Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review Briefs: Understanding Language Through Humor

"Understanding Language Through Humor" by Stanley Dubinsky and Chris Holcomb
ʌ ʌ (2 carets up)

This is the perfect book for anyone who wants to learn more about the inner workings of language while being entertained at the same time. I would recommend it for high school age readers and up. The book is capable of being purely a pleasure read (an educational pleasure as an added bonus) as well as a study companion for students in language-themed courses. I will certainly use this book as a resource the next time I teach an introductory linguistics class.

Here is a summary from Cambridge University Press:

Students often struggle to understand linguistic concepts through examples of language data provided in class or in texts. Presented with ambiguous information, students frequently respond that they don't 'get it'. The solution is to find an example of humour that relies on the targeted ambiguity. Once they laugh at the joke, they have tacitly understood the concept, and then it is only a matter of explaining why they found it funny. Utilizing cartoons and jokes illustrating linguistic concepts, this book makes it easy to understand these concepts, while keeping the reader's attention and interest. Organized like a course textbook in linguistics, it covers all the major topics in a typical linguistics survey course, including communication systems, phonetics and phonology, morphemes, words, phrases, sentences, language use, discourses, child language acquisition and language variation, while avoiding technical terminology.

Here is a joke from the book that is used to illustrate deictic confusion:

A guy phones the local hospital and yells, "You've gotta help! My wife is in labor!" The nurse says, "Calm down. Is this her first child?" He replies, "No! This is her husband!"

And here is the table of contents:

1. Introduction
2. Talking to Garfield: human and animal communication
3. Did I hear that right? The sounds of language
4. Twisted words: word structure and meaning
5. Fitting words together: phrase structure and meaning
6. Meaning one thing and saying another: indirect speech and conversational principles
7. Fitting the pieces together: the structure of discourse
8. 'Kids say the darndest things': children acquiring language
9. Variety is the spice of life: language variation
10. Cross-cultural gaffes: language and culture
11. The language police: prescriptivism and standardization
12. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Don't let the portion of the book description that says it avoids "technical terminology" lead you to believe the book is simplistic; it is not. I think it would have been more accurate to say "overly technical terminology". The book is smart and accessible at the same time.

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