Telling jokes

Lane Greene, on the Economist blog:

Ben Yagoda at Lingua Franca doesn’t like the “historical present”: the tendency to use the present tense to describe past (and literary) events

… Mr Yagoda concludes that describing the past this way is a crutch: “it’s essentially a novelty item. It’s tacky. Give it a rest.” I don’t quite agree, but his description of the historical present prompted this digression on another use of the present tense that he points out: jokes. (More specifically, jokes in the form of a funny story.)

… But that’s not how all languages work. In looking around at joke websites, I found that conventions vary a bit.

His discussion continues:

 This joke, in Portuguese, sets the scene in the imperfect (a tense used for continuous or repeated actions in the past), before moving to what we might call the jocular present

… A look at a couple of Spanish joke websites show some jokes beginning in the imperfect, while others start in the present tense. German websites (like this one) show the English-style preference for the “jocular present”

… I would have assumed all languages use the jocular present if not for the memory of one session with my Arabic tutor. My exercise was to read a corny joke (which I can no longer remember) in a newspaper, and then tell it to my tutor without looking at the paper. An twist was that it was written in modern standard Arabic in the paper, but I had to deliver it in (Palestinian) spoken dialect, which involves a non-trivial translation process on the fly. This wasn’t easy in the first place, but what really threw me was when my teacher repeatedly stopped me and had me render everything in the past. Every verb, every bit: “A man walked into a restaurant and said… And the woman said back to him…” It was surprisingly frustrating. I kept naturally switching to the present, and my teacher, equally annoyed, kept making me switch back. “Why are you saying everything in the present tense?”

So conventions vary. The convention in English is to locate the events of the joke as timeless — out of time — so presented in the present tense (also used for propositions that are true at all times — the “gnomic present”). But those events could equally well be located in a mythical past, thus motivating the use of some sort of past tense. Or you could start an account of the events in a past tense and then shift to a description in a present tense (picking up its time reference from the framing text). You can imagine other possibilities: a hypothetical mood, for instance.

Such conventions are associated with particular speech communities, which means that they tend to be associated with particular languages (as wholes), though nothing would bar the use of different conventions within a language.

It’s important that the conventions have to do with the association of formal features of a language (choice of tense and aspect, and in fact mood as well) with particular sociocultural functions; it’s a matter of culture-specific pragmatics. So Greene is off-base when he concludes:

The world’s best-known linguist, Noam Chomsky, has staked a career on the theory that all natural languages share a universal grammar. Whether he is right or not, the jocular present doesn’t seem to be a part of it.

But there’s no guarantee that all cultures share very specific functions (like joke-telling as we know it), much less that they use the formal resources of their languages in the same way. What a universal grammar would supply is a set of constraints on the way formal features can be combined — not what can be done with them.


3 Responses to “Telling jokes”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Trying to think what tense I tell a joke in. I think it’s the simple past for jokes I learned when I was a kid, the imperfect for jokes learned more recently, but more likely jocular present today.

    My wife is a professional storyteller. When she tells a story formally, it’s in the past tense, but when she relates one informally, it’s in the historical present. She has very little sense that she’s doing this.

  2. the ridger Says:

    2 thoughts: The “present” tense really doesn’t describe the “present” time (the present progressive does that), at least in English. Also, Russian uses narrative present tense in non-jokes as well.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, the facts are more complicated than that. Roughly, the present progressive is used to refer to *events* happening now, but the simple present is used to refer to *states* holding now (as in “I believe you”, “I see your point”, and so on).

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