Wordplay is a blog project featuring posts from students enrolled in ENG 320 Grammar and Linguistics (Fall 2019)
What the Pun!
How does a pirate open an essay?
With a hook.
Now it is a pretty safe bet to make that majority of readers reading this blog have just experienced an internalized groan of agony. Despite puns being found virtually everywhere in society, the socially acceptable response to one still seems to be overwhelmingly negative.
Although I am personally a big fan of puns, it seems as though there are no good ways to respond when someone drops a bad pun in casual conversation.
Language-based jokes find their humorous power through ambiguities apparent in the English language. Some rely on similarities of sounds such as the letter “c” in the alphabet or “sea” a body of water, while some rely on ambiguous word meaning–for example, “fast” can either mean a speed at which an object travels or abstaining from food/drink.
The desired function of a pun is to create humor through the relationship between a pun and its phonologically similar target. So why does it fall short of this mark more often than not?
It turns out puns are pretty weird, linguistically speaking, given what we think we know about words and what they signify. Communication is usually desirable due to being as unambiguous and clear as possible. Puns are plays on words, as everyone knows, built upon a deliberate grammatical ambiguity, whether phonological, syntactic, or lexical. At any given time a pun can (and indeed must) simultaneously juggle multiple meanings in one form within one expression, this is the exact opposite of what communications goal is.
Further more, puns tend to get lost in translation from one culture to the next. In the Netherlands, English-speakers should be sure not to yell “Hi!” when swimming in the ocean. Let this Dutch and English joke be a lesson to us all:
Two fish are swimming in the sea, one is from Holland, the other is from England. The English fish sees the Dutch fish, waves his fin, and says, “Hi!” The Dutch fish panics and says, “Where?! Where?!”
The reason this story works is because in Dutch the word haai, which sounds like “hi,” means “shark.”
Finally, if you off shoot from puns being difficult to translate between languages you begin to also realize how they do not hold up to the test of time. A host of William Shakespeare’s puns, rhymes and rhythms are completely lost on modern audiences due to changes in pronunciation.
David Crystal, a linguistic expert, has dedicated 12 years of his life to studying original pronunciation productions of Shakespeare plays, where actors pronounce their lines in what research suggests would have been the accent used in Shakespeare’s time (Garber, 2016).
The recitation of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets in modern British accents means many of his puns and rhymes are effectively lost in translation. One example of this comes from the prologue in Romeo & Juliet. The line is quoted as “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.” The word ‘loins’ would originally have been pronounced the same as ‘lines’ (Garber, 2016). This pun refers to the fatal blood lines of Romeo and Juliet – the families that they descended from are the reason for their death, as well as their ‘loins’ (their physical relationship).
All in all although puns can be a great way to shift the mood of a conversation to more casual, it often misses the mark. Puns do not only perform the opposite function that language was designed for but also losses understanding in translation and time.
Garber, M. (2016, March 2). Such Ado: The Fight for Shakespeare’s Puns. Retrieved October 19, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/loves- labours-found-saving-shakespeares-puns/471786/.
Gomes, V. (2018). Bad Puns? photograph. Retrieved from https://www.thedailystar.net/shout/life/how-deal-friends-who-always- crack-bad-puns-1573912https://www.thedailystar.net/shout/life/how- deal-friends-who-always-crack-bad-puns-1573912
Hai. (2014). photograph. Retrieved from https://www.deviantart.com/limedreaming/art/Hai-Shark-or-Hi-Alice- German-pun-498829177
Shakespeare Blog Cartoon. (2012). photograph. Retrieved from http://www.historybyzim.com/shakespeare-blog-cartoon/
Tara Gentz is a junior studying K-8 education. She plans to teach between 1-3grade in a DODEA school district. This is her second year at Chadron after transferring from Sterling Co. Being a military child herself, she does not identify with any particular location as home base but rather bounces around many different locations in both Colorado and Nebraska.