The pragmatics of humorous interpretations : a relevance-theoretic approach
The aim of this thesis is to provide a pragmatic account of how humorous discourse is interpreted within the cognitive framework of Relevance Theory. I argue that being humorous is not a property of texts, but of the type of mental representations that hearers are led to entertain during their processing, and the specific way in which these representations are manipulated. One of my objectives is to provide a psychologically plausible explanation of how humorous effects are created and understood in language, and to relate it to philosophical views of humour. In order to place my account in this broader perspective, in Chapter 1 I review the main philosophical and psychological approaches of verbal humour. From this discussion it emerges that the notion of incongruity plays a central role in most contemporary treatments of humour. I raise the question whether a theory of humorous interpretations should endeavour to develop a better defined notion of the precise type of incongruity that is at stake in humour, or should rather explore the cognitive impact of encountering something incongruous as a result of processing an ostensive stimulus. I take the second line. In Chapter 2 some linguistic approaches to the study of verbal humour are discussed. I argue that they are flawed because they assume that verbal humour is inherent in the linguistic code, and that the alternative interpretations of an utterance derive fully from structures of meaning present in the text and the co-text. I question their conclusion that humorous language is deviant, and argue that the proper field to approach verbal humour is not linguistics, but pragmatics. Chapter 3 and 4 assess recent pragmatic analyses of verbal humour. Although these approaches take into account the role of inference in the interpretation of humorous effects, without exception they either assume or conclude that humorous language transgress the rules that regulate the operation of non-humorous discourse, that special principles are needed for its interpretation, and that humans possess a domain-specific 'humour competence' that enables them to create and produce verbal humour. I argue against all these claims. Chapter 5 outlines the relevance-theoretic framework, and discusses the few analysis of verbal humour and related issues that have been carried out within it, so it sets the ground for the approach I develop in the remaining chapters. In Chapter 6 I single out a number of pragmatic mechanisms that seem to be typical of the generation and interpretation of humorous effects and argue that they fit one particular definition of the notion of incongruity. I suggest that leading hearers to entertain the incongruous in the ways described is only a device exploited by speakers to give rise to additional cognitive effects, the precise nature of which is discussed in Chapter 7. It is claimed that in dealing with the incongruity encountered, hearers perform inferences that take metarepresentations of various orders as premises. Different orders of these metarepresentations produce different effects. This suggests that the ability to engage in humour is a direct consequence of the capacity to attribute (false) beliefs and intentions to others. Finally, Chapters 8 and 9 consider the implications of my proposal for humorous figurative language. Poetic and humorous metaphors are contrasted in Chapter 9, while Chapter 9 extends and elaborates on the standard relevance-theoretic approach to irony, and addresses some recent attacks against it.