J is for Jokes

15 03 2015

laugh_and_be_merry_smallThe polemical Slovenian cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently published a book of jokes designed, in the words of the blurb, to ‘provide an index to certain philosophical, political, and sexual themes that preoccupy him’.

This got me thinking about our own field, and the illustrative jokes that I often weave into talks — none of them as incisive, as witty or as racy as Žižek’s, I fear — but perhaps worth sharing, nevertheless, not least for the light they might shed on various aspects of language and of language learning. Here is a selection.

Firstly, then: jokes about language:

  1. Semantics

Adam (naming the animals): And finally, that is a hippopotamus.
Eve: Why is it called a hippopotamus?
Adam: Because it looks like a hippopotamus, silly!

I like this one because (for me) it pokes fun at the notion that we are hard-wired with the mental representations of the things we refer to when we use language – what has been called ‘mentalese’. That is to say, the concept HIPPOPOTAMUS pre-exists our actual encounter with a real one in the wild and is a precondition for our being able to name it. As Jerry Fodor puts it, ‘One cannot learn a language unless one has a language.’ Of course, none of the proponents of mentalese – Fodor included  – would go so far as to suggest that the word itself (i.e. ‘hippopotamus’) is part of our DNA, but the idea that you wouldn’t be able to think about a hippopotamus without your having been pre-programmed to do so seems equally implausible.

On a more mundane level, the joke also captures a particular mindset displayed by some (not very good) teachers that assumes that English words are self-explanatory, and often takes the form of exchanges like this:

Student (baffled by unfamiliar word in text): What means ‘hippopotamus’?
Teacher: A hippopotamus?  A hippopotamus is, erm, a hippopotamus.

  1. Pragmatics

Man (on park bench to woman, admiring the dog at her feet): Does your dog bite?
Woman: No.
(Man pats dog and is bitten).
Man: I thought you said your dog didn’t bite!
Woman: It’s not my dog.

A perfect illustration of the flouting of Grice’s ‘maxim of quantity’: ‘Make your contribution just as informative as required.’

  1. Prescriptivism

I love anything that takes the mickey out of the grammar police:

A Texan was visiting Harvard University, and was lost. He stopped a student and asked, “Do you know where the library is at?” “I sure do,” replied the student, “But, you know, you’re not supposed to end sentences with prepositions.” “Oh, ok,” said the Texan, “Do you know where the library is at, asshole?”

  1. tell a jokePrecriptivism AND pragmatics

A linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room retorted, “Yeah, right.”

Which reminds me that I’ve yet to see a corpus-based study of the not totally unusual discourse marker and turn initiator: ‘Yeah. No.’

As in:

Half past six? It’ll all be finished by then will it?
Erm yeah no. Say seven o’clock anyway…

Carol’s having one, did you know?
Yeah no yes well, she told us when she’s a– (unclear) having one…

(from the British National Corpus)

  1. Miscommunication

The following joke was told to me at primary school when I had no idea where Wembley was, but for some odd reason it made a lasting impression.

There are three hearing-challenged men on a train. (It wasn’t ‘hearing-challenged’ when I was at school, of course).

1st man: Is this Wembley?
2nd: No, it’s Thursday.
3rd: So am I. Let’s have a drink.

What I loved (and still love) about this joke is that none of the men is aware that they’ve misheard the other: an instance of misunderstanding, rather than partial understanding, where, in the words of people who study these things, ‘the interlocutor who misunderstands is not aware of it’2.  I suspect that this kind of misunderstanding between second language users occurs more often than we think, and is possibly a characteristic of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) communication — which may, in turn, account for the impression given in the literature that ELF interactions are invariably successful. The reality is that no one realizes that they have been misunderstood.

  1. Classroom talk

english_made_funny_smallMisunderstandings occur between teachers and learners too, of course, as in this joke:

Teacher: What is the outside layer of a tree trunk composed of? Jimmy?
Jimmy: Dunno.
Teacher: BARK, Jimmy, BARK!
Jimmy: Woof woof. Woof woof.

I’ve witnessed similar interactional cross-purposes during classroom observations, where the teacher’s real question has been misconstrued as a display question – as in this (real) example:

Teacher: How was your weekend?
Student: Fantastic – I won the lottery!
Teacher: Wow! How much did you win?
Student: I didn’t. It was just a sentence.

