Pragmatics in Comedy
The aim of this paper is to see how characters in various shows flout, violate and infringe Grice’s four maxims in order to create humour. The shows I will be using are Little Britain, Bottom and Blackadder. Terminology.
Herbert Paul Grice is considered one of the founders of the modern study of pragmatics, which deals with expressed meaning and implied meaning, in other words what is said and what is meant. Grice claimed that there are two kinds of implicature, in other words the part of an utterance that is meant but not strictly said out loud: conventional implicature and conversational implicature (Thomas 1995:57). Since this paper treats comedy it will mainly focus on conversational implicature. Grice’s four maxims are, if not rules, but way of means to allow us to say things indirectly in order to avoid discomfort when saying uncomfortable things or to imply something without having to actually take a direct stand or viewpoint. By strictly following the maxims, the conversation in question is pretty straight forward and it is not hard to find the implicature. On the other hand, when one flouts one is more indirect and therefore generates an implicature. Grice’s four maxims are:
Quantity: Information. Not too much, nor too little.
Quality: Truth. Do not lie.
Relation: Relevance. Stick to the topic.
Manner: Clarity. Be brief and orderly and avoid obscure expressions. Here the Cooperative Principle, which was also introduced by Grice, very important. The Cooperative Principle means that we assume that the person we are talking to speaks in good faith and has no intention of lying. So, when someone says something we know is untrue, as for example in Thomas’s example of the ambulance driver getting vomited on and exclaiming: “Great, that’s really great! That’s really made my Christmas!” (Thomas 1995:55) We know that hardly anyone enjoys getting vomit all over them so we search for an implicature, what the ambulance man really meant, in this case that Christmas was more or less ruined. This would be a failure to observe the maxim of quality since it was intentional; we do know, or at least hope that the ambulance man did not enjoy the situation. Grice was most interested in situations where the speaker deliberately fails to observe a maxim, not with the intention of deceiving or lying but rather to make the listener look for a meaning that is different from the expressed meaning. This is tied in with the conversational implicature and the process is called “flouting a maxim” (Thomas 1995:65). Another example of flouting the maxim relation would be as following: A: Do you know what time it is?
B: The bananas are looking fresh today.
A very blunt example but clearly show how the maxim of relation (and also manner by bluntly ignoring the question) is flouted since the listener does not give an answer that is at all relevant to the question. The implicature here could be “I have no idea, let’s talk about something else” or perhaps that the listener is ashamed of not owning a watch. Grice also speaks of “violating a maxim” (Thomas 1995:72), which is the intentional failure to observe a maxim in order to mislead someone. Jenny Thomas gives the best example with the cheating wife who assures her husband that she is not seeing another man, while in fact she is seeing another woman (Thomas 1995:73). When violating a maxim, the utterance often contains a truth in order to mislead the hearer from the truth. And lastly Grice speaks about infringing a maxim (Thomas 1995:74), which stems from the speaker’s unintentional failure to observe a maxim, thus generating undesired implicatures. This is most common when the speaker is a learner of a foreign language or is suffering from a cognitive impairment of some sort.
I have chosen various TV shows and a movie and analysed some of the funny parts of the dialogue from a...