Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Hello. We're talking about language."

Two small exhibits, each about 6 minutes long. First, via Clusterflock, a bit from A Bit of [Stephen] Fry and [Hugh] Laurie*:

. . . and George Carlin (mild vulgarity, natch).

Some initial observations below the fold.

You should keep in mind as you read this that in general, I happen to prefer British humor about language to its American equivalent (though I will say that Carlin is especially sharp in the bit I linked to above).

Here, edited and elaborated on, are my comments on the Fry and Laurie post over at Clusterflock: what's interesting to me about British “language” humor is that it actually enacts it, as opposed to the American version that just sort of notices weird stuff about it. It’s as though, for us Americans, English is “outside” us, as though we Americans don’t fully possess it (still). Or, as in the Carlin piece, language is actually hostile to him and his sensibilities as a human being. If I really wanted to push this, it's as though the American attitude toward English is that we (still) feel colonized by it and resist it (the colonization, if not the language) by scrutinizing it. Carlin critiques, and we laugh with him as he shares his critique. He's done the work for us. The Brits, though, are “inside” it, mucking about in it, the weirdness emerging as they use it without having to point it out. We then get to laugh in the old laughter-as-implicit-critique sort of way. In other words, we do the work to create the humor (which I like doing, and which is why I tend to prefer this humor).

So, then, here's my theory about British and American humor about language, which is my theory: The subject of British language humor tends to be the language, whereas American language humor tends to be about the language. Or something.

*Fans of Laurie's work on House are directed to the Fry and Laurie material post-haste. Here, meanwhile, Laurie showcases his talents as a musician and singer.

Bonus: Victor Borge doing "Inflationary Language":


kate said...

I'll have to mull over your theory for a spell. At the same time, I wonder how you would categorise Canadian humour/language.

That was a good laugh - the video, that is.

John B. said...

Thanks for visiting and commenting.

As for your question, I am not at all familiar enough with Canadian humor to offer an opinion on it. I seem to recall reading or hearing somewhere that Canadian humor is something of a response to a perceived American cultural hegemony; that would make sense, of course--if true.

Well, okay: back in the day, I owned Bob and Doug MacKenzie's album The Great White North; the song (Geddy Lee of Rush sings the chorus, for which, we're told, he gets $10 but doesn't get to wear a tuque like everyone else) even got airplay in this country. Just a couple of days ago, I found out that Rick Moranis is now a country singer of a sort: it's hard to tell just how seriously to take these songs, because even the funniest one, "I Ain't Goin' Nowhere," has a very sharp edge to it.

Anyway. I have more research to do. Thanks for asking me.

melponeme_k said...

I think that theory has some truth in it.

Almost everything we are in the US is kind of borrowed. We hardly have anything of our own. What we did have, Native American culture/Language, (even that is transplanted) was systematically destroyed. Lucky for us there was still enough of it around to come in handy during WWII.

But languages are dying everyday, most of them consumed by English. English has grown beyond the British. It is an entity they don't control anymore. I am interested to see how it will fight against the growing influence of Chinese etc. Will English conquer the Internet too?

On LiveJournal there is a joke icon floating around. It is called "English: the language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary". I loved that icon.

As far as being an American in Great Britain. It was strange. I was in some acting classes and one of them being an RP voice class. In those few weeks my speech patterns were so crazy, I didn't know which way was up anymore. It was funny.

(posted on the wrong entry.:D)