Conversational Joking in English Youth Language

Humour and language in the movie "Juno"

Bachelor Thesis 2009 27 Pages

Didactics - English - Miscellaneous




1. How is Humour created?
1.1 Humour theories
1.2 Features of Humour
1.3 Conversational joking

2. Characteristic Features of Youth Language

3. The Language and Humour in Juno
3.1 Characteristics of a Comedy Movie
3.2 About Juno
3.3 Analysing Examples



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Today, youth and its associated culture attract more attention than ever before. Whether via the internet, films, music or magazines; it is possible to spread the sentiments and tastes of a whole generation. Thus, a whole new culture can develop. Modern media has a huge influence on the younger generation. Today, media is of major importance to younger people, because they also use it as a communicative device.

The term “youth language” will be one aspect of this bachelor thesis. For the examination of the linguistic features it is necessary to look at the use of that language in its conversational forms.

Moreover, the focus will be on a specific field of youth language: namely, the humour and conversational jokes occurring in youth language will be analyzed in detail.

The data in this thesis is based on the motion picture Juno, a thematic depiction of an uncomfortable issue for youths, from the viewpoint of a sixteen-year- old girl.

In the following, this work is concerned with the question of whether youth language is used by certain characters. Thus, speech analysis can reveal the linguistic features of adolescent language. Another question arises; of how much potential for humour lies in their conversations, and which particular features of humour make up the vast majority of youth language.

Finally, the conclusion will connect the results of the analysis with a perspective on the the term of youth language itself. Therefore, one should not lose sight of the overall question of how authentic youth language can be transfered from reality into the genre of media. Is the language that we hear used by youths in films still compatible with real conversations, or is it just a contrived imitation? And if so, how successful is the imitation?

1. How is Humour created?

1.1 Humour theories

To analyze the features emerging in a comedy movie, it is necessary to look at the basic phenomenon of humour. Intentionally-used ambiguity is the basis of most verbal humour. Sometimes an utterance is clearly ambiguous, and some forms need to be analyzed on certain linguistic levels (e.g. phonology, syntax, lexis, semantics and pragmatics).

Thus, the following analysis concentrates on semantic properties which the transcriptions possess. Later, we will see that these can be examined by means of the semantic theory of humour. In simple terms, it dictates that every speaker is naturally able to comprehend a text as ‘funny’ or ‘not funny’.

In comedy movies especially, most of the verbally expressed humour has to be regarded in combination with physical, visual or nonverbal humour; as well as within the context or situation of the scene. In order to analyse a movie, one theory of humour is not sufficient; but there is no universal theory that covers all facets of humour.

Each theory partially focuses on one or two important features. For the following analysis it is necessary to point out the main characteristics of the three basic theories, in order to assign the transcripts. For the beginning, there will be short summary of all three theories, as Darwin said in 1872:

“Something incongruous or unaccountable, exciting surprise and some sense of superiority in the laugher, who must be in a happy frame of mind, seems to be the commonest cause.[...] If the mind is strongly excited by pleasurable feelings, and any little unexpected event or thought occurs, then, as Mr. Herbert Spencer remarks [1860], ‘a large amount of nervous energy, instead of being allowed to expend itself in some other direction, and there results and efflux through the motor nerves to various classes of the muscles, producing the half- convulsice actions we term laughter.”[1]

Hence, incongruity is the basis for the first approach. Laughter arises from an incongruent relation between a concept someone has in mind and the real actions or happenings taking place. Resulting in laughter, the two incongruent constituents are combined and synthesised.[2]

In other words, it is the deviation from normal expectations – usually caused by unexpected, illogical, over-exaggerated or inappropriate actions in different cognitive levels.[3]

In the context of incongruent elements, Koestler (1994) additionally introduced the term of “bisociation”. Thus, bisociation means the similar perception of two objects inside of two opposite frames of reference. We are dealing with a perceiving situation, “L”, and two incompatible frames of a reference, “M1 and M2”.[4]

Moreover, an important element for something being incongruent and humorous as a result, is surprise. Hence, an unexpected and sudden clarification of the incongruity is called a “punchline”. Fry (1936) claimed that the punch line primarily presents a much more absurd or irrelevant idea. It distinguishes humour from non-humour, or “it may seem incongruous with the main body of the joke”.[5]

Another approach is based on phenomena such as superiority, hostility and derision. This kind of humour theory understands itself as the laughing about the misfortune of others, or schadenfreude. All laughter seems to be an expression of being superior to others in a given situation. This leads to the assumption that a joke always consists of three elements; as Rapp (1951) proposes:

1. “Ridicule
2. Sudden success in a contest of wit, which in the joke usually means catching the point
3. Sudden victory over restraint or suppression”[6]

These elements of a joke contain characteristics of hostility and superiority, but all types of humour are not necessarily based on superiority, although it is generally a significant factor.

The third theory is called the “release theory”, because in this category, laughter is understood as a notable decrease in tension. Thus, laughter delivers a relief of mental or even physical energy after a strained or overwrought situation. In a way, humour is said to be the liberation of personal conventions, or even some attitudes to morality. Darwin, Freud and Kline commented on the fact that this relief of tension arises out of the many constraints under which human beings operate: “to be logical, to think clearly, to talk sense”.[7] In other words, according to the release theory, humour can be seen as an unleashing of conventions and customary moralities.

