6. A PRAGMATIC APPROACH
TO HUMOUR


This section looks at the major proponents of what is commonly called ‘speech act theory’ and their ideas about meaning assignment. The shortcomings of these ideas when dealing with talk in interaction are made clear and the usefulness of the findings of conversation analysis (CA) are highlighted. However, certain aspects of CA are also criticised for their claims to universality and their mechanical approach. (The reader is reminded that a detailed introduction to these matters is given in part B of the Introduction.)

6.1 Speech Acts

In this subsection we will consider the relevant items from Grice, Austin, Dascal, and Searle. In an early discussion of utterances and meaning Grice comments:

Perhaps we may sum up what is necessary for A to mean something by x as follows: A must intend to induce by x a belief in an audience, and he must also intend his utterance to be recognised as so intended.
(1957:383)

This opens up the possibility of there being a difference between the meaning of certain words (x) and what the speaker intends to convey by using those words, a point of great interest for our purposes.

Related ideas about indirectness and intent came from Austin, who saw three possible layers of meaning: the locutionary, the illocutionary, and the perlocutionary.

Act (A) or Locution
He said to me, ‘Shoot her!’ meaning by ‘shoot’ shoot and referring to ‘her’ as her
[we call this here the saying of something]

Act (B) or Illocution
He urged (or advised, or ordered etc) me to shoot her.
[to do something in saying something]

Act (C.a) or Perlocution
He persuaded me to shoot her
[to produce effects in the hearer (with oblique reference to (A) and (B))]

Act (C.b)
He got me to (made me etc) shoot her.
[to produce effect in the hearer (with no reference to (A) or (B)) ]

[1962] (1975:101-2)

What is of particular interest is not only the gaps between the layers of meaning, ripe for exploitation by, as we shall shortly see, anyone with humorous intent, but also the attention Austin gives to words as actions in context. For example, when in a marriage ceremony someone says ‘I do’, they don’t merely say something, they also do something – they marry. Similarly when someone says ‘I name this ship’ or ‘I bet you sixpence’ they are not merely speaking they are also acting (p.5). This gave rise to another important distinction that Austin makes, that between ‘constative’ utterances and ‘performative’ utterances, where the former are, in plain terms, descriptions of the world/statements of fact which can be proved true or false (‘Paris is the capital of France’), and the latter are utterances used to do things in the world. Austin says of the examples just cited that ‘it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it’ (p.6). But for these actions with words to be valid the necessary felicity conditions (‘appropriate circumstances’) must apply; the wedding participants must all have genuine roles and be in a wedding ceremony, the namer of the ship must be empowered to do so and needs to be at the naming ceremony and so on. If such felicity conditions do not apply then these actions are invalid (pp.14-8). This view of language as action also points up the importance of the role of the other participants in the interaction, the audience, a feature of context which will be dealt with at length later. However, Austin’s formulations have had their critics and here we shall look at three, Derrida (1972), Bauman (1984), and Bauman and Briggs (1990).

Derrida’s criticism of Austin is twofold. First he claims that Austin’s felicity conditions which are necessary for the operation of a performative utterance exclude too much so that Austin is presented with a risk-free context in which intention is transparent, meaning is clear and the performative pure. Austin, for example, admits that performative utterances are vulnerable to the problems that affect all utterances and so excludes performatives ‘said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy’ (1975:22). Such limiting of contexts, Derrida contends, seriously weakens much of Austin’s argument (1972:323). Derrida’s second point concerns the ‘iterability of the sign’, that is, that signs themselves can be cited in any context and can break free from any context and this renders inoperative any felicity conditions. ‘Austin seems to consider only the conventionality that forms the circumstances of the statement, its contextual surroundings, and not a certain convention of that which constitutes locution itself’ (p.323).

It is Derrida’s first point that would seem to carry more weight. Excluding certain contexts as invalid does make Austin’s argument less forceful, and Bauman will have more to say on that point in relation to (cultural/theatrical) performances in a moment. However, Derrida’s second point seems to say little more than that the raw material of language can be shaped to fit a variety of contexts, that signs have no absolute context themselves. Few would disagree, and, indeed, we saw earlier how Freud put it in plainer terms when he said that words ‘are plastic material that can do all kinds of things’ (1991:68). However, and this point would lend support to Austin, once we use that material (once we do something with words) we drastically reduce the possible meanings. As Hymes puts it:

When a form is used in context it eliminates the meanings possible to the context other than those that form can signal: the context eliminates from consideration the meanings possible to the form other than those that context can support.
(in Wootton 1975:44)

Note that Hymes is also implicitly aware of the iterability of the sign when he talks of the meanings (plural) possible even within a specified context. As Austin’s primary concern was with doing things with words it appears that the main flaw of this second criticism of Derrida’s is that it applies the perspective of locution to the problems of illocution. (It would, however, apply to things such as unintentional puns.)

