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Review of  The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes

Reviewer: Hamid Allami
Book Title: The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes
Book Author: Graeme Ritchie
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 16.1861

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Date: Fri, 10 Jun 2005 09:11:42 -0700 (PDT)
From: Hamid Allami
Subject: The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes

AUTHOR: Ritchie, Graeme
TITLE: The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes
SERIES: Routledge Studies in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2004

Hamid Allami, College of Foreign Languages, English Department, University
of Isfahan.

'The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes' generally addresses researchers in the
field of humor, especially verbal humor, as well as researchers engaged in
the area of artificial intelligence. It is written in a lucid style to
benefit those with less technical knowledge of the field too. The
scholarly development of ideas leads forth the reader in a step-by-step
manner to what the author intends to convey.

The book, as described by the author, is an attempt to arrive at an
interface between humor research and artificial intelligence. Advocating a
descriptive approach to study joke classes -- as it is a more manageable
way to genuinely reflect the data as well as lend itself to falsification
criterion, Ritchie limits his study to only jokes in terms of the stimuli
that could cause hilarious responses. He eschews the universalist approach
since it, if adopted, should meet the criteria of formality and precision
to such a degree that it would then be possible to develop a computer
program drawn on it (p. 11). To reach his end, he adopts a theory-external
definition to describe humor primitives in order to achieve a level of
explanatory adequacy. He argues that in the analysis of jokes a non-
conventional analysis of texts is required to "set out the essential
relationship that must hold between representations of a text in order for
it to be a joke ... [and] to describe the available linguistic devices for
achieving these effects" (p. 43).

Explanatory adequacy, however, will not be reached unless some
generalization is made. Although Ritchie in several parts of the book
mentions that the book does not intend to suggest a theory of humor, he
himself finds it "hard to resist the temptation to try to draw together
some of the patterns ... proposed for classes of jokes and to see what
further generalizations are possible" (p. 175), hence, suggesting a
structural description of jokes.

Ritchie, in chapters 4 and 5, briefly discusses different views on
incongruity, particularly two models i.e. Forced Reinterpretation and Two
Stage Models to elucidate the grounds for two recent 'Semantic-based
Theory of Humor (SSTH) and General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH). He
points out that some basic concepts such as 'script', 'script opposition
and logical mechanism' in GTVH are still undefined, though he acknowledges
the concept of 'saliency' or 'foregrounding' as an improvement "which ...
will give slightly more content to the concept" of script (p. 73).

Given the weaknesses of the current linguistic analyses, Ritchie
introduces notions of linguistically appropriate, context, concept, linked
and similar to account for the linguistic structure of a subclass of
paradigmatic puns, though acknowledging that these features may still be
insufficient to form a humorous text. It is argued that these features
along with pragmalinguistic features of obviousness, conflict,
compatibility, contrast, inappropriateness, absurdity and taboo, which
have already argued for by other researchers, as ingredients of humor, can
form two broad classes of jokes: propositional and linguistic, where the
former is defined to possess a delivery mechanism to indicate "how the
linguistic processing of the text can give rise to a pair of
interpretations ... [and the latter] is defined by a configuration of
linguistic elements, involving notions such as phonetic similarity,
segmentation into words, etc." (p. 183). Ritchie's classification of jokes
into propositional and linguistic is similar to the dichotomy made by
Fonogy (1982), who also divides jokes into two groups, some formed through
ambiguity and pun and some through violation of linguistic and
pragmalinguistic rules.

Ritchie seems to have achieved discrete objectives he outlines in the
introduction of the book, however, the grand aim of the book, which is to
bring together humor research and artificial intelligence is still far
untouched. The difficulty of such an analysis does not concern merely
humor to make it so intricate, but any communicative aspect of language, I
believe, entails such complexity. Even attempts within 'artificial
intelligence, and 'machine translation' researches have left so many
questions still unanswered. To this end, what is needed is a vigorous
linguistic description to encompass multifaceted nature of language than a
set of disjunctive theories, each claimed to cover a separate aspect of
language. The same holds for verbal humor. What is required, I presume, is
a general theory to cover all aspects of verbal humor, which seems not to
be much different from a sound theory of language.

The major problem with an inductive approach, adopted in this book, is
that any data not conforming to the description will count as different,
and, consequently, will stay outside the analysis. This is apparently the
same weakness that Ritchie voices against GTVH, where he casts doubt on
the falsifiability of GTVH in chapter 6. However, Ritchie's effort is so
much appreciated in that any attempt in any area of language, be it humor
or other, is a step ahead toward knowing what language is, and possibly
Ritchie's major aim, i.e. contribution to the advancement of artificial

The following typos were noted:
Page 7, line 2: Humour is a extensive ...
Page 34, line 13: ...which might merit them being classed as a morphemes.
Page 177, line 7: Intuitively, the audience is led to expect an
scenario ....


Fonagy, I. (1982) 'He is only joking'. In Keifer, F.(ed), Hungarian
Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


Hamid Allami is a lecturer at the university of Yazd and a PhD student at
Isfahan University, Iran. He is now working on his thesis
entitled 'Implementing Verbal Humor in EFL classes'. His areas of interest
are Sociolinguistics and Pragmatics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0415309832
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 256
Prices: U.S. $ 95.00