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kaleigh19's picture

Punning?

Something that captured my interest in Thursday’s lecture was the brief discussion that we had about punning.  Although I do not personally share the linguist’s anxiety towards punning, I enjoy puns for the same reason a linguist fears them, the subversion of the integrity of language.  As I understand it, linguists think of language as a code, an arrangement of words and letters in infinite combinations, each permutation either yielding one definite meaning or no meaning at all.  It’s the same kind of approach that we are taught in elementary school through the scientific method –there is only one goal, the right answer/meaning.  And anything that isn’t the right answer (down to however many significant digits after the decimal point) is wrong.  Punning messes with the system: taking a different connotation of a word, which is always a possibility due to the fluidity of language, yields a different combination, and therefore a different meaning.  For example, if I say, “He ran for the party,” I could mean “he jogged to get to the soiree” or “he put himself forth as a candidate for the political organization.”  Same code, different meanings.  I love this aspect of punning.  It forces me to be more flexible, to be open to multiple meanings/answers at once.  It adds layers and possibilities rather than suggesting that our language is inevitably going to collapse around us like a house of cards.  In the spirit of the class, then, I’d like to put forth a potential analogy.  Language is not unlike DNA, the code for biological proteins.  Proteins are like sentences in which the “words” are single amino acids.  Each amino acid “word” is coded for by a trio of bases, or “letters,” and these “letters” are coded for by DNA.   If the DNA is changed in some way, thereby changing the basses coding for amino acids, then the protein will be changed.  Some times this is a bad thing – many genetic diseases come from mutations in DNA that result in a shortened or non-functional protein, a nonsensical sentence.  But sometimes it’s a good thing – it might enhance the function of the protein, like a more specific or better sentence.  So in this sense, punning is not unlike genetic mutation – it can enhance or compromise the meaning of a sentence just like a mutation can alter a protein’s structure and function.  Perhaps this thought is overly tendentious, but I found it intriguing and would be interested to know what others think about it.
Katie Baratz

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