Deaf Humour and Sign Language Humour (What makes deaf people laugh? (Deaf…
Deaf Humour and Sign Language Humour
Humour and jokes are a key part of deaf folklore and many members of the deaf community expect that sign language stories or other forms of language entertainment will make them laugh.
We will consider two main types of humour here, conceptual and linguistic.
Linguistic humour comes from playing with the form of the language and we identify two sub-categories here.
Conceptual humour can be conveyed just as well in any form of language – spoken, written or signed – because the language only carries the content and it is the content that is funny (although a well-told joke is funnier, of course).
Bilingual humour uses puns or riddles that need people to know both sign language and the spoken language to appreciate it.
What is humour for?
Humour provides pleasure, fun and laughter. In many instances, that is all the purpose it needs.
It can help people relax and make light of difficult situations but is also useful for social control, ridiculing behaviour that is socially disapproved of, in the hope that the offenders will change their behaviour.
Conceptual humour often draws on the idea of ‘the in-group’ and ‘the out-group’ because when the humourist and audience both laugh at the humour, they can claim to belong to the in-group as ‘us’, especially because they understand the language and cultural references. In deaf and sign language humour, ‘us’ often means deaf people.
International deaf humour
Other jokes are known to be ‘international deaf jokes’, such as the deaf lion.
Humour often has specific national characteristics but a joke told in one sign language can be adapted and naturalised for each country and represented in each national sign language so that the origins of the joke are hard to determine.
Jokes generally spread around the world rapidly, but perhaps the specific nature of deaf humour allows it to spread especially rapidly around deaf communities because it draws on the shared experiences of deaf people anywhere.
What makes deaf people laugh?
Deaf and hearing people often find the same concepts funny, and many jokes translate well from a signed to a spoken language, and vice versa.
Deaf jokes may refer to disliking speech, hearing aids or cochlear implants, or to distrusting interpreters.
Conceptual jokes are told in sign language, either from the wider hearing society or from the deaf community, where they have their own deaf-related content and sometimes culturally traditional formulas.
Deaf people draw upon humour traditions in the wider society, too, because there is plenty of visual humour that makes deaf and hearing people laugh together.
Not all humour is friendly, polite or kind. Humour often allows a space for discussion of otherwise taboo topics and there are plenty of examples in deaf humour of dirty jokes (sexual or toilet-related), racist, sexist and homophobic jokes, or those mocking disabled people or other deaf people who are different from the deaf person signing the humour (for example, from another school or with a different language experience or attitude to living in the hearing world).
There are many jokes in which hearing people as a group are the butt of the humour and these can be controversial.
Sign Language humour
There are several ways in which sign language humour can be delivered, including changing the internal sign structure (and revitalising dormant aspects of parameters), metalinguistic play on signs, exaggerated facial expressions (caricature), manipulation of speed and size of signing, and anthropomorphism.
Caricature, where a signer over-emphasises someone’s visual features or mimics the way a person behaves in an exaggerated way, is particularly valued in deaf humour for its likeness to the target.
Within this visual humour, sign language and gesture work together, so that witty and original uses of classifiers and exaggerated facial expression or body movement contribute to the humour.
Speed and size of signing .
Slow motion signing allows the teller to show exaggerated facial expression or movement, and takes considerable skill to achieve convincingly
Humorous signs are often larger and made with stronger movements than normal and they may also be held for longer so that the audience has time to appreciate the humorous signing.
Metalinguistic play means that signers are aware of how signs are formulated, and make use of the fact that signs are made with human hands, blurring the distinction between hands as articulators, and hands as hands.
Signers value the skill of being able to show how animals and objects (such as an aeroplane, tree or lift) might have human characteristics. The facial expression showing the behaviour and reactions of these non-human objects is part of sign language wit.
Changing internal sign structure
Sign language humour often brings attention to aspects of signs that are ‘hidden in plain view’.
The handshape of the sign is perhaps the most common parameter to change in this form of humour.
It is also fun and satisfying to play with two languages at the same time.
Fingerspelling is used to represent written words, so signers who use it are, by definition, referring to another language.
Most signers have bilingual skills and they can draw on spoken languages for bilingual humour.
Funny in sign language, but no in spoken language
Linguistic humour in sign language only makes sense in its visual modality, so it is lost in translation into spoken language.