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.
About the authors
Cliff Goddard is Professor of Linguistics at Griffith University. He is a proponent of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach to semantics and its sister theory, the cultural scripts approach to pragmatics. His recent publications include “Words and Meanings: Lexical Semantics Across Domains, Languages and Cultures” (co-authored with Anna Wierzbicka; OUP 2014), and the edited volumes “Happiness and Pain Across Languages and Cultures” (co-edited with Zhengdao Ye; Benjamins, 2016) and “Minimal English for a Global World: Improved Communication Using Fewer Words” (Palgrave, in press/2017). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kerry Mullan is Convenor of Languages and a member of the Social and Global Studies Centre at RMIT University. She teaches French language and culture, and sociolinguistics. Her main research interests are cross-cultural communication and differing interactional styles – particularly those of French and Australian English speakers. She also researches in the areas of intercultural pragmatics, discourse analysis, language teaching and conversational humour. Email: email@example.com.
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.
Appendix A: Semantic Primes, French and English equivalents (after Peeters 2015) 
|JE, TU, QUELQU’UN, QUELQUE CHOSE ~ CHOSE, GENS, CORPS||substantives|
|I, YOU, SOMEONE, SOMETHING ~ THING, PEOPLE, BODY|
|TYPES, PARTIES||relational substantives|
|CE, LA MÊME CHOSE, AUTRE||determiners|
|THIS, THE SAME, OTHER ~ ELSE|
|UN, DEUX, CERTAINS, TOUS, BEAUCOUP, PEU||quantifiers|
|ONE, TWO, SOME, ALL, MUCH ~ MANY, LITTLE ~ FEW|
|SAVOIR, PENSER, VOULOIR, NE PAS VOULOIR, SENTIR, VOIR, ENTENDRE||mental predicates|
|KNOW, THINK, WANT, DON’T WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR|
|DIRE, MOTS, VRAI||speech|
|SAY, WORDS, TRUE|
|FAIRE, ARRIVER, BOUGER||actions, 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 MOI||possession|
|VIVRE, MOURIR||life and death|
|QUAND ~ MOMENT ~ FOIS, MAINTENANT, AVANT, APRÈS, LONGTEMPS, PEU|
DE TEMPS, POUR QUELQUE TEMPS, INSTANT
|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,|
|WHERE ~ PLACE, HERE, ABOVE, BELOW, FAR, NEAR, SIDE, INSIDE, TOUCH|
|NE … PAS, PEUT-ÊTRE, POUVOIR, À CAUSE DE, SI||logical concepts|
|NOT, MAYBE, CAN, BECAUSE, IF|
|TRÈS, PLUS||intensifier, augmentor|
|COMME ~ FAÇON||similarity|
|LIKE ~ AS ~ WAY|
Exponents of primes can be polysemous, i.e. they can have other, additional meanings.
Exponents of primes may be words, bound morphemes, or phrasemes.
They can be formally complex.
They can have language-specific combinatorial variants (allolexes, indicated with ~).
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.
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.
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.’
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.’
The very final line hints at something like “expressiveness.”
Béal, Christine & Kerry Mullan. 2013. Issues in conversational humour from a crosscultural perspective: Comparing French and Australian corpora. In Bert Peeters, Kerry Mullan & Christine Béal (eds.), Cross-culturally speaking, speaking crossculturally, 107–140. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.Search in Google Scholar
Béal, Christine & Kerry Mullan. 2017. The pragmatics of conversational humour in social visits: French and Australian English. Language and Communication 55. 24–40.10.1016/j.langcom.2016.09.004Search in Google Scholar
Bergson, Henri. 1900 . Le rire : essai sur la signification du comique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.Search in Google Scholar
Carty, John & Yasmine Musharbash. 2008. You’ve got to be joking: Asserting the analytical value of humour and laughter in contemporary anthropology. Anthropological Forum 18(3). 209–217.10.1080/00664670802429347Search in Google Scholar
Chabal, Emile. 2017. Les Anglos-Saxons. Aeon 18th September 2017. https://aeon.co/essays/the-anglo-saxon-is-not-american-or-british-but-a-frenchalter-ego (accessed 21 September 2017).Search in Google Scholar
Goddard, Cliff. 2000. Polysemy: A problem of definition. In Yael Ravin & Claudia Leacock (eds.), Polysemy: Theoretical and Computational Approaches, 129–151. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar
Goddard, Cliff. 2009. ‘Not taking yourself too seriously’ in Australian English: Semantic explications, cultural scripts, corpus evidence. Intercultural Pragmatics 6(1). 29–53.10.1515/IPRG.2009.002Search in Google Scholar
Goddard, Cliff. 2015. Words as carriers of cultural meaning. In John R. Taylor (ed.), The Oxford handbook of the word, 380–400. Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199641604.013.027Search in Google Scholar
Goddard, Cliff. 2017. Ethnopragmatic perspectives on conversational humour, with special reference to Australian English. Language & Communication 55. 55–68.10.1016/j.langcom.2016.09.008Search in Google Scholar
Goddard, Cliff. 2018. “Joking, kidding, teasing”: Slippery categories for cross-cultural comparison but key words for understanding Anglo conversational humor. Intercultural Pragmatics 15(4). 487–514.10.1515/ip-2018-0017Search in Google Scholar
Goddard, Cliff & Anna Wierzbicka. 2014. Words and meanings: Lexical semantics across domains, languages, and cultures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199668434.001.0001Search in Google Scholar
Martin, Rod. 2006. The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press.Search in Google Scholar
Martin, Rod A., Patricia Puhlik-Doris, Gwen Larsen, Jeanette Gray & Kelly Weir. 2003. Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological wellbeing: Development of the humor styles questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality 37(1). 48–75.10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00534-2Search in Google Scholar
Noonan, Will. 2011. Reflecting back, or What can the French tell the English about humour? Sydney Studies in English 37. http://openjournals.library.usyd.edu.au/index.php/SSE/article/view/5321.Search in Google Scholar
Peeters, Bert. 2015. French Semantic Primes, with English equivalents. https://intranet.secure.griffith.edu.au/schools-departments/natural-semantic-metalanguage/downloads.Search in Google Scholar
Provine, R. R. 2000. Laughter: A scientific investigation. New York: Penguin.Search in Google Scholar
Tran-Gervat, Yen-Mai. 2016. Humour studies in France: The situation and some perspectives. Seminar 24/08/16, AHSN and Dept of French Studies, University of Sydney.Search in Google Scholar
Wierzbicka, Anna. 1972. Semantic primitives. Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum.Search in Google Scholar
Wierzbicka, Anna. 1996. Semantics: Primes and universals. New York: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar
Wierzbicka, Anna. 1997. Understanding cultures through their key words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar
© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston