Riddles, Poems, and Tangle-Worded Couplets

We were sitting around the kitchen table after pizza one night, when the neighbor started to tell some jokes. After a few jokes others around the table started to tell their favorite jokes. Soon the neighbor turned to me and said, “you are up next”. Fear struck my heart. What was I to do? I don’t amuse myself with jokes. I rally behind the pun. I prefer Riddles, Poems, and Tangle-Worded Couplets. I am not some sort of Stoic, I just prefer some class and some wit in my humor. Perhaps it is my trained dislike for jokes which make fun of someone’s calamity or someone’s ineptness, which ruins it for all jokes. Take for instance jokes with three men in them (which until recently I did not realize was a cross-cultural form of humor). Without fail the third man has something which contrasts the other two and it usually isn’t just race, but race (or religion) is often inferred as the cause of the calamity or result.
Consider this joke about three ministers:

Three ministers were out on a lake fishing one fine afternoon. A Protestant minister, an Episcopalian priest and a Catholic priest. They were sitting out in the middle of the lake and the Protestant minister said he had to relieve himself, so he got out of the boat and walked across the water to shore, relieved himself behind a tree. Then walked back to the boat. The Episcopalian priest did the same thing. The Catholic priest thought to himself, if they can do it, so can I. So he stepped out of the boat and promptly sank to the bottom. The other two looked at each other and one said “Do you think we should have told him about the rocks just under the water?”

What I really dislike is how these sorts of jokes lump and group people by where they draw the contrasts. In this kind of joke it is important to set the hearer up to expect something and then deliver something else. Consider the following racially and religiously loaded joke:

An Arab, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jewish guy, a Russian, a Georgian, an Ethiopian and a Kurd go on a plane. After a short while the the Kurd gets up and yells: “hey, aren’t we too many people for one joke?!?”…

If you found this joke funny, it was probably because you recognized that there were six people in the joke. A typical joke has only three participants. This can be attributed to the Rule of Three.

The rule of three is a principle in writing that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.
A series of three is often used to create a progression in which the tension is created, then built up, and finally released. Similarly, adjectives are often grouped together in threes in order to emphasize an idea.
The rule of three in comedy also reflects a principle of pattern recognition because a set of three elements has the smallest number of elements that can both establish and then violate a pattern.

The above joke is not funny without the added (or known) context that most jokes involving people have three people, and also the third man’s action is the punch line. The humor, is exposed by drawing contrasts and then not delivering the contrast which is expected. However, the set up was all about contrasting culture, religion, and race. And often this contrast lies along lines of well known disagreements or divisions. Consider the following:

A cannibal goes to a special store and notices that an Ashkenazi brain costs a hundred dollars, whereas a Kurd’s brain is 300. “why is the Kurd’s brain so expensive?” “can you imagine how many Kurds we needed to collect it from to make one dish?” says the seller.

There are several things to note about this joke:
First, there are four parties in this joke, so it doesn’t strictly qualify as a three person joke. Having four parties in the joke allows more relationships than what can be drawn between three parties. So the set-up can be more complex and infer more things. However, there are three salient participants in this the joke, which invoke an emotive iconization of their traits: The cannibal, an Ashkenazi, and a Kurd.
Second this joke draws the contrast between buyer and seller, $100 and $300, cannibal and non-cannibal, and Kurds and Jews.
Of the inferences possible one can compare the monetary value ascribed to the two ethnicities and one can infer the desirability of each ethnicity based on the monetary values ascribed to their brains. (And this is probably where the punchline derives its humor, because one expects the value to be on the more expensive brain, but the allusion is that the less expensive brain is larger and therefore perhaps smarter when in use.) A third inference is that only cannibals would want either Kurds or Jews. Yet a fourth inference is that both Kurds and Jews are worth selling (dead).
Aside from these inferences, both the Kurds and the Jews are people groups which are marginalized and even hated in certain societies. In a way the joke is setting up a choice between two perceived evils.The reality is that neither people is inherently evil. Often, jokes can be used to draw comparisons where an abstract (hypothetical) platform for comparison is needed. It would be as if a joke were to start off with:

Hitler, Darth Vader and the Devil were…

By comparing the three parties above in a three person joke, it forces the listener of the joke to choose which one would be the best (or least evil) participant, and sets the listeners expectation. All three parties are perceived in general society to be evil, of the worst kindThis is evidenced by:
1. This rap song comparing Hitler and Darth Vader. (Link shows “The Making of” rather than the actual work. It seems that the actual work has been banned in several countries and has a changing URL.)

