Saturday, 30 November 2013

You must be joking.

When we tell someone that they must be joking we don’t mean that they must be joking: we mean we don’t believe what they’re saying. They may not be lying, but what they’re saying strikes us as making sense only in the realm of make-believe. We say this in a tone of voice that rules out acknowledgement of shared merriment. And we don’t laugh at the presumed “joke”. So why the word joking, then? Quirks of linguistic formulaic devices, surely, but that’s what languages are: formulaic devices. We need to learn when and how telling people that they must be joking is appropriate, because we don’t say this to people whom we know are joking. So how do we know they’re not?

At the turn of last century, in a monograph titled Le Rire: Essai sur la Signification du Comique which has withstood the test of time, Henri Bergson argued that what makes us laugh, “le comique, [c’est] du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant”. Stumbles and/or falls, for example, trigger our mirth because (more or less) supple living bodies fall prey to mechanical stiffness – and I suspect there must be something mechanical at work, too, in what makes us laugh over and over again at whatever makes us laugh. Perhaps the converse of Bergson’s take, plating life onto machines, is one reason why machines aren’t that good at laughing at what makes us laugh? Or rather, why we aren’t that good at creating laughter-inducing software. Richard Powers puts it this way, in Galatea 2.2: Helen, the mechanical protagonist, “was strange. [...] She sped laugh-free through Green Eggs and Ham”. Helen isn’t the only one having issues with laughter in this novel, by the way: if you’re curious, have a look in Fran McDonald’s chapter Wrong laughter: Laughing away the human in Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2.

Bergson also explained why laughter confirms a successfully shared joke: “Notre rire est toujours le rire d’un groupe.” 


As we learn our languages, whether we’re young or old, we learn what’s shared through them among fellow-users. Human beings are natural merrymakers, regardless of culture, so it’s no wonder that one of the main purposes of language use is entertaining, along with informing and persuading. Since jokes make sense to insiders, learning to make and get jokes isn’t as frivolous as it may appear on first thought. Happily, given the not-for-laughs nature of most language teaching materials, humour is being increasingly understood as a very effective language learning tool. Research by Nancy Bell shows, for example, that fostering joking in a new language enhances linguistic proficiency, by promoting creative ways of using those new linguistic resources. Catherine Davies provides an additional reason for getting to grips with humour in the language classroom: her study How English-learners joke with native speakers concludes that “Such fine-tuning of understanding is the core of why the ability to participate in such joking is important in the development of rapport.” Not only do we learn better what makes us laugh, learning what makes others laugh hails us as sanctioned linguistic insiders. My take is that people who joke together wire together.

Although I have yet to decide which of the two is more vexing, someone telling you that you must be joking when you are joking, or someone laughing at your joke when you’re not, I’m sure of one thing: prosody is often to blame for mishaps of this kind, as research included in this special issue of Pragmatics & Cognition, dedicated to Prosody and Humour, makes clear. We draw on language/culture-specific analogies and metaphors, bodily ones included, to create idiomatic sarcasm and irony, but language/culture-specific prosody is what allows their interpretation as humorous. Maybe the reason why Richard Powers’ Helen and our other human-like machines don’t know how to laugh is that programmers inherited the traditional view of languages as exhausting themselves in robot-friendly words + grammar. Just a thought.

Lastly, a healthy note: we know about an apple a day, but a laugh a day may have equally beneficial effects on our physiology and psychology. Here are two, for the child within each and every one of us: Howard L. Chace’s monolingual fairy tale, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut and Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s multilingual rhymes Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames. I’ll indulge in some more language play next time.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual crosswords. Saturday 14th December 2013.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Multilingual liars

Cynics have it that human beings developed language in order to be able to lie. I’m not sure I like the innuendo in this suggestion, but I’m quite sure that language does allow us to lie and that we human beings make liberal use of this linguistic facility.

