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.

G is for Grice (and his Maxims)

28 03 2010

H.P. Grice

What would the language philosopher H.P. Grice have made of Twitter, I wonder? If you recall (and if you don’t, you have only to check the A-Z!) Grice formulated what is perhaps the most influential theory in the development of pragmatics, now best known as the Cooperative Principle:

The cooperative principle is the principle that speakers try to cooperate with one another. When people take part in conversations they do so on the assumption that the other speakers will observe certain unstated “rules”… (An A-Z of ELT)

 These rules (popularly known as Grice’s Maxims) are:

 1.         Maxim of quantity: Make your contribution just as informative as required.

2.         Maxim of quality: Make your contribution one that is true.

3.         Maxim of relation: Make your contribution relevant.

4.         Maxim of manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity. Be brief and orderly.

Of course, speakers frequently violate these maxims, but they do so in the full knowledge that they are breaking the rules – and they will often signal that they are doing so, by, for example, prefacing a statement with “This is totally beside the point, but…” or “I’m sorry to bang on about it, but….” As I point out, in An A-Z, “Without the shared belief in a cooperative principle, we would be compelled to ask, after any utterance, Is that all? Is that true? What has that got to do with it? and Can you be any clearer? The fact that this only normally happens in a court of law suggests that, for day to day purposes, Grice’s maxims apply.”

Twitter seems both to affirm and to challenge Grice’s cooperative principle. In encouraging concision, the 140-character limit works brilliantly to enforce Maxim 1 (The maxim of Quantity) and, to a lesser extent, Maxim 4 (The maxim of Manner). But how do you explain the relevance (maxim 3) of tweets like the following:

Went out and bought a plastic lining for the compost frame and put that in.

Chicken burger with avocado and blue cheese, accompanied by butternut squash wedges.

Sitting with my brother discussing the weather. 

By what possible standards could the above texts be considered relevant? And yet a significant proportion of tweets that are sent are of this nature. Perhaps the assumption is that, if you’ve chosen to follow me, everything I tweet is relevant. And that, in the absence of a shared world (which would confer a degree of relevance), trivia helps to create one.

Be that as it may, Grice’s maxims have helped in the formulation of some ground-rules for Discussion Board postings on the on-line MA TESOL that I teach on. For example:

1.         be brief – 250 words max.

2.         be relevant: stick to the topic; if you need to digress, signal the fact in your subject line;  

3.         be explicit: change the subject line to make it clear whether your posting is a new response to the main DB task, or a digression (see above) or simply a social intervention;

To which I’ve added:

4.         be original (i.e. no plagiarism)

5.         be appropriate (i.e. this is an academic context even if the medium tolerates a degree of informality) and

6.         be courteous (i.e. no flaming)

So far, these rules seem to have worked fine, on the Discussion Boards, to encourage both cooperative interaction and critical thinking. What chance of imposing them on Twitter!?