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Explicating verbs for “laughing with other people” in French and English (and why it matters for humour studies)

Cliff Goddard and Kerry Mullan ORCID logo
From the journal HUMOR

Abstract

This study undertakes a contrastive lexical-semantic analysis of a set of related verbs in English and French (English to joke and to kid, French rigoler and plaisanter), using the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) approach to semantic analysis. We show that the semantic and conceptual differences between French and English are greater than commonly assumed. These differences, we argue, have significant implications for humor studies: first, they shed light on different cultural orientations towards “laughter talk” in Anglo and French linguacultures; second; they highlight the danger of conceptual Anglocentrism in relying on English-specific words as a theoretical vocabulary for humor studies.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on this paper. We would also like to thank Sophia Waters for research assistance with French, and Helen Leung for research assistance with WordBanks (English). We are especially grateful to Anna Wierzbicka and Bert Peeters for consultation about the explications, and to Diane de Saint Léger for her helpful comments. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Australasian Humour Studies Network Conference, Federation University Australia, Ballarat, February 3, 2017, and the Workshop on Minimal English and NSM Semantics, Australian National University, Canberra, March 18, 2017.

Appendices

Appendix A: Semantic Primes, French and English equivalents (after Peeters 2015) [32]

JE, TU, QUELQU’UN, QUELQUE CHOSE ~ CHOSE, GENS, CORPSsubstantives
I, YOU, SOMEONE, SOMETHING ~ THING, PEOPLE, BODY
TYPES, PARTIESrelational substantives
KINDS, PARTS
CE, LA MÊME CHOSE, AUTREdeterminers
THIS, THE SAME, OTHER ~ ELSE
UN, DEUX, CERTAINS, TOUS, BEAUCOUP, PEUquantifiers
ONE, TWO, SOME, ALL, MUCH ~ MANY, LITTLE ~ FEW
BIEN, MALevaluators
GOOD, BAD
GRAND, PETITdescriptors
BIG, SMALL
SAVOIR, PENSER, VOULOIR, NE PAS VOULOIR, SENTIR, VOIR, ENTENDREmental predicates
KNOW, THINK, WANT, DON’T WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR
DIRE, MOTS, VRAIspeech
SAY, WORDS, TRUE
FAIRE, ARRIVER, BOUGERactions, events, movement
DO, HAPPEN, MOVE
ÊTRE (QUELQUE PART), IL Y A, ÊTRE (QUELQU’UN/QUELQUE CHOSE)location, existence, specification
BE (SOMEWHERE), THERE IS, BE (SOMEONE/SOMETHING)
(EST) À MOIpossession
(IS) MINE
VIVRE, MOURIRlife and death
LIVE, DIE
QUAND ~ MOMENT ~ FOIS, MAINTENANT, AVANT, APRÈS, LONGTEMPS, PEU

DE TEMPS, POUR QUELQUE TEMPS, INSTANT
time
WHEN ~ TIME, NOW, BEFORE, AFTER, A LONG TIME, A SHORT TIME, FOR

SOME TIME, MOMENT
OÙ ~ ENDROIT, ICI, AU-DESSUS, AU-DESSOUS, LOIN, PRÈS, CÔTÉ, DANS,

TOUCHER
place
WHERE ~ PLACE, HERE, ABOVE, BELOW, FAR, NEAR, SIDE, INSIDE, TOUCH
NE … PAS, PEUT-ÊTRE, POUVOIR, À CAUSE DE, SIlogical concepts
NOT, MAYBE, CAN, BECAUSE, IF
TRÈS, PLUSintensifier, augmentor
VERY, MORE
COMME ~ FAÇONsimilarity
LIKE ~ AS ~ WAY

  1. Notes

    1. Exponents of primes can be polysemous, i.e. they can have other, additional meanings.

    2. Exponents of primes may be words, bound morphemes, or phrasemes.

    3. They can be formally complex.

    4. They can have language-specific combinatorial variants (allolexes, indicated with ~).

    5. Each prime has well-specified syntactic (combinatorial) properties.

Appendix B: Laugh’ = ‘rire’: A universal or near-universal building block for «humor» concepts

The explication below is adapted from one proposed by Wierzbicka (2014b) for English ‘laugh.’ We claim that it is equally valid for French rire. Note that the first component includes a durative element ‘for some time,’ which indicates that the explication is specifically tailored for “durative/imperfective” uses of laugh. A separate, closely related, explication is needed for “perfective/punctual” uses, and for contexts like ‘he laughed nervously’ or ‘she laughed scornfully’ (Goddard 2017).

The explication falls into three sections, labelled here (a), (b) and (c). Brief comments follow the explication.

Mary is laughing (= Marie rit)

  1. a. this someone (i.e. Mary) is doing something for some time (at this time)

    something is happening to some parts of this someone’s body because of it

  2. b. people often do this when they feel something good for a short time because they think like this:

    “something is happening here now

    things like this don’t happen very often

    people here can feel something good because of it”

  3. c. when someone does it, it is like this:

  1. some parts of this someone’s mouth [m] move for some time

  2. other people in the place where this someone is can see it

  3. at the same time these people can hear something because of it

like people can hear something when someone says something

  1. a. ce quelqu’un (c-à-d Marie) fait quelque chose pour quelque temps (en ce moment)

    il arrive quelque chose à quelques parties du corps de ce quelqu’un à cause de cela

  2. b. les gens font souvent cela quand ils sentent quelque chose de bien pour un peu de tempsparce qu’ils pensent comme ça :

    « il arrive quelque chose ici maintenant

    des choses comme ça n’arrivent pas très souvent

    les gens ici peuvent sentir quelque chose de bien à cause de cela »

  3. c. quand quelqu’un le fait, c’est comme ça :

  1. quelques parties de la bouche [m] de ce quelqu’un bougent pour quelque temps

  2. d’autres gens à l’endroit où est ce quelqu’un peuvent le voir

  3. en même temps ces gens peuvent entendre quelque chose à cause de cela

comme peuvent entendre quelque chose les gens quand quelqu’un dit quelque chose

Key points

  1. Section (a) consists of very general components (termed Lexicosyntactic Frame in NSM parlance, cf. Goddard and Wierzbicka (2016)), shared with various other verbs, notably (to) cry.

  2. Section (b) is a Prototypical Scenario. The word ‘often’ in the first line of course implies ‘not always.’ The scenario depicts laughing as typically triggered by a person experiencing a brief good feeling occasioned by subjective awareness that (roughly put) something “unusual” is happening here and that ‘people here can feel something good’ because of it.’

  3. Section (c) is a description of the physical “mechanics” of laughing, which includes visual movement of the mouth and (often) an audible “vocal” sound. In some languages, the components about “audibility” vary slightly, cf. Chinese xiao ‘laugh/smile.’

  4. The very final line hints at something like “expressiveness.”

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Published Online: 2019-09-07
Published in Print: 2020-02-25

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