Though it’s practically a truism by now that anthropologists’ reports often say more about the writers’ assumptions than about the cultures in question, the valiant attempt by Mahadev L. Apte to compile an anthropology of laughter is laudable, if often hard to believe.
Here are a few highlights from his book Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach:
The Dobuans of New Guinea revile laughter and have made a virtue of dourness.
Pygmies are very quick to roll on the ground, slap their sides, and snap their fingers in uproarious laughter.
The Greenland Inuit resolve disputes with public-humiliation contests, and the winner is chosen by how much laughter he summons to his cause.
Lower-caste Tamil men giggle when addressing someone from the upper caste in order to express humility.
The 40 million speakers of Marathi, in Western India, have a robust lexicon for laughter, including:
Khudukhudu: soft pleasant laughter of infant
Khadakhada: loud laughter of an infant
Phidiphid: vulgar and obscene laughter.
Khaskhas: mild appreciative laughter
Khokho: loud uproarious laughter
Khikhi: horselike laughter
Phisphis: derogatory laughter
Hyahya: superficial polite laughter
Of course, English has a respectable list as well, including giggle, chortle, chuckle, cackle, guffaw, snigger, snicker, snort, titter, crow, yuck, and the regrettably obsolete cachinnate. Perhaps this is what a cachinnation sounds like—you’ll want to fast forward through the first two minutes.
Apte also notes a few universals:
“…humor in traditional societies grossly appears similar to our own. Examples involved such varied situations as laughter at the antics of children, lewd comments, sexual jokes, teasing, mocking others who were too serious or in positions of authority, spousal jibes, slapstick maneuvers, uncomfortable laughter to save face, and humor to quell conflicts within a tribe.”