In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Humor in Language

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Introductory Textbooks
  • History of Humor
  • Prosody and Humor Markers
  • Laughter

Linguistics Humor in Language
Salvatore Attardo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0191


The field of humor research developed as an autonomous area of research in the mid-1970s, as the first scholarly conferences dedicated to the analysis of humor were held and their proceedings published. Needless to say, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, literary scholars, and the odd linguist had long before concerned themselves with humor, so much so that the earliest theories of humor go as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Victor Raskin’s Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (see Raskin 1985, cited under Linguistic Models: Semantic Models: Semantic Script Theory of Humor) standardized the division of humor theories in three families: incongruity, hostility, and release. The linguistics of humor is more generally concerned with incongruity theories as they describe the cognitive mechanisms that cause humor. The hostility theories address the aggressive aspect of humor, i.e., the fact that often, but not always, humor is directed against someone. In linguistics, the affiliative aspect of humor has dominated the field of the discourse analysis of humor, which is somewhat of an anomaly within humor research. Finally, the release theories are more concerned with the effects of humor on the psyche, for example, by relieving stress. There is limited contact between release theories and linguistics. Due to space limitations, certain areas of research have been left out. Although certainly interesting, these areas are less central to humor research or are either very technical (for example, the neurolinguistics of humor), of limited interest outside of their specific fields (for example, relevance theoretic accounts or computational humor), or have attracted little following (for example, cognitive linguistic analyses of humor). Readers interested in these fields should consult the relevant sections of Raskin 2008 (The Primer of Humor Research), discussed under Reference Works, or the relevant issues of HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research.

Reference Works

The field of the linguistics of humor is in many ways still in its infancy. This is apparent in the lack of general reference works for the field. The recently published Encyclopedia of Humor Studies (Attardo 2014) will fill a large part of this gap. Moncelet 2006 is the only lexicon of humor research, unfortunately restricted to French. Raskin 2008, Martin 2007, Apte 1985, and Attardo 1994 are more general introductions, the latter focused on linguistics.

  • Apte, Mahadev. 1985. Humor and laughter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Apte presents a summary and discussion of the anthropological and ethnographical research on humor. Somewhat dated by now, Apte’s work remains a fundamental milestone of humor research. Linguists will find chapter 6 (pp. 177–211), on humor and language, the most relevant.

  • Attardo, Salvatore. 1994. Linguistic theories of humor. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    A complete overview of the linguistics of humor, albeit somewhat dated. It is organized to parallel loosely the traditional organization of linguistic courses (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and discourse). Includes a detailed historical treatment. Assumes working knowledge of basic linguistics.

  • Attardo, Salvatore, ed. 2014. Encyclopedia of humor studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    A large scale work, encompassing many more disciplines besides linguistics. Broad, comprehensive and accessible to students.

  • Martin, Rod. 2007. The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic.

    An encyclopedic approach makes this compendium of the psychology of humor tangentially relevant to the linguistics of humor, but this is the basic introduction to the psychology of humor. Linguists will find chapter 4 (pp. 83–111), on the cognitive psychology of humor, the most relevant.

  • Moncelet, Christian. 2006. Les mots du comique et de l’humour. Paris: Belin.

    The only reference work on the subject, this over 600-page encyclopedic dictionary of comical and humorous words covers the French lexicon of humor fairly exhaustively. An invaluable compendium of literary and popular French work on humor. Humor research is only addressed when translated in French, and even then spottily.

  • Raskin, Victor, ed. 2008. The primer of humor research. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110198492

    A collection of about twenty introductory chapters covering various fields of humor research ranging from psychology to anthropology. The coverage and specificity of the chapters vary, but the linguist will find several useful chapters on linguistics, historical views of humor, computational humor, rhetoric, communication, literature, and translation.

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