Creating jokes by violating Grice’s maxims

Without laughter, life would be a mistake. Laughing is inherent and essential in a human’s life. Humans, as a social animal, consider the laughter as an important signifier of acceptance. When the social group, one belongs to, laughs by the joke one made, the person considers the laughter signifies their acceptance in that group. (Provine, 2016). Laughter releases hormones called endorphins which can relieve physical pain. (Welsh, 2011) Researchers show that laughter can reduce stress hormones and that people who can recognize the humour in various situations have less likelihood to acquire heart disease. (Clark & Seidler, 2000) There are many theories which explain what causes a human to laugh. The simplest form of a comedy is physical comedy, like making funny faces or physical stunts. This is very common across culture and ages. This paper concentrates on one of the widely used means to evoke laughter, telling jokes. Analysing the jokes in relation with Grice’s maxims show that most of the jokes used in media such as sit-coms, movies, and books are formed by violating Grice’s Maxims. 

Definition

The word “Joke” as a noun can have different definitions. This paper considers the definition which defines the word joke as “A thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016). With this definition, a joke can be considered as a linguistic medium with which one can evoke laughter using words, unlike physical comedy.

The cooperative principle of communication assumes that the participants in a speech act share a common goal (or the conversation moves towards a tacitly agreed direction) and so each participant puts on a mutual effort to communicate successfully to reach this goal. This principle was put forth by philosopher Paul Grice. He formulates this as “Make your contribution such as it 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, 1989, p. 45). He further distinguishes four sub-principles called maxims (Grice’s maxims), under cooperative principles, that explains the process through which communication implications are generated. On the one hand, if a conversation adopts to these maxims then they contribute to a cooperative exchange, but on the other hand, wilfully violating these maxims creates joke. 

Grice (1989, p. 51) says that violating his maxims makes the speaker liable to misleading the conversation. Even though jokes violate the Grice’s maxims, they are still understood and considered a joke. The processing of a joke can be described as the discovery of a second ‘sense’ in a text that had initially seemed to be headed in the direction of a ‘normal’ disambiguation (Raskin, 1985). Lynne (1983) says that the violation of the maxims underlines that the conversation might have a second sense. The speaker of the joke wilfully misleads the hearer while adhering to a set of another maxim which governs joke.  Raskin (1985, p. 103) suggests that jokes involve another communication mode with a secondary set of maxims. Comparing how a joke violates Grice’s maxims and adheres to the secondary maxims that Raskin proposes clarifies how a joke can be shaped.

Maxim of quality

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

This maxim explains regularity of behaviour in conversation. According to this maxim, the speaker’s contribution to the conversation must be truthful and justified. Grice (Grice, 1989, p. 42) states that “A deliberate lie or communication in a way that does not reflect an honest intention is therefore an obvious violation”. Consider the following example
A notices B in a restaurant, and as a courtesy, he strikes up a conversation

A: “How are you? Did you come here to eat?”B: “No, I came here to steal the plates.”

Do note that the obvious question “Did you come here to eat?” is considered a polite way to strike up a conversation in few cultures. This is very common in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. A common answer would be “Yes, did you eat already?”. Here B, who understands the culture and the common norm, violates it to make it a joke. So, Grice’s maxim of quality is being violated wilfully to evoke laughter. 

Raskin’s (1985, p. 103) alternate set of ‘non-bona-fide’ maxim of quality states that “Say only what is compatible with the world of joke”. From the above joke, if B responded that he came there to park his bike instead, it would still violate the Grice’s maxim of quality but would not be as funny as his original reply. His original reply is compatible with the world of jokes and thus makes it funnier than other unsuitable replies.

Maxim of Quantity

Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

This maxim states the speakers in a conversation must provide only a right amount of information required. (Grice, 1989) Providing too much information that the hearer does not need or providing too little information that the hearer remains uninformed. Here the quality and relation of information do matter, as just providing a right length of information but violating quality and relation does not make the conversation cooperative (Šmilauerová, 2011). Consider the following dialogue

Monica: C'mon, you can't live off your parents your whole life. 
Rachel: I know that. That's why I was getting married. 
Phoebe: Give her a break, it's hard being on your own for the first time. 
Rachel: Thank you. 
Phoebe: You're welcome. I remember when I first came to this city. I was fourteen. My mom had just killed herself and my step-dad was back in prison, and I got here, and I didn't know anybody. And I ended up living with this albino guy who was, like, cleaning windows outside port authority, and then he killed himself, and then I found aromatherapy. So believe me, I know exactly how you feel.  (Kauffman & Crane, 1994)


In the above dialogue, the character Phoebe violates the maxim of quantity by providing too much information that is extraneous and does not add strength to the conversation. Thus, flouting the maxim of quantity can be used to create a joke.