Bauman also criticises Austin’s comments concerning utterances in the context of (dramatic or literary) performance. Such utterances as those performed on the stage, in poems and so on Austin describes as ‘not serious’, ‘parasitic’, and ‘etiolations of language’, and he contrasts them with utterances occurring in a serious literal frame (Austin 1975:22). However, Bauman points out that there are many other frames within which communication occurs (insinuation, joking, imitation, translation, quotation) and there are no clear grounds for giving priority to the literal frame, which itself is difficult enough to define (1984:10, emphasis added). In a later work Bauman and Briggs argue more forcefully that the formal elaboration of utterances in performance does not

relegate discourse to a Kantian aesthetic sphere that is both purely subjective and carefully insulated from cognition, social relations, and politics… [and further] poetic patterning, frames, genres, participatory structures, and other dimensions of performance draw attention to the status of speech as social action
(1990:65)

(This echoes a point made above in 2.4. and 3.2. It will be seen to have great relevance to the discussion in Section 8.) Such a view does not mean that Bauman and Briggs do not see any difference between an utterance said in performance space and an utterance said in everyday social life, but simply that they do not believe performance somehow invalidates utterances. This would concur with the view of this dissertation and we can use the simple example of joke telling to illustrate this. Language used to tell a joke in performance (or, indeed, in social life) may in some way be considered ‘not serious’ but it is not ‘in a peculiar way hollow or void’ nor is it ‘parasitic upon its normal use’ (Austin p.22, original emphasis). Telling a joke can be seen as a perfectly ‘normal’ use of language, the illocutionary force of which may or may not have the desired perlocutionary effect. We have seen how in certain circumstances some comedians have been imprisoned, physically assaulted, and verbally abused for their performance utterances, a clear demonstration that there was nothing ‘hollow or void’ about their stage talk.

The pragmatist Dascal saw precisely how the opening up of meaning (by such people as Grice and Austin) was applicable to humour when he said, ‘Jokes…depend on the existence of [these] sociopragmatic devices that make indirectness possible’ (1985:98). He sees three different levels of utterances, his formulation owing much to Austin and also having parallels with some of the models of humour competence discussed in 5.1.

(i) sentence meaning: understanding a speaker’s words
(ii) utterance meaning: understanding those words in their specific reference in the context of the utterance
(iii) speaker’s meaning: the speaker’s intention of uttering those words in that context.
(p.96)

Speaker’s meaning, for Dascal, can be conveyed in two different ways, directly or indirectly. It is direct when it is identical to the utterance meaning; in this case pragmatic interpretation can be seen as the ‘endorsement’ of the utterance meaning by the listener. It is indirect when it is different from the utterance meaning and pragmatic interpretation then consists of finding out from the cues in the context and by using the utterance meaning as a starting point what the speaker’s meaning is. Jokes systematically exploit this indirectness ; they point to a preferred meaning (M1) and, for Dascal, this must be done indirectly, for to make M1 too explicit would not allow the alternative meaning (M2) to be recoverable. This indirectness about M1 means that

such an interpretation is actually contributed by the listener more than the speaker himself. In fact, the listener construes that interpretation in the course of hearing the joke, and expects the rest of the story will confirm her interpretation. The comic effect arises when an alternative, non-favoured and therefore non-expected interpretation is revealed, at the punch line, as the correct one
(p.97, original emphasis)

Such a description recalls Kant’s comment (1.3) that humorous laughter arises from ‘the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing’ (1951:172), and also the point made in 4.2 concerning the audience’s contribution Woody Allen’s taxi joke.

