3.2 Chico

Chico is the work-shy and knowing Italian immigrant whose main drives are for food and a few dollars. His strong Italian accent both marks him as an outsider and also provides him with a platform from which to launch attacks on the language through the use of puns and contrived nonsense. Here the focus is on his puns.

In the discussion on humour (2.3) it was noted that some observers stress the aggressive aspect while others stress the element of play. Peck (1980) notes that in child second language acquisition play has a significant role. The following extract, which involves Angel, an eight year-old Mexican learning English as a second language, and Joe, an eight year-old native
speaker of English. shows this.

Angel : Only one piece
Joe: Only one /pi??/ /pis?/ /pis?/ /pis?/ I can’t stop
Angel: This is a old piece. Piece.
Joe: /pi??/ /pis?/ You like /pis???/?
Angel: No. I like pieces.
Joe: What? Whatta you mean - you like / pis?? / I like /pi s???/
Angel: Pizza
Angel: I like pieces, pizzas.
Joe : /p????????
Angel : (sing-song) Pepsi Cola – yeah
Joe : /p????? koli??/ (laugh) /p????? koli??/ /?????/ cola! /??????? / cola!


She suggest that playfulness is characterised by three conditions: that the meaning of the play is not important, the play is an end in itself, and it is not arbitrary. While Chico’s puns share some of these elements of playfulness they are not usually an end in themselves but are deliberate floutings of Gricean maxims – particularly ‘Be relevant’ – and attacks on the language itself. Of course, it is also possible to see them as being both aggressive and playful simultaneously. Redfern (1984) observes, ‘All humour, and much intelligence, entails an ability to think on two planes at once...In the pun there are always two or more levels, manifest and latent, in some kind of coexistence, sequence, alternation, or tension’ (p.22).

Chico’s constant puns invariably occur in conversations with native speakers of English and one might expect such interlocutors to offer corrections more than they do. Varonis and Gass (1985) list seven possible responses: 1. immediate recognition but no comment, 2.immediate recognition and comment, 3. later recognition but no comment, 4. later recognition and comment, 5. recognition after conversation but no comment, 6. recognition after conversation and comment, 7. no recognition (p.328.) However, no matter which of the many possible intervention strategies are chosen, it is notable that, according to Chun et al (1982) in their study of over fifteen hours of taped native speaker/nonnative speaker conversations, only 15% of the incorrect word choices by the nonnative speakers are corrected (p.542). As for pronunciation errors, of which there were too many to count, a mere fifty-one were corrected, which they viewed as ‘a very small number’ (p.543). This applies also to Chico’s ‘incorrect word choices’ and ‘pronunciation errors’. However, it is interesting to note just how he reacts when an attempt is made by a native speaker to correct his supposed errors. In the following example from the film ‘Duck Soup’ (1933) Chico is in court accused of spying for Sylvania against Freedonia. Groucho, even though he is Head of State of Freedonia, is defending Chico. The proceedings are dramatically interrupted by the arrival of a courier.

(1) Courier: Your Excellency! General Cooper says that the Sylvanian troops are about
to land on Freedonia’s soil. This means war!
(2) Minister of Finance: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase
in our taxes.
(3) Chico: Hey. I got an uncle who lives in Taxes.
(4) Minister: No. I’m talking about taxes – money, dollars.
(5) Chico: Dollas! That’s where my uncle lives. Dollas, Taxes.
[He laughs and shakes hands with Groucho.]
(6) Minister Aww!
(Kalmar and Ruby 1972:159)

When the first pun is made (3) the Minister responds (4) with No.2 in Varonis’ and Gass’ list – immediate recognition and comment. Indeed the urgency of the situation – a military invasion –requires such an intervention. Such a context also allows him to respond so vehemently, as does the power differential between them – he is a Freedonian Minister, Chico a defendant accused of spying against Freedonia, he is a native speaker, Chico not. The whole situation – what Hymes (1972) calls the ‘physical and psychological settings’ – overrides considerations of politeness. But Chico is oblivious of such factors and ingeniously uses the response (4) as yet more linguistic raw material with which to further develop his geographical word play (5). That he does so deliberately i.e. that these are not the innocent errors of a nonnative speaker, is evident in the following stage direction when he laughs and shakes hands with Groucho to celebrate his successful and playful attack on the Minister, who is left frustrated and annoyed (6). It is this deliberate irrelevance and disrespect for certain interlocutors, coupled with an ability to create nonsense from the topics of normal conversation, which Chico uses as his main attack on dominant discourse.