What is the Difference between an Undergraduate Thesis and a Riddle?: Parsing the Linguistic and Cultural Structures of Folk Riddling

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Title: What is the Difference between an Undergraduate Thesis and a Riddle?: Parsing the Linguistic and Cultural Structures of Folk Riddling
Author: Jenness, Andrew E.
Advisor: Fernald, Theodore B.
Department: Swarthmore College. Dept. of Linguistics
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Issue Date: 2012
Abstract: In this study, I make two generally unimpeachable observations: (a) folk riddles achieve their characteristic deceptiveness through manipulation of a language’s linguistic structures, and (b) individuals transmit riddles through a predictable set of culturally-determined practices. Given these two observations, I argue that folk riddles are simultaneously cultural and linguistic acts. To elaborate: individuals within a speech community share a representation of world knowledge and (a) common language(s). While folk riddling, community members exploit both the world knowledge and the language(s) in order to facilitate deception of one another. Meanwhile, certain performative formulae exist exclusively within the context folk riddling. These formulae emphasize the competitive nature of folk riddling. Competition, after all, is what motivates riddle-tellers to offer deceptive riddle images to riddle-solvers. This study thus constitutes a new entry in the tradition of Pepicello & Green (1984), which was instrumental in bridging the divergences between anthropologists and linguists in the study of riddles. This study differs from others in that it applies the folkloric theory of Burns (1976) and the linguistic theory of Pepicello & Green (1984) to an esoteric collection of riddles from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Turkey. Prior to addressing any particular culture’s folk riddles, I arrive at a definition of ‘folk riddle’: an orally-transmitted image-referent sequence, often consisting of a question and its corresponding answer, being told in the cultural context of a performance or competition, where a riddle-teller provides an image that yields sufficient—though not generous—context for a riddle-solver to identify a referent. With this definition, I distinguish folk riddles from other forms of riddles and orally-transmitted culture (e.g. literary riddles, conundrums, jokes, proverbs, catechistic questions). Next, I describe how linguists and folklorists separately confront riddles. The general consensus among linguists is that riddles achieve their effect via ambiguity. There are two methods for achieving ambiguity: metaphor and purposeful manipulation of linguistics (i.e. a language’s sentential structure, word structure, syllable structure and sound structure) [Pepicello & Green 1984]. In support of the work of linguists, pragmatists cite violations of pragmatic rules as the source of ambiguity. Folklorists, on the other hand, are more interested in the structure of riddle events, which are rule-governed, culturally-mediated occurrences in which members of a community competitively try to outwit one another with folk riddles [Burns 1976, Weiner 1997]. Riddle events tend to consist of multiple riddle acts, where each riddle act consists minimally of a question and answer, but may also include optional formula (e.g. riddle initiation, riddle question introduction and conclusion, period of contemplation, riddle ‘buying’) [Burns 1976]. This study culminates with an investigation of riddles found in İlhan Başgöz and Andreas Tietze’s (1973) Bilmece: A Corpus of Turkish Riddles. Despite being transmitted onto a static medium, the riddles contained within the corpus retain vestigial evidence of a previously flourishing riddle culture and exhibit a vast array of ambiguity. In this manner, the data extracted from Bilmece reinforces my thesis that folk riddling is a cultural and linguistic process.
Subject: Riddles
Subject: Riddles, Turkish
Subject: Linguistic analysis (Linguistics)
Subject: Linguistics -- Social aspects
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Jenness, Andrew E.. "What is the Difference between an Undergraduate Thesis and a Riddle?: Parsing the Linguistic and Cultural Structures of Folk Riddling". 2012. Available electronically from

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