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The Relevance of Pragmatic Features for the Creation of Humor in the Television Series "Family Guy"

Hausarbeit 2017 21 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical background
2.1 Speech Act Theory (SAT)
2.2 The Cooperative Principle (CP)
2.3 Brown and Levinson’s model of politeness

3 Language material

4 Analysis

5 Conclusion

6 References

1 Introduction

In this paper, I will analyze the animated sitcom Family Guy in terms of three linguistic features and how they relate to creating humor. The sitcom is an example of (scripted) authentic English language.

The paper is divided into five sections. After this introduction, I will provide relevant theoretical background knowledge. I will start by reminding the reader of the concept of pragmatics and then introduce three pragmatic theories. First, I will present Speech Act Theory with its differentiation of the locutionary act, the illocutionary act and perlocutionary act as well as the differentiation between direct and indirect speech acts. Second, I will depict the Cooperative Principle with its four maxims (quantity, quality, relation and manner), the four types of non-observance of these maxims (flouting, violating, opting out and infringing) and the notion of implicature. Third, I will introduce the concept of politeness including positive and negative face and the idea of face-threatening acts that need to be compensated by politeness strategies. In section three, I will present Family Guy and its characters and state why using a sitcom is beneficial for my analysis. In section four, I will present and analyze eleven excerpts from various episodes in terms of the creation of humor based on pragmatic features. I will end this paper with a conclusion, in which I will present thirteen ‘humor formulas’ that I was able to deduce from the analysis.

2 Theoretical background

Since this paper is concerned with pragmatics in Family Guy, it is beneficial to define pragmatics first. Pragmatics is

[…] the systematic study of how people understand and communicate more than literal meaning of words or sentences when they speak, write or gesture, or, in more general terms, when they interpret and produce […] utterances. (Bieswanger & Becker 2010: 152)

In a nutshell, pragmatics deals with meaning in cultural and social context which is co-constructed by the speaker and the listener (cf. Bieswanger & Becker: 2010: 3; Eitelmann & Stange 2016: 116; Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 5). Pragmatic competence thus refers to the ability to appropriately produce as well as interpret these beyond-literal meanings within social contexts (cf. Bieswanger & Becker: 2010: 153; Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 5).[1]

Very often, people do not say directly what they mean (cf. Bieswanger & Becker 2010: 152; Eitelmann & Stange 2016: 117; Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 5f.; Strauss & Feiz 2014: 231). This phenomenon has economical as well as social and cultural reasons (Bieswanger & Becker 2010: 152; Cutting 2002: 36; Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 5).

2.1 Speech Act Theory (SAT)

Whenever a person produces an utterance, he or she does so with a certain intention. This intention could be something as basic as apologizing or thanking (cf. Grundy 2000: 49; Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 6).[2] In other words, people perform actions or social functions by producing utterances (cf. Bieswanger & Becker 2010: 160; Strauss & Feiz 2014: 230). These so-called speech acts are studied in Speech Act Theory (SAT), which was introduced by Austin (see 1962) and later further developed by Searle (see Searle 1999a and Searle 1999b).[3] Strauss & Feiz (2014: 231) note that “[e]ssentially, any utterance in discourse is a speech act […].” This claim is in line with Grundy’s (2000: 61) statement that “[…] all uses of language are performative.”

According to SAT, every utterance can be analyzed in terms of three related acts: the locutionary act, the illocutionary act, and the perlocutionary act. The locutionary act refers to the production of understandable language with determinate sense, propositional content or information; this is the literal meaning or the surface level (semantic meaning). However, people often do not say exactly what they mean. Thus, the illocutionary act is the intention or function behind the utterance; it is what the utterance is supposed to do (pragmatic meaning). The perlocutionary act is the effect on the addressee or addressees (cf. Bieswanger & Becker 2010: 161; Grundy 2000: 51, 55; Strauss & Feiz 2014: 230, 233). The illocutionary act is the actual speech act of an utterance (cf. Strauss & Feiz 2014: 233).

One made-up example should be provided at this point.

(1) Two strangers meet at a party. Max: So where are you from? Lisa: I’m actually from Hamburg. I’ve been living in Flensburg for a week now. Max: So, I assume your boyfriend helped you move? Lisa: My dad helped me. I don’t have a boyfriend at the moment.

