The Language of Laughter


Everyone enjoys a giggle. Trust me; I’ve known people who can’t go a sentence without cracking a smile and even the most hardened types let out a chortle every now and then…

One of the first questions I asked myself before studying language was based around linguistic universals. In other words, “what does every language have in common?” I soon found out that the answer is “well… not much.” Some examples for you:

  • All languages require air to be exhaled when speaking. False: many languages include implosives and clicks in speech. Plus, it is possible to talk when you breathe in (although it sounds a bit funny)
  • All languages have a writing form. False: Ainu (a language geographically and somewhat linguistically close to Japanese) never had an indigenous writing system
  • All languages can be translated accurately from one to another. False: it is actually incredibly difficult to translate anything accurately to and from whichever languages you choose, no matter how similar or diverse they may be. Translation requires more than just the knowledge of a language; it requires cultural understanding, knowledge of any overt or covert bias, understanding slang terms etc. (the list goes on but it’s an entire subject unto itself!)

It also got me thinking about Universals that, perhaps, aren’t all that linguistic. For example “Does everyone around the world cough and sneeze the same?” or “Is it necessary that humans blink every few seconds?”* Granted, these are more biological, but it also got me thinking about laughter.

Laughter is caused (usually) when we find something humorous. Someone tells you joke, or falls comically, or mixes up their words spectacularly creating something inadvertently bizarre or offensive, or you see something like this:

(Well I find it funny anyway)

We respond to these stimuli by showing an acknowledgement that we find something comical; from a miniature smile, to a full-on side-aching dammit-I-can’t-remember-how-to-breathe belly-laugh.

But have you ever had it where someone has started laughing and you’ve then joined in? Even though you don’t know the context? Perhaps, even if you don’t know the language? If you fancy trying this out, give this a go: the video below is one that one of my housemates found a few years ago and we both still find hilarious to this day, even though neither of us speak Hungarian and cannot understand what is being said in the video:

The lady in the video, Éva Nevet, was a contestant on a Hungarian cooking show. According to translation given in the comments of the video, she is laughing whilst trying to recount a story about another contestant falling off of a chair, and then her proceeding to do the same moments later.

Now here’s the funny thing (hah, pun! Sorry…). Had you have known that story beforehand, would you still have laughed? If Éva was not expressing herself in the way that she did, would it still have been as humorous? Even if it was just a 2 minute video of her laughing, without any speech involved, would we be laughing along as heartily?

I think the point I’m trying to get to here is that laughter is contagious. Whether it be a primarily linguistic or biological aspect or cause, it’s something that spans the world over. It is a human universal that we can react to in a multitude of ways, but I would challenge you to find a culture or language where laughter does not play a part. I find the idea laughable (*gets coat and hangs head in pun-shame*)

It may be different in the cat world.

*As silly as these may sound, I did used to think of questions like this all the time. I still think of similar now, despite not being as naïve… I blame it on an ardent sense of curiosity and my unusual thought processes!


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