2. Godwin’s Law Which states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” And then usually the debate or discussion is over. A reasonable explanation of this “law” in use can be found on wisegeek.

My experience in México is that the third man is either Japanese or Mexican, depending on the contrast drawn. If the contrast is that the third man is really clever as apposed to the first two then the Mexican is last, whereas if the third man is inept then he is Japanese. So if the joke starts out: “There was an American, a Mexican and a Japanese fellow…” then there is a predictable ending.

What was new for me as I listened to some of these jokes was that the contrast was that the third person was not the one who was the laughing stock. Consider this joke which follows the pattern:

A Priest and a Rabbi walk into a bar; the Minister ducked.

The above joke does not completely fit the pattern (of the three men jokes, and the two bad contrasting with the good final element) as just a joke because it plays on the word bar in the hearer’s mind.

  • bar: like a pole.
  • bar: a place where drinks are sold.

Playing on the meaning of the word is a pun.

Growing up in Germany, and now living in México has given me various opportunities to observe and experience aspects of culture. Just as the semantics of equivalent words change from one language to the next, so also humor changes as well. What is interesting to me is what makes people laughI wonder if there is a typology of humor categories.. In the U.S. people laugh when they are happy, having fun with their friends, see or do something silly, listen to a joke, or they also laugh when they are nervous and there seems to be no other suitable way to express emotion or to relieve the stress of the situation. Humor is also one of the things which is hardest for me to translate. The discourse context around the joke, the cultural background, the actual words and their weight in society all make up part of the total picture of some event or saying which is humorous. Capturing all of that is really hard, if not impossible, but that portion of language use which does not translate and the “why” it doesn’t translate has intrigued me since I was a third grader learning German.Another aspect of translating jokes in real time, is interacting with the interpretor. This is especially interesting when the interpretor has not heard the joke before. This interaction brings about dynamics which are not intrinsic to the joke itself (due to the nature of the social interactions). As our neighbor was telling some jokes a good friend was translating. The joke was along the lines of the following:

There’s a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian they were walking about how they should give money to God.
The Muslim says, we’ll draw a circle on the ground, we’ll throw the money way up in the air and whatever lands inside the circle, we give to God.
The Jew says “no”, we’ll draw a circle on the ground, throw the money way up in the air and whatever lands outside, that’s what we give to charity.
The Christian says “no, no, no”, we’ll throw the money way up in the air and whatever God wants, He keeps.

Because the pattern of the three person joke was already established in the course of the evening discourse, I was able to infer the conclusion without having heard the joke before. What is still at large is, is the Rule of Three also cross linguistic? Is the Rule of Three something which is Indo-european language bound, some thing that is English bound or something that is cognitively bound. By just listening to three person jokes in Spanish I could not tell if the jokes were funny in Spanish because the joke was intrinsically funny or if it was funny because it followed the Rule of Three.
This leads me to contemplate the cross-culture nature of humor.I suppose that the Pirahã do not have jokes so, I am not saying that humor would be a universal. Though I am still looking for the reference in the literature to the Pirahã and humor. I hypothesize that there are three kinds of “jokes” or rather, there are three references to which one can infer an unexpected contrast… if unexpected contrast is what is indeed the crux of humor. These three frames of reference are that the unexpected portion of the joke is:

  1. Funny to the content of the joke (intrinsic; not requiring culture specific info).An interesting twist to this kind is one which I recently heard in both Spanish and English:

    Ninety percent of neurotics are hard of hearing.

