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Embodied grammar and humor


Language is so central to humor that it is often taken for granted that the word “humor” refers to humor effected at least in part through language. Types of humor that do not involve language are qualified appropriately - “physical” humor, “musical” humor, and so on. Not only is humor often based on language, but humor is a large part of what language is used for. Humorous utterances constitute a significant portion of normal daily linguistic interactions, and stand as one of language’s major and universal functions, along with conveying information and giving orders, among others.

Despite the centrality of language to humor and vice versa, linguists pay very little attention to the use of language for humorous purposes, focusing rather more intently on language in “neutral contexts”. Leaving to the side the matter of how it is that a context can be considered “neutral”, the important point is that mainstream theories of language use and language structure (e.g. Chomsky 1965, 1995) rarely take into consideration the particular social, cognitive, and structural details of humorous language. Similarly, while most humor researchers take the structure, production, and understanding of humorous utterances as their basic domain of investigation, these studies rarely take into consideration general aspects of linguistic structure and use.

One may have one of several goals in studying the use of language for humor. It could be that one hopes to gain an understanding of the particular linguistic structures that are used in general forms of humor or particular instances of humor. It could alternatively be that one aims to understand the cognitive mechanisms that underlie the use of language for humorous purposes - how exactly does an individual construct an utterance intended to be funny, and how exactly does another individual process the resulting language such that it evokes a humor response? A final reason one might investigate language and humor might be to better understand the nature of linguistic structure and processing more generally, through the study of this particular domain to which it is applied.

Among linguistic theories, those that come closest to providing analytical and theoretical tools for answering questions like these go under the rubric of Cognitive Linguistics (Langacker 1987; Lakoff 1987; Talmy 2000; Fauconnier and Turner 2002), the study of language and the part it plays in the cognitive system. The applicability of Cognitive Linguistics to humor 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 (MacWhinney 1999; Chrisley and Ziemke 2002). This contrasts with mainstream theories of language, which focus more strongly on the formal and abstract nature of linguistic structures.

An emphasis on the embodiment of language benefits an account of its role in humor for two reasons. First, as we argue below, the nature of the language used for humor is strongly influenced by the particular social contexts in which it is used and the social purposes to which it is put. Second, extralinguistic cognitive systems play an important role in processing humorous language. We show below that in order to account for what language users do when producing and understanding humor, an adequate account of how language is used has to have at least the following properties, which reflect these two observations. First, it has to allow for the fact that “sentence patterns have specific pragmatics” associated with them, closely tied to particular usage situations. Second, it has to be able to represent how language serves to cue internal imagination of the content of an utterance.

The next two sections provide the theoretical background for these two claims - that language is structured around specific sentence types that are associated with particular pragmatics, and that language understanding makes use of detailed, embodied imagery. We subsequently demonstrate that both of these observations that hold of language generally apply specifically to humor as well. In the last section, we explore further ways in which embodied theories help explain aspects of humor.

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