Furthermore, it is necessary to clarify whether you are dealing with verbally expressed humour or written language. So to say, the research on verbal humour in conversations can be based on the described theories by Raskin, which build up the linguistic framework.

1.2 Features of Humour

The semantic theory of humour, SSTH, by Raskin (1985) can be script- based, but additionally it may lead to the General Theory of Verbal Humour, GTVH (Attardo and Raskin 1991), too.

If the semantic theory is script-based, it has strong contextual emphasis. It aims to describe the linguistic competence of a native speaker; whereas the GTVH is a development of the SSTH and is thus focused on the idea that a joke depends on six different knowledge resources. In other words, the semantic theory is dealing with semantic entities and looks for interpretations perceived intuitively by the speaker.[8]

Moreover, a joke in this entity is represented by a script. So to say, a script is supposed and structured knowledge about a situation. We already know that the joke can consist of two possible interpretations. This results in two possible scripts, associated with the text. But one of the scripts is more obvious than the other, which is naturally perceived by the speaker. The humorous moment develops from the second and sudden interpretation to the reader’s preconceptions.[9]

As the script- based theory has been briefly outlined, it now will be applied to analysing verbal humour. The main hypothesis is build up on the two different scripts. The condition for a text to be called a joke – so long that the whole text is compatible with those scripts. Therefore, the two occurring scripts tend to overlap, fully or in parts. Their conflicting nature is more or less the reason for the joke.[10]

Raskin also claims that there is the semantic theory, in which joking is related to a non-bona fide communication. Raskin’s theory, like other semantic or psychological theories, proposes that there must be a switch from a bona fide communication mode to a playful, non-threatening mode. Bona fide communication is the serious, banal, everyday communication we employ. As Raskin states, bona fide communication is ruled by the cooperative principle. It dictates that when we are talking to others, we are committed to being truthful and relevant. This is in contrast to the non-bona fide- mode. The people we are talking to in bona fide mode are aware of this, because their expectations are that we speak the truth. To accomplish a switch into non-bona fide communication, there is now the notion of two scripts occuring in a text. If these scripts overlap partially or fully, the texts fulfill another condition of being considered humorous.[11]

Moreover, in case of the non- bona fide communication, it is necessary to look at Grice’s Maxims, because they separate the literal meaning of an utterance from the original intention of the speaker. Normally, a recipient assumes that an utterance is made in view of the Cooperative Principle (CP) and its maxims.

It is interpreted in regard to the context. Now, there are two possibilities. The first one is that the maxims are not violated, which means that the speaker’s intentions are utterly reflected by his utterrance. Otherwise, in the case of a violation of the maxims, the recipient needs to work out the intended implications of the speaker’s words.

Thus, the above-mentioned frames of references with two opposite scripts are taken into account. But in the case of joking, the joke teller is no longer committed to the truth, and conversational humour is not expected to convey serious information. Thus, jokes violate the maxims constantly. We will look at examples during the analysis.[12]

1.3 Conversational joking

Conversational humour is a way of demonstrating knowledge and proving the understanding of the hearer by laughing in the proper situation. Joking can also be a route to confirm shared experiences or attitudes, and also a way of social bonding.

Moreover, humour places stronger emphasis on the role of a person in a conversation. Thus, it strengthens the self image and is a way of gaining credit for a performance. Spontaneous conversational joking differs from joke telling in general. The spontaneous humour is used for the negotiation of openings, closings, to introduce topic changes and so called banter, which is an extension of word play.[13]

On the basis of the GTVH it is possible to distinguish between the different forms of conversational humour. But forms like jokes, puns and wordplay, anecdotes, and irony are only hard to separate because they mix up with each other in conversation. It is characteristic for them to be flexible and have the ability to change into another form during conversation (repartees become anecdotes, anecdotes become jokes).[14]

However, there are several forms that are easier to distinguish. Jokes, puns and irony force the hearer to find a second interpretation, by violating the condition that the utterance is informative. For example, puns violate the relevant maxims which force the recipient to find the unmarked interpretation; as does irony. Most of the time, irony conforms to the relevant maxims but violates the condition of being informative, by forcing the hearer to search for the interpretation that is only slightly different, or even the negation of the starting position.[15]


[1] Raskin, Victor (1985). Semantic mechanisms of humour. Dordrecht: Reidel. p. 31

[2] Raskin (1985), p. 32

[3] Muschard, Jutta (1999). “Jokes and their relation to relevance and cognition.” In:

Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 47:1. 12-25.

[4] Norrick, Neal R. (2003). “Issues in conversational joking.” Journal of Pragmatics 35. p. 1333

[5] Raskin (1985), p.33

[6] Raskin (1985), p. 37

[7] Raskin (1985), p. 38

[8] Raskin (1985), p. 59

[9] Ritchie, Graeme (2004). The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes. London: Routledge. p.70

[10] Raskin (1985), p. 99

[11] Raskin (1985), p. 100

[12] Norrick (2003), p. 1349

[13] Norrick (2003), p. 1342

[14] Norrick (2003), p. 1338

[15] Norrick (2003), p. 1339


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Technical University of Braunschweig
Juno comedy movie




Title: Conversational Joking in English Youth Language