of the American sitcom Friends. In her approach, Dore demonstrates both advantages and limitations of analyzing humorous metaphors through the application of three theoretical frameworks: Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT), Blending Theory (BT) and the Generalized Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH). CMT is shown to help understand the conceptual metaphors underlying series of verbal metaphorical expressions and expressing conventional ways of experiencing and making sense of the world around us. Accordingly, CMT demonstrates how novel metaphors can be easily processed as they rely on the conceptual metaphors which are part of the common ground among the interlocutors. However, it can only deal with metaphorical conceptualizations based on a unidirectional cross-domain mapping. In contrast, BT appears useful in handling complex metaphors as it takes into account the flexible dynamic nature of (humorous) meaning construction in interaction. BT turns out to be better equipped to explain the way in which central inferences are produced while speaking or writing in the context and situation of a specific usage event. Concerning the GTVH, Dore argues that it enriches the linguistic analysis of each metaphorical expression through its focus on both script oppositions and the targets involved. The combination of these theories appeals once again for a well-balanced, non-restrictive approach to a phenomenon as multifaceted as humour.

In their paper, Kurt Feyaerts, Geert Brone and Robin De Ceukelaire present an empirical analysis of the phenomenon of humorous teasing as it occurs in four American sitcoms of the nineties: The Nanny, Friends, Married with Children and Spin City. The general aim of this study is to gain a better insight in the socio-semantic characteristics of humour involving teasing as a multilayered and multi-perspectival phenomenon. On the basis of a corpus of 402 teasing sequences, the authors identify five parameters, the combination of which results in an integrated annotation grid. The application of this analytical model allows for a nuanced typological description of teasing as a prototypically structured category of interactional humour. Compared to existing studies of teasing, this corpus-based approach allows for an encompassing, more finegrained analysis of teasing as an intersubjective process of meaning coordination, in which both cognitive-semantic and social aspects are taken into account. Beyond the scope of this paper, the authors expect this annotation grid to be a valuable starting point for a similar analysis of teasing as it occurs in spontaneous everyday interactions.


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Eleni Antonopoulou, Kiki Nikiforidou and Villy Tsakona

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