I'm in my first year of the Master's study in applied linguistics, and I'm trying to come up with my research question, which will form the basis of my thesis topic. I've found the famous routine by Abbot and Costello "Who's on First" might have something to offer for a linguistic analysis, but couldn't pin down what specific type of analysis it can be. As I'm also looking for advisors with pragmatics/social linguistics/translation theory expertise, I'd like to hear from anyone who can give me some advice on the specific aspect I can deal with, using this comedy routine as the corpus? Thanks so much!


I would say that the primary thing going on in that routine is the break down of 'conversation repair'. The two interlocutors simply repeat the same conversation repair approach and do not learn from its failure. The constant repetition is what makes it funny.

It is also interesting how through constant repetition, the players make the rather implausible notion of players being nick named 'Who', 'What', 'I don't know', 'Why', etc.

Of course, once those elements are in place, you're dealing with structural and lexical ambiguity. This particularly well illustrated in this sequence where Costello tries to initiate conversation repair:

Costello: When you pay off the first baseman every month, who gets the money?

Abbott: Every dollar of it. And why not, the man's entitled to it.

Costello: Who is?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: So who gets it?

Abbott: Why shouldn't he? Sometimes his wife comes down and collects it.

Costello: Who's wife?

Abbott: Yes. After all, the man earns it.

Costello: Who does?

Abbott: Absolutely.

For example, in 'Who does?' the question has a completely different interpretation if 'Who' is treated as a proper noun or a pronoun. If it's a pronoun, the answer 'Absolutely' makes absolutely no sense. However, it's perfectly acceptable if 'Who' is a noun.

  • Note that the intonation has to be subdued when presented orally; Costello is using only Wh-questions, which have the same falling intonation as statements. The intonation could be emphasized to remove the ambiguity, but it's very carefully modulated. An interesting touch might be contrasting the different spellings of what each is hearing vs saying (e.g, Who's wife? vs Whose wife?). Not all the differences are distinguished in spelling, but it does make it easy to do a variorum edition of the routine, with different spellings.
    – jlawler
    Nov 26 '14 at 17:16

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