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Verbal Humour

By StasyaKo Apr 13, 2013 2863 Words
1. There are many theories of humor which attempt to explain what humor is, what social functions it serves, and what would be considered humorous. It would be very difficult to explain humor to a hypothetical person who did not have a sense of humor already. In fact, to such a person humor would appear to be quite strange if not outright irrational behavior.

Verbal humor often requires the use of thinking. When a character says something, or even a comedian, the audience has to make sense of what is said. This differs largely from visual humor, where an audience really isn’t required to think about what they are seeing. It happens right before their eyes, there is nothing to question, although, there can be scenes where visual humor is drawn out, but there is always an aha moment. In categorizing humor, we separate visual and verbal humor, though sometimes these two must be partnered together. Based on the texts of Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence we learn the earliest forms of humor used in comedies. From there, we explore the kinds of verbal humor in films from Chaplin, Mae West, The Marx Brothers, Frank Capra, and Bob Hope and what elements are still occurring in today’s comedies. Verbal humor uses the sounds of words together, play on words-such as puns, our knowledge of words, and our expectations in conversations. Obscenity is one form of verbal humor that can either be especially crude, or it can be subtle, usually involving play on words and the intentions of the character who said it. A large part of verbal humor also is determined by the delivery of the line by the character. For instance something said by an "upperclass" character might not be as humorous if insted said by a "lowerclass" character or vice versa. Puns show a character/writer’s brilliance, and require an audience’s brains to be on its feet in order to appreciate the pun.

2. Types of Verbal Humor
1) Pun: a play on words, in which a word of multiple meanings or a word of similar sound but different meaning is used to create the joke. Examples:
Heard about the fight down town? It was called a shopping maul. An old teacher never dies. They simply lose their class.

2) Joke: Something said or done to evoke amusement or laughter. Mostly joke means an amusing story with a punch line. Example:
A mother mouse and a baby mouse were walking along, when all of a sudden, a cat attacked them. The mother mouse goes, "BARK!" and the cat runs away. "See?" says the mother mouse to her baby. "Now do you see why it's important to learn a foreign language?"

3) Parody: to copy or imitate for comic affect the style of something or someone else. By its nature parody exaggerates and mocks the original. It only works if the person or thing being copied is well known to the audience. Example:

The variations on The Ten Commandments.
I've seen 'Ten Commandments' for Cooks, Children, Wives, Husbands, Shopkeepers...

4) Satire: to expose silliness, foolishness or stupidity through ridicule. Satire attacks with the aim of alerting its audience and to make way for reform. The form has its roots in antiquity and is seen today in many forms. The television comedies 'The Simpsons' and 'South Park' use satire.

5) Innuendo/Double Entendres: an indirect, often derogatory hint. The speaker appears innocent and the innuendo is ‘discovered’ in mind of the listener. The most common of these are sexual innuendos. Examples:

Mae West's:‘Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?’ The use of the word ‘it’ as in ‘Comedians do it standing up.’

6) Malapropism: either intentional or unintentional misuse of a word created by using one of a similar sound for another. Examples: 
My sister has extra-century perception.
He was a man of great statue.

7) Spoonerism: an either intentional or unintentional transposition of sounds of two or more words. Examples:
'nosey little cook' instead of 'cosy little nook'
'our queer old Dean' instead of 'our dear old Queen'
'I'm a damp stealer' instead of 'I'm a stamp dealer.'

8) Extended or Running Gag: an amusing situation or line recurring throughout a story or performance. Example:
'The Goon Show', a famous British radio comedy show had the line 'He's fallen in the water' running through all its episodes.

9) Shaggy-dog Story: a long rambling story filled with irrelevant detail and repeated phrases, which has an absurd anti-climatic punch line. It leads its listeners on in the expectation there will be an ending to make sense of all they’ve heard. Often there isn’t or there will be a really weak pun. Its pointlessness is the joke!

10) Irony: using language to imply the opposite of their literal meaning or a situation where the outcome is the opposite from that intended or expected. Irony and sarcasm are often regarded as being synonymous.

However sarcasm generally implies a stronger or more cutting remark and contains intent to ridicule unkindly.

Example of verbal irony:
‘What pleasant weather!’ – said while walking through a hailstorm. Example of situational irony:
The plumber whose taps at home leak or the teacher's child who plays truant. Example of sarcasm:
Mary is a thoroughly delightful woman with a delightful figure, a delightful dress sense, a delightful brain and an equally delightful husband to match. So much delight is entirely overwhelming and I must decline her invitation to dinner.

