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中南民族大学 硕士学位论文 中美情景喜剧幽默对白的语用学分析——以《家有儿女》和《 成长的烦恼》为例 姓名:苏莉杰 申请学位级别:硕士 专业:外国语言学及应用语言学 指导教师:许菊 20090501

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

Humor is “something causing you to smile or laugh” or “the quality of causing such amusement”. It is a popular pragmatic phenomenon because it can fulfill a lot of psychological, affective, cognitive, social or aesthetic functions. Humor has constantly been a hot topic in philosophical and linguistic fields. Among the western classical humor theories, superiority theory, relief theory and incongruity theory are the most typical ones, which interpret humor respectively in terms of the relative status between the humorist and the subject being laughed at, the

psychological-affective function of humor, and the cause of humor creation. In China, Lin Yutang was one of pioneers in the field of humor studies. Many more recent researches have studied humor from linguistic, rhetorical and pragmatic perspectives. Sitcom (short for situation comedy) is a humorous drama based on the situation that might arise in everyday life. To make the audience laugh is one of the most essential ingredients and the ultimate goal of sitcoms. Nowadays sitcom has been established as a mature comic literary genre and part of the staple diet of mainstream television entertainment around the world. Among the American and Chinese sitcoms, Growing Pains and Home with Kids are the most popular ones, both of which are developed in a family setting with loving parents and lovely kids of different characters. Sitcom is a relatively new literary and television genre, so its researches are relatively rare, especially those done from pragmatic perspective. Based on the previous researches, the present study makes a tentative exploration into the underlying mechanisms of the verbal humor presented in Chinese and American sitcoms Home with Kids and Growing Pains, within the framework of two pragmatic theories, namely, Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Leech’s Politeness Principle. It is found, based on a qualitative analysis of a great sum of data, that a violation of CP and PP maxims can result in the generation of a lot of humor. Another important finding concerns the pragmatic strategies applied in Chinese and American verbal humors, which are discriminated





Micro-pragmatic strategies refer to those realized at the phonetic, lexical and rhetorical levels such as variation in pitch and stress patterns, the use of rhyme, homophones or homographs, coinage or nonce words, figures of speech, etc. Macro-pragmatic strategies refer to those oriented at establishing solidarity, aggression and self-defense. Solidarity-oriented strategies are presented as sharing experience, highlighting similarities and jesting while aggression-oriented strategies presented as conflict fostering, imposition and ridiculing. Defense-oriented strategies are concretely realized in forms of confessing, coping, self-denigrating and concealing. The present thesis is concluded by pointing out the theoretical, communicative and pedagogical implications of the research. Theoretically, the present study of sitcom humor demonstrates a great potentiality of pragmatic theories in interpreting linguistic and literary phenomena and indicates a new direction for further literary pragmatic researches. Communicatively, the fact that the audience enjoys watching sitcoms implicates that humorous language and characters can facilitate the success of communication and make one more popular with others. Pedagogically, American sitcoms, which are loaded with humorous English language, cultural knowledge and social values, are the ideal material for both language and culture teaching to the EFL learners. There is no doubt the present research has some limitations. For instance, only two pragmatic theories (CP and PP) have been applied in the interpretation of verbal humor occurring in the chosen sitcoms, leaving other equally or even more important theories (e.g. RT) untouched; this thesis is focused exclusively on the verbal humor in sitcoms, leaving humor in other forms unexplored, etc. These inadequacies should be taken as a reminder for the further studies of the same field.

Key words: verbal humor; situation comedies; pragmatic apparatuses; pragmatic strategies


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

幽默既指逗乐之事,又指逗乐之性。幽默语用现象之普遍,源于它在心理、 情感、认知、社会和美学等方面的诸多功能。幽默一直是哲学和语言学领域的热 门话题。西方的经典幽默理论有优越论、消解论和乖讹论,它们分别从幽默者与 被嘲笑对象之间的相对地位、心理情感功能和成因三个方面对幽默进行了阐释。 在中国,林雨堂是幽默研究领域的先驱者,许多后继研究者主要从语言学、修辞 学和语用学视角研究幽默。 情景喜剧是一种以现实生活为原型的幽默剧, 它的基本要素和终极目标是逗 乐观众。当今,情景喜剧已成为一种成熟的喜剧文学体裁,并成为世界主流电视 娱乐的主要形式之一。最受欢迎的中美情景戏剧当属《家有儿女》和《成长的烦 恼》 ,二者均以由慈爱父母和性格迥异的可爱小孩构成的家庭为背景。因为情景 喜剧的体裁较新,对它的研究相对较少,从语用学视角进行的研究尤其如此。 本文在前人研究的基础上, 以格莱斯的合作原则和里奇的礼貌原则为理论框 架,对中美情景喜剧《家有儿女》和《成长的烦恼》中的言语幽默的潜在制笑机 制进行了尝试性研究。在对众多语料进行定性分析的基础上,本研究发现对合作 原则和礼貌原则的众准则的违反导致了大量幽默的生成。 本研究的另一发现与应 用于中美言语幽默的微观和宏观语用策略有关。微观语用策略在语音、词汇和修 辞等语言层面实现,如音高和重音模式的变化,音韵、同音异义或同形异义词、 新造词以及修辞格的运用,等等。宏观语用策略指那些以求和、进攻和防卫为导 向的策略。求和策略具体表现为分享、显同、打趣等,进攻策略则表现为生隙、 强逼和嘲弄等,自卫策略以坦白、应对、自贬和隐瞒等形式出现。 本文在结论中指出了本研究在理论、交际和教学方面的启示。在理论方面, 本项针对情景喜剧幽默的研究展示了语用学理论对语言和文学现象的强大解释 力,指出了文学语用学研究的新方向。在交际方面,观众欣赏情景喜剧这一现象 说明幽默的语言和性格可以促进交际成功,并让自己受人欢迎。在教学方面,美


国情景喜剧装载有大量的幽默英语语言、文化知识和社会价值观信息,这些都是 英语学习者学习语言和文化知识的理想材料。 毫无疑问,本研究还存在着局限性。比如,对所选情景喜剧中的言语幽默的 解释只运用了合作原则和礼貌原则两个语用学理论,而其它同样、甚至更为重要 的语用学理论(如关联理论)却未能涉及;本文专攻情景喜剧中的言语幽默,对 其它的幽默形式未曾探索,等等。这些不足值得未来的同类研究者注意。



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本人郑重声明:所呈交的论文是本人在导师的指导下独立进行研究所 取得的研究成果。除了文中特别加以标注引用的内容外,本论文不包含任 何其他个人或集体已经发表或撰写的成果作品。对本文的研究做出重要贡 献的个人和集体,均已在文中以明确方式标明。本人完全意识到本声明的 法律后果由本人承担。



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During the past three years of my postgraduate study in South-Central University for Nationalities, I was fortunate enough to have received valuable help and encouragement from all those who have taught me postgraduate courses. The knowledge and inspiration I have acquired from their lectures and instructions have paved the way for my academic growth. Here I would like to take this opportunity to extend my sincere thanks to all those teachers who have contributed a lot to the final completion of the present thesis. During the process of this thesis writing, many people have given me great support and inspiration. First and foremost, I owe my sincere gratefulness to my academic advisor, Professor Xu Ju, who impressed me deeply with her deep insights, rigorous attitude towards academic research as well as her amiable character. She gave me the initial impetus and encouragement in choosing this topic and guided me in drafting and revising the paper and helped polishing the language. Without her constant encouragement and painstaking supervision, this thesis could not have been what it is like. Thanks are also extended to my family for their unconditional support and love, to all my friends and classmates for their accompanying me through the thick and thin in the bygone years, without which the completion of this thesis would be impossible. The errors and inadequacies remain my own responsibilities.



Chapter 1


1.1 The Definitions and Functions of Humor
Humor is a universal phenomenon. It is widely applied in verbal communication of daily life and literary works. The term “humor” originated from Latin. According to New Oxford Dictionary of English, its original meaning is “liquid” or “fluid”, and has much to do with the “theory of humors” of Medieval medicine. In the early Western physiological theory, humor was considered to be one of the four fluids of the body: blood (coming from the heart, representing heat), phlegm (originating in the brain, representing cold), choler (yellow bile, secreted by the liver, representing dryness), and melancholy (black bile, emanating from the spleen and stomach, representing moisture). The variant mixtures of these fluids in different persons were thought to determine their physical and mental qualities. An imbalance of these four fluids could be the source of illness. By the 16th century, humor had come to denote an unbalanced mental condition, a mood or an unreasonable caprice. Gradually, through the centuries, the term had come to refer to one’s mood or state of mind in a very general sense and the meaning of the term was narrowed down to a specific mood or disposition, characterized by a sensitivity to, or appreciation of ludicrous, absurd, or comical events. (1) Definitions Humor is defined in different ways by different dictionaries. According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary (6th edition), humor is “the quality in something that makes it funny or amusing; the ability to laugh at things that are amusing.” Webster’s College Dictionary, however, defines “humor” as “quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous and the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous and something that is or is designed to be comical or amusing.” Modern Chinese

Dictionary simply refers to “humor” as “something interesting or playful and having

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

deep meaning or thought-provoking”. In Cambridge Dictionary of American English, “humor” means the ability to be amused by something seen, heard, or thought about, something causing you to smile or laugh, or the quality in something that causes such amusement. From these varieties of definitions, we can still find something essential in humor, that is, to be laughable or amusing. (2) Functions People are thirsty for humor because it can make their life colorful and meaningful. Generally speaking, verbal humor has following psychological, affective, cognitive, social or aesthetic functions: (a) Reducing stress & improving people’s mental health Stress is an adverse condition during which we may experience tension or fatigue, feel unpleasant and sometimes develop a sense of hopelessness or futility. Humor can reduce our psychological tightness by means of providing an outlet for us to release our negative feelings rather than leave them out in a violent manner. So it is good to our mental health. (b) Entertaining people The most obvious response to humor is the addressee’s laughter. Undoubtedly humor serves as a unique means of relaxing and entertaining people. That is why humorous language performances are more and more popular with the modern people. (c) Establishing harmonious interpersonal relations Humor can reduce frictions and embarrassment. It makes the interpersonal relationship more harmonious and pleasant through offering a relaxing and light atmosphere. (d) Demonstrating the speaker’s mental capacity Nowadays humor has become one of the most attractive characteristics a successful person must possess, not only because it can bring laughter and happiness to people, but also because it shows a man’s extraordinary mental capacity. In reality, an intelligent boss with a sense of humor will point out the shortcomings or improper conducts of his employees while not letting them feel much embarrassed. In this sense,


humor can be regarded as a certain kind of art. (e) Promoting people’s aesthetic taste Humor is a beauty. It attracts us partly because we can get aesthetic enjoyment from it. Many masters in the literary world, such as Chauce, Twain in the west and Lin Yutang, Qian Zhongshu in China, are appreciated for their humorous sense embodied in their literary works. Therefore, humor also has aesthetic function.

