A Conceptual Blending Theory of Humour

Selected British Comedy Productions in Focus

by Joanna Jabłońska-Hood (Author)
©2015 Monographs 253 Pages
Series: Lodz Studies in Language, Volume 36


The book presents an analysis of humour in a selection of British comedy productions. The conceptual integration theory devised by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, also known as blending, provides the tool for explaining the creation of humour in detail. It seems that blending can elaborate on the origin and cause of funniness, and, therefore, should be included as a linguistic theory of humour in the wide range of contemporary humour theories available. The backdrop against which any humour may be analysed is provided in this study by comparing and contrasting various humour theories which are popular among scholars dealing with comedy and laughter.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of illustrations and diagrams
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Conceptual process in meaning construction: blending, metaphor and metonymy
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1. The early blending theory
  • 1.1.1. How do mental spaces function?
  • 1.1.2. The cognitive integration theory (CIT)
  • 1.1.3. Optimality principles and CIT
  • 1.1.4. Diverse blending networks
  • 1.1.5. An illustration of CIT
  • 1.1.6. What is the objective of CIT?
  • 1.1.7. The modifications and recent development of CIT
  • 1.1.8. Problems with CIT
  • 1.2. Blending and the theories of metaphor
  • 1.2.1. The state of metaphor research
  • 1.2.2. The pragmatic account of metaphor
  • 1.2.3. The interaction theory of metaphor
  • 1.2.4. The conduit metaphor
  • 1.2.5. Lakoff and Johnson on metaphor and metonymy
  • The essence of metaphor
  • The Invariance Principle (IP) as a restriction on metaphor
  • Mappings in metaphors
  • The current state of metaphor research
  • Can blending be reduced to metaphor?
  • 1.3. Blending and metonymy
  • 1.4. Conclusions
  • Chapter 2: Perspectives on humour research
  • 2. Introduction
  • 2.1. Humour origins
  • 2.1.1. Problems with the definition of humour
  • 2.1.2. Formulae of humour definition
  • 2.1.3. Stimulus versus response-based humour processes
  • 2.1.4. Humour and the problem of circularity
  • 2.1.5. Impact of other factors on humour
  • 2.1.6. Defining humour
  • 2.2. Psychological theories of humour
  • 2.2.1. Incongruity theories
  • An illustration of incongruity theories
  • 2.2.2. Superiority theories
  • An illustration of superiority theories
  • 2.2.3. Release theories
  • An illustration of the release theories of humour
  • 2.3. Linguistic theories of humour
  • 2.3.1. The Semantic Script Theory of Humour (SSTH)
  • An example of SSTH
  • 2.3.2. The General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH)
  • An example of GTVH
  • 2.3.3. Ritchie’s proposals
  • An illustration of Ritchie’s theory
  • Other Computational Approaches
  • 2.3.4. Pragmatic approaches to humour
  • An illustration of pragmatic theories of humour
  • 2.4. Closing remarks
  • Chapter 3: The conceptual integration analysis of the British comedy productions
  • 3.1. Introduction
  • 3.2. Humour Analysis
  • 3.2.1. The Best of Ronnie Barker
  • 3.2.2. Carry On (up the Khyber)
  • 3.2.3. The Office moments
  • 3.2.4. Comedy highlights from Extras
  • 3.3. Summary of humour analysis and conclusions
  • Chapter 4: Concluding remarks
  • References

← 8 | 9 → Introduction

The ability to perceive and appreciate humour, in a manner that differentiates man from other species and which may be equated with the intellect, can be regarded as unique among man’s numerous faculties, which certainly differentiates him from other species, and which may only be equated with the intellect. As surprising as it may be, laughter and wit are likely to be the exclusive domain of mankind and thus have the potential to awaken a deep desire for greater understanding of the human mind and cognition. It is exactly for this reason that humour, as a form of intelligence, has attracted interest, thus entering the research fields of all areas of study. The general pursuit has been to formulate some universal theory that could effectively and effortlessly provide insight into the nature of the comic as well as explain why at all we find things or situations amusing. Nevertheless, this tendency to capture humour’s essence has proved to be somewhat of an enigma leaving the puzzled scholar even more confused than before the initial stage of research. The answer as to why this is so, that humour throws obstacles into the path of its researchers, possibly remains a mystery, and will remain so for many years to come. This, of course, does not mean that one should not study humour at all. Thousands of papers and books on the subject show that despite its complexity, linguists, philosophers and psychologists are not deterred from attempting to take a fresh look at the phenomenon of humour. This study is just one such attempt. Using the theory of conceptual integration (CIT) (Fauconnier 1995, Fauconnier and Turner 2002, Turner 2014 &2015), we shall adventure on a journey in search of answers to the nature of the humour, as found in a selection of British comedy productions.

