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American Annals of the Deaf

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Attitudes, Innuendo, and Regulators: Challenges of Interpretation
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TABLE 2. Descriptions of Humor by Discipline


Description Author
Sociology Frame shifting Goffman
  Discontinuity or bisociation Fine
Contextual Semantics Script overlap & Incongruity Raskin
Semantics Incongruity-Resolution Pepicello & Weisberg
Cognitive Psychology Incongruity Resolution Suls

Notice in Table 2 how different fields describe humor in their research. This list is by no means meant to suggest homogeneity within the fields; instead it is a reference tool, a summary of general information. Reading down the center column, it becomes clear that each of the fields attributes a kind of duplicity (frame shifting and script overlap) or disingenuousness (incongruity and discontinuity) to humor. Goffman (1974, p. 11) defines frames as “definitions of a situation [that] are built up in accordance with principles of organization which govern events—at least social ones—and our subjective involvement in them” An activity like a business meeting may be framed as a professional event, but a humorous remark from a participant reframes the activity to one of play. Other participants must recognize the change in frames to understand the humor.

This reframing is what other researchers call incongruity or discontinuity. Essentially, play is not compatible with a professional business meeting. Another example, a comment to a coworker that he is looking couth, kempt, and sheveled is humorous only after the addressee realizes that the speaker has exploited bound morphemes, that is, the compliments are not actually English words (Pepicello & Weisberg, 1983). That is an incongruity. Suls (1983) even compares humor appreciation to problem-solving skills. He posits that humor requires (1) a “play” cue, (2) extreme divergence, and (3) an appropriate time scale to comprehend the humor. Suls’ Incongruity Resolution Model (Figure 1) outlines the steps to appreciate humor.




Text Box: Ending as predicted?
Text Box:  Story   set-up
Text Box: Prediction
Text Box: No surprise, no laughter
Text Box:    Surprise
Text Box: Find rule that makes ending follow from preceding material.
Text Box: Rule found?
Text Box: Laughter
Text Box: Puzzlement
Text Box: Yes
Text Box: Yes
Text Box: No


Text Box: No




The logical next question is how does the addressee recognize a “play” cue? According to Gumperz (1977, p. 199), “It is the process by which we evaluate message meaning and sequencing patterns in relation to aspects of the surface structure of the message, called ‘contextualization cues.’” The addressee uses the cues to determine the signaling of interpretative frames. These may include paralinguistic and intonation contours, but Gumperz emphasizes that contexualization cues are highly culturally specific. This concurs with other research that interpreting the meaning of an utterance requires communicative competence (Hymes, 1974) and the ability to understand the speaker’s meaning (Grice, 1975).

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