1.2 Situation Comedy (Sitcom): A Form of Drama
Situation comedy, usually referred to as sitcom, is “a regular program on television that shows the same characters in different amusing situations” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary, 6th edition). WordNet defines sitcom as “a humorous drama based on situations that might arise in day-to-day life” or “a humorous television program based on situations that could arise in everyday life or television show”. Sitcoms usually consist of recurring characters in a common environment such as at home or workplace. As a form of art, sitcoms are popular precisely because of their reliance on certain key conventions and ingredients. To make the audience laugh is one of the most essential ingredients and the ultimate goal of sitcoms. Sitcom has been established as part of the staple diet of mainstream television entertainment around the world. As American comedy writer Lenny Ripps once said in an interview that it’s hard to imagine television without the situation comedy, perhaps the most intrinsically American form of comedy today.

1.2.1 The History of Sitcom
Sitcoms originated in radio in the 1920s. Today, sitcoms are among the most popular programs on the television schedule and many countries have followed in the BBC’s footsteps by embracing this form. The first sitcom is often said to be Sam and Henry which debuted on the Chicago clear-channel station WGN in 1926. In the late 1940s, the sitcom was among the first formats adapted for the new medium of


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

television. Many of the earliest sitcoms were direct adaptations of existing radio shows. Eventually, sitcoms began to divide themselves into domestic comedies and workplace comedies. The earliest domestic comedy The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and the earliest workplace comedy Our Miss Brooks and Mr. Peepers were both set in high schools. In the mid-1990s several sitcoms have reintroduced the ongoing story line, such as Friend ― the second most popular American sitcom. Most contemporary sitcoms are filmed with a multi-camera setup in front of the scene audience, then edited and broadcast days or weeks later.

1.2.2 The Laugh Track of Sitcom
The success of a sitcom lies in being capable of making the audience laugh at frequent intervals. Laugh track, also called “laughter soundtrack”, “laughter track”, “LFN” (laughter from nowhere), “canned laughter” or “a laughing audience”, is a separate soundtrack invented by Charles Douglass, with the artificial sound of audience laughter, made to be inserted into TV comedy shows and sitcoms. The first television show to incorporate a laugh track was The Hank McCune Show in 1950. It is basically the laughter of the audience who watch the show in the studio when it is filmed. During the post-production of the show, the producers may also have added recorded laughter or have manipulated the sound level to get the most desirable effect. Laugh tracks have been derided by some critics as insulting to the intelligence of the viewers of a show, because it seems to tell the audience when they should laugh, as though they could not figure it out for themselves. Some also feel that laugh track placement and intensity serve as strong suggestions as to how certain real-life situations should be viewed and handled. Although this canned laughter track has been criticized for being artificial and for being an insult to their intelligence of the viewers, television viewers seem to accept it quite well if the show is good in itself. It is advocated that having a laugh track is good for the English learner in China, as the laugh track serves as an indication of humor. Non-native audiences may find it is less funny when the laugh track is not available.


1.2.3 Six Elements of Sitcom
Comedy is what makes one laugh, but what is it that makes one laugh? According to Tafinger (1996), there are six elements required for something to be humorous: 1) it must appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions; 2) it must be mechanical; 3) it must be inherently human, with the capability of reminding us of humanity; 4) there must be a set of established societal norms with which the observer is familiar, either through everyday life or through the author providing it in expository material, or both; 5) the situation and its component parts (the actions performed and the dialogue spoken) must be inconsistent or unsuitable to the surrounding or associations (i.e., the societal norms); 6) it must be perceived by the observer as harmless or painless to the participants. When all these criteria are met, people will laugh. If any one of them is absent, the attempt at humor will fail.

1.2.4 General Features of Sitcom
The basic unit of sitcom is an episode that usually lasts for about twenty minutes. Each episode consists of several acts that happen in certain places, like in a dining room or living room, where characters gather to report their life and discuss certain topics. In modern TV sitcoms, the characters always remain in the same situation from episode to episode. It usually consists of recurring characters in a format (usually a 30 minute show once a week) in which there are one or more story lines centered on a common environment, such as at home or workplace. Traditionally, sitcoms were largely self-contained, in which the characters themselves remained largely static and events in the sitcom resolved themselves by the conclusion of the show. The essence of sitcom is humor, which is determined by the intention of the sitcom ― to entertain audiences. The situation is usually that of a family, workplace, or a group of friends. Take the famous Growing Pains and Home with Kids as an example. These sitcoms reveal teenagers’ lives, the love and conflicts in family relationship through tiny affairs of everyday life, including having dinner, going to school and doing shopping, etc. Therefore the language in sitcom is closer to real-life

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

conversation in comparison with that in films.

1.3 The Setting of Home with Kids and Growing Pains
Home with Kids is one of the most famous sitcoms in China. It tells a story of a rebuilt family. The stories of this sitcom take place in this special family. Although being a rebuilt family, both Xia Donghai (father) and Liu Mei (mother) treat all the children as their own. They love their children deeply, paying much attention to their education. Although the children are of different ages and half-brothers and sisters, they get along very well with each other. All of them have specific interests and characters, so some quarrellings are also unavoidable because they grow up in different environments. They often unite to cope with their parents and sometimes struggle with each other for their own benefits. Xia Donghai, the father, is a director and editor of children plays. He is optimistic towards life. He is the spiritual support of the family and also a representative of the new concept of family education. He attaches particular importance to the equality, mutual respect and understanding with his kids. He is not only a good father but also a good friend of the kids. Both his own son and the step-son love him. Liu Mei, the mother, is a charge nurse in a big hospital and also the emotional bond of the family. She has a hot temper and she is always in a hustling and bustling manner, dedicated to her work, and taking on almost all the housework. She loves her family and she is quite traditional in thinking and always hopes to see the children succeed in life. She is a laughable and respectable mother. The oldest child, Xia Xue, is the daughter of Xia Donghai. She is an intelligent and straight “A” student, confident while sensitive. She often creates some sophisticated troubles to her parents. The second oldest, Liu Xing, is the son of Liu Mei, a smart but elfish boy who always fails in his school examinations. He always thinks himself as the New Mankind and is the chief trouble-maker in the family. He takes great interest in sports,


but his performance at school is the sore spot in his mother. The youngest child, Xiao Yu, is the son of Xia Donghai. He is a clever, adorable and na?ve kid who has grown up in the United States and come back with his father. Growing Pains is an American sitcom televised on the ABC network from 1985 to 1992. It is a family sitcom, consisting of 7 seasons. This sitcom has won considerable reputation among Chinese audience after introduced in 1992. It unfolds a happy and decent picture about Seaver’s family life before Chinese audience. From then on, sitcom has come to be accepted and popular in China gradually. Jason Seaver, the father, is a psychiatrist. From the 1st to the 5th season he conducts his medical practices at home. Maggie, Jason’s wife, is a journalist who works for the Long Island newspaper in the first three seasons of the sitcom. She got a job as the news anchor and has worked there until the middle of the 5th season when she decides to stay at home. Jason then moves his medical clinic out of the house to an office. Together, Maggie and Jason have raised three children. They often worry about “who would stay home with the baby” or would “be there for the kids”. Sometimes they quarrel or even fight with each other about who should be responsible for a certain domestic responsibility, but fortunately each time the issue has been settled eventually. The oldest of the four children is Mike. He is also the No. 1 trouble of the family. Mike is clever, but never makes full use of his cleverness in his school work, so he always receives poor marks and keeps making funny mistakes. The second oldest is Carol, who is the complete opposite of Mike. She is a straight “A” student, just like most teenage girls struggling with social obstacles at school. Carol adds a lot of comedy as well as a serious side to the show. Next comes little Ben, the youngest son in the family, who is quite childish and simple-minded. Accordingly, his remarks are usually quite ridiculous and unexpected, consistent with his innocent character. The sitcom ends when Maggie gets a job in Washington D.C., which requires the family to move. In the last episode, the Seaver family gather around a picnic blanket

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

on the floor of their empty living room, remembering their bygone days. These two sitcoms have gained great success in sitcom history. Being funny and close to life, these sitcoms were very popular among Chinese audience. Even now, they are still being broadcast as reruns in China and abroad because of DVD sales and they continue to generate much laughter from sitcom audiences.

1.4 The Framework of the Present Thesis
The thesis is composed of six chapters. Chapter One serves as an introduction of the whole thesis. Chapter Two is a review of the previous studies on humor and sitcoms respectively both at home and abroad. Chapter Three is an introduction to the case study of the two sitcoms Home with Kids and Growing Pains, including the research objectives and methods of data collection and analysis. Chapter Four and Chapter Five are the findings of the case study, discussing the pragmatic apparatuses and strategies of verbal humors in Chinese and English sitcoms. Chapter Six summarizes the major findings of the study, indicates its theoretical, communicative and pedagogical implications as well as its suggestions for further researches.



Chapter 2

Literature Review

2.1 A General Picture of the Studies on Humor
Humor is very popular in many spheres and aspects of life and gives people great enjoyment in human interaction. Though commonly heard in everyday life, humor is a concept rather elusive and indefinable. But this challenging problem has not prevented scholars of various disciplines, ranging from psychology to sociology to linguistics, from probing into the topic. They have left us an abundance of valuable theoretical legacy. In this part, a glimpse at humor in general both at home and abroad is presented.

