A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.

 

 

 

Punctuation

This is going to seem like a relatively random posting, but as I’ve been writing on my novel, reviewing a friend’s novel and having some discussions about Biblical interpretation, I’ve been thinking a lot about punctuation lately. Here are some of my musings:

Punctuation is critical in all forms of writing; understanding and properly using punctuation lends authority to anything you write. In my experience, most people do not use proper punctuation. I don’t mean that they make occasional mistakes in their punctuation–everyone does that. I mean that they flagrantly ignore the rules of punctuation and how to use (and intentionally misuse) those rules to greatest effect.

The most egregious culprit is the semi-colon. When I was a graduate student and teaching assistant in English, I would (usually frustratedly and spontaneously after grading the first round of tests) spend a class period reviewing grammar and punctuation with my classes, with a particular focus on the semi-colon. Much to my dismay, what I typically found is that after this session, many students would liberally disperse semi-colons throughout their writing in an effort to seem more capable writers. “What’s the problem with that?” you ask? Nothing, if done correctly. But my students seemed to sprinkle semi-colons over their papers like literary glitter without regard for whether their sentences required glitter. Have I mentioned that I hate glitter? It’s craft herpes–once you’ve contracted it, you’ll be finding it on you forever.

So my students committed a cardinal sin of writing–using something (whether punctuation, a word, a stylistic device, etc.) you don’t understand in an attempt to come across as more talented than you are. Like most good writing techniques, punctuation is most effective when subtle, when it influences the reader without their perceiving that it is doing so. Like much social subtlety, this is crass when recognized and only acceptable in polite society when carefully concealed. The improper use of punctuation breaks the illusion, making this manipulation painfully and embarrassingly clear. A misused piece of punctuation–whether a comma splice or an unneeded semi-colon for instance–thrusts itself into the mind of the reader like an unwanted and socially awkward guest who cannot read the room. It breeds mistrust of the writer and should thus be avoided at all costs.

I think many of us, myself included, are embarrassed to look up rules of punctuation when we don’t know a proper usage. These are things we’re taught in elementary school, so we assume that they are so basic that a person of reasonable intelligence would not forget them. Nothing is farther from the truth. We start learning punctuation and grammar early because these things are difficult and require much practice. Writing is like a muscle, not like riding a bicycle–it atrophies if unused. Because of that, there is nothing wrong with having to refresh your memory about “basic” grammatical concepts. If it’s that big a deal, clear your browser history afterward. But, for the love of God, look up the rule in the first place if there’s any question.

The opposite of the above is, thankfully, also true. The proper use of punctuation is an extremely effective aspect of writing style. To be clear, the word “proper” as used here relies heavily on context. In (most) professional writing, rules of grammar and punctuation should be kept religiously. In fiction writing or circumstances where the perspective and mind of the author are part of the writing itself, the rules should be liberally–but carefully and thoughtfully broken.

I came across an excellent example of this (and probably the impetus for this post) while starting to read a friend’s young adult novel. The novel (at least as far as I’ve gotten) is told in the first person point-of-view of a sixteen year-old young woman. The style of the writing is clipped, using short sentences, sentence fragments and well-placed punctuation to convey the fleeting, sometimes confused and quite excited thoughts of this character as she attends a sort-of debutante party that she knows represents a crucial fork in the road of her life. The character comes to life not just in her words, but in the way that the punctuation groups her thoughts into clusters, abruptly changes subjects and gives us a feel not just for what she thinks but how she thinks. That is great writing; the kind we should all strive for. I’d love to include some examples here, but it’s not my writing to share.

And in that effort, we should bear in mind that there are a number of approaches to punctuation in any writing, but fiction in particular. I would–admittedly making this up as I go–call the above example an heuristic approach to punctuation. But maybe I ought to be less pretentious and call this a “character-based” approach. Alternatives, if you like, might be to call this a “stream-of consciousness” approach or even a “Joycian” approach. The punctuation defines the character, not the author or the style of the writing itself necessarily.

We might alternatively use a dramatic or theatrical approach. In dramatic works, actors are trained to use the punctuation as keys to the pacing, pauses and breaths in speech. Here, the punctuation serves as a code to help the written word mimic normal speech patterns. I find that most people naturally follow this approach when reading aloud, whether or not the piece is dramatic. So, using this method, good punctuation should be used to assist the flow of the text for the reader and to enhance both comprehension and enjoyment of the text. Does this sometimes overlap with the first-described approach? Probably, but not necessarily. Some people don’t think or speak in ways that are easy for others to understand, and not all points of view in narrative are going to be able to characterize and define those involved in the action described.

A more formal adherence to the “rules-as-written” of punctuation would likely serve the same function as the theatrical approach, though perhaps with a different feel. The ease of communication of content is paramount here, but should not be sacrificed for other cognitive effects that might be created in the mind of the reader through creative and effective punctuation.