    The joke is realized when the teller of the above line mumbles the second half of the joke: are hard of hearing. Then someone in the audience asks “what?” Which is followed by a bold clear statement by the teller of the joke “are hard of hearing!”. Of course the rest of the audience gets the joke, because the minimum requirements are met, there is someone speaking establishing a norm and there is someone who is hard of hearing, the unexpected part is that the inference applies to the person asking the question.

  2. Funny to the context of the listeners and speakers of the joke based on a shared social connection: for example, the “inside joke” which is only funny to the limited social group new meaning is given to a particular term or idea. This would be a valid example of a joke which is funny because of a shared social context because the unexpected portion of the joke is not obvious to a social group beyond the people “in the know” of the inside joke.
    Another example of this second kind of joke, would be a joke which requires some background in the culture. One example of a joke which is not an “inside joke”, but is still a joke which still needs some cultural context, is this one from Germany, which I heard in German:

    There was a man sitting on the side of the road crying. Jesus walked up to him and asked what was wrong. The man replied I am from Karlsruhe. Upon hearing this Jesus sat down and cried too.

    Another example of a joke which requires a known context based in cultural norms is the American No Soap Radio Joke.There are several variations on the No Soap Radio Joke which are well documented here.

  3. Funny to the language: the joke is funny based on the words and the shared understanding of the words. Like a pun.

An additional reason for my general unfamiliarity with jokes might be my preference for riddles and poems. My interests in these art forms can be attributed to my dad. When I was in grade school, he got me several books of riddles. My dad was also an artistic writer (short stories, and poems) and a fan of Tolkien. He introduced me to Tolkien’s works in the summer before 9th grade. Throughout that that year I became fond of Tolkien’s poems and started to write my own. It was the first time I realized that rhyme could be used to tell a story. I had had the notion that all there was to poetry was something along the lines of sonnets and Shakespeare. This sort of literature is of a different genre than jokes and is perhaps the more popular in my familyUpon further introspection it is not just riddles, but wit in general, including puzzles which stems from my dad’s side of the family..


I can remember one of the riddles in a childhood book was something like this, but was about a horse:

Q: What is HUGE, has tusks, a long woolly coat, and is made of concrete?
A: I don’t know.
Q: A Great Woolly Mammoth!
A: What about the concrete?
Q: We just threw that in to make the riddle hard!

What is enjoyable about Tolkien’s RiddlesThere are a variety of sites devoted to Tolkien’s poetic riddles, from which I have quickly grabbed some and put in this post.

is that they are poetic as well.

Gollum’s riddles:

What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes
And yet never grows?

Answer: Mountain

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

Answer: Wind

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills.
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.

Answer: Dark

Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking.

Answer: Fish

One of the most fascinating poetic effects is the repetition of the same sound(s). It wasn’t until I was in college and studying Old High German literature that I learned this is called Alliteration.
In poetry there are two kinds of Alliteration, whole word and soundAnd there is Merism which is a sort of semantic alliteration.. Looking back on poetry I wrote before college I find that I did demonstrate both of these kinds of alliteration in my poetryThis page is perhaps the best explanation on types of poetry I have found to date. http://www.annies-annex.com/poetry2.htm. (Though this second poem might be more internal rhyme rather than alliteration of word medial vowels.)

Drip, drip on the floor baskets with holes.
It don’t really matter it’s all just dust on the floor.
Broken pencils, broken pencils don’t bother with the pieces.
Half drawn pictures on wet paper.
Broken pencils on the floor.

The winding road forever withers on
never stopping only starting
To start where I stand is to depart
Never seeing the streets of gold ‘til the end
There are many met and some passed but all
must go on
Some will say come hither or go thither
But once departed never restarted
As the road never ends so will this once
started marine
A knot to strive for a tie to live by
Once a Marine always a Marine

I think these poems by Tolkien more elegantly demonstrate the notion of Alliteration:

Song About Riders of Rohan

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the sping and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

With winding horns winter hunted
in the weeping woods, wild and ruthless;
sleet came slashing and slanting hail
from glowering heaven grey and sunless,
whistling whiplash whirled by tempest.
The floods were freed, and fallow waters
sweeping seaward, swollen, angry,
filled with flotsam, foaming, turbid,
passed in tumult. The tempest died.