11) Understatement: deliberate minimizing whatever is being spoken about. The audience knows and that is what makes the humor. Example:
George is well known for his small appetite. Dinner consists of a mere half dozen pies, followed by a quart of icecream.

12) Overstatement: deliberate maximizing of subject often with hyperbolic exaggeration. Examples:
She is the most beautiful woman in the entire universe.
I am so hungry I could eat a horse.

13) Statement of the Obvious: a technique funny because it is so obvious or the expected norm. Example:
Cars have wheels.
People have two feet, two arms…
The sun is in the sky.

14) Absurdity: humor obviously lacking in reason. It is foolish or ridiculous and often includes the use of nonsensical language. In absurdity, the preposterous, incongruous, fantastical and whimsical are right at home. Examples: the television shows, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, and ‘The Simpsons’

3. There are various possible sources of amusement. Speakers or remarks may be funny or witty and the former may perform funny actions when imitating persons, their peculiarities, accents and so on. Redfern uses pun as “a convenient tag for a whole variety of rhetorical devices which play on words” and states “a pun is language on vacation” and also “the pun is a verbal practical joke”. He further draws attention to the fact that “many puns are nonce-words, special usages for special occasions”. We look in vain for a definition of joke and the distinction between joke and pun. Both are normally believed to be comic or funny but there are also bad puns (calembours), sick jokes and there is black humour (not everybody’s taste). Non-serious texts may involve irony, taboo, euphemism, parody and pastiche. Fake malapropisms, such as standing ovulations, may be intentionally funny. * Types and Genres of Jokes and Word Play

Crystal cites an “old saying” which is in rhyming form and defines or characterises the pun as the lowest type of humour or word play based on homophony i.e. only in the spoken medium: A pun’s the lowest form of wit it does not tax the brain a bit, one merely takes a word that’s plain and picks one out that sounds the same. He continues that “jokes are often formulaic” with various types of target such as doctor, elephant, and Irish jokes and the technique is simple, often relying on “a simple transposition of initial sounds”. The joke is then based on two forms (often similar) and two meanings. According to Blake puns may “involve one particular form with more than one meaning,” i.e., polysemy. Jokes can be based on a narrative structure with three parallel stories, in which the third one contains the (unexpected) punchline. Blake distinguishes the following kinds of word play according to their form: puns, jokes, wit, errors (including malapropisms) and rhymes. Chiaro according to the target of jokes and the intention talks about degradation or derogatory jokes about a “minority ethnic groups”, lavatorial jokes and, in general, “prosaic and poetic jokes” (ibid.). Jewish texts, or better (referring to the European language of Jews) Jiddish – according to Google loaned into English as Yiddish and then back into German as Jiddish at the beginning of the 20th century – include a very special kind of text type because they may often be self-referential, often selfironic, self-critical or self-aggressive. Jewish humour is also typically used in stressful and tragic situations. It may also contain rather complex logical reasoning and involved, tricky arguments. Interesting descriptions of the language and of jokes were published by Salcia Landmann. One of these is quoted in Landmann (1962: 253): Moses, was lachst Du so?

Ej, gar nichts. Ich hab mir erzählt einen Witz.
Nash distinguishes witty compression and comic expansion, oral and textual humour, the joke as recital, allusion and parody, puns based on homophones, homonyms, formulaic jokes, rhyme and rhythm, and further topicalizes “the performance element.” His main focus is the sequence of prelocation (with signal, orientation, context) and the locus, which clinches or discharges the joke, i.e., the punchline. The classic two-line form consists of question and answer and the joke as recital, routine or anecdote. * Puns and verbal play

One of the most commonly used stylistic devices for creating humour is the pun. In its broadest sense* a pun is a form of word-play in which some feature of linguistic structure simultaneously combines two unrelated meanings. Whereas the unrelated meanings in a pun are often situated in individual words, many puns cut across different levels of linguistic organisation and so their formal properties arc quite variable. Clearly, the pun is an important part of the stylistic arsenal of writers because it allows a controlled 'double meaning1 to be located in what is in effect a chance connection between two elements of language. It is however a resource of language that we all share, and it is important, as emphasised throughout this book, not to sequester away literary uses of language from everyday language practices.

