Pragmatic Study of Bovi and Basketmouth



1.0 Preamble

This study examines the pragmatics of comedy. Adrian Akmajian conceives of pragmatics as a term that “covers the study of language use, and in particular the study of linguistic communication, in relation to language structure and context of utterance.”(361) When Charles Morris proposed his famous trichotomy of syntax, semantics and pragmatics, he defined the last as “the study of the relation of signs to interpreters” (6). But he soon generalized this to “the relation of signs to their users” (29). What this implies is that pragmatics interprets meaning from the angle of the speaker (i.e. speaker-intended meaning). When comedians use language, what acts are they performing? What are the issues of politeness in their language use? These are some of the questions this study will attempt to answer.

Background to the Study

The intricacies in language use have brought philosophers (first) and then linguists (later) into the study of language. Although, the first attempt made to study language was prescriptive, less technical, superficial, unprofessional, shortsighted and weak, the Greek philosophers provided the basis for which today’s linguists have made rigorous and more serious researches into the complex nature of language, its behaviour, and its workings from one society to the other or from an individual to another.

Language may be studied from different perspectives. If the substance of language is the focus of language study, then it is referred to as phonetics/phonology and graphology. The former deals with the phonics (sound) of a language and the latter deals with the graphs or the written letters of the language. If the aspect of word formation or word behaviour or word arrangement is the focus of language study, it is referred to as morphology/syntax. However, if the context of language and its function are the focus of study, then the study is placed within semantic/pragmatic fields. This present study is situated in the area of pragmatics.

Although semantics and pragmatics both study meaning, there has been a number of attempts to fairly separate them. Leech observes that “once meaning has been admitted to a central place in language, it is notoriously difficult to exclude the way meaning varies from context to context, and so semantics spills into pragmatics… Semanticists found they had bitten more than they could chew” (2). However, linguists have succeeded in delineating these two subfields. In doing this, Adegbite dichotomizes them from the perspective of whole-to-part and parts-to-whole. He claims that if semantics is given a wide coverage- cognitive, social and contextual meaning, then pragmatics will be seen as part of semantics (whole-to-part). But if it is given a narrow coverage- cognitive meaning, then they are different parts that constitute the study of meaning as whole (parts-to-whole). It is in line with this that pragmatics is seen as covering those areas uncovered by semantics.

Scholars generally conceive of Pragmatics as the study of meaning in context from the angle of the speaker. It centres on how meaning varies from one context to another despite sameness of expressions. It may also be seen as the study of the speaker-intended meaning as against the sentence meaning so that a sentence may mean one thing but the speaker has made it to have another meaning conforming to his or her thought. This is why the listener or the audience continuously searches for the speaker meaning from the speaker’s utterances. This causes him or her to ask questions like: Why did he say so? Does he mean that …? and so on bearing in mind that it is the meaning in the speaker’s mind that prompts the utterance. Pragmatics has a wide coverage of language use ranging from speech acts, cooperative principles, sequencing, to politeness principles and so on. Speech acts and Politeness principles which are parts of the most discussed pragmatic subjects constitute the focus of this study.

In speech act, language is used to perform a variegated number of functions. It is used to socialise or to desocialise, to organise or disorganise, to cause affection or disaffection, to start war or to maintain peace, to foster harmony or disharmony, and so on. In the words of Parikh, “When we use language, we typically use it to communicate information. The two dimensions of communication and aboutness correspond to two constraints, communicative and informational. These two constraints interconnect and jointly enable us to use language to communicate information” (3). Perhaps, Parikh’s two language indices, communicative and informational, mean more than they appear. Language is used to communicate our intentions, feelings, thoughts, agreements, disagreements, and so on but the way language is used probably relays communicativeness more than the language content itself. Consider ‘sorry’ made with a soft tone and the one made with a harsh tone. Whereas the content of the expression in the two instances remains the same, the communicativeness in either varies. More so, whereas the basis of language is to use it to share information, among many other things, language may as well lose its informative power if it is not well situated within its appropriate context or if the audience or other interlocutors do share the same background knowledge. The idea that language is used to do a lot of things, and that the meaning of forms used to accomplish such acts is highly dependent on socio-cultural context, was introduced into the discussion of linguistic meaning by Malinowski (1923) and Firth (1968). During this time, sociologists and sociolinguists have been particularly concerned with the use of language to negotiate role-relationship, peer-solidarity, the exchange of turns and the saving of face in conversation (Ayodabo 132). Speech act theory which examines the use of language to perform a variety of functions is an aspect of pragmatic study. With regard to the language of comedy, one wonders what comedians are doing with words especially in their creation of humour. This study will try to examine the place of speech acts in the language of comedy.