We cannot let the opportunity pass to show how these pragmatic interstices are exploited for humorous ends not only in the simple act of ‘telling a joke’ but also by comedians explicitly referring to such gaps. This example comes from the film ‘Annie Hall’, in which Woody Allen plays Alvie Singer (S), a New York comedian, who has a troubled relationship with budding singer, Annie Hall (H), played by Diane Keaton. In this scene these two characters are standing on a flat roof, drinking wine and having a shy and nervous conversation. The humour is constructed by juxtaposing the text of what is actually said and audible to both characters and the audience (utterance meaning) with the subtext of what each actually means (speaker meaning), which is not known to the other character but is made known to the audience through the use of subtitles.

(Allen and Brickman 1977)

Once again we note that this is not simply a question of manipulating the structural forms, the writers also need to create humorous meanings, and here it is the pragmatic distance between utterance meaning and speaker meaning that is clearly exaggerated for comic effect. It would also seem to involve the expression of certain ‘Freudian elements’ in the gap between conscious speech (photography) and unspoken desire (sexuality).

We will now make two observations about Dascal’s model. The first is an alternative view of joke resolution and the second involves an expansion of the model to cater for the problem of disputed meanings. We start with a diagrammatic representation of Dascal’s model. Note that his model is for situations where there is agreement on meaning between speaker and hearer whether this is direct or indirect.

Dascal's model of utterance interpretation

 

Fig.4. Diagrammatic representation of Dascal’s model of utterance interpretation.

We have already on various occasions remarked on the collaboration of speakers and listeners in joke telling and Dascal’s views would seem to add strong support to this. Let us look at a now familiar joke for further confirmation and also to get a fuller pragmatic explanation of such interactions.

The miser took all his money out of the bank for a holiday. When he decided it had had enough of a rest he put it all back.

The expectation aroused by the first sentence is that the miser, acting against type, is about to spend all his money (M1). The second sentence reveals, however, that he did not spend it (M2). This does indeed concur with Dascal’s model. However, Willis (1992) sees the pragmatic interpretation as somewhat more complex. For him there is a dialectical relationship between M1 and M2 which leads to a synthesis in a new unit of meaning, M3. If we apply this model to the miser joke we get:

dialectical joke resolution

 

Fig. 5. Dialectical joke resolution: the Strong Trace Model. (Willis 1992:21, adapted)

In this model of spoken standard jokes, as the special meaning M2 (the punch line) of any such joke (X) is presented as late as possible in place of the expected meaning M1, it is clear that much of the interpretation of the textual cues for both is identical. Thus, M2, the punchline, can only be perceived to have a special meaning by virtue of its relationship to M1. If the joke led the listener directly to M2 without any strong hints at M1 there would no incongruity, no poetic clash, as M2 would have no special meaning. However, in the dialectical model, an implicit understanding (but not establishment) of M1 is integral, and, together with an explicit understanding and establishment of M2, provides complete comprehension, M3. (Note that this model, too, is for situations of agreed meaning i.e. joke comprehension.) Some support for this view comes from a study by Dews and Winner of how irony is processed, in which their results ‘support a multiple meaning model of irony processing in which both literal and non-literal meanings are obligatorily processed’ (1999:1579). We note here that this model is primarily to do with cognitive matters i.e joke comprehension, or what in 5.1 Carrell called ‘joke competence’. It does not deal with the social reception of jokes, or what Carrell calls ‘humor competence’. We will, however, have occasion to return to the strong trace model at the end of Section 8, where it will be used in conjunction with Carrell’s notions.

On a second point we can expand Dascal’s model a little as follows. When there is a dispute about the meaning of an utterance this gives rise to the possibility of a separate hearer’s meaning. That is to say, if there is a dispute over meaning, both speaker and hearer can claim that their interpretation is the ‘legitimate’ one, is, in fact, the ‘proper’ utterance meaning, as the following exchange demonstrates. The dispute concerns this text:

I am a baby Aryan
Not Jewish or sectarian
I have no plan to marry
An ape or Rastafarian

This is a verse that was sung by the historian David Irving to his infant daughter and was later recorded in his diary. This came to public notice during a libel court case in London in which Irving claimed that a description of him as a holocaust-denier in a book by Deborah Lipstadt was libellous. Irving lost the trial, during which he was described by the judge as ‘racist’. Later that evening he was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on BBC TV’s ‘Newsnight’ and it is from this interview that the following exchange comes. Paxman (P) repeats the judge’s comment that Irving (I) is ‘racist’ and as evidence of this reads out the above verse. The exchange has been slightly edited. Note that vertical lines join simultaneous stretches of speech, and numbers in brackets represent pauses in seconds. (.) represents a pause of less than half a second. >> joins unbroken talk from the same speaker which in transcription goes beyond one line. Underlined words are emphasised by the speaker.