2.1.1 Foreign Studies Three Classical Humor Theories Since the classical period in Greece, philosophers have concerned themselves with the nature of humor and the causes of laughter. The scholars have produced many theories. Among them, three classical theories of humor are the most prominent: superiority theory, relief theory and incongruity theory. (1) Superiority theory Superiority theory was proposed by Thomas Hobbes (1962), which claims that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly. The assumption of the superiority theory is that we laugh about the misfortunes of others, which reflects our own superiority. This theory can be found in the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Hobbes. Plato (427-347BC) suggested that humor is some kind of malice towards people that are being considered relatively powerless. Hobbes (1962) further explains that humans are in a constant competition with each other, looking for the shortcomings of other persons. He considers laughter as an expression of a sudden

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

realization that we are better than others, an expression of “sudden glory”. Laughing at the inferior boosts our self-confidence and makes us feel superior. Because of its emphasis on the interpersonal and social aspect of humor, superiority theory is of considerable interest to the sociolinguists. To sum up, the Superiority Theory is characterized by one’s cognitive comparison of self against others on the basis of intelligence, beauty, strength, wealth, etc. According to any superiority theory of humor, the laughter always looks down on whatever he laughs at, and so judges it inferior by some standard. (2) Relief theory Relief theory was proposed by Freud (1960), which claims that humor is a kind of relief of the nervousness and repressiveness of human mind, which derive from social restriction. The essence of relief theory is that laughter provides relief for mental, nervous or psychic energy and thus ensures homeostasis after a struggle, tension, strain, etc. It maintains that humor releases tensions, psychic energy, or that humor releases one from inhibitions, conventions and laws. That is, a special kind of relief takes place when a joke liberates us from an inhibition. This theory reached its zenith when Freud proposed his theory on how laughter releases tension and “psychic energy”. This energy continuously builds up within the human body, has no further use and therefore has to be released. This release is spontaneous and expresses itself in laughter. This theory is popular among those who believe that laughter is beneficial for one’s health. A more conventional version of the relief theory is that we experience a pleasant sensation when humor replaces negative feelings like pain or sadness. Relief theories of laughter have not provided us a way to distinguish humorous laughter from non-humorous laughter. Sometimes people laugh to release the nervousness without connection with humor. The theory does not really give an explanation as to why we find humor funny, so it can in fact be seen as a theory of laughter.



(3) Incongruity theory According to incongruity theory, the cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and the laugh itself is just an expression of this incongruity (Schopenhauer, 1819). The incongruity theory is the most important and influential theory of humor, which focuses on the object of humor. The term “incongruity” is broadly used to include ambiguity, logical impossibility, irrelevance, and inappropriateness. Kant, in the eighteenth century, was credited to have made the first full conceptualization of incongruity, which focuses on the element of surprise. According to Kant (1790), humor is created out of a conflict between what is expected and what actually occurs, where “incongruity” refers to an “inconsistent” number of possibilities hidden within terms such as “not harmonious”, “lacking propriety” and “non-conforming”. This accounts for the most obvious feature of humor: an ambiguity, or double meaning, which deliberately or unintentionally misleads the audience, followed by a punch line. Compared to the superiority theory and relief theory, the scope of incongruity theory is much wider, because it can explain why some things can make people laugh and others can not. However, the incongruity theory alone can not explain all sorts of humor. It is true that something unexpected might elicit laughter, but if a playful mood is lacking, other negative results might occur instead of amusement. Therefore, funny things might embody incongruity; however, incongruous things do not necessarily lead to humor. Since sitcom is a most popular form of entertainment which aims at audience ranging from the intellectuals to the illiterates, some of the incongruities in it require little effort in the resolution, which may lead to a kind of direct or deliberate surprise. For example, in Home with Kids, the father goes to business and doesn’t go home on time, the mother asks Xiao Yu to give him a call, after it… Mother: Who answered the call? Xiao Yu: A woman. (Everyone is very nervous). She said, “Sorry, the number you

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

dialed is out of service.”


Having felt the solemn tone in which Xiao Yu talks to his family, both the audience and the family become very nervous. People are worried and curious about this woman. They suspect that he had an affair. Xiao Yu’s additional words are the punch line ― this woman is the service staff. This conclusion is totally incongruous with what the audience has expected and the consequential laughter is inevitable. The three major humor theories characterize the complex phenomenon of humor from various angles, yet none of them is comprehensive and convincing enough. They do not necessarily contradict each other; rather they seem to supplement each other quite nicely. As is summarized by Raskin (1985), the superiority theory characterizes the relations or attitudes between the speaker and the hearer; the release theory comments on the feelings and psychology of the hearer only; and the incongruity-based theory makes a statement about the stimulus. Other Representative Humor Theories Raskin (1985) developed the Semantic Theory of Humor (SSTH). It is the first linguistics-based theory of humor. The SSTH theory points out that each piece of humor must contain two overlapping scripts and these two scripts must be opposed to each other. Raskin (1985) also reveals three types of opposition lying in all humor: factual vs. nonfactual; normal vs. abnormal; possible vs. impossible. The SSTH was further revised and expanded into what is called General Theory of Verbal Humor. Attardo and Raskin (1991) have done a lot of work on semantic aspects of verbal humor. Their work has resulted in the GTVH, which is a linguistic theory at large, that is, it touches other areas of linguistics as well, including textual linguistics and pragmatics. Chiaro (1992) explores the pragmatics of word play and examines the narrative structures of various joke forms. She focuses particularly on the socio-cultural contexts for the production and reception of jokes by examining the extent to which jokes are both universal in their appeal, and yet specific to a particular culture. Palmer (1994) makes a comprehensive or interdisciplinary study on humor,


involving anthropology, psychology, literary criticism, biology and aesthetics. His study unravels the reasons why humor is a challenge for every different theoretical approach. It is therefore an attempt to determine the appropriate occasions, functions, structures, and texts together with the limits of humor. George and Paton (1988) concentrate on humor in British, American and Australian societies, with such studies being intellectually diverse and reflecting the different analytical approaches adopted in the broad field of humor and society. Jokes are hence related to their social context, whether at the micro-social level of conversations or at the macro-social level of class, gender and ethnic power relations.

2.1.2 Domestic Studies
In China, the study of humor has a long history, which can be dated back to the Book of Songs. In 1924, the word “humor” was translated into youmo by Lin Yutang, a respectful master of humor study. The word was gradually accepted and sustained as the fixed translation of “humor”. According to Lin Yutang (1996), humor is a thoughtful laughter or hearty smile and three conditions are to be met before making up humor: delicate commonsense, light-hearted philosophy and simple mind. However, humor has not been established as an independent artistic style in China, as can be seen in the West. Many Chinese scholars tried to apply the linguistic theories to the study of language humor in the early 1980’s. Their increasing interest in humor has been manifested in an increasing number of relevant papers published in core journals and magazines. Some scholars carry out researches on the history and achievements of humor study. Some researches have been done from linguistic perspective. These researches provide us with a bird’s-eye-view of humor research. Lv Guangdan (1984) analyzes English humor created by ambiguity from three levels: the phonetic level, the lexical level and the syntactic level. Hu Fanchou (1987) and Gao Shenglin (2006) both study humor from the rhetorical perspective. Mao Ronggui & Fan Wuqiu (2005) identify the figure-of-speech and non-figure-of-speech humor within the surface structure and makes a detailed analysis of English humorous language by means of rhetorical devices, which much enlightens the inspiration of the

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

present author. Chen Chunhua (1999) suggests applying the relevance theory to the explanation of the humor realization. Shi Jing (1995) holds that irrelevance is a kind of way for the speaker to create humor, etc.

2.2 An Overview of the Studies on Sitcoms
Since the first appearance of sitcom in radio and then on television, this special genre of humor expression has aroused the interest of many scholars and critics, especially in the western world.

2.2.1 Foreign Studies
In the west, Primeau (1979) finds that usually the subject of sitcom is about some sort of social manners or customs. At the beginning of the play, the social order is intact. People do what is expected of them. But later on one or a group of characters violate one of those typical customs or norms and gradually stand out from others as a troublemaker. The enduring confusion produces a series of humorous plots and subplots until at last the order would be restored before the curtain falls. Moreover, Primeau (1979) classifies sitcoms into following types:

family-centered situation, single-hero-centered situations, humorous side of professionals (doctors, lawyers, and judges), minority-centered situations, nostalgia shows and social-issued-centered situations. Garvey and Rivers give some advice on how to write sitcom. The general rules for writing sitcom is “to take the theme of the show and prepare a script that fits that theme and makes use of the main continuing characters” and the writing “has to be done within the time frame of the show” (Garvey and Rivers, 1982: 88). According to Brenner (1980), though the ability of sitcom writing can be learned, more often it is either inborn or developed early in life, usually unconsciously. The above researchers examine sitcom from different perspectives, and some other researches such as David Marc (1989) studied television comedy and American culture.



Yus and Norrick have made some contributions to the establishment of the verbal-visual model of humor, to which the sitcom belongs. Norrik (2004) has discovered some characteristics of the non-verbal humor, joke performance and the written joke texts in his research work Non-verbal Humor and Joke Performance. Yus (1998) has done some researches concerning the verbal-visual model of media communication from the perspective of relevance theory.

2.2.2 Domestic Studies
As far as we can find, until now, there are only a few research works that deal with this special form of oral humor performance in China. Yu Tian (2003), for example, made a comparative study of the genre of television sitcom. Xu Shan (2004), from the perspective of language learning, proposes a fresh idea that sitcom is a new resource for learning colloquial expressions. Cheng Fen (2005) studied the laugh-elicitation skills and comedy effects in Chinese sitcoms. Zhou Xiaoli (2005) adopted a discourse approach to humor analysis in American sitcom Friends. By contrast, Wu Shuizhen (2006) took a stylistic approach to humor analysis in American sitcom. From the literature review, it can be seen that although the previous researches have examined sitcoms from different perspectives, few of them have been done within the framework of pragmatics, which becomes the task of the present research.


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

Chapter 3

Verbal Humors in Home with Kids and Growing Pains: A Case Study

3.1 Objectives of the Research
Although numerous researches have been done for the interpretation of humor from the pragmatic point of view, most of the research materials of humor are confined to canned jokes and narrative texts, which could not provide an adequate basis for the study of how people use verbal humor to perform communicative tasks. The two popular sitcoms, Home with Kids and Growing Pains, provide an easy access for my research to a rich pool of humorous language data. That is the chief reason why I choose sitcom as the object of my analysis. In the research process, it was found that rare researches have been done on the humorous language of Chinese from a pragmatic perspective. One of the possible reasons may be that most pragmatic theories have been advanced by the western linguists who have little knowledge of Chinese language. However, when the theories are created, they are intended to have universal applications. Out of this consideration, the present study is a tentative attempt to investigate the underlying mechanisms of humor found in Chinese and American sitcoms Home with Kids and Growing Pains within the theoretical framework of pragmatics, namely, the co-operative principle by H.P Grice (1975) and the politeness principle by Leech (1983). Through a pragmatic analysis of the humorous utterances in these two sitcoms, the inner production mechanism of the humorous utterances will be concluded. Following this inner mechanism, readers would appreciate the verbal humor in the sitcom better and even become capable of producing humor in their own everyday communication with people.

