Prosodic markers of saliency in humorous narratives

Lucy Pickering, Marcella Corduas, Jodi Eisterhold, Brenna Seifried, Alyson Eggleston, Salvatore Attardo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Much of what we think we know about the performance of humor relies on our intuitions about prosody (e.g., it's all about timing); however, this has never been empirically tested. Thus, the central question addressed in this article is whether speakers mark punch lines in jokes prosodically and, if so, how. To answer this question, this article unites both the recently emerged research agenda grounding spoken discourse analysis in the precision and verifiability of acoustic analysis and a research agenda within the field of discourse and humor focused on the performance of humorous narratives. This article presents an analysis of a relatively simple form: the joke or short humorous narrative. The starting point of this analysis is the folk theory of joke-telling. Through instrumental measurement of pitch, volume, and speech rate, this study shows that, contrary to the folk theory of joke-delivery, punch lines are not delivered significantly louder than the preceding text, but rather at a significantly lower pitch and slower speech rate than the text preceding the punch line. In addition, punch lines are often, but not necessarily, signaled by a laughing voice or a smiling voice and are not preceded by significant pauses. This article concludes that the folk theory of joke-delivery is largely refuted. This study further investigates whether the saliency of punch lines, which would predict higher volume and pitch, is less significant than their final position in the narrative, which, being associated with final position in a paratone, or spoken paragraph, predicts that they will demonstrate lower volume and pitch values. The conclusion is that final positioning trumps the saliency of the punch lines and accounts for the significantly lower pitch and lack of significantly higher volume in punch lines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)517-540
Number of pages24
JournalDiscourse Processes
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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