Irving - Paxman conversation

There is much that can be said about this extract but we shall focus solely on the immediate argument between the two participants of whether or not the verse is racist. Irving says that it is not, and Paxman asserts that it is. As they make their views increasingly explicit to one another, the argument is seen to hinge on issues discussed in 4.2, namely, paradigmatic relations (choices between individual lexical items –the vertical), syntagmatic relations (choices of combinations of words – the horizontal), and their merging in the poetic (we are back here with Jakobson). In lines 14-5 Irving talks of the paradigmatic choices that were available to him and why he chose ‘Aryan’ over ‘Caucasian’, because it rhymed with ‘vegetarian’ and ‘Rastafarian’. Paxman immediately points out (16-7) that Irving did not choose ‘vegetarian’ but chose ‘Rastafarian’, and then goes on to point out precisely the syntagmatic relations which that paradigmatic choice had with ‘baby Aryan’ and ‘ape’ (24-5). Irving ignores the crucial syntactic point, vainly trying to isolate the words ‘ape’ and ‘Rastafarian’ (26), but the argument is lost and he admits that ‘Aryan’ is a term of racial categorisation (41) yet still maintains the verse is not an example of racism but of middle-aged Englishness (44-6). We can also note at this point that given the notion of shared competence as discussed in Section 5, we can recognise that those of a racist bent could find this doggerel amusing, while at the same time, because of the notion of differential competence, there are those who are unable or unwilling to see any humour in it.

To return to our point concerning the expansion of Dascal’s model, we can represent this dispute over meaning diagrammatically.

dispute over meaning


Fig. 6. Dispute Over Meaning

Although this explicates the matter in a little more detail than Dascal’s model would – there is no neat congruence between speaker’s meaning and hearer’s meaning – it also points to the ever-present problem of the role of the analyst. In Dascal’s model the factors which determine the utterance meaning are not made explicit; in a sense, they are treated as given. In the above expanded model the utterance meaning is missing as there is no agreement on what it might be. In Dascal’s formulation, the speaker and hearer meaning, whether direct or indirect, eventually coincide. Here the utterance meaning is strongly contested resulting in distinct speaker and hearer meanings and, thus, in the diagram is given as ‘indeterminate’. However, if a completed picture were required, it would not be difficult to insert the following:

Utterance meaning [I am white and superior…]

This interpretation would be based on the following textual and contextual cues.

Textual: ‘Aryan’ is the term used by the Nazis to refer to the ‘master race’ of white people, ideally those with blond hair and blue eyes. In this verse it was chosen in preference to the more neutral ‘Caucasian’, and contrasted by ‘not’ with ‘Jewish’
(millions of whom were murdered by the Nazis), and by ‘no’ with ‘ape’ and ‘Rastafarian’ (not ‘vegetarian’), a quintessentially black religious group. These terms themselves are tightly syntactically linked as the alternate objects of the verb ‘marry’.

Contextual: The immediate physical context of Irving and his daughter passing someone of mixed race (whom Irving describes as ‘a half-breed’), which is a mundane event in British culture, inspired this response and the response itself shapes the context as a racist encounter. Then there is the wider context (which involves background knowledge, knowledge available to the judge and Paxman) of Irving, who, through numerous publications and lecture tours, has been a well-documented apologist and propagandist for the Nazis for over forty years.

The insertion of this interpretation in lieu of ‘indeterminate’ raises two important issues: 1. the ‘ownership’ of meaning, and 2. the role of the analyst. In the above case, is it Irving, the speaker, who, when there is some dispute, should ultimately determine the utterance meaning? That is, is the utterance meaning always the utterer’s? Further, when such a dispute renders the utterance meaning ‘indeterminate’ should the analyst intervene? Is not the analyst also a member drawing on virtually the same resources as the interlocutors? These are issues which will be returned to in this discussion of humour, as these models of pragmatic interpretation provide insight into a problem discussed earlier under the notion of ‘permission’ (5.2), that is, when an utterance is intended as humorous but actually causes offence. It is the pragmatic interstices between sentence meaning, utterance meaning, and speaker meaning that afford the speaker the defence of ‘It was only a joke’ if such humorous intent is denied permission by a hearer who is offended by the utterance. As Crawford notes,

humor is perhaps the most flexible and powerful of indirect modes. When someone sends the message, “I consider women to be less than full human beings” framed as humor, it is difficult for others to reject or even directly address the message. After all, sexist intention can easily be denied. “I was only joking”, “Can’t you take a joke?”, “Lighten up”, “Just kidding".
(1995:134-5)

Precisely such a problem will be given great attention in Section 8 below. But for the moment the discussion seems to be getting ahead of itself and we now return to speech act theory and indirectness.