3.2 Methods of Data Collection and Analysis
Two of the most popular sitcoms selected respectively from China and America, Home with Kids and Growing Pains, have become the source of material to be


analyzed in this thesis. The data will be drawn from the scripts of these sitcoms randomly. The videos and scripts of the two sitcoms have been collected from various sources, some from DVD stores, and some from the internet. Of course, it would surely be an immensely great task to collect and analyze all the data in the scripts of all these episodes and it is obviously an impossible mission. So the author chooses some dialogues by casting lots. Therefore all the humorous dialogues in the selected scripts will become the candidates for the samples of the study. Home with Kids and Growing Pains have been chosen for the case study, for they have many similarities: 1) They are of the same genre. Everyday family lives are presented in these two sitcoms. Their popularity has both been widely recognized and they are typical and successful examples of sitcoms. 2) They both reveal common people’s family life with young children in it. The two families belong to the same social status of their respective countries. And these two sitcoms share many similarities in plots and characters. For instance, in both families, parents are well-educated; the daughter is an A-straight student; the elder son is smart but not good at school work; the youngest son is lovely and clever. Hence, Home with Kids is even called as Chinese version of Growing Pains. 3) They both comprise a lot of humorous speeches. 4) Compared with the nonverbal humor in the two sitcoms, humorous language or verbal humor certainly plays a more crucial role in the elicitation of laughter. For these four reasons, the humor-containing dialogues of these two sitcoms are chosen as the corpus of the research. The laugh tracks (the audience’s laughter) in the two sitcoms are taken as an indication of humor occurrence. The research mainly takes a qualitative method of analysis. Each of the humorous dialogues will be presented together with the context in which it takes place. The humorous utterances will then be analyzed with a certain kind of pragmatic theory. For example, the violation of certain conversational maxim of CP and PP may help to explain the production of humorous effect.


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

Chapter 4

Pragmatic Apparatuses for the Verbal Humors in these Two Sitcoms

The verbal humor of the chosen sitcoms will be interpreted from pragmatic perspectives, concretely, from the perspectives of Grice’s cooperative principle and Leech’s politeness principle.

4.1 The Cooperative Principle and Its Application in Verbal Humors
In 1975, the language philosopher H. P. Grice published a seminal article entitled “The Cooperative Principle” which created quite a stir in the linguistic world and generated a large number of linguistic publications that are built on Grice’s postulates.

4.1.1 Four Maxims of the Cooperative Principle
In order to explain further the cooperative principle (abbreviated as CP), Grice borrows from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s four categories: quantity, quality, relation and manner. That is, the CP is specified from these four aspects. And the content of each category is known as maxim. The following are the Grice’s four maxims for attaining cooperation. The maxim of quantity a) Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange); b) Do not make your contribution more informative than is required. The maxim of quality a) Do not say what you believe to be false; b) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. The maxim of relation: Be relevant. The maxim of manner: Be perspicuous.


a) Avoid obscurity of expression. b) Avoid ambiguity. c) Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). d) Be orderly. (Grice, 1975: 45-46)

The maxim of quantity has two sub-maxims that require the cooperative speaker to say as much as but no more than is required for his particular purposes in the talk exchange. The maxim of quality also has two sub-maxims, which demands that the speaker say only what he believes to be true and for which he has sufficient evidence. The maxim of relation urges the speaker to make his contribution relevant to the communication context. The maxim of manner requires the speaker to be methodical and to avoid ambiguity, prolixity, and obscurity. In short, as Grice put it for the cooperative principle, “make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged” (Grice, 1975: 44). The cooperative principle is the foundation of pragmatic interpretation of humor, of which the flouting of maxims plays a very important role.

4.1.2 Floutings of CP Maxims and Humor Production
In actual conversation, a participant may deliberately flout CP maxims for some reason or special need. Grice discovers that there are five ways in which speakers don’t observe the maxims: flouting the maxim, violating the maxim, infringing a maxim, opting out of a maxim and suspending a maxim. As an important category of non-observance of the conversational maxims, a flout is distinguished by deliberately triggering the hearer’s search for an implicature. The speaker employs this way seemingly against the cooperative principle to reinforce the communicative effect. In this way the speaker can make his conversation humorous and thus produce the effect of humor. In fact, flouting of the CP is often seen in Chinese and American sitcoms. Of course, sitcom writers also deliberately flout the principle in order to achieve humorous effects.


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms Flouting the Quantity Maxim When a speaker offers more or less information than is required by the situation with the intention of generating an implicature, he flouts the maxim of quantity. Look at the following example: (1) (In Episode 093, Liu Xing goes to Internet café and Liu Mei keeps asking what he did there.) Xing: You’d better not interfere with my business from now on! (以后我的事情你少管. ) Mei: What did you say? I don’t interfere with your business? Why didn’t you say it when I breast-fed you? Why didn’t you say it when you were sick? Why didn’t you say it when you fell to the ground? Why didn’t you say it when you couldn’t walk? You don’t want me to interfere with you now, because you are grown up and can do whatever you want? (Laughter) (你说什么呢?再说一遍!我少管?你小时候喝奶的时候怎么不说? 小时候生病的时候怎么不说呀?摔跟头时候怎么不说呀?学会走路 时候怎么不说?这时候让我少管. 你翅膀硬了,自个会飞了?) In this episode, the mother is very angry about what Liu Xing did and said; she is so angry that she can’t help talking excessively about the matter, which sounds humorous. This obviously violates the second sub-maxim of quantity: Do not make your contribution more informative than is required. Let’s examine another example from Episode 103 of Growing Pains, in which Mike’s girlfriend Lisa comes to visit his family. Mike doesn’t want other people in the house to interfere in their talk. Here is the dialogue between them: (2) Mike: Uh, you guys haven’t seen Uncle Steven in a while. Why don’t you take a walk by his place? Jason: Mike, your uncle Steve is in Conneticut. Mike: So? Jason: And he’s dead. (Laughter)



In the above conversation, Jason’s first remark violates the first sub-maxim of quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required. Mike wants his family go to visit Uncle Steve so that he can stay alone with his girlfriend Lisa. In response to Mike’s request, Jason at first only mentions that Uncle Steve is in a place far away from where they are while holding back the information that he is dead. Only when Mike is taken in, does Jason leak out this piece of information. In the light atmosphere of sitcom, Jason’s way of providing information does sound very funny. Flouting the Quality Maxim The maxim of quality requires that one’s verbal contribution to a conversation should be truthful. The theory also claims that you violate the quality maxim when you deliberately lie or communicate in a way that does not reflect an honest intention (Grice, 1975). The following are two examples drawn respectively from Home with Kids and Growing Pains which can explain how flouting the maxim of quality produces humor: (3) (In Episode 101 of Home with Kids, the reorganized family just live together. Xia Yu and his mother Liu Mei have such a dialogue.) Yu: Mum, my hand was bitten by the insect. (妈,我的手被虫子给咬啦. ) Mei: Oh, what’s the matter? Was it bitten by mosquito? Come on, let me scratch for you. What a pity! (呦,怎么回事儿啊,蚊子给咬的吧!妈给挠挠啊. 可怜了. ) Yu: Why does the mosquito only bite me instead of Liu Xing? This isn’t my home? (为什么蚊子只咬我不咬刘星?是不是这不是我的家啊?) Mei: Nonsense! Of course this is your home. Here are your dad and mum. Do you know why the mosquitoes only bite you instead of Liu Xing? (别胡说, 这就是你的家啊. 你看爸爸妈妈不都在呢?你知道为什么蚊 子只咬你不咬刘星吗?) Yu: Why?

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

(嗯?) Mei: Because your blood is sweet while Liu Xing’s is stinking. (Laughter) (因为你的血是甜的,刘星的血是臭的.) When a speaker says something that is false or for which he lacks adequate evidence, he flouts the maxim of quality. In this conversation, it is obvious that the mother tells a lie to Xiao Yu. As a mother and an adult, she knows the reason well. In order to hoax Xiao Yu and make him feel good, she deliberately says something which is obviously false. In this way, Liu Mei doesn’t observe the first sub-maxim of quality: Do not say what you believe to be false. But it is just her deliberate flouting of the maxim that makes her son (Xiao Yu) feel better and at the same time generates a humorous effect. The following is another example from Episode 112 of Growing Pains. Before Christmas, the family is talking about their Christmas present. (4) Maggie: Ben, stop that. You deal with one present after dinner. Ben: But I thought you said everyone’s Christmas Eve present would have a big great bowl on it. Carol: It will. Ben: Well, everyone has one with a big great bowl in it except me. Mike: Well maybe we should tell him the truth, guys. Ben: What truth? Mike: Well Ben, you are adopted and Santa doesn't know your new address. (Laughter) Little Ben can’t find his Christmas present. His brother deliberately teases him by saying that he is an adopted child so Christmas father doesn’t know his new address. Evidently Mike is saying something for which he lacks adequate evidence. His deliberate flouting of the quality maxim brings about humorous effect. Flouting the Relation Maxim The maxim of relation tells us to make our contributions relevant. The demand


for relevance simply means that the speaker should only convey information that is relevant to the topic being communicated. If one party wants to avoid the topic under discussion and starts another seemingly relevant topic, he will flout the maxim of relevance. And this seemingly relevant answer often makes another party feel funny. The maxim of relation is flouted when a response is completely irrelevant to the subject or the goal of the conversation. Look at the following example: (5) (After Xia Donghai comes back from the parents’ meeting held in Liu Xing’s school, he has a dialogue with Liu Mei, his wife.) Liu Mei: Are you OK? There must be huge gap in your mind now. Do you have the thought to find a way to escape? (没受刺激吧,就你这种给小雪那种好学生开过家长会的你肯定 心理有巨大的落差. 想找个地缝转进去…) Dong Hai: The meeting is quite well. (开的还算比较圆满.) Liu Mei: What did the teacher tell you about Liu Xing? (老师都给刘星告什么状了?) (The grandma coughs, indicating Xia Donghai not to tell the truth) Dong Hai: Err, I take some medicine for grandma. (Laughter) (啊,我给姥姥去拿点药去. ) Liu Mei: Quickly, what did the teacher tell you? (你快说啊,老师都说刘星什么了?) Dong Hai: Well, he said… nothing. (他说啊,没什么. ) In this episode, after the parents’ meeting, from our basic understanding about Liu Xing and Xia Donghai’s facial expressions, we know that Liu Xing must have done something wrong in school. If Xia Donghai told the truth to Liu Mei, she must punish her son. So Xia Donghai intends not to tell his wife the truth and avoids answering her inquiry. His answer (the italicized line) is apparently irrelevant to his wife’s question. In this light atmosphere, he has created humor by flouting the

