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StudyTakes Serious Look At How Jokes Work


An academic at the University of Edinburgh is attempting to solve the riddle of how jokes work — and to set up a way of analyzing the language used in jokes — as part of wider research into humour. Dr Graeme Ritchie is not investigating how funny particular jokes are, as opinions about that vary widely. Instead, he is looking at whether something is or is not a joke, about which there is more agreement. He plans to experiment, to see how much agreement there is amongst people as to what actually constitutes a joke. His work aims to improve general understanding of the way people communicate with each other.

Dr Ritchie’s work is focused upon jokes, as they are small enough to describe easily, and tend to be self-contained. His research involves studying classes of jokes, refining the abstract concepts used to describe the data and developing ways to analyse the data based on these ideas. Existing concepts from theoretical linguistics would be used as basic notions to construct an account of humorous effects, and develop guidelines.

Dr Ritchie of the University’s Institute for Communicating and Collaborative Systems, supported by a fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, will use methods previously employed in the study of linguistics, to look at the way jokes are constructed. He will draw upon material from joke books, the Internet and academic books and ‘dismantle’ jokes, rephrasing them to discover the linguistic features which make jokes work.

He added: “Humour is complex, but largely unexplained behaviour. It has great importance in culture and society, but we do not know why it should have developed. The explanation is not obvious, as it might be in the case of a key human ‘drive’, like the need to feed. Despite centuries of philosophical discussion, we are very far from having a full and complete theory of humour.”

“Modern linguistics builds upon centuries of detailed descriptive work, but humour research has very little analysed data on which to base theories. To make progress, research into humour has to take a similar step to linguistics, and we need to produce precise and detailed scientific accounts,” he said.

“The outcome of this research will be the creation of a theoretical framework, that is, a set of basic linguistic ideas and methods suitable for spelling out the mechanisms that underlie jokes. This will lay the foundations for further research, including psycholinguistic experiments,” said Dr Ritchie.

Linda Menzies | alphagalileo

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