Over the most recent school holidays I had the fortune to spend time with my eldest nephew. He is a bright boy with a voracious appetite for reading. He has always read well – he figured out the alphabetic principle early and has adopted generalisations and exceptions well enough for him to access a great variety of teenage texts despite being nine years of age.
As all relatives with only a very partial responsibility for a young child feels compelled to do, I arranged to provide him with a life-enhancing gift. I introduced him to one of my teenage loves: Asterix comics, with all the zany and pun-riddled text it contained. I have vivid memories of giggling away at the various gags at the Romans’ expense, the punny names (my sides still hurt from the first day I learnt the meaning of cacophony) and the random acts of gluttony and violence. I handed my nephew a copy of one of the Asterix books, sat on the couch next to him and waited for him to bring the laugh.
“I tell you, this book is fantastic. Funny, awesome characters. You’ll love it!”
My nephew was dazzled by the illustrations and tucked in to the character bios at the inside the front cover. He was devouring the book. I was still surprised when, after a minute of two, he lifted his head and asked about what one of the characters was saying, a pun of some kind. A minute later he asked the about another joke. His chuckles were reserved for some fight scenes and a boat that kept sinking. Soon he stopped asking. Something was very wrong with the world
He finished the book, carefully closed the last page and sat in contemplation for a second.
“I thought you said that would be funny.”
“It is funny – look, that guy’s name is Cacofonix, and he has a terrible singing voice! And hey, there are the British people and they even stopped the battle to have tea and biscuits. Hilarious!”
He was not convinced.
So, I picked up the book and started to leaf my way through it. When I got to the first couple of puns I tried to explain them to him. Nothing brings home the realities of how much contextual knowledge and understanding of the world is required for Asterisk than trying to explain a pun to a nine year-old. In fact, if you remove the puns and in-jokes from an Asterisk book you are pretty much left with a basic plot with three elements providing the laughs:
- Characters slurring and acting stupidly while drunk.
- Obelisk eating massive amounts of boar.
- Gauls inflicting random act of violence on Roman soldiers.
What it brought home to me is that a good vocabulary and an understanding of the world has a strong influence on your understanding of a text. My nephew can read most words and knows at least one meaning for them. However, being just nine, he is still learning about history and geography, multiple meaning of words and how language can be used to entertain. All things that will come in time but without which a fantastic read is rendered to quite a patchy bit of comic relief. We need to teach students new vocabulary and homophonic meanings, important aspects of history and world culture.
If for nothing else then the puns. Given I am a father and my entire catalogue of jokes are entirely pun-based, I think, for puns’ sake, a knowledge curriculum is vital.