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

relevance maxim. The following is another example taken from Growing Pains, in which Mike skips from school the first day. After he comes back from school, he tries to avoid his parents’ question by showing love for and praising his parents in order to get by with false pretence. (6) Mike: Daddy! Jason: Mikey! How’s my boy? How was school? Mike: Dad, I missed you today. I thought about you all the time. (Laughter) Jason: How was school? Mike: I love you, dad. (Laughter) Jason: Come on. I was asking you how…oh, I love you, too. Maggie: Mikey, did you tell your dad about your report card? Mike: Oh, oh! Jason: Oh! Mike: I was just about to… Maggie: Well, go ahead, Mikey. Mike: I love you, mummy. (Laughter) Maggie: Well, that won’t work on us, sweetheart. We aren’t stupid. Mike: It worked on daddy. From the above dialogue, we can know Mike’s answers are irrelevant to his father’s questions. The father wants to know Mike’s performance at school, but he skips from school, so he tries to say something irrelevant to avoid answering his questions. In this case, humorous effect is achieved through the violation of the relation maxim. Flouting the Manner Maxim “Avoiding obscurity” means what you say must be easily or clearly understood. “Avoiding ambiguity” means there should be no existence of more than one meaning in what you say. “Being brief” and “being orderly” mean what you say should be



concise and well arranged. The maxim of manner is flouted by speaking redundantly, disorderly or unclearly. On this occasion the speaker seems very uncooperative, but actually he intends to produce an implicature to be deduced by the hearer. In verbal communication, people often misunderstand the ambiguous expressions, thus resulting in a humorous effect. The following dialogue between Liu Mei and her son Liu Xing is a case in point. (7) Mei: Why doesn’t the gorilla evolve? (Laughter) (猩猩为什麽不进化啊?) Xing: Give me a reason for its evolution. (给我一个进化的理由.) Mei: Why doesn’t it talk? (它为什麽不说话啊?) Xing: What do you want me to say? (您让我说什麽呀?) Mei: It lies in its defect in listening. (在于听力的缺陷.) Xing: My ears are quite good. (我耳朵挺好哒!) Mei: Go away. Don’t bother me! (去! 别在这儿捣乱.) Xing: Aren’t you talking about me? (您不是说我呢吗?) Mei: I am talking about the gorilla. (我这儿说大猩猩呢.) The pronunciation of gorilla (xingxing) in Chinese language is the same with Liu Xing’s nickname. Liu Mei is talking something about the gorilla, but Liu Xing misunderstands the meaning of xingxing. Obviously, this misunderstanding comes from the two possibilities to interpret the sound xingxing (“猩猩” and “星星”). The ambiguous use of the word (sound), which violates the maxim of manner, is the

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

reason of humor production here. The following humor selected from Episode 517 of Growing Pains also violates the first sub-maxim of manner because the speaker’s utterance is obscure. (8) Ben: Great stinky, I’ll meet you at the mall in twenty minutes. I’ll be in women’s underwear. No, I didn’t get permission yet, but don’t worry, it’s no sweat. (Laughter) Mike: Benny, excuse me! Women’s underwear?! Ben: What’s that for? I’m not gonna wearing it, I’m just gonna be in the women’s underwear department. More often than not, the hearer’s first interpretation of Ben’s expression “in women’s underwear” is “wearing women’s underwear”, but this interpretation seems quite funny in the present case since Ben is a little boy. So Ben’s utterance “I’ll be in women’s underwear” should be interpreted in an alternative way, that is, “I’ll appear in the department of women’s underwear”. Apparently, the unusual second interpretation is really intended by the little Ben, but his brother Mike deliberately selects the first one in order to make fun of him. The innocent Ben’s unintentional choice of obscure expression is amusing and the funniness is further enhanced by his brother’s intentional distortion of his intended meaning.

4.2 Politeness Principle and Its Application in Verbal Humors
Cooperative principle explains how the conversational implicature can be produced and understood. It shows the relationship between the utterance and the unstated intention of the speakers. However, it doesn’t answer why people deliberately violate CP and take a roundabout way to express themselves in conversations. With regard to the problem, Leech (1983) proposes politeness principle, aiming to explain why people violate the cooperative principle in conversation. Here, it should be noted that, in pragmatics, when we talk of “politeness”, we do not refer to the social rules of behavior such as letting people go first through a door, or saying hello when you see an acquaintance. Politeness is a common rule of conduct


in society; it is an effort that people make to maintain social relationships, to put it in another way, it refers to choices that are made in language use, the linguistic expressions which show a consideration of saving people’s face and a friendly attitude to people.

4.2.1 Six Maxims of Leech’s Politeness Principle
Politeness concerns a relationship between two participants whom we may address “self” and “other” respectively. The label “other” may therefore be applied not only to addressees, but also to people designated by third-person pronouns. Leech identifies six maxims of politeness. The PP maxims tend to go in pairs as follows: 1) Tact maxim a) minimize cost to other; b) maximize benefit to other. 2) Generosity maxim a) minimize benefit to self; b) maximize cost to self. 3) Approbation maxim a) minimize dispraise of other; b) maximize praise of other. 4) Modesty maxim a) minimize praise of self; b) maximize dispraise of self. 5) Agreement maxim a) minimize disagreement between self and other; b) maximize agreement between self and other. 6) Sympathy maxim a) minimize antipathy between self and other; b) maximize sympathy between self and other. (Leech, 1983: 82)

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

The first four maxims 1) and 2), 3) and 4) go in pairs because they deal with bipolar scales: the cost-benefit and praise-dispraise scales. The other two maxims deal with unipolar scales: the scales of agreement and sympathy. Leech’s politeness principle also coincides with the politeness theory advanced by the Chinese linguist Gu Yueguo (1992) which comprises five basic maxims. The focus of Gu’s theory is “dispraise of self and respect of others”. Here we should bear in mind that these maxims are observed “up to a certain point,” rather than as absolute rules.

4.2.2 Floutings of PP Maxims and Humor Production
In most cases of social communication, people observe the politeness principle for the sake of saving face or not threatening others’ face. Politeness principle that governs the social behaviors is therefore considered as a social norm necessary for the maintenance of the congenial human relationship. However, there are also cases in which the speaker does not observe the PP maxims and say something impolite and even insulting, which may result in humor or fun. In this case, the relationship between the speaker and hearer is usually set as a close or special one, such as parent-children relationship or teacher-student relationship. In sitcoms, characters often flout the PP maxims, much more often than what we can see in real life, to achieve special comic atmosphere. The deliberate flouting of the special social norm of “politeness” in sitcoms constitutes another form of incongruity. When characters do so, the audience is amused, probably because they do not normally meet such situations, which become incongruous to them. Flouting the Tact and Generosity Maxims According to the tact maxim and generosity maxim, we should maximize benefit to other and maximize cost to self. In a sitcom, however, the characters, especially the children of a family, often say something impolite to each other, as exemplified by the dialogue between Xiao Xue and Liu Xing in Episode 013 of Home with Kids: (9) Xue: Anything important? (有什么事情吗?)


Xing: Oh, your shoes are really smart, let’s take a look. (哎呦,你这鞋可真漂亮呦,看看. ) Xue: Err, what are you doing with your stinking feet and my shoe? (Laughter) (嗨嗨嗨,你拿那臭脚丫子比什么比啊!) Xing: En, perfect! Our feet are of the same size. (正好,咱俩脚一样大. ) Xue: Liu Xing, put down my shoes in your hand. (刘星,请把你手上那双鞋放下!) Xing: Well, you are my dear sister. I am going to take part in an important basketball match tomorrow. Can you lend them to me? (哎呀,我叫你声姐还不成吗? 我明天有一场特别特别重要的篮球比 赛,你借我穿一天怎么了?) Xue: You are kidding. Can I put them on myself after that?(Laughter) (开玩笑,我要是借你穿这鞋我还能穿吗? ) Xing: I am sure I will wash my feet for three times and spray perfume on them and wear a pair of new socks. I promise I will not foul your shoes. (我明天保准洗三次脚,还往脚上喷香水,穿新袜子,绝对不把你这 双鞋弄臭了.) Xue: It is not possible even so. Lending other things can be taken into consideration except these shoes. (Laughter) (那也不行,借别的东西可以商量,但是这双鞋,我怎么也不借!) Xing: Humph! This problem can’t corner me. (哼,不借就不借,这还难得倒我. ) In this episode, Liu Xing wants to borrow Xiao Xue’s sports shoes to play basketball, but Xiao Xue refuses his request and says something unpleasant about Liu Xing and thus brings laughter to us. However, although this conduct flouts the tact and generosity maxims of the politeness principle, it does show children’s nature of treasuring their own properties. Flouting the Approbation and Modesty Maxims

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

When a speaker doesn’t want to threaten the other’s face, he will try to take a polite way of speaking. In Episode 103 of Growing Pains, Mike asks his father a question, but his sister Carol answers his question. Mike thinks his sister is impolite and her answer threatens his face. So he says he doesn’t want to know the answer from Carol to keep his dignity. After that, he continues to ask Carol another question. This is the conversation between them: (10) Mike: How do you spell it? Carol: Why should I tell you how to spell it? Mike: Because I asked you. Carol: I thought you didn’t want to know things from me. Mike: What are you, a lawyer? I mean I’m trying to do you a favor here by finding a use for your brain. I don’t know why you turn on me like a wild dog? Carol: Cut it out. The approbation and modesty maxims require us to “maximize praise of other” and “minimize praise of self”, alternatively, to avoid saying unpleasant things about others and saying pleasant things about self. Hence, Mike’s remark “I am trying to do you a favor here by finding a use for your brain” has surely violated these two maxims. If people violate modesty maxim, they would look arrogant and might create a humorous effect. This phenomenon of language use is often found between those in close relationship such as the family members and intimate friends. More often than not, this kind of deliberate violation of PP maxims could shorten the interpersonal distance and lighten the boring everyday life. Flouting the Agreement Maxim In Episode 101 of Home with Kids, the father Xia Donghai takes Xiao Xue home for the first time. Here is the dialogue between Liu Mei and them. (11) Liu Mei: Come on, Xiao Xue, take more shrimps. (来,小雪,大虾,多吃点啊!)