  1. Language acquisition

Doctor: What’s the matter?
Patient: I’ve got a pain in my kidley.
Doctor: You mean kidney.
Patient: That’s what I said, diddle I?

Failure to register the non-target-like nature of one’s own interlanguage is a characteristic of both first and second language acquisition. The child and the learner – like the patient – can hear and recognize the target pronunciation, but can’t hear themselves not achieving it. Which suggests that there is more to pronunciation teaching than simply ear-training and imitating models: you have to be able to hear yourself.

  1. Real-time processing

A French scholar has been awarded a prestigious prize in the US. Not being an English speaker, he follows the advice of his colleagues by repeatedly practising ‘Thank you very much’ – but without the tell-tale ‘z’ so typical of French speakers. ‘THHHHank you very much… THHHHank you very much’ – day and night, even using a mirror to monitor the position of his tongue. On the fateful day, he walks up to the podium to receive the prize, and says: ‘MerTHHHHHi beaucoup.’

Moral: if you don’t practise in ‘real operating conditions’, you might as well not practice at all. Or, as Gatbonton and Segalowitz (1988: 486) put it ‘the [practice] activity should be designed to allow learners to experience some of the normal psychological pressures felt by people engaged in real communication.’

  1. Multilingualism

A mouse is in his mouse hole and he wants to go out to get something to eat, but he’s afraid there might be a big cat outside, so he puts his ear by the opening and all he hears is “Bow Wow” so he thinks, “Well, there can’t be a cat out there because there’s a big old dog”, so he goes out of his mouse hole and is promptly caught and eaten by a cat, who licks his lips and says “It’s good to be bilingual !!”

Which makes a nice story, but I suspect that even a mouse would be able to tell a non-native barker from a native one.


1 cited in Evans, V. 2014. The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge University Press.

2 Weigand, 1999 – quoted in House, J., Kasper, G., & Ross, S. (eds) 2003. Misunderstandings in Social Life: Discourse approaches to problematic talk. London: Pearson.



20 responses

15 03 2015

Didn’t Medgyes write a book on humour in english language teaching?

15 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Yes, indeed, Russ: Laughing Matters: Humour in the Language Classroom (Cambridge).

15 03 2015
Nick Bilbrough

Great post Scott. Here’s a joke that didn’t get past the censors when I was writing Memory Activities for Language Learning.

A hole has been discovered in the nudist camp wall. The Police are looking into it.

I love the way that puns like this can encourage learners to visualise memorable images for bits of language. (in this case the two meanings of the phrasal verb – to look into)

15 03 2015
Jessica Mackay

I’m always delighted when a learner manages to tell a joke in class. Especially when it’s a play on words, which suggests an interest in and playfulness with the language indicative of a good language learner.
Joke telling is a hard enough skill to master in your L1, given the considerations of intonation, gesture and timing you need to contend with. Here’s a recent example that made me laugh out loud, all the more remarkable as the student was at pre-intermediate (A2) level.

A pregnant woman suddenly starts to shout “I’m not, I don’t, I won’t, I can’t, I can’t, I just can’t”


She’s having contractions.

15 03 2015

Marvellous start to a Sunday morning. I like this one, better spoken than wriiten:

2 athletes in Olympic village.
Athlete 1: Are you a pole vaulter?
Athlete 2: No, I’m Russian, but how did you know my name? .

15 03 2015
Noam David Wright

What do you call a zoo with only one dog in it?
– A shitzu

Nice joke for students🙂

15 03 2015

‘The reality is that no one realizes that they have been misunderstood.’

I found this short line quite interesting – and surprising. I would imagine that related fields categorise misunderstandings in a number of ways, and one of those would be the ‘one that goes unnoticed’. But at the other extreme, isn’t there the immediate realisation of misunderstanding… and somewhere in between, that lingering sense of misunderstanding that I’ve often experienced myself when speaking another language?