The initial developments in speech act theory were later refined by, among others, Grice once again with his notion of the Cooperative Principle (CP) and Searle with his views on indirect speech acts. Let us take Grice first. His CP has four maxims which he claims govern conversation and which enable us to interpret direct speech acts but also such indirect speech acts as the following:

A: Smith doesn’t seem to have a girl friend these days.
B: He has been paying lots of visits to New York recently.
(1975:51)

Though logically B’s utterance is a non sequitur in relation to A’s, it is not difficult to understand that B is suggesting that Smith has a girl friend in New York. This is, according to Grice, because interlocutors apply the maxims of conversation, which are:

(1) Quantity – do not say too much or too little
(2) Quality – be honest
(3) Relation – be relevant
(4) Manner – be brief, clear, and orderly
(pp.45-6)

Thus, even though B’s utterance is not logical, we assume that he is following these maxims and so make inferences (‘compute implicatures’) that accord with A’s utterance. But just as earlier (1.3) Bain’s list of incongruities seemed to invite a comedic retort, so too do Grice’s maxims, and it is a commonplace of dialogue comedy to flout them. Take the following example from the Marx Brothers’ film ‘Duck Soup’, in which Chico has been paid by Trentino, the Sylvanian ambassador, to spy on Firefly, the head of state of Freedonia. Here Chico makes his report in Trentino’s office.

Trentino: [Wagging his finger] I want a full detailed report of your investigation.
Chico: All right, I tell you. Monday we watch Firefly’s house, but he no come out. He wasn’t home. Tuesday we go to the ball game but he fool us, he no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game and we fool him, we no show up. Thursday was a double header. Nobody show up. Friday it rained all day. There was no ball game so we stayed at home and listened to it over the radio.
(Kalmar and Ruby 1972:117-8)

While this is brief, clear and orderly (Chico states the essentials of each day’s activities in order), and is frankly honest (he might be expected to lie about such a gross dereliction of duty), it is not a full and detailed account (but the problem may lie in Grice’s potentially contradictory formulation of maxim 1 ‘do not say too little’ and maxim 4 ‘be brief’), and, more particularly, it is more about the ball games than it is about surveillance. Indeed, on none of the days did Chico carry out any spying on Firefly, which is the relevant factor to be reported, a clear breach of maxim 3 ‘be relevant’. (Nor, ‘reading between the lines’, can any implicatures concerning the surveillance of Firefly be computed from what he says.) Indeed, this point is the most common criticism levelled at Grice, that all maxims can be subsumed under ‘relevance’. This is precisely what Sperber and Wilson did as a basis for their Relevance Theory (1986).

For Searle, indirectness is possible because of the gap between a primary illocutionary act and a secondary illocutionary act. (Searle makes no distinction between the locutionary and the illocutionary (1969:23 footnote).) The secondary is the literal meaning and from it the primary can be inferred. Take the following example.

(1) Student X: Let’s go to the movies tonight.
(2) Student Y: I have to study for an exam.
(1975:61)

In speech act terms this consists of a proposal (1) followed by a refusal (2). The question posed by Searle is: how does X interpret Y’s statement as a refusal to go to the cinema? He provides ten steps of inference made by X, from which these three suffice for our purposes.