Xiao Xue: It is good for people to take less. (Laughter) (但正确的观念是让人少吃点!) Dong Hai: This is your first day here. Your mum cooked the food especially to welcome you. (你这不是第一天来吗,这可是妈妈为迎接你专门做的. ) Xiao Xue: She is Liu Xing’s mum. (Laughter) (是刘星的妈妈.) Liu Mei: Come on, try some eggplants. (来,尝尝我做的茄子. ) Xiao Xue: I am not used to having meal with others’ help. (Laughter) (我不习惯在别人的帮助下吃饭!) Dong Hai: I am used to. Give it to me, Mei. (我习惯,来来来,梅,给我. ) Liu Mei: Xiao Xue has many habits. Let’s get accustomed to each other gradually. (小雪有很多习惯,以后咱们大家都互相慢慢习惯. ) Xiao Xue: I am afraid you have to get accustomed to me. I won’t do that to others. (Laughter) (那恐怕得你们习惯我了,反正我是不习惯别人的. ) In this dialogue, Xiao Xue violates the agreement maxim in almost all her responses to Liu Mei, her step mother, by expressing direct opposition to the latter’s idea or kind suggestion. Xiao Xue’s abnormal persistence in refusing Liu Mei’s good will give rise to the incongruence of the scene, thus resulting in a lot of laughter. Xiao Xue behaves in this way just in order to give others head-on blow at the first encounter and arouse other people’s particular attention to her in the family. Then, we can see that the humor aroused by violating the politeness principle sometimes can be used for certain purposes. Flouting the Sympathy Maxim The sympathy maxim tells us to “minimize antipathy between self and other”

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

and “maximize sympathy between self and other”. The following is a dialogue between Xiao Yu and Liu Mei, which exemplifies how humor can be achieved by violating the sympathy maxim: (12) Yu: Oh, I know! (哦, 我知道了!) Mei: Even your little brother Xiao Yu got it. Xiao Yu, tell what you know to your brother and sister. (你看人家小雨都知道了! 小雨, 告诉哥哥姐姐, 你知道什么了?) Yu: I know, I know you two are idiots! (Laughter) (我知道呀,我知道你们两个是笨蛋!) In this conversation, Xiao Yu shows no sympathy for his elder brother and sister and sneers at their stupidity in an ironical tone. Evidently he has violated the sympathy maxim and will of course enrage his brother and sister. It is Xiao Yu’s violation of the sympathy maxim that leads to the conflict or incongruence of the scene which results in a humorous effect.

4.3 Comprehensive Floutings of CP and PP Maxims and Humor Production
As illustrated in the last section, CP and PP maxims are frequently flouted in the sitcom conversations. Sometimes, in the same conversation or even the same utterance, both the CP and PP maxims are flouted, as exemplified below: (13) (Everyone in the family is sitting at the table to enjoy the peach except Liu Xing) Liu Xing: Hi, everyone. Today my teacher found a genius, and the genius is myself. (大家知道吗啊,今天老师发现一天才,这天才就是我. ) Liu Mei: He-he, the peach is really sweet. (Laughter) (呵呵,这桃真甜. )


Liu Xing: Geniuses are of many kinds, not only including those who can get high marks. Is it right, dad? (这天才分好多种,不光是得高分的,对吧老爸? ) Dong Hai: This peach reminds me of the fig in Pilgrimage to the West. (这桃子让人想起西游记里那人参果. ) Xia Xue: That’s Ba Jie’s favorite. (那是猪八戒爱吃的. ) Liu Xing: Err, listen to me, please. Today our teacher lost his key, and I found it for him. (哎呀,你们倒是听我说啊. 今天老师车钥匙丢了,是我给找着 的. ) Dong Hai: It seems Sha Seng likes peach, too. (Laughter) (好像沙僧也爱吃. ) Liu Xing: Can you guess where I found it? From the lock of the bike. He forgot to take it out. (你们猜我从哪找出来的,从车锁上找着的. 忘了拔下来啦. ) Dong Hai: In fact, Tang Seng likes peach, too. He is shrewd and doesn’t want to say it out. (Laughter) (其实啊,唐僧也特爱吃,他就是贼,不爱说出来. ) Liu Xing: But nobody else thought of the place while I did. This proves that I am a genius in this aspect. After receiving some training, I can become a detective, just like Holmes. (可是别人都没想到,就我想起来了,这说明我在这方面就是天 才. 真的只要稍微培养一下,就是个侦探学家,就跟福尔摩斯 似的…) Evidently, Liu Xing is boasting about his talent. On the one hand, Liu Xing has flouted the quality maxim of the cooperative principle by overstating and exaggerating the truth about his talent; on the other hand, he has also violated the modesty maxim of the politeness principle by “praising the self”. The father has also


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

violated the quality maxim by saying “Tang Seng likes peaches too” and “he is shrewd” and so on, which obviously “lacks adequate evidence”. Besides, all the characters in the dialogue blatantly flout the CP maxim of relation. The parents on one side keep on talking about the peach and its lovers while Liu Xing on the other side keeps on talking about the past event which could prove “his genius”. Although communicating in the same dialogue, the speakers each follow their own topic and thread of thought and give responses irrelevant to the topic of the preceding speaker’s. Thus incongruity occurs and comic effect is achieved.



Chapter 5

Pragmatic Strategies Applied in Chinese and American Verbal Humors

Pragmatic strategies are the appropriate techniques by means of which a language user attains his/her communicative goals. In fact, language use is always strategic in that it must consist of the continuous choice-making of linguistic forms and strategies as well (Verschueren, 1999). The choice of forms is part of the strategic use of language, or, it can be argued that language use is always strategic for various pragmatic purposes. Whether in serious mode of communication or in humorous mode, pragmatic strategies are constantly adopted. Humor is an important strategic means of communication, and various specific strategies are involved in humorous communication. In this part, we will discuss pragmatic strategies at the micro-pragmatic and macro-pragmatic levels respectively.

5.1 Micro-pragmatic Strategies
5.1.1 Phonetic Strategy
In sitcoms, humorous effects are often achieved by a variety of phonological devices. The actors’ pitch variation and stress placement, for example, are parts of the phonetic techniques for telling jokes in sitcoms, especially in Chinese sitcom Home with Kids where Liu Xing’s pitch and stress patterns are quite variable and he often talks in an amusing tone. Besides, rhyme is also a phonetic technique for telling jokes in sitcoms and it is also a common means to bring aesthetic effects to language. Rhymed language reads vivid and rhythmic. And readers are often impressed by the witty use of language when they meet such kind of humors. Next, the use of homophones or homographs can also bring about humorous effects. Homophones are words with the same pronunciation but different meanings whereas homographs are words with the same spelling but different meanings. Here is an example taken from Episode 113 of Growing Pains:

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

(14) Teacher: Mike, can you explain for us the significance of the sea in Moby Dick? Mike: Sure, sure. It is the letter between the “I” and the “k”. (Note: in the word Dick) (Laughter) By making use of the homophones “sea” and “c”, Mike creates humor. “Sea” and “c” are identical in pronunciation but divergent in semantic meaning: the former refers to the salty water that covers a large part of surface of the Earth while the latter is the thirrd letter of the English alphabets which happens to occupy a place in the word Dick. When the audience knows what he really means, they can’t help laughing. Mike uses his wit to answer the question that is difficult to him, which sounds humorous.

5.1.2 Lexical Strategy
In sitcoms, lexical devices are also frequently used to achieve comic effects. A typical example is the use of coinage or nonce words, which are coined by the speaker to serve temporary communicative purpose. An English word, so long as one of its letters is altered, might turn into a new one. The same is true with the Chinese conventional or idiomatic expression: once one of its characters is altered, the whole meaning will be changed, which might bring about humorous effects. For example, in Chinese sitcoms, we can occasionally hear the nonce words or expressions as follows: (15) 咳不容缓 (allow no delay of treating cough) (16) 闲妻良母 (carefree wife and loving mother) The rhetorical device of parody is used here in the creation of the above words: “咳不容缓” (allow no delay of treating cough) is coined from the idiom “刻不容缓” (allow no delay); “闲妻良母” (carefree wife and loving mother) is coined from the idiom “贤妻良母” (dutiful wife and loving mother). Words created by parody are humorous and eye-catching. Modern sitcoms feature colloquial everyday language and net words. A typical example is the use of the word “雷人”, which was created only in recent years by a


certain youngster but is frequently heard in sitcoms like Home with Kids. It means “(something) is greatly shocking, as powerful as the thunder”. An extended humorous use of the word is its passive form “雷倒了”, which means “(somebody) was greatly shocked, as attacked by the thunder”. The humorous effect comes from the vividness and exaggeration of the words.

5.1.3 Rhetorical Strategy
Rhetoric is the art of discovering available means of persuasion. The humorous effects achieved by employing rhetorical devices are frequently seen in Chinese and American sitcoms. Figures of speech are an important means of humor production. Rhetoric is so significant a source for humor that figures of speech such as simile, parody, metaphor, analogy, ridicule, irony, hyperbole, anti-climax and so on play a main role in generating humor both in American and Chinese sitcoms. Here is an example quoted from Episode 101 of Home with Kids. (17) Liu Xing: While the magistrates were free to burn down the house, the common people were forbidden to light lamps. (只许州官放火,不许百姓点灯啊!) Xiao Yu: Burn down house? Light lamps? What do they mean? (放火?点灯?什么意思啊?) Liu Xing: Keep this idiom in mind! In our home, we should only say “Our sister is free to burn down the house while the bothers are forbidden to light lamps. (Laughter) (记住这个成语吧!以后在咱们家只能够说“只许姐姐放火,不 许弟弟点灯”) In this dialogue, metaphor and parody have been smartly used by Liu Xing. “Burn down the house” and “light lamps” metaphorically refer to the unrestrained freedom enjoyed by the privileged class and complete deprivation of freedom from the common people respectively. Liu Xing’s remark “Our sister is free to burn down the house while the bothers are forbidden to light lamps” is a parody, which is

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

constructed by deliberately copying the structure of the well-known idiom. Liu Xing uses this parody to complain about his parents’ unfair treatment to him and his sister Xiao Xue, which results in an amusing and humorous effect.

