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To Laugh Or not to Laugh: Understanding of Verbal Jokes by Children

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This study attempts to investigate the age at which children interpret verbal jokes. A sample of 60 children aged 6-12 years from 5 schools of mumbai were used. 10 jokes of increasing complexity were told to children. Their laughter, no response and responses were noted. Results indicate that 39.5% children understand verbal jokes in the age of 6-7 years and this understanding increases by 21% as we move up to age of 8-9 years. This further increases by 13% in children belonging to the age of 10-12 years. A reverse pattern of not responding was seen. The demonstration of no response was inversely related to age. The lowest age group showed the highest no response of 45% whereas the highest age group had the lowest no response of 11.34%. Results suggest that there is an increase in cognitive development and emotional intelligence with age.


Jokes are short anecdotes that present a specific situation that opposes—via the establishment of an incongruity—another alternative situation, all of which creates a humorous effect (Attardo, 2005; Attardo & Chabanne, 1992; Martin, 2007). Although there are many ways to organize a text as a joke (see, for example, Davies, 2004 and Raskin, 1985), most authors agree on the fact that prototypical jokes consist of three elements: setting, dialogue, and punch line (Attardo & Chabanne, 1992; Chafe, 2007; Martin, 2007) . The setting is the initial part of the joke and serves to create certain expectations about how the situation should be interpreted. The dialogue is short, generally between two characters, and lies immediately before the punch line. The punch line comes at the end of the joke and will be the element that suddenly changes the meaning, leading the individual to a second reading because of the perceived incongruity. This study center its attention on verbal jokes based on ambiguity, Verbal jokes are jokes that present a lexical marker (generally a word or a syntactic structure) that entails at least two readings. According to Attardo et al. (1994), verbal jokes that are based on ambiguity can be classified into two types: lexical (93%) and syntactical (5%). Lexical jokes are based on a semantic ambiguity of a word or linguistic expression.

See Example 1:

Ek aurat dusri aurat ko bolti hai’ “mera beta bohot tez English bolta hai “

Dusri aurat uske bete ko bolti hai, “bolke bata”

To wo ladka bolta hai, “ English English English English “

( a lady says to another lady, “my son speaks English fast”

The other lady tells her son to speak in English so the son replies, “English English English English ”)

In this joke, the word ‘tez’ in hindi in this context has two readings: quickly and fluently. To adequately interpret the joke, it is necessary to see the word fast as a lexical marker for both meanings.

In syntactical jokes, on the contrary, ambiguity is based on the syntactic structure of a linguistic expression. See example 2

A woman enters an elegant store and asks: Do you have bags made of/for crocodile?

It depends, ma’am. Tell me how does your crocodile like them?

E-JournALL 3(2) (2016), pp. 3-21

In simple words, humor is the ability to appreciate the unexpected. The main element needed for humor to evolve in children is socialization. Children must understand that they are sharing an experience with another person before they can begin to establish a sense of humor. We typically do this by laughing and sharing reactions together – a process that effectively starts as soon as a newborn can engage in eye contact and smiling. The psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that humorous social interactions of this type actually facilitates a child’s cognitive development.

Moreover, a child needs to possess a few basic cognitive skills to communicate jokes in the first place . The most important ones are imagination, the ability to take a different perspective and language. Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. Multiple studies show a positive correlation between humor and intelligence which was also found in our research where certain children did better than other children of their age probably due to higher intelligence. Moreover, identifying emotions in verbal jokes is important for causing the humor effect .Under the previous assumptions, the purpose of this study was to analyze at what age children start interpreting verbal jokes and their responses to different verbal jokes. This study hypothesized:

Differences between age groups in the ability to reflect on verbal jokes will exist

Lexical verbal jokes will be easier to interpret and reflect on than syntactical verbal jokes because they are more frequent and less complex jokes.

Data from previous researches on similar topic shows the following results;-

42 children and adolescents in second, fifth, and eighth grades from Querétaro, México were presented with four verbal jokes and four non-jokes. Participants were asked to determine whether each text was a joke or not and to explain their reasoning. Results revealed differences by school grade in the students’ ability to distinguish jokes from non-jokes and in the type and quantity of their reflections. ( Karina Hess Zimmermann,2016- Autonomous University of Queretaro)

An experimental study carried out with children aged from 6 to 11 years showed that young children can also appreciate the incongruities contained in the first part of the story. Older children direct their attention to detecting the incongruity located in the ending. However, their understanding is not always complete. The progressive adjustment between comprehension and appreciation can be explained, at least in part, by the internalization of the narrative structure specific to jokes to the extent that this internalization determines the child’s comprehension strategy and then his/her appreciation of the story. (Bernard Lefort, 1992 .)

