Based on a larger project on punning, this paper outlines the application of the General Theory of Verbal Humor to imperfect puns. The aim is to illustrate the intricate mechanisms of this seemingly simple joke type. Application necessitates the expansion and further formalization of the linguistic tools available for the description and explanation of humor, in this case centrally the knowledge resources for script opposition and logical mechanism. This elaboration of the GTVH is possible, because of its explicitly theory-based and formalized nature. Key results are the distinction of punning and wordplay, as well as verbal and referential humor.
The present paper describes an interdisciplinary
effort, in which results based on the same material, but analyzed with tools
from two different disciplines are brought together for mutual evaluation. The
set of 70 jokes and cartoons from the 3 WD (Ruch 1995), which has been
extensively studied psychologically for its affective properties, is analyzed
linguistically for its internal morphology based on the General Theory of Verbal
Humor— GTVH (Attardo and Raskin 1991). The correlations between the stimulus
properties and their effects are discussed, as well as the relevance of these
results for the respective theories and the disciplines that use them.
Additional emphasis is placed on highlighting the problems and considerable
benefits of such interdisciplinary research as the most apt approach to complex
phenomena like humor. The results show that there is indeed significant overlap
between stimulus properties as they can be distinguished linguistically and
affective responses as they can be identified psychologically. Of the six GTVH
categories, it is primarily script opposition, narrative structure, target, and
logical mechanism that contribute to the separation of the three humor types
with respect to effects on recipients. The results also suggest that initial and
residual incongruity, as operationalized with the GTVH, are central cognitive
aspects of humor with an impact on affective factors and, consequently, their
distinction. While this may appear to be commonsensical results, their
scientific reproduction is a major step forward, in this case for humor
The present article discusses the role of laughter in the much cited ‘laughter epidemic’ that occurred in Tanganyika in 1962. Despite its extraordinary nature, the veracity of the event is confirmed, crucially on the basis of similar reports. But most current representations are flawed by their exaggeration and misinterpretation of the role of laughter in the event, relating it to a humorous stimulus, a virus or environmental contaminant, or identifying it as contagious laughter. It is argued that the event is a motor-variant case of mass psychogenic illness of which laughter is one common symptom. Therefore it cannot serve as support for other arguments in humor research.
Humorous stimuli, like jokes and cartoons, are assumed to contain a central incongruity in a specific constellation of opposition and overlap that is essential to their humorousness. Many stimuli also contain additional incongruities that the audience usually overlooks, but that may be needed to create the setup for the main incongruity, e.g., animals that talk, space aliens, an Italian, an American, and a Russian sharing a language. Two of the studies described in the present paper investigated the effect of such backgrounded incongruities by removing them from a set of jokes and cartoons and testing how this affects humor processing and appreciation. A third study investigated whether the elimination of a backgrounded incongruity influences the position of a humorous stimulus on the incongruity-resolution and nonsense humor continuum. Methods included computer-based stimulus rating and self-explanations by the participants. The results suggested that backgrounded incongruities influence humor appreciation because their elimination leads to lower funniness and higher aversion. Furthermore, the backgrounded incongruities contribute strongly to the perceived absurdity of a joke. When they are removed, the jokes are perceived less to be nonsense humor but more as incongruity-resolution humor.
The main thrust of this paper is to present to an important adjacent scholarly community of literary scholars how humor can be treated by the current strand of contemporary linguistics, or – more specifically – by linguistic semantics. In the process, we will show how a major theory of humor, the Semantic Script-based Theory of Humor (Raskin, Semantic Mechanisms of Humor, 325–335, 1979a, Semantic Mechanisms of Humor, 1985; Attardo, Linguistic Theories of Humor, 1994) first evolved into the General Theory of Verbal Humor (Attardo/Raskin, HUMOR – International Journal of Humor Research 4: 293–347, 1991; Attardo, Linguistic Theories of Humor, 1994), and now into the Ontological Semantic Theory of Humor (Raskin/Triezenberg, Ontological Semantics of Humor: Pre-Conference Tutorial, Youngstown State University, 2005; Raskin, From SSTH to GTVH to OSTH, Finally, University of California, 2009; Hempelmann, From SSTH to GTVH to OSTH: The LM in OSTH, University of California, 2009; Taylor, SO in OSTH: Ontological Semantic View of Script Overlap/Oppositeness Support, University of California, 2009, Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Humanized Computing 1: 3, 2010).
The last theory is a work in (rapid) progress, and the last section of the paper will be devoted to a number of recent developments in blending the Ontological Semantic Technology our team is developing for Natural Language Processing applications with the improved and revised humor theory.
Before we get there, however, we will discuss three major areas that are necessary for understanding, especially by scholars outside of linguistic semantics, what we have been doing and why. First, we will explain our understanding of theory, so that it not be confused with a reader's own interpretations and expectations and not lead, again and again, to the most surprising readings of what our theory of humor has done. Second, we will restate – for those yet unexposed to either of them – what exactly the Semantic Script-based Theory of Humor and the General Theory of Verbal Humor claim, what premises they use, what their goals are, and how they justify and evaluate themselves.
In the last section of the paper on the Ontological Semantic Theory of Humor we will address a number of important issues, often subverting and revising the claims of its predecessors. The Semantic Script-based Theory of Humor claimed that the list of script oppositions was an extra piece of knowledge that it had to use along with regular semantic analysis, this making the Semantic Script-based Theory of Humor no longer a strict application of linguistic semantics to humor. We will demonstrate how the list actually folds onto Ontological Semantic Theory, so this disappears as an obstacle to the strict-application status of the Ontological Semantic Theory of Humor.
Second, we will show that Ontological Semantic Theory offers a procedure for discovering the main script opposition in a joke, an algorithm that the Semantic Script-based Theory of Humor and General Theory of Verbal Humor described rather rigorously for a competent linguist, but apparently incomprehensibly to other, often enthusiastic adherents of the theories.
We will also sketch out the contribution Ontological Semantic Theory can make to the still controversial Logical Mechanism Knowledge Resource of the General Theory of Verbal Humor. This will be an initial step, we hope, towards understanding how jokes are put together and what exactly their internal/false logics are.
One side product of this paper is intended to be a better understanding by the non-linguists and atheoretical linguists in the humor research community as well as by any scholar interested in humor, what the linguists of humor do and what they don't, what they can deliver to these communities and what they cannot, and what to expect from our work and what to do on their own rather than writing misdirected, even if majorly entertaining, things about our work. We do not intend this paper to kill off all the Hollywood-strength conspiracy theories, mostly of European vintage, of how a bunch of us have been trying to dominate humor research and claim the firstborns from everybody else. We do apologize for trying to remove the fun stuff from humor research: we realize we are acting as killjoys and killsports; instead of joining the fun and games of discovering the subverting humanity and inexhaustible complexity of humor, we boringly persist in discovering the truth about how humor works.