Step 5. He (Y) probably means more than he says. Assuming his remark is relevant, his primary illocutionary point must differ from the literal one.
Step 6. I know that studying for an exam takes a large amount of time relative to a single evening, and I know that going to the movies normally takes a large amount of time relative to a single evening.
Step 10. Therefore, his primary illocutionary point is to reject the proposal.
(p.63)

In summary Searle says what is needed to understand this exchange is ‘mutual background information, a theory of speech acts, and certain general principles of conversation’ (p.64), all of which is paraphrased here as (a) knowledge of the world, (b) to know what a proposal and a refusal are, and (c) to follow the cooperative principle (see Grice above). (Searle acknowledges that the above steps are not gone through consciously in conversation.) We are familiar with (b) and (c) but more needs to be said about (a) knowledge of the world. But before doing that let us have another joke which demonstrates that not everyone goes through the steps of inference to comprehend indirect speech acts, particularly when they have a humorous intent. It comes from a Frank Skinner television show and here Skinner is talking about taking his driving test.

The examiner said, ‘Would you like to turn right down here, please?’ And I said, ‘No,
there’s a really difficult junction down there.’
(Skinner 1999)

The examiner’s utterance can be seen as Searle’s secondary illocution (literal sentence meaning) and its form is that of a yes/no question (inversion of subject and auxiliary), but its primary illocution, given the context, is that of an instruction for Skinner to make the turning. Skinner, not wishing to make the turning, exploits the gap made available by the indirectness and deals with the utterance purely as a secondary illocution to which he can answer ‘no’.

In all attempts at understanding utterances the component ‘knowledge of the world’ comes into play, and we come across this area under different names: Chiaro’s ‘sociocultural competence’, Nash’s ‘generic reference’ (1985:9), Raskin’s ‘scripts’ and van Dijk’s ‘normalcy of facts’ (1985b:111). Garfinkel, too, dealt with this area, under the name of ‘common sense’ (1972) (this everyday term was first used as a technical term of sociology by Schutz), and his treatment is of particular interest as he dealt with it not only theoretically but also through practical tasks he set his students – part of his ‘breaching experiments’. In these tasks the students reported common conversations they had by writing on the left side of a sheet of paper what the participants actually said and on the right what they and their interlocutors understood they were talking about based on their knowledge of the world/common sense. Here is an example of a conversation between one of the students and his wife. (Note that there is no implication here that Garfinkel was a speech act theorist, merely that he as an ethnomethodologist was also interested in background knowledge.)

Actual

Understood

Husband: Dana succeeded in putting a penny in the parking meter without being picked up.

Husband: This afternoon as I was bringing Dana, our four year old son, here from the nursery school, he succeeded in reaching high enough to put a penny in the parking meter when we parked in a meter zone, whereas before he had always had to be picked up to reach that high.

Wife: Did you take him to the record store?

Wife: Since he put a penny in the meter that means that you stopped while he was with you. I know that you stopped at the record store either on the way to get him or on the way back. Was it on the way back, so that he was with you, or did you stop there on the way and somewhere else on the way back?

(1972:316)

When Garfinkel asked for further accuracy, clarity, and directness students gave up with the complaint that the task was impossible (p.317). Even the simple two line dialogue reproduced here rests on a significant amount of background knowledge which permits an efficient linguistic exchange. However, what is significant for Garfinkel is not simply the coincidence of participants’ background knowledge i.e. what is said, but how something is said, that is, shared rules of interpretation which arise either antecedent to the exchange or are negotiated in the process of conversation. ‘The appropriate image of a common understanding is, therefore, an operation rather then a common intersection of overlapping sets’ (1972:320 original emphasis). Simply put, such understandings require continuous work between participants and are not merely given. So even though the interlocutors in this exchange can converse easily because of the shared rules of interpretation which they have developed together in their history, the wife still needs to ask for clarification concerning the location of the parking meter. Humour is no exception; comedians and joke tellers also rely on such background knowledge and shared interpretations (as we saw, for example, with Chiaro’s Davey Crockett joke in Section 5) and jokes can stand or fall by the degree to which such ‘operations’ are carried out successfully. We can see this in greater detail by looking at a few more examples of humour. In the first the comedian exploits the background knowledge in such a way that it is the audience who finish the joke; in the second the comedian claims that the rules of interpretation he developed with an audience were such that they could get to the punch line before him; and in the last example it is the background knowledge itself which is actually foregrounded and used explicitly as a major resource for a significant part of the text.

The first is from a Jack Dee concert at the London Palladium. He is describing how he got into trouble with the police for using a bus lane in the morning rush hour in London. The text has been edited.

