Written by: Ivan Sokolov, Foreign Languages Department,
University ‘Prof. Dr. Asen Zlatarov’, Burgas, Bulgaria
Why do people laugh? And why do different people find different things funny? Are there any special linguistic mechanisms that humour understanding involves?
To answer these questions, I will briefly analyse the following joke using the Semantic Script Theory of Humour, proposed by Victor Raskin (1985).
There was a competition to cross the English Channel doing only the breaststroke. Just three women entered the race: a brunette, a redhead, and a blonde.
After approximately 14 hours the brunette staggered up on the shore and was declared the fastest breaststroker. About 40 minutes later the redhead crawled up on the shore and was declared to be the second place finisher. Nearly 48 hours after that, the blonde finally came ashore and promptly collapsed in front of the worried onlookers.
When the reporters asked why it took her so long to complete the race, she replied, “I don’t want to sound like I’m a sore loser, but I think those two other girls were using their arms.”
The main hypothesis of the theory is that ‘a text can be characterised as a single-joke-carrying text if both of the following conditions are satisfied:

  1. The text is compatible, fully or in part, with two different scripts,
  2. The two scripts with which the text is compatible are opposite (…).

The two scripts with which some text is compatible are said to fully or in part overlap in this text’ (Raskin 1985: p. 99).
A script is an organised chunk of information about something in the broadest sense. It is a cognitive structure internalised by the speaker which provides him/her with information on how things are done, organised, etc. This information is usually typical, such as well-established routines and common ways to do things and to go about activities. There are two basic types of scripts: lexical and non-lexical. Lexical are those which give information pertaining to words (lexical knowledge) and non-lexical – those which give information pertaining to the world (encyclopedic knowledge).
For example, the lexical script for BLONDE is the following:
Subject:                      [+Animate] [+Human] [+Female]
Characteristics:            Has fair hair
Opposites:                   Redhead, brunette
‘A blonde is a person, especially a woman, who has blonde hair’ (Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary)
This is the general information that the script contains. For most competent users of English, however, the word will have a number of connotations (associative meanings):
Characteristics:            Is sexually attractive / has good figure / pretty face / long legs / big breasts / Is silly
When a person reads a joke, or any literary text, different senses, that is different scripts, of the words in the joke are evoked. They are normally the general, linguistic scripts that a competent user of the language will know. Through the activation of combinatorial rules, these scripts combine according to compatibility (i.e. the reader will look for words which evoke the same script). Jokes and anecdotes have a single point of culmination. It is usually the final line, called the punch line, which brings together two contrasting scripts – one which appears to be logically correct and another one which is the opposite of the first on some basis but can also be seen as a logical interpretation. To ‘get’ this logical interpretation the hearer/reader may sometimes have to go back to some previous point in the text and reevaluate its script(s). For a piece of text to be seen as humorous, it is also important that the two opposing scripts overlap in the mind of the person.
In our case the phrase ‘the other two girls were using their arms’ is the punch line, which faces the hearer with a puzzle: if it is a swimming competition, one has to use one’s arms. Why, then, does the blonde girl think that it is against the rules to do so? The hearer might decide that she is just stupid (the stupid script is activated) and thus fail to get the whole joke, or, more likely, will go back to the first sentence and read the rules of the competition. Obviously the girl misinterprets ‘breaststroke’ (‘a swimming stroke which you do lying on your front in the water, moving your arms in a horizontal, circular movement below the surface of the water, and kicking like a frog’ – Collins COBUILD) with ‘breast stroke’ (stroke with the breasts, or to use a combination of two definitions: ‘repeated actions, in swimming or rowing, of pushing out and pulling back of the two soft, round pieces of flesh on a woman’s chest that can produce milk to feed a baby’ – Collins COBUILD). The reason why most people find this joke funny is probably because the pun activates several scripts: (1) breaststroke; (2) breast stroke; (3) silly, which explains the girl’s behaviour (the opposition is silly – intelligent and therefore, misunderstand – understand), and (4) big breasts (she did manage to finish the race without using her arms!)
There are, however, even more scripts which might be activated by this joke and they can account for the fact that some people would find it very funny or, on the contrary, feel offended by it. Figure 1 shows the different types of scripts as distinguished by Raskin (1985: 135).