As humour is inextricably linked with the mind, it is, therefore, only justifiable that we study it in connection with cognitive processes of thinking and categorisation. At a first glance, it becomes apparent that the human mind appears to have far more in common with wit than one would imagine. At a second glance, we are struck by the sudden realisation that, to a certain degree, our mind is responsible for generating, comprehending or evaluating humour, which is basically the prerequisite to follow in humour studies. Also humour, as part of cognition, results from a manipulation of our conceptual system of thought, incorporating effects such as metaphor, metonymy, analogy, symmetry, or opposition, and perhaps many more. Humour then can be said to originate, just like any other type of intelligent thought, from basic human operations of the brain that underlie cognition, the position that has recently been given to the ← 9 | 10 → blending of mental spaces. Such a cognitive integration view of humour presupposes that it may explain the nature of the comic in depth. An immediate question arises, however, in that it is doubtful how blending processes, applicable easily to many other disciplines as distinct as art, mathematics, or law, is capable of explicating humour as well. Is this a coincidence that blending mechanisms can illuminate such varied domains? Perhaps it ought to be treated as a weakness of the approach. However, there is another dimension to this, if we adopt a more 4D perspective. If man can, via his intellect, create and evolve objects of art, mathematical regulations or legal principles in pretty much the same manner in which he produces and interprets humour, there is no reason why all the above-mentioned things could not be regarded as consequential from one and the same process, i.e. blending.

Conceptual integration is not only reputed to provide insight into science, but most importantly, it is considered part of our everyday interaction with the world. This viewpoint interrelates with yet another observation that could verify blending as a genuine cognitive capacity, namely the fact that both humour and mind do not float in some abstract space, so to say, entirely detached from reality and human beings. On the contrary, both belong to individuals who use their minds in order to perceive humour, among others, via their bodily form, which is one of the most fundamental characteristics of contemporary science. Specifically, the fact that cognition is embodied and utilises image schemas or mental spaces to gain orientation in the world, in the literal and figurative sense of the expression, accounts for the statement that meaning is also embodied, no matter whether it is a truthful or comical meaning that we seek to convey. This experiential realism (cf. Lakoff 1987, Lakoff & Johnson 1980) together with mental spaces and their projections into the blended structures formulates the basis of human cognition, a part of which belongs to the mind generating humour and thoughts. In order to ascertain the association, it is enough to investigate the contemporary methodologies of language, the more and more of which turn to blending or other mechanisms connected with it in their pursuit of science development, frequently advocating multi-modal and interdisciplinary approaches to language (Turner 2014 & 2015).

For years philosophers and linguists assumed the dualism between body and mind. This Descartian notion of complete distinction between body and mind accounted for the fact that the latter was examined with absolutely no reference to the former. Such a rationalist approach, as it was referred to, has had a great number of followers, e.g. Chomsky or Montague, who scrutinised languages as a highly systematic computational mechanisms, disposing of any potential links with the human body or experience for that matter. It is only in recent years ← 10 | 11 → that cognitive linguistics surfaced as a movement drawing on psychological and philosophical traditions that held in great esteem values such as human-oriented cognition and language affected by experience and body (for a discussion see Evans & Green 2006). This empiricist stance advocates that mind cannot possibly be studied without reference to body, this is basically known as embodiment. How it manifests itself is predominantly through the categorisation and the perception of reality, both being achieved via the physiognomy and physical nature of human body. As our human morphology (Evans and Green 2006: 44-50) is fairly specific in comparison with other species, this specificity is responsible for the manner in which we perceive the world as well as categorise, which is called variable embodiment. This, on the other hand, is associated with the neurological basis for the human mind, which differs considerably from that of other species, again the fact that is inextricably linked with cognition. The idea of language being connected with the human neural system will be mentioned further (Evans and Green 2006: 44-45).

At this point it is necessary to at least outline the cognitive processes which underlie the embodied human thought, i.e. image schemas, metaphors and metonymies, or cognitive integration. These phenomena undoubtedly reflect in what manner the body exists in the mind, irrespective of the level of intelligence or the ability to appreciate the comic on the part of a language user. Firstly, it is essential to define image schemas (cf. Lakoff & Johnson 1980; Johnson 1987), since their understanding necessitates the comprehension of other related entities. Image schemas can be defined as basic concepts of location or position, for example container or distance, etc., which are derived directly from the experience a human body acquires with the surrounding world in early years of development. Such image-schematic experience is not abstract but rather originates from the human senses that we use to familiarise ourselves with the reality, i.e. touch, sight or smell, and we can refer to it as pre-conceptual experience (cf. Evans & Green 2006: 46). How is it achieved? Mandler conducted experiments with infants, who were only two months old, that indicate that such infants are captivated by objects and experience them in a spacial and geometrical context, the idea of which they later transfer into meaning in the process of perceptual meaning analysis. It is possible to draw the following conclusion then: ‘[O]ne of the foundations of the conceptualizing capacity is the image schema, in which spatial structure is mapped into conceptual structure’ (Mandler 1992: 597 after Evans and Green 2006: 47). It has been argued that such image schemas can be further extended by means of conceptual projection in order to categorise some more elaborate concepts, e.g. love or anger, etc. This is where we encounter metaphor and metonymy – the phenomena that exist due to such projections of ← 11 | 12 → image schematic nature from the source onto the target, and explain the higher-order relations such as emotion, for instance. Similarly, the projections between varying mental spaces that amalgamate into the blended structure are a more sophisticated realisation of basic image schemas in the process of conceptual integration. Specifically, parabolic thinking where we compress and decompress conflicting stories together, to gain understanding of more complicated processes are also worth mentioning here (Turner 2014 & 2015). The above-mentioned processes of cognitive projection will be of particular relevance for our study of humour.