Dee: I was going down the bus lane and erm I was in a yellow Fiat 127. (1.0) which is what alerted the constable [Laughter] Comes out and he stops me [Mimes policeman with upraised arm] Comes to the window of the car. You know what he says? He says [slow deliberate authoritative tones] ‘Are you a bus?’ [Laughter] … (EDIT)… I said to him ‘You’re new to traffic aren’t you?’ [Laughter] Unfortunately he thought I was taking the piss, right. He gets his book out and he’s going to book me for it, right. Amazingly just as this happens another yellow Fiat 127 pulls up behind me [Expectant look at audience] (1.0) So I said [pointing back over his shoulder] ‘He-he-he-he. Isn’t that just typical’ [quiet laughter builds to loud general laughter and applause] Now I had him confused, I had him confused. He was going [mimes policeman scratching his head] ‘Errrrr all right, fair enough, guv, off you go.’ ‘Thank you, officer.’ [Mimics sound of bus bell. Winks] ‘All aboard.’
(Dee 1998)

The locus of the joke here is the exploitation of the common belief of most London inhabitants that London buses always travel in groups of three, and the transference of this knowledge to an object that is incongruously different from a big red double-decker London bus: a small yellow Fiat. Many public transport users in London have experienced a long wait for a bus only to find three on the same route arrive at the same time. The main laughter here comes not after the policeman is fooled (when he scratches his head) but before that as the audience (eventually) takes up the cue ‘Isn’t that just typical’ after the arrival of another yellow Fiat 127 in the bus lane. Indeed, when Dee emphatically (‘Amazingly…another yellow Fiat 127’) announces its arrival in the previous line he pauses, most probably in the hope of this being a sufficient cue to stimulate the audience’s background knowledge, but this pause, this attempt to work towards the meaning of the utterance, is to no avail. When nothing is forthcoming he becomes more demonstrative and explicit (points over his shoulder, laughs, refers to other Fiat’s arrival again) and this has more success. At first the laughter is quiet but as more of the audience are alerted to the joke and delve into their background knowledge the laughter spreads and people also applaud in recognition of this implicit reference to everyday London life. The incongruity is further underlined by the obvious visible difference between a small yellow car and a huge red double-decker bus. We note that there is no explicit reference to buses arriving in groups, this comes in the negotiation of meaning with reference to background knowledge

Once an audience is familiar with a performer they can fill in much of the background
themselves if the performer provides the appropriate cues. This is seen in sitcoms when once the characters have been established (i.e. the background is known) the merest gesture in character can be a source of amusement, for example, Father Dougal’s look of innocent idiocy in ‘Father Ted’. The same can be said of catch-phrases; once they develop a history of utterance they can accumulate a certain charge, for example, the tailors’ ‘Suit you’ in ‘The Fast Show’. Thus, when a stand-up comedian has developed a following, the audience, given their history with the performer, can actually be ahead of the him/her. Steve Coogan comments, ‘When I did live performing some audiences would get to the punch line before I did so I’d have to adjust the joke because they were quicker than I thought they’d be’ (Bragg 2001).

The last example is that of a comedian not relying on the background knowledge but actually exploiting it as a resource for the bulk of the material for his sketch, not unlike the way Garfinkel’s students were expected to ‘foreground the background’. This comes from the pre-war music hall comedian, Horace Kenney, in a sketch called ‘The Music Hall Trial Turn’, which featured deliberately badly performed versions of music hall acts.

Kenney: A Scotchman and an Irishman were one day havin’ a walk along a street, side by side, together, it was on a Monday they were walking, no Wednesday, no Saturday…
Manager: It was during the week.
K: Yes, it was. One day of the week. And as they was walkin’ along they suddenly came to a big shop window with glass all over it, and the Scotchman, ’e turned round to ’ave a look in the window, as he…wanted to see in it. And the Irishman, ’e looked on the other side of the road. And on the other side of the road was a very big tree, very high and tall, with leaves and branches sticking out all over it, it was growing there. And, er, when ’e saw the tree, he turned to the Scotchman and he said, ‘’Ere, Murphy,’ he said, ‘if that big tree was to fall into that big window and break it, as it would, if it did,’ ’e said, ‘what would the window say to the tree?’ Yes, oh yes, this is good. Then said the Scotchman to the Irishman, ‘Well, I don’t know, Sandy, tell me what would it say?’ Then said the Irishman, ‘Why the window’d go and say “Enormous.”’
M: Enormous?
K: Yes, sir, that’s what it’d… No, no take that back. ‘Tremendous’. Yes, ‘tree-mendous.’ It wouldn’t say ‘enormous’. Well that’s the end of that one.