On the surface level, Max asks Lisa if her boyfriend helped her move (locutionary act). His intention, also called illocutionary force, however, s to find out whether she has a boyfriend or not. The sentence in bold is thus the actual speech act; a question (realized by a declarative sentence). As a result of Max’ question, Lisa gives a response and says that she is single; this is the perlocutionary act.

In the example above, Max’ declarative sentence is only one out of many possible ways to realize his illocutionary force; in other words, a speech act can be performed by many different utterances (locutionary acts) (cf. Grundy 2000: 67). One utterance on the other hand, can realize more than one speech act (cf. Flowerdew 2013: 90; Grundy 2000: 63; Strauss & Feiz 2014: 232) or even different speech acts in different contexts (cf. Grundy 2000: 50). This is why it is not always easy to interpret the pragmatic meaning of an utterance, which can result in misunderstandings (cf. Eitelmann & Stange 2016: 117, 122; Grundy 2000: 60; Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 5) and humorous situations. In order to interpret the utterance correctly, it is crucial to consider the context (cf. Eitelmann & Stange 2016: 117, 122; Grundy 2000: 64f., 72; Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 15; Strauss & Feiz 2014: 237).[4] Grundy (2000: 67) argues that “[…] all speech acts are understood in relation to a context.”[5] It goes without saying that considering the context is not only important when interpreting utterances but also when producing them (cf. Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 15).

Concerning the length of a speech act, any utterances from a single word to a number of complex sentences (cf. Flowerdew 2013: 90; Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 6) are possible. Thus, the speech act apologize could be realized by the locutionary act of saying sorry. The actual amount of possible speech acts is debated by scholars (cf. Flowerdew 2013: 89). Either way, it can be said that the number is very large (ibid.). Nevertheless, they all belong to one of the three hypernyms assertion, order/request and question (cf. Grundy 2000: 59). These functions are prototypically realized by a certain sentence type (assertions by declarative s, orders/requests by imperatives and questions by interrogatives) (ibid.). In case of these prototypical matches of form and function, we speak of direct speech acts. If this is not the case, they are referred to as indirect speech acts (ibid.). It should be noted that every sentence type can be used for every function (cf. Grundy 2000: 58f.). Indirect speech acts are not a rare phenomenon but, on the contrary, the norm (cf. Grundy 2000: 53, 56); most notably with requests or orders (cf. Eitelmann & Stange 2016: 119f.; Grundy 2000: 59, 63; Grundy 2008: 239).

2.2 The Cooperative Principle (CP)

The last section dealt among other things with implied meaning and how it can be explained with the help of SAT. Another concept that helps analyze implied meaning is the theory of the Cooperate Principle and implicature. Grice postulates that speakers produce utterances with the intention to be cooperative (cf. Grundy 2000: 73). He has refined this observation into the so-called Cooperative Principle (CP), which is in a way a guideline for effective conversations:

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: 45)

The Principle consists of four maxims: The Maxim of Quantity (make your contribution as informative but not more informative than is required), the Maxim of Quality (try to make your contribution one that is true), the Maxim of Relation [6] (make your contribution relevant) and the Maxim of Manner (be perspicuous, brief and orderly and avoid obscurity/ambiguity) (adapted from Grice (1975: 45f.)). If a speaker follows these social conventions, his or her conversation will “[…] tend to run more smoothly and successfully […]” (Cutting 2002: 34). I will refrain from providing examples at this point because I believe that the maxims are easily intelligible.[7] Speakers sometimes explicitly point out that they are observing one of the maxims with phrases such as “to cut a long story short” or “as far as I know” (cf. Cutting 2002: 34f.).

Although people are not consciously aware of the CP, they assume that a speaker in a conversation abides the four maxims (cf. Cutting 2002: 36). However, the speakers do not always do that in real life (cf. Grundy 2000: 75) as the maxims should not be seen as strict rules (cf. Eitelmann & Stange 2016: 127). As a matter of fact, it is sometimes not appropriate to adhere to the maxims, for example for politeness reasons (Eitelmann & Stange 2016: 129, 131f.) or other interpersonal reasons (cf. Grundy 2008: 236f.). If the hearer notices that the speaker does not observe one or more maxims, it tells him or her that the speaker might be conveying an implied meaning (cf. Cutting 2002: 36; Eitelmann & Stange 2016: 127). This implied meaning is never explicitly stated and has been coined conversational implicature by Grice (cf. Cutting 2002: 36; Grundy 2000: 73). Implicature has to be inferred by the hearer (cf. Cutting 2002: 36).

