Stanley Dubinsky and Chris Holcomb, "Understanding Language Through Humor" (Cambridge UP, 2011)


A problem with doing linguistics is that once you start, it's kind of inescapable - you see it everywhere. At some point a few months back, I was watching a DVD of a comedy series and came to the conclusion that its distinctiveness was all about the way in which expectations about dialogue act type were generated and violated. Then I came to the conclusion that I was watching comedy too hard and had to give up for the day and go and do some work instead. However, despite the dangers, comedy is a very useful tool in explaining linguistics, as this engaging book makes clear. In Understanding Language Through Humor (Cambridge UP, 2011), Stanley Dubinsky and Chris Holcomb draw upon a rich set of examples, acquired over many years' diligent study, that illuminate every level of organisation from phonetics up to discourse structure, as well as covering some topics that cut across these boundaries (acquisition, cross-cultural misunderstanding, and the nature of communication in general). But as well as being systematic, it's also very relatable - it tends to underscore the idea that, for all the complicated terminology, linguistics is essentially the study of something we all do and of capabilities that we all have. In this interview, we talk about how the book came to be written, and how it can be and is being used. We see how the nature of humour changes as we go through the levels of linguistic organisation; and we explore how personal experience informs our language awareness.

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Chris Cummins

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