(in Double 1992:73, note 79)

There is much to comment on in this text but for our purposes here we shall focus only on background knowledge. Most of the humour arises from the way Kenney makes explicit the implicit, the way he tries for, in Garfinkel’s words, ‘further accuracy, clarity, and directness’ - unnecessary detail which a competent comedian omits. The audience know this incident must have occurred on one day of the week, that when people walk along the street conversing they do so side by side, that windows are made of glass and that trees grow and have leaves and branches. They really don’t need to be told this, just as the husband and wife in Garfinkel’s student’s dialogue knew the common facts about their world. Dee negotiated the meaning of bus arrivals in London in stages; first with a significant pause, then with an explicit emphatic utterance. Here, Kenney, in order to fulfil the role of a bad comedian, includes much that should be left implicit and provides us with a clear sight of what is usually going on beneath the surface. Also note the important role of the ‘straight man’, the manager. He it is who acts as a kind of anchor in the world of common sense, his role not unlike, in Garfinkel’s terms, the ‘actual’, in contrast to Kenney’s ‘understood’.

We have seen, then, that speech act theory does provide some insight into how meaning is assigned to utterances. However, it was not long before the largely theoretical concerns of these notions (which arose at the same time as the first flushes of success of generative grammar and the ‘Chomskyan revolution’) were put to test in the field, often in non-Western cultures, and there they were found to be lacking. To take just one such study. Rosaldo (1982) spent two lengthy periods living in the Philippines with the Ilongot and found that the way they did things with words was not in keeping with how speech act theorists, and Searle in particular, envisaged. The theorists, she argues, see speech as the achievement of ‘autonomous selves, whose deeds are not significantly constrained by the relationships and expectations that derive from their local world’ (p.204). For example, Searle chooses the act of promising as a strong paradigm of speech. The promise, she says, ‘leads us to think of meaning as a thing derived from inner life. A world of promises appears as one where privacy not community is what gives rise to talk’. Yet the promises we make are different according to whom we make them: promises to one’s children, a promise by a politician, a promise to colleagues, are not the same (p.211). Acts of speech are not only concerned with speakers’ individual intentions, they are also heavily bound up with participants’ expectations, which in turn are shaped by ‘particular forms of socio-cultural being’ (p.228). She concludes: ‘Ilongot views of language – and in particular their emphasis on commands – suggest alternatives to the philosopher’s account of referential, individually deployed systems of speech’ (p.228). In short, then, Rosaldo is critical of the speech act theorists’ lack of a wider context.

Earlier (5.1) it was pointed out that Chomsky’s notion of linguistic competence was challenged by Hymes’ notion of communicative competence, the former being essentially individually based, the latter much more socially based, and we have just seen a similar criticism made of speech act theory. Other criticisms of speech act theory also reflect this conflict, where the speech act theorists are largely seen as part of what the social psychologist Shotter (after Harre) calls ‘the first cognitive revolution’, a perspective which he describes as ‘instrumental, individualistic, systematic, unitary, [and] ahistorical’, whereas ‘the second cognitive revolution’ concerns itself more with ‘the poetic and rhetorical, the social and historical, the pluralistic, as well as the responsive and sensuous aspects of language use’ (1994:7). Potter and Wetherall concur, seeing speech act theory as primarily a philosophical thesis developed to criticise other philosophical perspectives ‘rather than a theory able to cope with the vicissitudes of real talk’ (1987:29). A more specific criticism comes from Duranti and Godwin who argue that the work of speech act theorists (like much of that of generative grammarians) was based not on actual speech but on texts

built by the analyst in terms of specific theoretical problems. The utterances are in fact dealt with as printed samples of language possibilities whose natural home is other printed language…The linguistic context for these very specialised samples of language is of either talk by the linguistic [linguist?] about the written sentences (rather than responses to them as embodied social action) or juxtapositions with other written samples in an organised ‘data set’.
(1992:32, note 8, original emphasis, square bracket added)

In view of these shortcomings this discussion now moves on with a look at some ideas which consider language as ‘embodied social action’.

A Pragmatic Approach to Humour> 6.1 Speech Acts

6.2 Talk In Interaction>

6.3 Some Features Of Talk>

Contents>