current abstract, favorite thesis focus

Punching the Line: Humor & Ideologies

Woolard and Schieffelin point out that “ideologies of language are significant for social as well as linguistic analysis because they are not only about language. Rather, such ideologies envision and enact links of language to group and personal identity, to aesthetics, to morality, and to epistemology” (1994: 56). Cultures vary widely in how such ideological tenets are expressed. Generally, however, linguistic structures are organized into socially acceptable routes, and modes of expression are formalized in disseminating ideas among members of a culture. Identifying such sites of expression within a culture, and understanding their function as an outlet for ideologically shaping content, is vital to achieving a functional grasp of any given language, since as a tool it is not only a set of formal grammatical structures, but intrinsic in shaping and maintaining cultural and social perceptions of others and the self.

As a site of ideological dissemination, humor works as “an embodiment, a filter, a creator and recreator, and a transmitter of culture” (Sherzer 1987: 306), much like discourse does in general. The interest of this paper is to analyze humor, using stand-up comedy as the primary site of analysis, as a “natural” (Silverstein 1998: 128-9) interpretation of language, and therefore a valid medium by which to shape cultural perception. This manipulation of discourse and performance through mechanisms such as juxtaposition, frame shifting, and ambiguity, work directly to convey the opinion of the speaker, which carries meaning and relevance beyond the joke which acts as the vehicle as it pertains to ideologies of language. The focus of this presentation will be the humor of several comedians as performed within the frames and schemas of stand up comedy. Through analysis of linguistic structure, as well as the underlying cultural messages which these forms convey, I hope to outline a specific mechanism by which language ideologies are dispersed throughout audiences and by extension through society in general via the use of humor.

Sherzer, Joel. 1987. A Discourse-Centered Approach to Language and Culture. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 89, No. 2, June, 295-309.

Silverstein, Michael. 1998. The uses and utility of ideology: A commentary. In B. Schieffelin, K. Woolard, & P. Kroskrity (Eds.). Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 123-148.

Woolard, Kathryn A., & Bambi B. Schieffelin. 1994. Language Ideology. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 23. pp. 52-82.

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non·stand·ard [nonstan-derd]


2. not conforming in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, etc., to the usage characteristic of and considered acceptable by most educated native speakers; lacking in social prestige or regionally or socially limited in use: a nonstandard dialect; nonstandard English. Compare standard (def. 27). (1)

the idea that language has a ‘standard’ is a vitally important one. it recurs throughout cultures and time, and is a shaping force in how people not only communicate with one another, but perceive those communications. opinions about language play crucial roles in defining social and cultural standing, role, and perspective. however, as one studies language, and languages, and the people who create and use this faculty, it becomes increasingly obvious that whatever standard people are striving for in their speech is one that eludes everyone. one of the most important reasons for this is that people’s ideas of what the standard is vary according to the constrains of their own experience. as one can see, this becomes a heavily convoluted situation quickly. another facet that affects the idea of the standard is literacy, the use of writing as a way to reflect language. this tool allows for widespread propagation of language, but only when it can be uniformly understood by the target audience. literary cultures have histories of strong standardization, with many developing societies such as the Real Academia Española (2), and the Académie française (3). the associations between a standardized language and the prestige of education or learning have shaped the acceptability of what is said. prescriptive approaches to language have since shaped the explanations of what language is and how it works, standardizing the form along rigid rule paradigms.

however, these approaches are limited in their scope of explanation, since every day language use falls far from whatever standard is superimposed upon it. instead, language changes and shifts, acquiring and losing meanings and structures according to other, more cognitively organic patterns and structures. the study of language along these parameters allows for a greater scope of understanding. by studying the function of language, rather than trying to dictate or emphasize the form, a student of language can focus instead on the boundaries and outlines inherent to the faculty itself.

if we look beyond the standard, we begin to see a larger picture with less clearly defined lines and many more questions than answers. consider that regardless of how closely we adhere to the agreed-upon structure taught to us as correct, we can still understand each other and effectively communicate everything from basic physical needs to abstract, conceptual thought. the ability to do so does not rest in the memorization of grammar rules taught to us as teenagers, but is instead a reflection of a deeply complex mental system that has been working in our brains since before birth. by treating language as unique and universally nonstandard, we can truly begin to understand how it is in fact the same, binding us to each other and the world.

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at the center of the field of linguistics lies this word, which, when looked at with all the underlying meanings, connotations, and purposes of usage that it bears, can be loosely referred to as ‘loaded.’ unraveling its surrounding ideological concerns is the primary focus of this writing space. the value of this effort lies in furthering my and others’ understanding of one of humanity’s most fascinating and intricate faculties.

Posted in: language, linguistics by transmitter 2 Comments