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American Annals of the Deaf

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Attitudes, Innuendo, and Regulators: Challenges of Interpretation
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TABLE 3. Focus for Understanding Innuendo


Description Author
Anthropology Contextualization Cues Gumperz
Ethnography of Communication Communicative Competence Hymes
Pragmatics Speaker’s Meaning Grice

Communicative competence is “a system of its [language] use, regarding persons, places, purposes, and other modes of communication, etc.—all the components of a communicative event, together with attitudes and beliefs regarding them” (ibid, p. 75). Communicative competence is acquired in tandem with other aspects of language acquisition. Table 3 summarizes this information. Taken in total, one can see that “meaning in conversations is usually jointly produced” (Gumperz, 1977, p. 195). No participant wholly controls the meaning of an utterance himself.

Grice (1975) developed the Cooperative Principle for conversations and its four maxims:

  • Quantity. Give exactly as much informative as required.
  • Quality. Say only what you believe to be true.
  • Relation. Be relevant.
  • Manner. Be succinct. (ibid, p. 45)

These outline the goals for the speaker and conversely the expectations for the addressee. The addressee will follow these maxims to determine the speaker’s meaning. This becomes critical for understanding humor, and particularly innuendo, in that the incongruity, discontinuity, etc., seemingly violates Gricean maxims. Raskin (1985), however, found a way to reconcile the Gricean maxims with humor by adapting them as non-bona fide communication:

Raskin’s application of maxims for non-bona fide communication (joking):

  • Quantity. Give exactly as much informative as is necessary for the joke.
  • Quality. Say only what is compatible with the world of the joke.
  • Relation. Say only what is relevant to the joke.
  • Manner. Tell the joke efficiently. (ibid, p. 103)

Grice asserts that in the spirit of conversational cooperation, the addressee will make every effort to treat sentences that violate the maxims as nondeviant to the greatest extent possible. Once the utterance can no longer be considered bona fide communication, however, he will look for humorous context (Raskin, 1985). This sequenced search for meaning complements the frame shifting theories discussed above. The sequence triggers the innuendo as the addressee recognizes the incongruity of the utterance, cannot reconcile it within Gricean maxims, discovers a match in Raskin’s adapted maxims, and finally comprehends how the speaker shifted frames.

An example of this process is the remark, “at band camp,” uttered as an aside by a student in a graduate-level interpreting class. The remark is succinct, but violates each of the other three Gricean maxims: In a feedback discussion of ASL to English interpreting, it is certainly not relevant, and it does not provide enough information for an addressee to determine the veracity of the statement. Yet, because the utterance satisfied the maxims for non-bona fide communication, the addressee immediately recognized it as an allusion. The utterance completed a catchphrase from the movie American Pie. In context of the class, the speaker noticed a mannerism in the target, as he frequently used the phrase, “This one time . . .,” in his interpretation. By simply completing the catchphrase, the speaker used the real-life classroom context to create and resolve an incongruity and carried with it the impact of the movie character who originally spoke the line. Out of context, most people would not recognize, much less appreciate the humor, but the speaker and addressee managed to negotiate meaning from the utterance.

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