Humour Archive

Scraps of humour research presented here for your consumption. Comments welcome.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Verbal vs Referential Humour

I include here for your consumption my recent (and slightly revised) 'PS' to a linguist friend:

PS. One of the main things that all/most humour theories seem to agree on is that there are two types of humour: 'Verbal' (humorous because of the language used) and 'Referential' (humorous because of the content) (there can also be humour which has both verbal and humorous aspects). This is particularly relevant to a cross linguistic study as some theorists suggest that the only way to distinguish between verbal and referential is to see whether the humour ('funniness') withstands translation (for instance puns, which are very language specific, rarely withstand translation; but a man slipping on a banana peel is considered universally hilarious).


Blogger Daniel said...

I prefer 'referential' humour to 'verbal' humour. It extends way beyond slackstick to include things like comedy-of-errors. Stuff arising from human character and interactions is funny. Of course peppering this stuff with wordplay makes it even better.

Question: Does the nonsense humour of some of the more incongruous skrtches in (say) Monty Python fit conveniently into either of the two catagories?

3:36 pm  
Anonymous Hooch said...

The categories of verbal and referential humour are meant to emcompass all humour. The distinction was first hinted at by Cicero, I think (but perhaps even Aristotle, who afterall seems to be the king of most ideas that were adopted by later scholars). Then it was taken up in most humour discussions and is still relevant to today's discussions of humour.

I agree that with you that peppering this stuff with wordplay makes it even better; in other words, I really appreciate humour which has both verbal and referential elements.

I think this distinction is still somewhat lacking, however, as I believe there is a 'cultural background' aspect to humour. What I mean is that there is some referential humour (based on action) that cannot be understood without an explanation of cultural norms/taboos in which the joke is set. Conceptually, this bares very close resemblance to a 'translation' of the joke, though the joke cannot automatically become 'verbal humour' simply because it does not withstand translation. (Cf. the mysogynistic referential jokes strewn throughout Freud's analysis of wit - these are culturally inappropriate for the world of gender equality and liberation in which we believe ourselves to live, and, though they do not defy a verbal translation, are found 'unfunny'. One presumes that at they enjoyed unbounded hilarity during Freud's time, else he would not have included them; an explanation of the mindset of the time, stereotypes, etc, would be required to understand the humour in the jokes, but even then, one suspects one would not be amused).

Essentially, this means that some cultural referential humour does not 'withstand translation' or some kind of explanation. This does not mean that it suddenly becomes verbal humour.

Come to think of it, a lot of British humour is not understood by Americans, and vice versa. And they're both supposedly speaking the same language!

Also, as regards nonsense humour: perhaps there is a certain cultural mindset needed here too, to appreciate this. I think nonsense can manifest both verbally and through action (Cf. Ministry of Silly Walks vs Surrealist Riddles). These will not necessarily be found funny by someone not reared on a diet of nonsense humour.

11:23 am  
Blogger Daniel said...

Whoops. "Slapstick". There is something to the cultural conditioning of humour. I can watch some scene in Japanese Anime that is supposed to be funny and just stare slack-jawed (I spelt that right) with incomprehension.

Of course 'culture' is any 'way of life' so that it can apply to groups much smaller than an entire ethnicity - every family can have its own brand of humour that others cannot fathom.

9:40 am  
Anonymous Hooch said...

that's interesting - I never thought of humour in the microcosmic level of the family, but I'm sure there's something in it, and my own family would provide countless exmples.

As for Japanses humour specifically, a friend of mine was telling me that there are aparently four stages to a Japanese joke. In 'Anglo' humour there are three - the set up, the story, the punchline. In Japanese, the fourth is to do with the expression, or reaction of the characters within the joke (I think), so you don't just end with the punch line, but the result of the punchline is also expressed somehow within the joke. I'm not quite sure if this description is accurate, if there are any Japanese speakers/learners out there, please let us in on the joke.

12:57 pm  
Blogger russ said...

Interesting hooch... just out of curiousity, how would you classify this kind of humour? I'd say verbal, but on the other hand, they are meta-jokes about referential humour (albeit set within a very unusual cultural context) and I'd argue that meta-jokes of translatable referential humour should also be translatable and therefore referential.

6:46 pm  
Anonymous Hooch said...

Thanks Russ, I'd say your Kibologist jokes are prime examples of referential humour that is untranslatable due to cultural background knowledge (what Terry Pratchett calls 'white knowledge' - 'the sort of stuff that fills up your brain without you really knowing where it came from'). But there is definately a verbal aspect to the humour here, as the 'funniness' is also linked to the different captions.

10:38 pm  
Blogger AJ said...

those jokes were hilarious.
I don't know why they were funny. They were and I enjoyed them!

6:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

love ur style and ur definitions!

8:28 pm  

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