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Humour and Grice's Cooperative Principle in "The Big Bang Theory"

Seminararbeit 2017 16 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik


Table of Contents



1. Introduction

Conversation plays an essential role in our lives. Humans communicate to achieve a certain purpose and to fulfil an intention. To make sure that a conversation reaches its purpose and to achieve mutual understanding, it is important that conversational part- ners respect certain rules of communication. These rules rely on convention and on the agreement of speaker and hearer. However, in some situations, speakers inten- tionally or unconsciously disobey these rules. This may be the case, when they hide the truth, express uncertainty or sarcasm and avoid talking about a certain topic. In everyday life, the maxims are often disobeyed to reach a certain intention. This is especially true when it comes to humour, which plays an important role in social in- teraction. It can add humorous elements to a conversation, makes people laugh and can change a person’s mood. Since it has such an importance in human life, a great number of linguists has been attracted to investigate in this field.

This term paper will focus on Grice and the cooperative principle. It is based on the assumption that verbal humour violates Grice s cooperative principle. The aim is to explain how humour is generated and perceived in certain contexts. A data analysis will be employed to provide an answer to the question if humour is created by disre- specting Grice’s maxims of cooperation. It will be investigated how humour is created by the violation of the maxims and which effect this has. Therefore, data retrieved from the American sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’ will be employed. The data used in this study are obtained from a collection of scripts of the first season.

At first, the theoretical background, namely Grice’s theory, will be presented. After that, several scenes of the TV-sitcom will be analysed to identify the violation of the Gricean Maxims that occur in the series and to explain its implied meaning. Afterwards, the findings will be put into a larger context to discuss if Grice’s theory can fully explain the creation of humour. Besides, it will be compared other linguist’s findings to provide an answer to the question if the violation of Grice’s maxims can explain the humour in this particular sitcom.

2. Grice’s Cooperative Principle

2.1 Conversational Maxims

H. P. Grice developed the theory of conversational implicature with the aim to explain how a speaker’s meaning is derived from an uttered sentence. He suggested that there is an over-arching set of guidelines which conduct human communication to make it efficient and effective (Levinson 1983: 101). Therefore, he formulated a general principle, called the cooperative principle (CP), which is expressed as follows:

“Make your conversational contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of talk exchange in which you are engaged” (Grice 1989: 26).

The main underlying assumption of the CP is that people cooperate in conversation and shape their utterances to be understood (Thomas 1995: 62). Thus, speaker and hearer both have to be cooperative to bring across their intentions that should be understandable for the interlocutor. He divided this general principle into four maxims of conversation and individual submaxims:

1. Maxim of Quantity:

(i) Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current pur- poses of exchange).
(ii) Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

2. Maxim of Quality:

(i) Do not say what you believe to be false.
(ii) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

3. Maxim of Relation:

(i) Be relevant.

4. Maxim of Manner:

(i) Avoid obscurity of expression.
(ii) Avoid ambiguity.
(iii) Be brief.
(iv) Be orderly. (Grice 1989: 26-27)

In short, the maxims express what interaction participants do in order to converse in a cooperative way. They should provide enough information, speak sincerely, relevantly and clearly (Levinson 1983: 102). Grice stated that these maxims are non-arbitrary but people naturally try to fulfil them to reach a communicative purpose (ibid.). Thus, they rely on the assumption that speakers generally expect their interlocutors to be coopera- tive and vice versa. However, Grice aimed at explaining how human communication works rather than providing rules that must be respected. The maxims are not supposed to provide an approach that all people do in fact follow but they attempt to describe a standard type of conversational practice as something that is often reasonable for us to follow and should not be abandoned (Grice 1989: 29).

2.2 Implicature

In his studies, Grice explained that there is a difference between what is said (the literal meaning of words) and what is meant (what is implicated) (1989: 26). Thus, Grice sug- gested that behind every utterance there are various meanings which differ from its se- mantic meaning (ibid.). Whenever a maxim is violated, the hearer does not assume that the speaker has abandoned the CP but he tries to make sense of the utterance beyond the literal meaning to understand it. This indicates that speakers do not always respect the maxims on a superficial level but whenever it is possible, people try to reinterpret an utterance as conforming to the maxims on at least some level (Levinson 1983: 103).

Grice distinguished between two different types of implicature: the conversational and the conventional implicature. Conventional implicatures are independent of the context of an utterance and have a fixed, lexicalized meaning, such as words like but, therefore and yet (Grice 1989: 25). In contrast, conversational implicatures are bound to the context of a conversation (ibid.). They both convey an additional meaning to the semantic meaning of an utterance which is illustrated in the following examples.

(1) He is rich but greedy.

The utterance implies that richness is contrary to being greedy. The conventional impli- cation created is independent of its context and indicated by the fixed meaning of the word ‘but’.

(2) A: When do you want to leave? B: Mix yourself a drink.

B is flouting the maxim of Relation. A wants to know at which time B wants to leave and B answers by uttering that A should mix himself a drink. B does not answer by indicating a time but the conversational implicature of the utterance tells the interlocutor that B does not intend to leave the party yet. Thus, the conversational implicature depends on the context of the utterance because otherwise it would be understood in a different way.