Raskin’s (1985, p. 103) maxim of quantity to define a joke states that “Give exactly as much information as necessary for the joke”. Phoebe’s dialogue contains 72 words in total, but it starts and ends with an appropriate reply. Her experience could also have been summarised in a sentence but it was explicitly stated in detail by the writers so that it evokes laughter. Therefore, the information necessary for constructing the joke was thought through by the writers and constructed deliberately to make it humorous.

Maxim of relation

Be relevant

The speaker must include information that is relevant to the topic of discussion. This maxim is heavily criticised as clearly defining a topic that is relevant to the discussion is not a simple task. A reply relevant to the speaker might not be relevant to the listener, causing the cooperative principle to break. Grice himself admits that this issue conceals several problems, for example - there can be different kinds of relevance or how to approach the fact that the subject of conversation gradually (but naturally) changes. (Šmilauerová, 2011, p. 34)  Although defining relevance is a complication, it can easily be turned into a joke by violating it. Consider the following highbrow joke

“How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”. “Fish!” (Johnson, 2013)

Here the maxim of relation is violated as the reply is not relevant to the question. Still, it invokes laughter as the absurd joke points to the common surrealist taste for bizarre associations. 

Raskin’s (1985, p. 103) maxim of relation to define a joke states that “Say only what is relevant to this joke”. Though in the above joke, any answer to the question would have created the same surrealistic connection, but the usage of one single word (following Grice’s maxim of quantity) makes it succinct as well as states clearly that they are joking about the surrealists.

Maxim of manner

Avoid obscurity of expression
Avoid ambiguity
Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity)
Be orderly.

Grice (Grice, 1989, p. 26) explains that “Maxim of manner which I understand as relating not (like previous categories) to what is said but, rather, to how what is said is to be said, I include the Supermaxim - Be perspicuous and various maxims such as”. This maxim summarises the appropriate linguistic conduct to form meaningful sentences which convey a clear meaning to the listener. Consider the following Groucho Marx’s joke

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know. (Animal Crackers, 1930)

This joke consists of a premise and punchline. The premise is ambiguous which is not clear in the first reading, but with the punchline, the blatant ambiguity is pointed out which evokes laughter. The structural ambiguity in the premise can be clearly shown by drawing its phrase structural tree. Structural ambiguity occurs when a phrase or sentence has more than one underlying structure. (Bach, n.d.)

Figure 1: First constituent tree of the sentence



Figure 2: Second constituent tree of the sentence



Raskin’s (1985, p. 103) maxim of manner points out that “Tell the joke efficiently”. Here Groucho Marx starts with the normal premise and uses an absurd punch line to make it a joke. Though the premise contains the ambiguity, only upon conscious analysis of the premise, it presents itself as an ambiguous sentence, as the other meaning it provides is illogical. Groucho makes it a joke efficiently by pointing to the absurd ambiguity.

Conclusion

Violating the Grice’s maxims can be effectively used to create jokes. Analysing the jokes used in sit-coms, stand-up comedy, movies, and books, it can be shown that deliberately or inadvertently jokes are formed by this method. The common response to an incredible information which conflicts the normality is “Are you kidding?”. Raskin (1985) notes this by saying “The joking mode (‘Are you kidding’) seems to be the first option, which reflects the premise that joking is more socially acceptable than lying or not making sense”. This stresses the paramount importance of jokes in our ordinary life. Though there are various theories that analyse how a joke is formed and used, flouting the Grice’s maxim while adhering to Raskin’s maxim of jokes stands as one of the clear ways to create a joke.

References

  • Clark, A., & Seidler, A. (2000). Laughter is Good for Your Heart, According to a New UMMC Study. Retrieved from University of Maryland: http://umm.edu/news-and-events/news-releases/2000/laughter-is-good-for-your-heart-according-to-a-new-ummc-study
  • Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the way of words. Harvard University Press.
  • Heerman, V. (Director). (1930). Animal Crackers [Motion Picture].
  • Johnson, A. (2013). How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A fish: The most highbrow jokes in the world. Retrieved from Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/how-many-surrealists-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-light-bulb-a-fish-the-most-highbrow-jokes-in-the-8691191.html
  • Kauffman, M., & Crane, D. (Directors). (1994). Friends TV series, Season 1, The One Where Monica Gets a New Roommate [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from http://uncutfriendsepisodes.tripod.com/season1/101uncut.htm
  • Lynne, H. (1983). On Misapplying the Maxims: A Gricean Look at Wit. Papers from the regional meeting, Chicago linguistic society, 195-204.
  • Oxford English Dictionary. (2016). Retrieved from Oxford English Dictionary: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/joke
  • Provine, R. (2016, June 9). The Science of Laughter. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200011/the-science-laughter
  • Raskin, V. (1985). Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. D. Reidel Publishing Company.
  • Šmilauerová, A. (2011). TV Sitcom Friends: Analysis of character humor strategies based on the violation of Grice’s Conversational maxims. Charles University in Prague.
  • Welsh, J. (2011). Why Laughter May Be the Best Pain Medicine. Retrieved from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-laughter-may-be-the-best-pain-medicine



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