Human language features what linguists call displacement, enabling us to talk about absent and/or fictitious referents – you can read more about this in Chapters 1 and 12 of my book The Language of Language. Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal, discusses the morals of lying, a fascinating topic in itself – and I quite like another cynic’s take on morality in general, August Strindberg’s in Röda Rummet: “... moralen som de bestå, det är deras elakhet som anlagt en lämplig, presentabel form”. But Wright also argues that our ability to empathise with fellow human beings’ feelings and thoughts explains our deception skills. He writes that “the presentation of self, and the perception of others, has great Darwinian consequence: reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy”, which, by an apparent paradox, “may together be responsible for most of the dishonesty in our species” (emphasis mine). And he adds: “We are far from the only dishonest species, but we are surely the most dishonest, if only because we do the most talking” (emphasis his, p. 265).

Like empathy, displacement was once hailed as a distinctive characteristic of human languages, but we’re not so sure any longer. The issue revolves not only around what we mean by language(s) (the perennial issue of terminology...), but principally around what we’ve come to learn about non-human communication. Birds can fake injury, in order to attract a predator’s attention away from their nests. Natural camouflage experts likewise deceive their predators, and carnivorous plants their prey. We’ve also long known that bluffing about resourcefulness is a survival strategy among those of us who populate lower rungs of the food chain. For example, Eldridge S. Adams and Michael Mesterton-Gibbons, in The cost of threat displays and the stability of deceptive communication, reported on one crustacean species whose weaker members resort to threatening behaviour as much as their strong ones, with the same goal of putting off stronger opponents.

Social chains are our civilised equivalent of food chains, and we often lie for similar purposes of survival. Why else do we praise the quality of substandard meals, useless meetings or soporific lectures to which we’ve been invited, for example? We may not be intentionally attempting to deceive by doing so, not least because feedback of this kind is largely formulaic, but we are certainly attempting to benefit from using language in less than honest ways. We even have dedicated names to represent our gradient views about the moral acceptability of untruthfulness, from white lies and fibs through hoaxes to frauds and swindles. Strindberg did indeed hit the nail on the head.

Lying, like any other social behaviour, obeys culturally sanctioned norms. It engages not only our linguistic resources but (mostly?) body language, hand movements, eye gestures, facial expressions, whose interplay we must learn to adjust congruently in order to become competent liars. When we lie, we don’t want it to show.

Image © Enrico Mazzanti (Wikimedia Commons)

Over 20 years ago, in Fishy-looking liars: Deception judgment from expectancy violation, Charles F. Bond and colleagues investigated the effects of discrepant verbal vs. nonverbal clues in our perception of deception. More recently, Joanne Arciuli’s co-authored study “Um, I can tell you’re lying”: Linguistic markers of deception versus truth-telling in speech found that hesitation markers, sometimes misunderstood as signs of disfluency, play a core role in our perception of fluent truth-telling vs. lying.

So what about those of us who need to lie in tongues? The issue of whether we can identify liars across languages and cultures appears to be far from settled, judging by research led by Charles F. Bond which shows both that cross-linguistic and cross-cultural lying behaviour can’t be detected (e.g. in Lie detection across cultures) and that it can (e.g. in International deception).

These findings may explain why the behaviour of multilinguals at times rings false, as it were. This is particularly true of trainee multilinguals such as young children and beginner language learners: it takes time to gain awareness of conventional behaviours in different languages, in different places, to different people, and it takes effort to master their appropriateness. In addition, it’s not enough to just remember the lies that we concoct, so we can stick to them, we also need to remember in which language we lied. Professional liars (spies come to mind, though I’m sure they’re in good company), know all about this: they must develop skills which not only uphold the credibility of their false persona and false claims but, chiefly, suppress the clues which would betray their true persona’s lying habits.

Next time, I’ll deal with something that relates, indirectly, to perceptions of lying. Meanwhile, let me leave you with nothing but the truth, my favourite example of the Liar’s Paradox: Don’t believe a word I say. I’m a liar.

© MCF 2013

Next post: You must be joking. Saturday 30th November 2013.


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