Funny Ha-Ha or Funny Strange: The Structure and Meaning of Laughter in Conversation

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Although laughter has been studied for centuries, the work has occurred in several different fields, and the lack of an interdisciplinary approach has hindered the integration of results. Work in philosophy has focused on why we laugh but has lacked a basis in empirical data, resulting in ungrounded theories. Studies in neuroscience and linguistics rest on empirical data, but stop short of a full description of the phenomenon of laughter, focusing on when and how we laugh, but not why. This study seeks to describe the phenomenon of laughter more fully, to describe both the nature of the laughable and laughter’s integration into conversations.

To determine how laughter is related to other conversational utterances in organization and meaning, I recorded conversations among adult native speakers of English, interviewed the participants for their perceptions, and analyzed both the conversations and the interview comments. I adopted a conversation analysis approach for analyzing the conversational data, and an ethnographic approach for the interview data. By first identifying laugh tokens in conversations and then relating them to other conversational elements, I identified what triggered laughter. I then analyzed the propositional content of laughable utterances in order to determine the nature of the laughable. I also drew on folk knowledge of laughter as revealed in casual speech and cliched phrases as well as the interview comments of the participants to triangulate my analysis for validity.

Structurally, laughter is integrated into the broader structure of conversation. It follows regular turn-taking structure as a second pair part in two types of adjacency pairs: 1) laughable-laugh, and 2) laugh-laugh. Laughter is also integrated into conversation as backchannel and as a speaker discourse marker. The nature of the laughable is incongruous. Incongruous utterances consist of various techniques that present the propositional content in an unreal way or consist of propositional content itself that highlights contrast, difference, improbability, or accuracy of knowledge. Finally, understanding incongruity as an expression of the unreal encompasses a phenomenological view of laughter and allows a broader interdisciplinary approach that can interrelate many of the various studies and theories of laughter.

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