Monthly Archives: December 2012

Jokes and the linguistic mind

Jokes and the linguistic mind. By Debra Aarons. New York: Routledge, 2011. Pp. xi, 272. ISBN 9780415890496. $42.95.

Reviewed by Beatrice Santorini, University of Pennsylvania

In teaching linguistics, notes Debra Aarons, ‘every major idea … can be illustrated elegantly and memorably through an appropriate joke’ (3). Her book, divided into nine chapters, is a collection of such jokes along with proposed explanations of why they are funny.

Ch. 1 (3–19) establishes A’s aim, which is to use linguistic jokes as a window into linguistic knowledge. Ch. 2 (20–56) discusses jokes based on pragmatic concepts such as conversational implicature, illocutionary force, use vs. mention, and deixis. Ch. 3 (57–92) discusses jokes based on such premises as antonymy, polysemy, homophony, and semantic scope ambiguity. Ch. 4 (93–125) includes jokes capitalizing on morphological misanalysis, mismatches between morphology and phonology, and spoonerisms. Ch. 5 (126–60) covers jokes based on syntactic ambiguity, whether pure or mixed with other sources of humor.

Ch. 6 (161–69) dissects John Cleese’s famous skit, ‘Word association football’, in clinical detail. Ch. 7 (170–91) discusses jokes based on the knowledge of two languages (as well as jokes about multilingualism that strictly speaking fall outside of the book’s intended scope). Ch. 8 (192–222) concerns jokes that explicitly refer to language or linguistic notions (as opposed to the punchline relying on such notions implicitly). Finally, Ch. 9 (223–57) shows what types of (meta)linguistic concepts are exploited in so-called cryptic crossword puzzles (where the clue to ‘lead’ might be ‘metal guide’).

The tone of the discussion leaves it somewhat unclear whether the book is intended for a general audience or for linguists. A more serious weakness, however, is that the classification and explanation of some of the jokes is confusing or incorrect. For instance, in the movie Young Frankenstein, Igor, the butler, invites Frankenstein to ‘walk this way’, to which Frankenstein responds by imitating Igor’s hunchbacked gait. After disambiguating the lexically ambiguous way into ‘direction’ and ‘manner’, A concludes that the episode ‘is another example of how the deictic marker can be misunderstood’ (53). Also included in the section on deixis (53) is the exchange ‘I didn’t come here to be insulted’—‘Oh, where do you go to be insulted?’, as if the joke hinged only on the interpretation of here (A does eventually attribute the humor to the two distinct presuppositions available for the initial statement). Furthermore, the celebrated bon mot, ‘Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western Civilization’—‘I think it would be a good idea’ (147), is included in the syntax chapter under lexical semantics and syntactic ambiguity rather than in the chapter on pragmatics. These are not isolated instances.

Finally, the book was not carefully copyedited, so it is not well suited (as one would be tempted to conclude from the initial quote) as a companion book to an undergraduate introduction to linguistics. It could be useful, however, as a source from which to select illustrative material for such a course.