15 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob – yes, I think there is a scale of misunderstanding, ranging from ‘not realizing’ through ‘realizing but not knowing the cause therefore unable to repair’ to ‘realizing, knowing the cause but still unable to repair’ and finally ‘realizing, knowing the cause, and able to repair’. The scale would need to be configured for ‘just one interlocutor’ and ‘both or all interlocutors’. The Wembley joke is at the ‘all interlocutors not realizing’ pole. Interestingly, the literature on task-based learning and ‘negotiation for meaning’ does not seem to have taken these distinctions on board: the assumption seems to be that the demands of the task compel learners to recognize when a communication breakdown has occurred – and to repair it.

15 03 2015
David Deubelbeiss

Great post for Sunday morning and jokes are often the perfect metaphor for explaining some complex notions about language. Loved the Wembley one. One book I’d recommend and have had hundreds of hours of amusement and mental exercise reading and re-reading – Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar.

Two jokes I’ve used. 1. A man is hit by a speeding car. A bystander runs over, bends down and says, “How are you?”, the bleeding man mumbles, “I’m fine, thank you.”

2. An American couple adopt a Chinese baby. They go to a school teaching Chinese. They get an interview with a member of the school staff. After basic questions, the school administrator asks, “Can you tell me why you both want to learn Chinese?” “Well”, replied the mother, “We just adopted a little girl who is Chinese and when she grows up, we want to be able to speak to her in Chinese.”

15 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

LOL. ROFL etc etc. In retrospect I realize I should have turned this into a competition. Jessica’s gets my vote at the moment, not least for having been told to her by a student – but also because it has a metalinguistic punchline. Geoff’s would be improved if the addressee were German, not Russian (personal communication). David’s second one reminded me of the line in Modern Family when Cameron and Mitch present their Chinese adoptee to the family, telling them all her name is Lily. Phil (I think it was) asks: ‘Won’t that be a bit hard for her to pronounce?’.

Thanks, one and all. More contributions welcome!

15 03 2015
Lizzy Adams

Great post and very entertaining. Getting a joke in a different language is so satisfying, which is why I’m much funnier in class than in real life! Here is a joke a student told me, but I’m afraid it won’t work as well for non-Spanish speakers:

A Spanish man goes on holiday to England in the “summer” but doesn’t realize how cold it will be. He has shoes but no socks so he goes to the store to buy some. Not knowing the English word for socks, he points to his feet and says “calcetines!”. The shop assistant is confused but takes his best guess and returns with a pair of shoes. The Spanish man shakes his head and says “no no. Calcetines” and mimes putting on socks. The shop assistant returns finally with some socks and the Spaniard cried “¡eso sí que es!” The shop assistant sighs and says “if you could spell it why didn’t you say so before!”

15 03 2015

One of my students once explained to me: ““The humour is important even in making business. I like to start a meeting by choking.”

16 03 2015

It’s interesting how jokes say so much about us, and in this case language learning. I particularly like the one on “failure to register the non-target-like nature of one’s interlanguage” Mostly becauseI feel it suggests that a dialogic approach to language teaching is still alive and kicking. We need to get learners to speak, and record them or give constant feedback, with little conscious effort goals for them, so that they become aware of these issues, and work on them. Thanks for sharing!

16 03 2015

Hey Scott !! I totally love your blog, a lot of passages do give me new insights.
Just wanna ask what do you think about using ict to teach English? Do you think it makes teaching more effective or it is more of a distraction for students?

16 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks. Re ICT, see under T is for Technology; e is for eCoursebook etc.

16 03 2015
Cindy Hauert

The podcast Slate Lexicon Valley, which I love and can highly recommend, devoted an entire issue on the topic of “yeah, no.” Fascinating!

17 03 2015
Scott C

Australian linguists Kate Burridge and Margatet Florey have written a paper called: ‘Yeah no he’s a good kid. Discourse analysis of yeah no in Australian English.’ It was in the Australian Journal of Linguistics. I don’t have a link, sorry. It’s a very popular phrase here in Australia though!

And my favourite language/dad joke: The past, present and future perfect all walked into a bar. It was tense!!

17 03 2015
Scott C

A link to an Australian newspaper article on the topic:


17 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Scott C. and Cindy for confirming that I wasn’t hearing things! It was in fact an Australian friend whose frequent use of ‘yeah no’ alerted me to this. (And the cartoon in the news item that you posted, Scott. C. could join the pantheon of linguistics-related jokes!)

1 06 2015

My dog has no dictionary.
How does it spell?

Ho ho ho🙂

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