I don’t think that it’s necessary, nor probably even helpful, to spend a lot of time trying to categorize your punctuational approach by the groups given above (or any others for that matter). What is important is to be intentional about your punctuation. This takes us back to Professor Brooks Landon’s comment that writing is “brain hacking.” Punctuation is an integral part to how your text creates, divides and sequences images and thoughts in the mind of the reader. Your punctuation should always be calculated to bolster the substance of the text to your desired effect. Is that easy? Hell no. But it’s certainly worth the effort.

 

The Aenyr Language

What follows is some of the work I’ve done (plus notes) on the language of the Aenyr people.

As a preparatory note, I’ll be using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for description of phonemes but will later shift to other symbols (with a guide) to depict how I intend to write the language within stories in Avar Narn. The language will have its own alphabet, but currently does not.

I’ve been using a combination of Mark Rosenfelder’s The Language Construction Kit and my own linguistic research to inform the choices made below. I highly recommend the book. I have a few similar ones on my shelf, but his is the one I usually start and end with.

A little bit of introduction–the language of the Aenyr is an ancient one, seldom used in the Avar except in remaining place names and its influence on subsequent languages (such as the Altaenin tongue). As I post more about the history of the Avar and of the Aenyr people, you’ll see this fleshed out.

To begin, I needed to decide on the sound of the language. I found the following quotation on the Wikipedia page for “cellar-door”: “it at once brings to mind a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty, spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals and open syllables with vowel nuclei–the languages of the Mediterranean or Polynesia, or the sentimentalized Celtic that Lewis and Tolkien turned into a staple of fantasy fiction.”

I used the quotation as something of a guide in selecting phonemes for the Aenyr language. Following Tolkien, I first looked at Welsh and Finnish, but I also looked to Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian and a few other Earth languages in the process.

First, I satisfied the guidepost of the above-written quote by adding the liquids: /r/, /l/, /ɹ/, /ʎ/ and the nasals: /m/, /n/, /ɲ/, /ɳ/ (the latter two being influenced by Sanskrit). I added in the other consonants mostly based on some of the words that I already had that I’d decided came from the Aenyr language. The same with the vowels.

Aenyri Phonography

Here’s where, for me at least, things got interesting. I had made a decision (mostly for ease of vocabulary building) to use the agglutinative aspect of Finnish (suffixes may be added to a noun core by standardized rules to create a number of other nouns). I had also decided long ago the meaning of “Avar Narn,” Aenyr words approximating the “the world reborn.”

So, it was time to engage in a little reverse engineering–I needed to make those words mean what I wanted them to mean, and this provided the start of the language.

Before I get too far into this, a note on (current) pronunciation. Here is a little chart of my current pronunciation notes for vowels:

Aenyr Vowel Sounds

Our starting place, with some pronunciation guidance: Ävär Närn.

I took “är” as the core word and made “Äv-“, “n-” and “-n” prefixes and suffixes in agglutinative style.

To get where I needed to go, I decided that “är” means “to be born, to come into being.”

“Äv-“, then, became a prefix to create a noun from a verb, specifically a noun meaning “the place where [verb] happens.” This gives us “Ävär” = “birthplace.”

“n-” then became a prefix for a verb equivalent to English “re-“, while “-n” became a suffix to form a past participle/adjective, making “Närn” = “reborn, resurrected.”

Breaking down the prefixes and suffixes, and adding some more, yielded the following list:

n-           “to do again”, “re-”                                                                   När = “to be reborn”
-n            to create past participle/adjective from infinitive           Ärn = “born”
-tälё       “an agent, one who does [verb]”                                          Ärtälё = lit. “birther,
mother”
Närtälё = “necromancer”,
“resurrectionist”
-ёnyn     creates adjective from verb                                                  Ärёnyn = “fertile, arable,                                                                                                                      productive”
-vё         creates noun meaning a master of the verb                       Ärvё = “midwife” or
“matron”
-tön        “without, lacking”                                                                    Ärtön = “unborn,
inanimate”
Ärtälёtön = “motherless”,
“orphan”
-ys         an instrument or tool used with the verb                          Ärys = “birthing chair”
-yr         a (general) collection or group                                              Aenyr = “the Aen people”
Äryr = “the born, the
living”
Ärtälyr = “mothers
(general/abstract)”
-ёn        to pluralize a noun                                                                  Ärtälёn = “(the) mothers”

That’s a lot of mileage from two original words! There’s a lot to be continued here (declension of nouns, verb conjugation, grammar, regular/irregular words, etc.) and I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes that will have to be corrected, but I feel like it’s a good start.

Here’s one particular issue I’m trying to wrap my head around: I’ve already used some words with vowel clusters in them (“Aenyr”, for one) where the vowels elide together (that should have a long “a” sound at the beginning) and others (“Ellembaё”) where the vowels are pronounced separately. Not sure what I’m going to do here, but there are a few possibilities: it may be that the orthography of the language solves the problem (when written in its own script the “Ae” is a single letter corresponding to the “(aɪ)” phoneme) or it may be that I have to go back and start respelling that word to fit in with a coherent pronunciation scheme for readers.

I don’t intend to go so far as to create complete working languages–I have neither time nor skill for that. Instead, the languages of Avar Narn will be used to create names for places, people and things with consistency and immersion.