In the previous section, I mentioned that context is of high importance when analyzing speech acts. This also holds true for implicature (cf. Grundy 2000: 71f.). One utterance cannot only realize different speech acts in different contexts but can also have different implicatures. Yet even within the same context, one given utterance can be interpreted in a number of ways (cf. Flowerdew 2013: 103). This is why it should be stressed that my analysis is subjective and will only be one possible analysis, as it is always the case in Discourse Analysis (cf. Dynel 2016: 70; Flowerdew 2013: 103). Nevertheless, it can be said that due to the recipient design of film talk, “[…] academic interpretations of the meanings communicated by fictional speakers […] show a high degree of plausibility.“ (Dynel 2016: 77).

There are four different kinds of non-observance of the (four) maxims, namely flouting, violating, opting out and infringing. In the case of flouting, the speaker purposely does not follow the maxim and expects the hearer to infer the implicature (cf. Cutting 2002: 37).[8] When a speaker violates a maxim, on the contrary, he or she does not want the hearer to know the real implicature but instead to understand only the literal meaning. The speaker thus can be said to deceive the listener by intentionally creating an implicature that is misleading (cf. Cutting 2002: 40).[9] As far as opting out of a maxim is concerned, a speaker “[…] indicates an unwillingness to cooperate, although they do not want to appear uncooperative.” (Cutting 2002: 41). Infringing is the only case where the non-observance of the maxim is not deliberate but due to the speaker’s imperfect linguistic performance[10] (ibid.).

Grice’ cooperative principle has been criticized and limitations have been pointed out [see Cutting (2002: 39, 41ff.) or Flowerdew (2013: 101ff.)]. The one major problem I see is that the maxims of quality, quantity and manner are imprecise (cf. Flowerdew 2013: 103).[11] The addition of another maxim, the Maxim of Humour, has been suggested (see Brock 2016: 59). Elaborating on any of these topics would go beyond the scope of this paper.

2.3 Brown and Levinson’s model of politeness

In contrast to the two previous sections, politeness does not deal with implied meaning. I will work with Brown and Levinson’s model of politeness. Politeness describes “[…] the relationship between how something is said to an addressee and that addressee’s judgment as to how it should be said.” (Grundy 2000: 164). Politeness is present in all communicative exchanges and belongs to the wider concept of appropriate behavior (cf. Grundy 2000: 151, 164).[12]

Face is a linguistic term for “[…] a property that all human beings have and that is broadly comparable to self-esteem.” (Grundy 2000: 156). Linguists distinguish between two types of face:

Positive face is a person’s wish to be well thought of. Its manifestations may include the desire to have what we admire admired [sic] by others, the desire to be understood by others, and the desire to be treated as a friend and confidant. […] Negative face is our wish not to be imposed on by others and to be allowed to go about our business unimpeded with our rights to free and self-determined action intact. (Grundy 2000: 156)[13]

Most interactions put the face of an interlocutor at risk (cf. Grundy 2000: 156; Grundy 2008: 241). The degree of the face threat can be calculated by the addition of the social distance, the power differential and the degree of imposition (cf. Grundy 2000: 158; Grundy 2008: 240). In order to satisfy the face wants of the listener, this face threat needs to be compensated with certain strategies (cf. Grundy 2000: 156). For a non-exhaustive list, see Grundy (2000: 161). In my analysis, I will mostly focus on the face of the addressee. Kasper (cf. 1990, paraphrased by Grundy 2000: 165) notes that in interactional discourse, these face threat compensating strategies have priority over the adherence of maxims.

It has been criticized that Brown and Levinson’s model is not universal (see Grundy 2000: 161ff.) and that the choice of strategies as well as what elicits their use depends on the culture and the language of the interlocutors (cf. Flowerdew 2013: 109f.; Grundy 2000: 156).[14]

3 Language material

Family Guy is an award-winning American animated sitcom that was created by Seth McFarlane. The adult show has been airing since 1999 with a total number of 286 episodes (cf. IMDb). The type of humor in Family Guy is diverse but it can be said that a prominent part of the humor is dark, inappropriate and shocking. The series revolves around the everyday life as well as the wacky and crazy adventures of the dysfunctional, less than normal Griffin family. The Griffins live in Quahog, a made-up city in Rhode Island.