5.2 Macro-pragmatic Strategies
Use of humor serves different communicative intentions and fulfills different social, psychological and expressive functions. In sitcoms, verbal humor can help to achieve or maintain interpersonal solidarity and enhance the expressive effect of verbal attack and self-defense.

5.2.1 Solidarity-oriented Strategies
Many scholars have paid attention to the social function of humor. Humor is often viewed as a means of controlling intra-group behavior and maintaining a sense of solidarity and intimacy within the group. Koller (1988) points out when groups laugh together they strengthen their own solidarity. Humor serves as a way to distinguish friend from foe by their social knowledge set. Many instances of humor serve to create solidarity within a group or between particular members of a group. Whenever you attempt at humor and succeed in doing it, your status within the group will be positively affected since you have amused the audience and shared with them a common idea of what is funny. Concretely, solidarity-oriented strategies are reflected in the following respects. Sharing Experience Humor can reveal something about the speaker and let the audience know himself/herself better, which will affect solidarity positively. Sharing sensitive information also indicates a speaker’s trust in the audience, and so can enhance solidarity. They share their funny or awkward memories or experiences with other group members and thus amuse the latter and impress on the latter their own positive personality, since a sense of humor is considered to be one of the most desirable personality traits. In order to make the shared material funny, the speaker always


chooses something awkward, weird, embarrassing, ridiculous or absurd, as illustrated in the following example: (18) Dong Hai: Take a seat. I want to have a chat with you. (随便坐啊,我找你啊就是想随便聊会儿. ) Liu Xing: Did I make any mistake again? (我又犯什么错误啦?) Dong Hai: No, no. We don’t have to chat only in case you have made a mistake. I just want to have a free chat with you. (没有没有, 干嘛聊天就要犯错误啊, 我给你就是想随便聊聊. ) Liu Xing: Anyway, I can’t get a full score in every exam as Xiao Xue does. (反正我不能像小雪一样每次考试都得满分. ) Dong Hai: I know. You can get full marks only by adding the scores of two subjects. It doesn’t matter. I was no better than you when I was of your age. (我知道,你现在两门功课加起来得满分。没关系,我告诉你 啊,我像你这么大的时候学习还不如你呢!) This is a dialogue taken from Episode 006 of Home with Kids, in which Donghai wants to have a talk with his step son Liu Xing, wishing to know how to be a good father. Xia Donghai shares his own experience with Liu Xing by mentioning that he once had the same poor performances as Liu Xing does now when he was at school, and this can shorten the psychological distance between the father and son and thus enhance their solidarity. Highlighting Similarities Humor can help to identify shared ideas, shared interests and other similarities between interlocutors. Linstead (1985) notes that humor can be used to reinforce norms and values, clarify and maintain boundaries of acceptability. Making fun of outsiders belongs to this strategy. If the humor can reinforce the agreement upon standards, then it will increase solidarity, as indicated in the following example from


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

Growing Pains: (19) Mike: You know Christmas is sort of need with just the five of us hanging now, in a warm house and can get into this period. Everyone: Mike? (Laughter) Mike: Has I been obnoxious all the time? Everyone: Uh ha! (Laughter) Mike: Yeah, I guess I do. (Then the door bell rang) Mike: I’ll get it. Jason: What did we do to be blessed with such a child? (Laughter) This dialogue is taken from Episode 12 “Christmas story”. From the dialogue, it can be drawn that the whole family hold similar negative opinions upon Mike. The agreement that the family members always readily make in their opinions on Mike results in a humorous effect and at the same time facilitates the solidarity between themselves. Jesting Jesting is another strategy which can function in two ways. Jesting is the speech act of making jokes or laughing at somebody playfully to cause amusement. Jest can reinforce solidarity if it happens within what is termed as “joking relationship”. Within such a relationship, individuals routinely tease each other by telling gags and jests, as indicated in the following dialogue taken from Episode 002 of Home with Kids, in which the reorganized family is planning to invite Xia Xue to live together with them: (20) Liu Mei: Hurry up! Why don’t you go to pick Xiao Xue up? I am extremely happy today. (你快走吧,怎么还不走啊. 今天我特高兴. ) Dong Hai: As a woman living in the 21century, her chance of having three children is just as much as getting the first prize in a lottery.


(Laughter) (二十一世纪的城市女性,一个人要有仨孩子的概率,跟中头奖 差不多.) (After Dong Hai left, Liu Mei says to herself) Liu Mei: I really have the feeling of getting the first prize. In the process of exchanging jesting remarks, the interpersonal relationship is brought closer and the family atmosphere is livened, which greatly enhances the interpersonal solidarity.

5.2.2 Aggression-oriented Strategies
Fostering conflict and ridicule, imposing commands are the most frequently used strategies oriented at aggression. Use of this type of strategies will threaten the hearer’s face, which, therefore demands and serves to increase or maintain the speaker’s superiority and power. It seems that in such cases the speaker and the hearer tacitly agree that face demands to be suspended to get a laugh. Aggressive humor is usually directed at subordinates or equals, friends or family members. Since Home with Kids and Growing Pains are comedies both set in families, we are not surprised to see that a large percentage of humorous utterances serve to attack the addressee. Aggressive humor directed at social superiors or strangers can be risky because they may not share the relevant background knowledge which can guarantee the positive response to the humor, say, laughter. If the addressee does not understand the humor, tension will increase, especially in the case of aggression. It is worth noticing that most of the aggressive humors are not destructive for the interpersonal relationship. The humor makes light of the situation but also makes the point. Aggression-oriented strategies are concretely reflected in the following pragmatic devices: Fostering the Conflict Conflicts are the unavoidable result of verbal aggression. The speaker often adopts unfriendly strategies such as complaining, criticizing, quarreling, refusing, etc. to introduce or foster conflict or elicit offence with the aim of demeaning another

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

participant, or transmitting an aggressive message. This strategy is most frequently used to perform aggressive acts. Here is an example of this kind: (21) Liu Mei: You go to bed now? It’s still very early. (你看看表,这才几点哪,就睡了. ) Liu Xing: I didn’t sleep well last night. (我昨晚上没睡好. ) Liu Mei: I guess you’ve played the video game machine again? (Laughter) (又玩游戏机了吧?) Liu Xing: No. (没有. ) Liu Mei: Then you must have played on the internet? (Laughter) (那就是上网玩了吧?) Liu Xing: No. I’ve been thinking about the examination. (没有. 我想关于考试的事呢. ) Liu Mei: Examination? You must have failed in it again? (Laughter) (考试的事?你考试又没及格?) Liu Xing: I haven’t taken the exam yet! (还没考呢!) Liu Mei: Then you must be thinking about how to cheat in the exam? (Laughter) (那就是想想怎么作弊?) Liu Xing: Why do you always think ill of me?! (你怎么老把我往那坏处想啊?!) Liu Mei: You didn’t give me any chance to let me think high of you! (Laughter) (让我往好处想你也得给我机会呀!) In this amusing conversation, Liu Mei is in constant attempt of finding fault with her son Liu Xing, thus fostering a conflict with the latter and transmitting an


aggressive message. Imposition Any speech act intended to influence the behavior of the audience would be an example of imposition, such as the speech acts of ordering, suggesting, advising, warning, threatening, requesting, or reminding the hearer of doing something, etc. According to Brown & Levinson’s (1978) theory of Face Threatening Act (FTA), minimizing imposition is a strategy to minimize the face-threatening effect. Although imposition violates the hearer’s face demands, in a light atmosphere such as in sitcoms, humor resulting from imposition can help to soften its negative impact. Therefore, humorous impositions are indirect face-threatening acts to the hearer. Take (22) for example. In this episode, the parents have a quarrel and the children are thinking of some methods to restore their relationship. (22) Xiao Yu: If they don’t make it up, I will eat a hundred ice-creams to commit suicide! (Laughter) (他们要再不和好,我就吃一百个冰激凌,自杀!) Liu Xing: If they don’t make it up, I will spend the whole month playing on the computer and tire myself to death. (Laughter) (他们要再不和好,我就玩一个月电脑,累死自己!) With resort to the obviously ridicule and absurd threats, the children are prompting their parents to make it up. Imposition by giving exaggerating and ridicule threats of self destruction results in humor. Ridiculing Contrastive to solidarity-oriented jesting, ridiculing is usually unkind teasing. Veatch (1999) views ridicule as joking or mocking at the expense of some group or individual, attacking personal details and social gaffe of that group or individual, and damaging their social status and self image both in their own minds and in the minds of others. Radcliffe-Brown (1952) defines “joking relationship” as a relationship that individuals routinely tease and insult each other. Like “joking relationship”, ridicule is

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

tolerable in a close relationship while hurtful and insulting to the outsiders. In Episode 118 of Growing Pains, Mike reviews his lesson while listening to music before the examination, and his father comes and turns the music off. (23) Mike: Oh, I don’t know dad. All that silence could really throw me off. Jason: Oh, let’s risk. Come on, just you and this book for one solid hour. Mike: What is this? Are you pressuring me for a good grade? Jason: No, I am a realist, Mike. I’m pressuring you for a passing grade. Come on, you’ve been sweeping through American history all year with sixty-seven. (Laughter) Jason ridicules Mike’s poor performance at school and shows his disappointed view on Mike. The father is teasing Mike, but in the setting of comedy, it means no harm but results in humorous effect.