2.3 Non-observance of the Maxims

Speakers naturally fail to observe the maxims in various ways. Grice introduced four different ways in which speakers disobey the maxims: flouting, violating, opting out and infringing a maxim (Grice 1989: 30). In human conversation, it is common that frequently at least one of the maxims is not observed. Grice assumed that a person who disrespects a maxim is aware of this violation which is why it is based on intentionality (ibid.). However, in some cases, it may be misleading for the interlocutor.

2.3.1 Flouting a Maxim

Flouting means that a speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim (Grice 1989: 30) This is not intended to be misleading but it is supposed to create a conversational implicature which makes the hearer look for a different meaning beyond the expressed literal meaning (ibid.). Therefore, the hearer is aware of being misled and starts searching for a second meaning.

(3) A: Any news about your exam results?

B: Ice-cream anyone?

B intentionally flouts the maxim of Relation by giving an answer which is not related to the question. It generates the implicature that the person either does not want to talk about it or there is no good news. That is why she tries to change the topic of conversation.

2.3.2 Violating a Maxim

The violation of a maxim consists in a quiet non-observance of a maxim (Grice 1989: 30) This means that the violation is not obvious for the hearer at the time of uttering. In this case, the speaker “will be liable to mislead” (ibid.). It may be misleading because a speaker prevents a hearer from seeking for implicatures behind an utterance. Violating differs from flouting because when a maxim is violated the interlocutor generally does not find out that he has been misled, whereas in flouting it is obvious and usually noticed.

(4) A: Is there another man in your life?

B: No, there isn’t.

In fact, the wife (B) is having an affair with a woman. Therefore, she is violating the maxim of Quantity by withholding this information. But in fact, her response does not show that she is violating the maxim of Quantity. It creates the misleading implicature that B is not having an affair with anyone which is not true.

2.3.3 Infringing a Maxim

Grice’s definition of infringement includes that a speaker is faced by a clash of two maxims, i.e. that he is unable to fulfil the maxim of Quantity without disrespecting the maxim of Quality (Grice 1989:30).

(5) A: Where does Samantha live?

B: Somewhere in the South of Spain.

B knows his answer is less informative than required but to be more informative would mean to say something that infringed the maxim of Quality. Therefore, B implicates that he does not know in which town Samantha exactly lives.

Thomas (1995) added that infringement happens when a person fails to observe a maxim due to “imperfect linguistic performance” (1995: 74). This type can occur due to a speaker’s inability to understand a language or a performance impairment like nervousness, excitement, or drunkenness (ibid.).

(6) A: Do you want salad or fries with your burger?

B: Yes.

B fails to answer to answer the question appropriately because the person does not understand the question. Thus, the maxim of Relation is infringed, since the answer is not relevant to the question. However, the person is not trying to be misleading at all.

2.3.4 Opting out a Maxim

The fourth type of non-observance is opting out a maxim. It arises when a person is unwilling to cooperate in the way a maxim operates (Grice 1989: 30). This often happens when a person tries to cover the truth for ethical or private reasons.

(7) A: My father doesn’t tell me about his illness. Please tell me about it.

B: I am sorry, but I can’t tell you.

In this example, B is failing to observe the maxim of Quantity by withholding information. This does not mean that the interlocutor intends to be uncooperative but the person is not allowed to share this information. Thus, it differs from flouting as the person is signalizing that she cannot be cooperative.

2.3.5 Suspending a Maxim

However, Grice does not consider different forms of communication in which the flouting of a maxim may be socially accepted. Thus, many linguists criticized the CP for its lack of explanation of these communicative situations and suggested to add the suspension of the maxims as another way of non-observance. There are cases in which it is not required or expected that a certain maxim is fulfilled, such as in a culture in which it is not permit- ted to talk about a certain topic (Thomas 1948: 76). In small talk, it is conventionally accepted to be brief and not to provide much information. Also in poetry, it is common that the maxim of Manner is not observed. Besides, the communication via social net- works like Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. also suspends the maxim of Quantity, since com- munication mainly includes short and incomplete sentences. Nevertheless, communica- tion in these cases is usually understood by people.

3. Humour in ‘The Big Bang Theory’

3.1 Data Analysis

The analysed data are taken from the first season of the American TV-sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’. It is centred around the two roommates and physicists Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter as well as their friends Howard Wolowitz and Raj Koothrappali. They are highly intelligent but display a lack of social skills. Particularly Sheldon has an inability to recognize sarcasm as well as a lack of empathy. The friends mainly spend their time playing video games, reading comics or doing scientific research for university. Their lack of social skills especially becomes clear when Penny, a young and attractive woman, moves into an apartment next to Leonard and Sheldon. The contrast between their intelligence and her common sense leads to a lot of awkward and funny situations.

In the following, scenes of different episodes will be analysed in order to reveal the violations of Grice’s maxims. Whether a situation can be considered as humorous, is judged based on other character’s laughter as well as the audience’s laughter in the back- ground.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Universität Duisburg-Essen – Anglistik
Linguistics Linguistik Pragmatics Pragmatik Grice Cooperative Principle Big Bang Theory Humour Humor Humour Analysis Maxims Humor and Grice




Titel: Humour and Grice's Cooperative Principle in "The Big Bang Theory"