Embodied experience is crucial to the understanding of human mind and comprehension. Yet this is not to say that through such perceptive and bodily experiences we are capable of accessing the reality and the world directly. As the objectivists (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1980) would put it, there is a world and reality outside our bodies and through embodied cognition we are able to use language in the manner that reflects that reality objectively. On the contrary, the cognitivists argue that our perception and embodied experience provide us with the means to use language in the way that is representative and referential of the world around us (Evans and Green 2006: 48). This view is called experiential realism.

Having introduced the notion of image-schema and its consequences for the study of language, we shall now return to the biological basis of the term in question. As already mentioned, embodiment is considered semantic or symbol grounding, i.e. a process by which we attribute meaning as arbitrary symbols. According to Lakoff (1987), it is ICMs that ground abstract concepts in meaning via more concrete concepts. There is a taxonomy of ICMs, which Lakoff divides as follows: Image-Schematic ICMs, Propositional ICMs, Metaphoric ICMs, Metonymic ICMs and Symbolic ICMs. Following Fauconnier and Turner (2008 on-line), we certainly could add mental spaces and blending, as well as model structuring to the above. However, it is not the taxonomies as such that are crucial but rather the fact that substantial evidence exists suggesting that the human brain works in terms of ICMs, whether of metaphorical or mental spaces kind is of secondary importance. The evidence originates from psychological studies of metaphor by John O’Keefe (1990), and it points to the conclusion that metaphorical relations are acquired by means of the same circuits in the hippocampus that are also used in other ways for acquiring spacial relations (O’Keefe & Nadel 1978, O’Keefe 1990 and Howell 2000 on-line). It is precisely O’Keefe who argues that metaphor, thanks to hippocampus, is most central in embodied experience. This position is adopted by Lakoff (2006 & 2012) who goes further and hypothesises that it is therefore only right to search for evidence of categorisation ← 12 | 13 → processes in the neural networks. By way of an analogy, we could also assume that if metaphor possesses biological basis in the human brain, there is no reason why other ICMs could not be similar in this respect. We could thus assume that metonymy, symbols or blends are also neurologically prompted. A suggestion has, therefore, been put forward by Lakoff that it is of importance to look for cognitive models (i.e. image-schemas, metaphor, etc.) in the neural networks, since if these can be found, then we could advance the PDP (parallel distributed processing neural networks) model of the process of language acquisition as well as usage. As observed by Ritchie (2004) or Turner (2014 & 2015) himself, this interest in the biological and neural basis of language goes hand in hand with computational modelling and artificial intelligence, all of which assume that it is possible to view language as a mechanism definable by algorithmic equations.

Embodied mind also suggests that humour, as a linguistic and conceptual process, can be regarded as embodied experience, which is exactly the position that is going to be taken in this paper. It is believed that humour can be understood and explained with reference to perception, gestures or other bodily experiences (after Vigliocco, Perniss & Vinson 2014 as well as Barsalou 2010). Hence, this paper sets itself a task of examining the comic of British film productions by means of one such possible cognitive network, i.e. conceptual integration. The proponents of conceptual integration claim that the concept of a topological projection between mental spaces into the blend ought to be regarded as a basic universal human brain operation that is applicable to the analysis of all human cognitive processes, such as metaphor, metonymy, or analogy, etc. Fauconnier and Turner (2008 online, as well as Turner 2014 & 2015) also assert that the further research into mental spaces ought to be computational and algorithmic. Hence, this study of humour conducted by means of such a universal, as it would seem, and such an embodied process as cognitive integration can reveal itself as truly underlying human cognition, here with regard to the comic.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
English humour theory of humour linguistic analysis of humour conceptual integration theory
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 253 pp., 14 b/w ill., 10 graphs

Biographical notes

Joanna Jabłońska-Hood (Author)

Joanna Jabłońska-Hood is a Lecturer at the Department of English at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Poland. Her academic interest focuses on English humour in all its forms, conceptual integration theory and relevance theory.


Title: A Conceptual Blending Theory of Humour