Peter Griffin is the breadwinner of the family and works in a brewery. He is an obese, lazy, immature, rude, inconsiderate and ignorant person who thinks in stereotypes and does not have a common sense whatsoever. Peter is a horrible and neglectful father but is well-intentioned at heart. His wife, Louis, is a stay-at-home mother and the daughter of a superrich business-man. Her unattractive teenage daughter Meg is a self-conscious social outcast with low-esteem. The family either ignores her or is incredibly mean to her and bullies her. Chris, also an unpopular and awkward teenager, is the second-youngest member of the family and resembles his father in many ways. Stewie is a genius but diabolical and homicidal toddler with adult mannerisms and specific hatred for his mother. He has built his own laser guns and a time machine. Stewie has an upper-class British accent and is friends with Brian, the anthropomorphic, English speaking pet dog of the family, who is also smart and witty. Brian is an unsuccessful and unemployed writer who loves to smoke, drink Martini and listen to Frank Sinatra. However, Stewie has called him out on his wanna-be sophistication and his hypocrisy at numerous occasions. Nevertheless, he is politically aware and intellectual and often the rational voice of the family. Similar to other animated sitcoms like The Simpsons, there are also numerous other re-appearing characters in the show that cannot be presented at this point.

Sitcoms are beneficial for analyses because there is obviously a density of humorous situations and utterances but also because the conversations are meant to be a mirror of real-life discourse (cf. Dynel 2013: 23). Comedy discourse or film talk can thus be exploited as exemplification data (ibid.; Dynel 2016: 68).


[1] It should be noted here that appropriacy is not a clear-cut boundary. Thus, no utterance or interpretation can be seen as “[…] absolutely ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a given case.” (Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 13).

[2] Other possible speech acts are, for example, “[…] complaining, making requests, refusing things/invitations, complimenting […]” (Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 6).

[3] In this paper, I will work with Austin’s theory. A summary of Searl’s Speech Act Theory can be found in Eitelmann & Stange (2016: 120f.) or Strauss & Feiz (2014: 234).

[4] Strauss & Feiz (2014: 237; emphasis in the original) list some features of the context, namely “[…] the participants, the activity they are engaged in at the time of the utterance, the location of the activity, qualities of how the speech act was uttered in terms of prosody (tone of voice, rate of speech, emphatically intoned words), gestures, facial expressions, and so forth.” Another two important aspects that they do not mention explicitly enough are the cultural and social norms of the participants and their speech community (cf. Ishihara & Cohen 2010: 6, 10, 12).

[5] As a matter of fact, even the meanings of the words of a language are not as fixed as one might believe (cf. Grundy 2000: 64f.)

[6] The Maxim of Relation is also referred to as the Maxim of Relevance (cf. Bieswanger & Becker 2010: 159).

[7] A few examples can be found in Grundy (see 2000: 74f.) or Eitelmann & Stange (see 2016: 125f.).

[8] Hyperbole, metaphor, euphemism, irony (with the sub-category sarcasm) and banter are examples of somebody flouting the Maxim of Quality (cf. Cutting 2002: 37).

[9] It should be noted that not every violation of a maxim has a malicious intention (Cutting 2002: 40). A violation can be well-intended, for example in order to protect somebody’s feelings (ibid.) or not to give away a secret.

[10] Imperfect linguistic performance „[…] can happen if the speaker has an imperfect command of the language (a child or a foreign learner), if their performance is impaired (nervousness, drunkenness, excitement), if they have a cognitive impairment, or if they are simply incapable of speaking clearly.” (Cutting 2002: 41; based on Thomas 1995: 75).

[11] I agree with Flowerdew (2013: 103) when he critically asks: “[…] but how does one measure to what degree an utterance is sincere? […] How does one judge what is the right amount of information or what is the right level of clarity and brevity?”

[12] The linguistic concept of politeness differs from the folk term and should thus not be mistaken for it (cf. Grundy 2000: 151, 164).

[13] Also see Grundy (2008: 241) or Eitelmann & Stange (2016: 130).

[14] For a post-modern view of politeness, see Flowerdew (2013: 111ff.).


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Europa-Universität Flensburg (ehem. Universität Flensburg)
pragmatics Pragmatik applied linguistics Angewandte Linguistik Family Guy comedic discourse discourse analysis Diskursanalyse Speech Act Theory Cooperative Principle politeness Humor sitcom humor research creation of humor



Titel: The Relevance of Pragmatic Features for the Creation of Humor in the Television Series "Family Guy"