Laughing at Language

Professor Chris Westbury may be a respected psychologist, but his latest research is nonsense. At the University of Alberta, Canada, he has been doing important work, exploring the connections between language difficulties and brain function. Yet his studies have also provided insights into the nature of humour. As part of his inquiry, Westbury presents patients suffering from aphasia – whose comprehension of words and speech is often impaired – with a string of letters and asks whether or not it constitutes a real English word. One day, a graduate student pointed out something curious: certain nonsense words consistently made patients smile and sometimes even laugh out loud. “Particularly,” Westbury says, “?‘snunkoople’.?”

He started checking with friends and colleagues to see whether they had the same reaction, and the response was nearly unanimous. Snunkoople was funny. But why? In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Memory and Language, Westbury presents what he believes could be the answer: the inherent funniness of a word, or at least of context-free non-words, can be quantified – and not all nonsense is created equal.

According to Westbury, the less statistically likely it is for a certain collection of letters to form a real word in English, the funnier it is. (The playwright Neil Simon seemed to grasp this implicitly in his 1972 work The Sunshine Boys, in which an old vaudevillian tells his nephew, “If it doesn’t have a ‘k’ in it, it’s not funny!” – ‘k’ being one of the least frequently used letters in the alphabet.) Fluent English speakers, Westbury says, are accustomed to words sounding a particular way. So when they come across

unusual clusters of letters or syllables, their expectations are violated. Laughter is the by-product of that violation.

Power to Amuse

The theory of humour as a function of incongruity isn’t new. Westbury’s paper traces its influence from Aristotle to Charlie Chaplin. In the 18th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined laughter as “an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” But Westbury zeroes in on the work of another German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, who in the 19th century proposed that this response was scalable – that there was a direct correlation between a joke’s ability to subvert our expectations and its power to amuse.

Westbury decided to test Schopenhauer’s hypothesis by appealing to probability – specifically, the odds that letters in any non-word would appear in an English word in the same combination. He ran two studies. In the first, he presented participants with a computer-generated list of some 5928 made-up words to see which ones they found comical. Those that sounded rude shot straight to the top of the scale; four of the six funniest were ‘whong’, ‘dongl’, ‘focky’ and ‘clunt’. Westbury decided that those quasi-vulgarities had to go because they triggered associative biases. He wanted nonsense in its purest form.

Measuring Made-up Words

In the second study, the psychologist and his team created a new selection of made-up words, filtered for crass undertones. The researchers made sure that the new non-words were easily pronounced and that they didn’t violate typical English spelling rules. (Whether or not they found it amusing, no-one would mistake, say, ‘xxxxxxx’ for a real word, and most would be hard-pressed to pronounce it.) Participants then ranked the words on a scale of funny to not funny.

The outcome was clear: participants consistently judged the same non-words to be funny, even when they didn’t sound vulgar (among the G-rated winners were ‘hablump’, ‘jumemo’ and ‘finglysiv’). And the less plausible the word sounded, the funnier the participants deemed it to be. Westbury and his colleagues believe that the studies represent the first quantitative test of Schopenhauer’s nearly 200-year-old hypothesis.

The results square intuitively with our everyday lives as English speakers. Many of the funniest fake food products from The Simpsons, for example – including Duff Beer and Tubbb! – score low on Westbury’s probability scale. Dr Seuss elevated the creation of ridiculous words to an art: even children with a loose grasp of English understand that ‘wumbus’ and ‘yuzz-a-ma-tuzz’ are meant to be laughed at. Westbury analysed 65 of Seuss’s made-up words and confirmed that they, too, were reliably lower in probability.

While these studies mark a step into the uncertain terrain of quantifying humour, Westbury isn’t sure where the research will go from here. Absurd words are relatively easy to create, but most forms of humour, he says, are more difficult to measure. In the course of his research, Westbury attended open-mic comedy nights at a local bar. He once watched a ten-minute bit about a cyclist getting spiders stuck in his hair. It was hilarious, but, Westbury remembers thinking, How would you ever quantify this kind of thing?

Until he figures that out, he’ll always have ‘snunkoople’.

The Walrus (March 2016) © 2016 by Michael Hingston.

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