5.2.3 Defense-oriented Strategies
Humor can be used as a device for creating psychological distance or saving one’s face and defending oneself. Defense-oriented strategies are mainly presented in forms of confessing, coping, self-denigrating, and concealing. Confessing The strategy of confessing refers to self-protection by identifying own weakness before anyone else does (Ziv, 1984). Besides, defending device also includes voluntarily revealing personal information or facts (usually negative) before others do so. For example, in Episode 115 of Growing Pains, Mike wants his sister Carol to help him finish a poem. They have a verbal exchange as follows: (24) Carol: C’mon, you can’t finish the task without my help. Mike: I know that. That’s why I worked as your servant today. (Laughter)

In this dialogue, Mike confesses that he has worked for Carol for the purpose of getting her help. Mike identifies his weakness of being dependent on Carol for finishing the task which he can’t do by himself. Mike’s act of voluntarily confessing


of his own weakness avoids greater insult from Carol and thus defends himself. Coping The coping device is identified by a number of researchers, including Pogrebin & Pool (1988), Fink & Walker (1977) and Ziv (1984). Any humor which is used to cope with a problem arising in the course of the conversation belongs to this type, including correcting a tongue-slip, saving a social gaffe, etc. Coping is a strategy to minimize embarrassment and relieve tension and thus realize own purpose, as indicated in the following example taken from Episode 021 of Growing Pains: (25) Mike: Well, Dad, again I just want to thank you for letting me stay home and earn some extra money helping Mr. Sacks fertilize his lawn. Oh, no. I am sure that earning money will teach me a new respect for the dollar, and help me grow as a person. Mike wants to stay at home and earn some money to spend with his friends, however, in order to minimize his embarrassment and get his parents permission and disguise his real purpose, he says earning money can help him grow and teach him a new respect for the dollar to cope with the situation. Self-denigrating Self-denigrating is also named self-humiliating humor. In order to appease the dominating majority, the speakers use self-denigrating humor to belittle themselves. Allport (1958) says that ethnic minorities, for example, Jews or Blacks, often use self-denigrating humor to belittle themselves and mock their own group, tradition, language and religion, in order to appease the ruling majority. For example, in Episode 017, Xia Donghai just had a quarrel with Director Shang about the drama. Now he is talking with his wife Liu Mei about such a matter: (26) Liu Mei: What’s wrong? Why do you quarrel with him? (怎么了,干嘛吵啊?) Dong Hai: Nothing. He insisted on my revising of the script.


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

(没事,他非让我改剧本.) Liu Mei: And then? (那后来呢?) Dong Hai: He made a concession. (他让步了.) Liu Mei: Really? Did they accept your opinion? (真的,听你的了他们) Dong Hai: No, I’ve also made some concession. (没有,我也做了一定的妥协.) Liu Mei: Yeah, there should always be a compromise. They can’t follow your opinion in everything. Do you think it is in our home? (这就对了嘛,凡事你得有妥协啊,哪能什么都听你的,你以为 在咱们家呢!) Dong Hai: In our home no one listens to me, either. (Laughter) (在咱家也没人听我的啊!) Xia Donghai is pretending to feel wronged by the surrounding people. His self-denigrating remark will necessarily evoke laughter from the audience. Concealing Sometimes humor can be used to avoid the pressure of exposing one’s feelings, privacy or secret to others. Using humor as a strategy to conceal fact, feelings, or personal details from somebody is a means opposite to the confessing strategy. Answering requests or questions in an indirect way or cheating are means of concealing. (27) Jason: I know. Why didn’t they come to us for help? Maggie: Oh, my father’s pride. There’s no way he could ask us for money knowing the way he feels about what you do for a living. Jason: What? Maggie: Forget, I said that.



Jason: I knew he didn’t care for me, I didn’t think he even hated my entire profession. Maggie: Oh, honey, it’s not that he hates your profession; it’s just that he doesn’t know what it is. Jason: Oh, so now after 17 years I find this out... In Episode 016 “Saving the House”, Jason is very surprised to know Maggie’s parents hate his profession. Maggie gives some excuse in order to conceal the fact and save Jason from embarrassment and anger.


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

Chapter 6
6.1 Major Findings


The present study makes a tentative effort to investigate the underlying mechanism and pragmatic strategies of verbal humors in Chinese and American sitcoms, based on the research products of the previous studies on humor and sitcoms, within the framework of pragmatic theories, specifically, Grice’s cooperative principle and Leech’s politeness principle. It is discovered that each of the pragmatic theories is applicable to the interpretation of humor generation. A great number of samples selected from Home with Kids and Growing Pains are used here to illustrate how verbal humor can be interpreted from pragmatic points of view. Based on the analysis and discussion of the data in the previous chapters, the major findings can be summarized as follows: First, the pragmatic analysis of Chinese and American television sitcoms Home with Kids and Growing Pains reveals that the intentional flouting of Grice’s CP and Leech’s PP can lead to humor generation. The humorous effect occurs when the speaker intentionally or unintentionally flouts one or more of CP or PP maxims. Both CP and PP theories provide us with mechanisms of humor comprehension. Though this thesis focuses exclusively on the verbal humor in American and Chinese sitcoms, it can be of some significance to those who write humorous literature. Acquisition of some knowledge of the inner mechanism of humor generation can be beneficial to their creation. Second, pragmatic strategies applied in Chinese and American verbal humors are discussed from the micro- and macro-pragmatic levels. At micro-pragmatic level, humor is often generated by use of phonetic, lexical and rhetorical strategies. At macro-pragmatic level, solidarity, aggression and self-defense are often the motivations for the use of humor. Third, though the verbal humors occurring in Chinese and American sitcoms


have a lot in common in respect of their generating mechanisms, they also differ in many respects such as the topics to be laughed at or ridiculed. The humor topics in American sitcoms vary from love, marriage, family to work, unemployment, suicide, friendship, etc. while the humor topics in Chinese sitcoms are mainly focused on the participants’ characters, behaviors and family life. Fourth, from the study of the two sitcoms, it can be found that humor makes great contribution to our everyday communication and everyday life. Humor helps to create a relaxing conversational environment and a light and harmonious atmosphere in which both the speakers and addressees can get great enjoyment and relaxation. It makes our life colorful and more pleasant to live.

6.2 Implications of the Research
6.2.1 Theoretical Implications
In the early stage, humor was mainly studied from the linguistic, philosophical, aesthetic, and sociological perspectives. Since 1970s, with the development of the pragmatic theories, scholars have showed increasingly great interest in the pragmatic apparatuses of humor generation and interpretation. Based on the previous researches on humor and pragmatic theories, this thesis made a tentative attempt at the exploration of pragmatic mechanisms of the humor generation specifically in American and Chinese sitcoms, thus enriching humor theories, demonstrating the great potentiality of pragmatic theories in interpreting linguistic and pragmatic phenomena and indicating a new direction for further literary pragmatic researches.

6.2.2 Communicative Implications
Humor can facilitate our communication and make interpersonal interaction more pleasant and enjoyable through offering a relaxed and light atmosphere. Humor can remove the unpleasant conflict, solve serious problems with ease, help to build a trusting communication atmosphere and make the otherwise blunt and embarrassing criticisms and negative comments more acceptable. A sense of humor is a desirable

A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

quality required of the modern people and is the premise for success. The audience enjoys watching sitcoms mainly because of the pleasure and enjoyment they could get from the humorous language and behaviors of the characters in the dramas. So the present author suggests using some humor from time to time to make our communication more effective and ourselves more popular with others.

6.2.3 Pedagogical Implications
The American sitcoms are loaded with humorous English language, cultural knowledge and social values, so they are the ideal materials for both language and culture teaching to the EFL learners. You can see the expressions on the characters’ faces as they speak, hear the fluctuation of feelings from their voices, read their minds from their words and deeds. Concretely, American sitcom has the following advantages in providing EFL learners with the best native-like environment: First, language and culture are interwoven in sitcoms so that it is good to develop learners’ communicative as well as linguistic competence. We must blend both language teaching and culture teaching together in a foreign language class. Second, sitcom immerses language study within a story, which makes language learning more interesting and the learned things more firmly remembered. Sitcoms can create a comfortable and non-threatening environment and encourage learners to relax through the music, the humorous plots and the actors’ amusing performances. Third, this audio-visual aid of the sitcom can strengthen learners’ mastery of the target language, thus making the learning and teaching process more efficient. In a non-English speaking country like China, the teaching and learning of English, in most cases, take place without a good target language learning atmosphere. But the video version of American sitcom Growing Pains, with its vivid moving pictures and real-life situations, can help provide a better language learning atmosphere. But in real teaching process, we should pay attention to the following problem: Sitcoms encompass a great many nonstandard words that are seldom observed in other language materials, which may increase the difficulty in understanding. Directed at this problem, teachers are advised to demonstrate the distinctions between the


scripted dialogues, i.e. idealized, made-up conversations in textbooks and conversations in real-life.

6.3 Suggestions for Further Researches
Since this study is only the present author’s initial attempt at the interpretation of verbal humor in sitcoms, there must be some problems unsolved and much room for improvement. So in this sense, the analysis conducted in this study is just a drop in the bucket. Undoubtedly the humor-generating apparatuses and strategies adopted in the chosen sitcoms are much more complicated and abundant than what has been discussed in this thesis. Concretely, the present thesis is limited in the following aspects, which leave space for further improvement: First, only two pragmatic theories (i.e. CP and PP) have been applied in the interpretation of verbal humor occurring in the chosen sitcoms. More comprehensive pragmatic analysis of the humor occurring in sitcoms as well as in other literary genres is desirable. Second, for lack of time and space, this thesis is focused exclusively on the verbal humor in sitcoms, leaving humor occurring in other forms unexplored. As humor is a phenomenon that permeates every pore of human life, it can be found in many forms other than the humor in sitcoms. For instance, the humorous messages conveyed by the mobile phones have become a daily laughter trigger and are worth the greater attention of researchers. Third, in the study of verbal-visual media discourse, the importance of non-verbal communication must be taken into account. In fact, certain gestures and postures, facial expressions, and the tones can all enhance the creation of humorous effects in sitcoms and these are also worth the attention. It seems there are a lot of very interesting and challenging research tasks ahead of us. It is hoped that the present study could elicit more and more researchers’ voluntary participation.


A Pragmatic Analysis of Verbal Humors in Chinese and American Sitcoms

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1.幽默短信的语用学诠释.《湖北经济学院学报》, 2008 年第 1 期 2.非语言交际手段及其在英语教学中的运用.《湖北经济学院学报》, 2008 年第 3期 3.论网络文学作品中的语码转换现象.《安徽文学》, 2008 年第 9 期


中美情景喜剧幽默对白的语用学分析——以《家有儿女》和《成长的烦 恼》为例
作者: 学位授予单位: 苏莉杰 中南民族大学

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