Moving onto puns in literature, the technique is illustrated by the following lines from the fourth book of Alexander Pope's Dunciad (1743): Where Bentley late tempestuous wont to sport
In troubled waters, but now sleeps in port.
Although this is just an isolated example from what is undoubtedly an enormous pool of possibilities in literature, it does illustrate well the basic principle of punning. The form port embraces two lexical items: both obvious, one refers to a harbour and the other an alcoholic beverage. In the context of Pope's couplet, Bentley is described through a nautical metaphor, as someone who has crossed turbulent seas to reach a tranquil safe-haven. Yet the second sense of port makes for a disjunctive reading, which, suggesting a perhaps drunken sleep, tends to undercut comically the travails of Bendey. This is the essence of punning, where an ambiguity is projected by balancing two otherwise unrelated elements of linguistic structure.

* Parody and satire
Parody and satire are forms of verbal humour which draw on a particular kind of irony for the design of their stylistic incongruity. Irony is situated in the space between what you say and what you mean, as embodied in an utterance like 'You're a fine friend!* when said to someone who has just let you down. A particularly important way of producing irony is to echo other utterances and forms of discourse. This is apparent in an exchange like the following: A; I'm really fed up with this washing up.

B: You're fed up! Who do you think's been doing it all week? In this exchange, the proposition about being fed up is used in a 'straight' way by the first speaker, but in an ironic way by the second. This is because the proposition is explicitly echoed by the second speaker during their expression of their immediate reaction to it. The status of the proposition when echoed is therefore not the same as when it is used first time out. The distinction between parody and satire is not an easy one to draw, but it is commonly assumed that satire has an aggressive element which is not necessarily present in parody. How this translates into stylistic terms is that satirical discourse, as well as having an echoic clement, requires a further kind of ironic twist or distortion in its textual make-up. This additional distortion means that while parodies can remain affectionate to their source, satire can never be so. Consider, for example, Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (1729) which lays good claim to being the most famous piece of satire ever written. Swift's text echoes the genre of the early eighteenth-century pamphlet, and more narrowly the proliferation of pamphlets offering economic solutions to what was then perceived as the 'Irish problem*- The opening of the Proposal reviews various schemes and recommendations to alleviate poverty and starvation, but it is only after about nine hundred words of text that its mild-mannered speaker eventually details his 'proposal*: I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food* whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout. (Swift 1986)

While Swift's text echoes the conventions of a particular genre of discourse, it contains the requisite distortion that marks it out as satire. This distortion comes through the startling sequence where the persona proposes to alleviate the burden of overpopulation in Ireland by eating that country's children. This twist is both brutal and stark, and marks an abrupt shift from a seemingly moral framework to a framework of abnormality and obscenity, lust how 'humorous* this particular brand framework of abnormality and obscenity. lust how humorous this particular brand of satire is, where the sense of opposition between what is morally acceptable and what is not is very wide, is difficult to assess. What It opposition or distortion within its own stylistic fabric. * The function of jokes, puns and humour

The functions of jokes, humorous discourse and language play are manifold. In the act of humour the sender, according to Nash plays “with various dualities” i.e., ambiguities and homonymy ). Chiaro claims that “ambiguity can be exploited to create verbal duplicity”. This is a “frame for sexual innuendo, to bring out the double entendre. The limerick is the classic case in point, but even more so dirty jokes. In drama or in a serious story there may be a situation which makes you relax a little because it is funny which is called comic relief. Thus the funny scenes in Shakespeare provide a light relief. Incidentally, a British charity organization started by professional comedians is called Comic Relief. With professionals, i.e., the writers of headlines, captions, texts on greeting cards, language play is a very popular method of catching the possible reader’s attention and curiosity, i.e., it has the function of an attention-seeking device (ASD). This is a central function of humor, telling jokes and funny stories. A joke may be used for the opening of an academic lecture, to create interest and a positive atmosphere.

4. Non-serious texts in the history of English
Naturally, the type of non-serious or humorous text is not restricted to modern or present-day English or other languages. I will here focus on two eminent figures of literary history. * Chaucer In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales several persons are characterized and some of them in a funny way. The Prioresse, Madame Eglentyne, who during a meal leet no morsel from hir lippes falle is said to speak French in a non-native way: And Frensh she spake ful fair and fetisli after the scole of Stratford atte Bowe, for Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowe. * Shakespeare is well known for using plentiful puns, many of them bawdy and often untranslatable, because the homonyms on which he plays do not exist in other languages. Therefore he might be called disrespectfully The King of Pun. But not only in his dramas does he use non-serious language, but also in his poetry. In his Ode to his mistress he parodies the style of Petrarca (in Sonnet 130): My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,

coral is far more red …
if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun
if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

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