Audience/community, situation, and language: A linguistic/rhetorical theory of verbal humor

Amy Thomas Carrell, Purdue University


Theories of verbal humor to date have ignored or glossed over the importance of the roles of the audience and the situation in the humor event. Most theories presuppose that the joke text conveys humor, but it is demonstrated here that humor is not possible and cannot exist unless and until an audience determines that the joke text is amusing.^ This study surveys theories of humor and establishes that there is, indeed, a gap in the literature concerning the relevance and the significance of both the audience and the situation to verbal humor. The linguistic aspects, especially the semantic properties, of verbal humor are examined, followed by an examination of the rhetorical aspects of verbal humor, primarily in terms of audience, discourse communities, and situation. Finally, a new theory of verbal humor is proposed which embraces both the linguistic and the rhetorical aspects of that which occurs in the humor event.^ The concepts of an audience's joke competence and humor competence are central to this audience-based theory of verbal humor and clearly mark the point at which the disciplines of linguistics and rhetoric come together. Joke competence and humor competence are linguistic constructs based on and developed from the notion of linguistic competence and as constituents of linguistic competence activated by and in the non-bona-fide mode of joke telling. Imbuing the audience with the power to make decisions about the effectiveness of a piece of discourse in a situation is a rhetorical construct. When the two are merged, as they are in this audience-based theory of verbal humor, they can explain what happens in the humor event. ^




Major Professor: Victor Raskin, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Language, Linguistics|Speech Communication

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