As I have studied linguistics through college I have dreamed of two other kinds of alliteration. One is based on distinctive features. So rather than just a sound alliteration choosing a feature or feature set, say: [-voice, -sonorant] and allowing all the sounds which fit into that feature set to have free variation within the location of the alliteration. The other kind of alliteration I have thought of is a visual alteration. Just as some poems are poems because of the way they are written on the page, confining the alliteration in a set of verses of a particular poem to a particular glyph or character in the alphabet, regardless of the phonetic value of the glyph or character.

Tangle-worded couplets
I heard my first tangle worded couplet when I was in the third grade. A friend of mine had heard it in Boy Scouts and told it to me. I have been hard pressed to find another one which is not a variation of the one I heard. There is a well parsed version of this Tangle-worded couplet with an explanation by the The British Columbia Folklore Society Additionally there are a lot of versions in the comments of a post at http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/

The famous speaker who no one had heard of said:
Ladies and jellyspoons, hobos and tramps,
Cross-eyed mosquitos and bow-legged ants,
I stand before you to sit behind you
to tell you something I know nothing about.
Next Thursday, which is Good Friday,
there’s a Mother’s Day meeting for fathers only;
wear your best clothes if you haven’t any.
Please come if you can’t; if you can, stay at home.
Admission is free, pay at the door;
pull up a chair and sit on the floor.
It makes no difference where you sit,
the man in the gallery is sure to spit.
The show is over, but before you go,
let me tell you a story I don’t really know.
One bright day in the middle of the night,
two dead boys got up to fight.
(The blind man went to see fair play;
the mute man went to shout “hooray!”)
Back to back they faced each other,
drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
and came and killed the two dead boys.
A paralyzed donkey passing by
kicked the blind man in the eye;
knocked him through a nine-inch wall,
into a dry ditch and drowned them all.
If you don’t believe this lie is true,
ask the blind man; he saw it too,
through a knothole in a wooden brick wall.
And the man with no legs walked away.

So there you have it, Riddles, Poems and Tangle-Worded Couplets, just as the Law of Growing Constituents suggests
Law of Growing Constituents or Behaghel’s Law states the following cross-language principles as presented on wikipedia.

1. Elements that belong close together intellectually will also be placed close together (Behaghel’s First Law)
2. That which is less important (or already known to the listener) is placed before that which is important. (Behaghel’s Second Law)
3. The distinguishing phrase precedes that which is distinguished.
4. Given two phrases, when possible, the shorter precedes the longer. (Law of Increasing Terms (or Constituents))

It is thus ensured that the utterances that the speaker finds important will remain in the thoughts of the listener, in that they are at the end of the sentence. From Behaghel’s Laws evolved the later Theme-rheme. They serve together with other of his topics as suggestions for research in Quantitative Linguistics.

Behaghel’s law of increasing terms is also known as “Panini’s Law” after the Sanskrit grammarian. This name was introduced by William Cooper and John Ross (1975) in their study of English set phrases. English examples include “free and easy”, “lock, stock and barrel”, “kit and (ca)boodle”, etc. Michael O’Connor (1978) has observed a similar statistical preference in the case of Biblical Hebrew poetry.

I have a nagging question as to whether SV and VS, and OV and VO, languages behave the same way with respect to these principals. If they don’t, then are they symmetrical with regards to their constituent ordering and the pivot about verb? That is: in an OV language will, when, given two phrases, when possible, the shorter precedes the longer? or will it be the other way round? In this way how does information ordering based on syntax constraints interact with prosody and therefore with phonology? .

One thought on “Riddles, Poems, and Tangle-Worded Couplets

  1. Axel Olrik formulated the “Episches Gesetz der Dreizahl” in about 1908-1910, which predates Behaghel’s Law by about 20 yrs. Can’t remember where he published it, but it also accounts for the X, Y, Z, where Z is the focus.

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