The Importance of Not Being Earnest

The feeling behind laughter and humor

Wallace Chafe | University of California, Santa Barbara
ISBN 9789027241528 | EUR 99.00 | USD 149.00
ISBN 9789027241542 | EUR 25.00 | USD 37.95
ISBN 9789027292971 | EUR 99.00/25.00*
| USD 149.00/37.95*
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The thesis of this book is that neither laughter nor humor can be understood apart from the feeling that underlies them. This feeling is a mental state in which people exclude some situation from their knowledge of how the world really is, thereby inhibiting seriousness where seriousness would be counterproductive. Laughter is viewed as an expression of this feeling, and humor as a set of devices designed to trigger it because it is so pleasant and distracting. Beginning with phonetic analyses of laughter, the book examines ways in which the feeling behind the laughter is elicited by both humorous and nonhumorous situations. It discusses properties of this feeling that justify its inclusion in the repertoire of human emotions. Against this background it illustrates the creation of humor in several folklore genres and across several cultures. Finally, it reconciles this understanding with various already familiar ways of explaining humor and laughter.
[Consciousness & Emotion Book Series, 3] 2007.  xiii, 167 pp.
Publishing status: Available
Table of Contents
“This thought-provoking book leaves me convinced of the importance of the emotional component of humor and the courage of a rare scholar. An important re-appraisal of the field as a whole, a book which is a pleasure to read, written with bright clarity of thought and many gems of insight.This book is not just – or even principally – about the linguistics of humor, but about how linguistic (and other) devices relate to the experience of non-seriousness. Chafe’s book raises profound issues by its ambitious scope and careful reflection on factual knowledge. Chafe laments, “People in the western world have been pondering and writing about laughter and humor for well over two thousand years” (p.139), but his survey is a testament to the years of reflection and breadth of scholarship that he brings to bear on his subject.”
“This is a very important, ground-breaking book on humor from a linguistic perspective. It differs from other research on humor by linguists in two main ways: first, in the attention it pays to the precise description of laughter, and second in its attempt to set out a complete theory of laughter and humor, including their place in human evolution and consciousness, rather than simply to account for humorous texts.

Perhaps the most ingratiating aspect of the book is Chafe's personable writing style and his open-minded attitude toward his topic and materials, indeed toward the whole enterprise of linguistics and scientific inquiry.

“This book returns the author to a field he was first involved with before humour studies was yet recognized as an area of study. The result of the revisitation is significant for all humour scholars, whether linguists or not: it is an important re-appraisal of the field of humour studies as a whole.

The book brings to fruition reflections concerning the important place of laughter in human communication which have clearly been incubating in Chafe's thought since the 1970s. There are several reasons to be grateful for so long a gestation. It may well have been necessary to achieve the book's bright clarity of thought in a field which remains somewhat inchoate. Further, although the book is packed with intelligent and probing discussion, it is easy to read and deceptively short (at 167 pages), but still long enough to allow Chafe to integrate perspectives from the wide-ranging individual studies he has previously published, dealing with verbal punning, laughter, and also the ontological purposes of the behaviours we associate with humour and laughter, where he probed their evolutionary rationale in a Lorenzian fashion.[1] Lastly, the long wait has allowed the author, after his retirement (from University of California system, both at Berkeley and Santa Barbara) but from a newly liberated position as both Emeritus and Research Professor, to incorporate his most recent interests in consciousness, emotion and communication, and the phonetics of laughter.

The resulting volume is a delight to read and could only have been offered by a scholar who is willing, confidently but respectfully, to cross many disciplinary boundaries. There is no doubt it will be a stimulus to further research and debate.

“I love this book. It will open a new branch of research (and a much needed one). The field owes Chafe a great debt.”
“Though brief and specialized, this book offers considerable information, and the presentation is conversational and accessible.”
Cited by

Cited by 77 other publications

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Communication Studies

Communication Studies

Consciousness Research

Consciousness research

Main BIC Subject

JMT: States of consciousness

Main BISAC Subject

PSY013000: PSYCHOLOGY / Emotions
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