Figure 1

The circle in the centre shows the linguistic scripts, i.e. those which are supposed to be known to any native speaker of the language because of his/her being a native speaker. The external circles represent the non-linguistic scripts in order of accessibility to the speakers in general. General knowledge scripts are those which are generally known to speakers, but do not directly affect their use of the language (e.g. Bulgaria is in Europe). The same is true of restricted knowledge scripts, that is those which are known to a small number of people because they are specialists in a certain area, or members of a particular group of society, etc. These two types refer to our knowledge of the world (encyclopedic knowledge), not to information pertaining to words (lexical knowledge). The larger one’s encyclopedic knowledge is, the better chance s/he has to understand a piece of humour or work of literary art. Individual scripts are those which are probably unique to a person.
In our case, the fact that some people, usually men, think that blondes are stupid and sexually attractive, therefore probably endowed with big breasts, is a general knowledge script, but the association with any particular blonde one has met and is thinking of when hearing the joke (your next-door neighbour, a friend’s wife, you yourself) is an individual script. This individual association is very often the cause to see something either as very funny or downright silly.
Another theory which offers a plausible explanation of humour and humour perception is Thomas Veatch’s theory of humour (Veatch 1998). He states that in order for something to be perceived as humorous, there are three elements that need to be present:
‘The necessary and (jointly) sufficient conditions for the perception of humor are:
V The perceiver has in mind a view of the situation as constituting a violation of some affective commitment of the perceiver to the way something in the situation ought to be. That is, a “subjective moral principle” of the perceiver is violated.
N The perceiver has in mind a predominating view of the situation as being normal.
Simultaneity The N and V understandings are present in the mind of the perceiver at the same instant in time.
(…) humor occurs when it seems that things are normal (N) while at the same time something seems wrong (V).’
Veatch gives a possible reason as to why some things may not be perceived as funny. According to him, ‘That’s not funny!’ has two meanings: (1) ‘It is offensive’ or (2) ‘So, what’s the point?’
A perceiver would find a situation offensive because s/he might be too close to the principle which is violated. For example, racist or sexist jokes are often perceived as offensive. The people who feel offended are too committed to the principles behind or against racism or sexism to be able to find jokes on them humorous.
When a perceiver has the question ‘So, what’s the point?’, it indicates that s/he has no moral or emotional attachment or commitment to the principle being violated. There is no V-element in the interpretation, and thus the situation is not perceived as humorous.
Implications for teaching and use of humour in the classroom
1. Humour is in most cases a linguistic phenomenon. As such, the ability to make and understand humour in a foreign language can be seen as part of the communicative competence and therefore, should be taught in the FLT classroom. Vega even claims that humour competence can be considered ‘the fifth component of the theoretical framework for communicative competence’ and it involves knowledge of the semantic mechanisms of humour, grammar, discourse rules, communication strategies, social norms of language use and world knowledge (Vega 1990).
Since to understand humour, one has to possess the correct semantic scripts and a good deal of the general knowledge shared by the majority of native speakers, the teacher should try to teach his/her students this lexical and cultural knowledge. It should include:

  • Scripts commonly used in the humorous discourse of a nationality (e.g. Americans think that Polish Americans are stupid; the British think that the Irish are stupid; Jews are stingy, etc.).
  • Appropriateness of subject matter, related to setting. There are scripts which are unavailable (tabooed) for humorous discourse in a particular situation, but may be all right to use in another. This appropriateness is culture specific.
  • The possible existence of genres of humour in the FL which are non-existent or different from those in the mother tongue (e.g. limericks and spoonerisms).

2. There are certain psychological benefits of humour and laughter which can be exploited in the EFL classroom.

  • Humour causes laughter and laughter helps to release emotion and tension. As the saying goes, ‘laughter is the best medicine’.
  • Laughing invokes feelings of happiness and joy. Under conditions of happiness, joy and merriment, it is much easier to think creatively around a problem than when our mind is filled with a sense of helplessness and inadequacy.
  • Laughter helps to bridge gaps and promotes unity when people work in a team.
  • Humour and laughter can be used to provoke more real and risky communication. A humorous comment may enable people to talk freely about uncomfortable issues or concerns.
  • Humour is believed to be beneficial to our health.

3. What should teachers be careful about?
Very often people laugh because a particular person or character has a defect or is at a disadvantage. If they like or feel sorry for the person, the humour will be compassionate, that is it will not make the person feel embarrassed or humiliated; if, though, humour is used in such a way that feelings of hostility, distress and negativity are aroused, then it is called caustic humour, humour meant to put somebody down. This hurtful type of humour should be avoided in the classroom.
People are different, therefore they do not find the same things funny. What is funny for one student may be offensive to another. Take your students into consideration, bearing in mind the following:

  • Gender. Sexist humour should be used with great caution in the classroom, because it is often rude and causes feelings of humiliation and resentment.
  • Maturity and age. Since there is a certain amount of intelligence involved in ‘getting’ a joke, our sense of humour develops with age. Until about 8 or 9, children discover the world around them. The things they find absurd and pleasantly surprising are perceived as funny. The jokes of this age consist of short and simple concepts (e.g. ‘elephant’ jokes). Children also appreciate jokes where cruelty is present and that boost their self-assertiveness. During the preteen and teenager years we discover more about being human. The jokes of the age feature sex, food, the people in society that threaten us (authority figures) and any ‘taboo’ subjects – thus jokes are often perceived as a form of rebellion and humour is often used as a tool to protect or to feel superior. Adults usually use a more mature humour with experience behind it. Humour is usually subtler (e.g. playing on words) and no longer judgmental, accepting and taking advantage of the differences between people.
  • Culture. Have you ever tried to tell a foreigner a joke and failed to arouse laughter? This would often be the case simply because they have not lived in the country and have no experience of what is being made fun of, or to use Veatch’s terms, they have no moral or emotional attachment to the principle being violated. To understand humour, therefore, one has to know about the culture of a country. Economical, political, religious and social issues are often the focus of jokes. If, however, it is only the people in a specific native language community who can understand them, they’d better not be taught in the EFL classroom. Jokes which might be offensive to the students because they violate a principle, religious, political, etc, that they are too close to, should also be avoided.
  • Timing. The teacher has to be aware of his/her students’ mood. Will they be receptive to a joke or will they experience it as annoying?

To sum up, humour can play a vital role in the teaching/learning process. First, it is an important part of the communicative competence and as such, should be studied in the EFL classroom. Second, when used carefully, it can be extremely useful to create a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere, stimulate the students, increase their satisfaction and productivity and enhance learning in general.
Raskin, Victor. 1985. Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. Dordrecht – Boston – Lancaster: D. Reidel.
Veatch, Thomas C. 1998. “A Theory of Humor”. Humor. Vol. 11 – 2, pp. 161 – 216.
Vega, Gladys M. 1990. “Humor Competence: The Fifth Component”. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of TESOL (24th, San Francisco, CA, March 6 – 10, 1990).