This study investigated whether younger children might show an Earlier understanding when ironic utterances are performed in familiar communicative situations, and investigated the relationships among irony comprehension, language, and theory of mind abilities. A group of 100 children aged 3.0-6.5 years was presented with four types of puppet scenarios depicting different communicative interactions: control ,joke, contingent irony and background irony stories. Results suggested that (a) even younger children easily understand jokes, and may sometimes understand ironies; (b) children’s comprehension of irony continues to develop across early childhood; and (c) receptive vocabulary scores had simultaneous effects on irony Comprehension and ToM performance. (Romina Angeleri and Gabriella Airenti -Center for Cognitive Science, Department of Psychology, University of Torino (Italy) look at two verbal forms of teasing and deception; jokes and lies aim is to show how children’s understanding of falsehood is related to their developing understanding of people’s intentions and beliefs focus primarily on the child’s understanding of jokes and lies because the distinction between these two acts seems to rely on distinguishing the higher-order intentions and beliefs (i.e. what A wants B to believe). (Susan R Leekam ( 1988)-Cardiff University School of Psychology)


Participants- 70 participants, 32 boys and 38 girls between the ages 6 and 12 participated in the study. They were from 5 different schools of Mumbai from grade 1 to7. Five children were chosen from each grade. All children came from middle class schools.10 jokes of increasing complexity were selected based on their popularity amongst the children of the same age group other than sample population. Procedure – Data was collected individually from the participants by the investigator. The investigator individually sat with each student for approx 15 minutes out of which 3-4 minutes were spent on making the participant comfortable. The responses were assessed by asking the student if they understood the joke or not and why. Participant’s responses were analyzed in two ways. First correct interpretations of the joke were scored. Second their response was scored in three categories: smile, laugh and no response.


Joke analysis

Joke 1- the plot is complex but it is easy joke which majority of young children of age 6-9 didn’t understand. The most tricky part of it is when husband shouts at his wife for his mistake.

Joke 2- The plot of the joke was simple and easy to understand across groups and the highlighting feature is that the man applies shampoo on his shoulder because its name states Head and Shoulder.

Joke 3- It is a student- teacher joke with a simple plot. The tricky part is the child asking the teacher to get his hands washed as he misinterprets the hindi word ‘khana’ which in this context meant to get as eating.

Joke 4- This joke has a complex plot but is easy to understand where in a child calls his teacher hen as she always gave him zeros. The word used is ‘anda’ which has two meanings; an egg and zero.

Joke 5- This joke has the most complex plot but is simple to understand wherein when a nursury student is asked where GOD is ? He replies saying that he is in his bathroom as he heard his daddy saying banging the bathroom door, “ oh god! You are still inside” ( translated from hindi)

Joke 6- This joke has a simple plot but is difficult to understand wherein when a father told his son that his face resembles a donky ,the son replied that his mother said that his face resembled his father.

Joke 7 –This joke has a complex plot but is easy to understand. The tricky part is when the doctor tells the relative that he should have brought the patient an hour ago when the relative replies saying that the accident took place only half an hour ago.

Joke 8 –It is simple to understand with a simple plot. The funniest part of joke is when a kid asks the shopkeeper for fair and lovely and when the shopkeeper expects the child to buy it he tells the shopkeeper to apply it himself because of his skin color .

Joke 9 –It is a simple joke with a simple plot where in when a teacher asks whether an Apple comes from A or B the child replies that it comes from money .

Joke 10 – it is the most simple joke with an easy plot where in a lady praises her son saying that he speaks English very fast and then when the other lady tells the child to demonstrate it the child replies saying,” English English English English “

Main findings:

Many of the participants answered yes or no, although their responses showed that they had not necessarily understood the jokes. A complete understanding was only considered when in the participant’s responses it was clear that they were able to see the ambiguity in the jokes. Therefore, for this first analysis participants facial expressions when they respond to joke in the form of a smile, laughter or no response was analyzed. There is an important increase in the number of participants who laughed at the joke in relation to school grade. Also it has been found that school grade makes a difference in children’s understanding and reaction to jokes. Results clearly indicate t children of younger age in higher classes do understand and respond better than the children of the same age group.

In the age group of 6-7 years 34.5 % participants smiled indicating that they somewhat understood the joke and it increased to 50.5 % in 8-9 year olds and slightly declined to 49.3 % in 10-12 year olds. When participants laughter was analyzed it was found out that 20.5 % 6-7 year olds laughed showing that they understood the joke whereas it increased to 31.5 % in 7-8 year olds but laughter was the highest in 10-12 year olds with 39.3 %. A reverse pattern was observed when analyzing how many did not give any response. There is a gradual decrease in the number of children who did not give any response as we move from first grade to seventh grade with the highest being 45 % in 6-7 year olds and the lowest being 11.3 % in 10-12 year olds.

In the second part of the analysis we explored children’s ability to interpret the jokes correctly. As shown in the graphical representation above, participants in the age group of 10-12 year olds were better at correctly interpreting the jokes as compared to the other two age groups. There was a gradual increase noticed in the interpretation of jokes by children as we move from first grade to grade seven. In 6-7 year olds, only 39.5 % could interpret the jokes correctly whereas it increased by 21 % in 8-9 year olds and it was the maximum in 10-12 year olds with 73 % children interpreting the jokes correctly. This is a result of the advanced cognitive development of the brain of 10-12 year olds.

According to Piaget, during the concrete operational period which coincides with the school years i.e between 7 to 12 years of age, children actively and appropriately use logic. During this period, children’s cognitive abilities broaden and they become increasingly able to understand and master complex skills. Once concrete operational thinking is fully engaged, according to Piaget, children show several cognitive advances. Concrete operational thinking also permits children to understand concepts which was seen in 10-12 year olds much more than the other two age groups. This was also one reason according to our findings why 10-12 year olds could interpret the jokes much better.

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