Maintaining proper etiquette and speaking properly to a person without offending him or her is what is referred to in linguistics as politeness. Some define politeness as “being nice” to the other party, and argue that when another says “I think I’m a good teacher; what do you think?” Polite people respond “You’re great”, even if they don’t think so. In this view, agreeing with another’s self-praise is considered one of the “most fundamental rules of politeness” (Nass 36). Yet while agreeableness may often accompany politeness, it does not define it if one can be both agreeably impolite and politely disagreeable. One can politely refuse, beg to differ, respectfully object and humbly criticize, that is, disagree but still be polite. Conversely, one can give charity to others yet be impolite, that is, be kind but rude, (Whitworth & Liu 208).

To be polite also means, one must not be rude or offensive. One must use proper words to convey something. Foul language can put off a person. Also, one has to be choosy about words while conveying something. Whatever has to be conveyed has to be conveyed in a subtle manner ( However, with regard to the language of comedy, one wonders if politeness can ever find its way to the ways comedians manipulate language to elicit perlocution from their audience. It is not uncommon to find comedians ‘cracking jokes’ that may elicit negative reactions from the audience. This is usually the case when people tag such jokes as “expensive” as they can be rude, impolite, crude, or inconsiderate of the feelings of the audience. This was the situation when the former First Lady of Nigeria, Dame Patience Jonathan, was at logger head with veteran comedian, Ali Baba, for making an “expensive” joke about the First Lady. Still, there are situations where the audience responds positively to such “expensive” jokes especially when one considers the sociology of language from the perspective of male-female talk or sexist language. Here, the researcher means that even when the males make impolite or negative comments about the females, they (females) tend to appreciate it.This is another form of linguistic violence against women.

According to Adetunji, linguistic violence (LV) is a concept used to capture the psychological and social use of any instance of language to abuse, offend, or hurt somebody or people. It emphasizes the linguistic situation of two people or groups symmetrically along the lines of power or status, whereby one person or group occupies a higher, and therefore, oppressive position in relation to the other (20). Gay has classified LV into three broad types-subtle, abusive, and grievous-in a continuum stretching from the minimally intensive to the maximally intensive. Subtle LV concerns an unconscious use of language by persons or groups to subjugate other persons or groups. McGhee submits that men from early childhood have the greater tendency than women to use humour oppressively: boys learn to tell aggressive or face-threatening, especially sexual jokes and girls grow up to just laugh and be amused (Cited in Ugbabe 22). Thus, impoliteness in the language of comedy can be another form of sexist language or gender bias especially if it is used by the males to consciously or unconsciously oppress the females. This work prefers to look at the place of politeness in the language of comedy as an aspect of pragmatic study.

1.2 Aim and Objectives of the Study

The aim of this study is to describe the language of comedy from a pragmatic approach. The objectives of the study are:

  1. to describe the pragmatic features of the language of comedy
  2. to discuss politeness issues in the language of comedy
  3. to discuss the acts performed in the language of comedy.

1.3 Significance of the Study

This study focuses on the pragmatics of comedy. The study is significant in the following ways:

It describes the language of comedy from a pragmatic approach, which to the knowledge of this researcher, has not been done before.

It examines issues of politeness in the language of comedy.

It examines the acts performed in the language of comedy.

It will describe the linguistic features of the language of comedy.

It will serve as a resource material for students, teachers and future researchers who may want to carry out similar research in pragmatics.

The study is also significant for its contribution to knowledge in the field of pragmatics.

1.4 Problem Statement

This study is an analysis of the pragmatics of comedy. It is not uncommon knowledge about the role of comedy in society. Comedians manipulate language to create humour to make people laugh and this creates medicinal, physical and psychological effects on the audience. However, perhaps, the language of comedy, as known to this researcher, is one that has been barely described by linguists in the past, let alone from a pragmatic perspective; this research sets out to describe the language of comedy from a pragmatic approach using Bovi and Basket Mouth as case studies. The problem to be resolved in this research is covered in the research questions below.

1.5 Research Methodology

This study is a descriptive analysis of the language of comedy from a pragmatic approach. The study adopts politeness principles and the speech act theory in its discussion of the language of comedy. The data is limited to selected comedies of Bovi and Basket Mouth streamed on YouTube and the responses (comments) of viewers. This means that the internet will provide a useful source of data for this study as primary data, while linguistic textbooks, journal articles, magazines and periodicals will serve as the secondary sources of information.

1.6 Scope and Limitation

This study comes under the purview of pragmatics. However, pragmatics is a broad field which covers a lot of subfields or subjects. This study is limited to the areas of politeness principles and speech acts in describing the language of comedy.

1.7 Research Questions

The study shall be guided by the following research questions:

  1. What are the pragmatic features of the language of comedy?
  2. Are there politeness issues in the language of comedy?
  3. What are the types of acts performed in the language of comedy?

1.8 Motivation of the Study

Comedians have manipulated language to create humour for the interest of their audience. Their role in society cannot be over emphasized. However, to the best of this researcher’s knowledge, linguists have paid little or no attention to the description of the language of comedians especially from a pragmatic standpoint. One wonders what act they perform whenever they use language and what are the issues of politeness that describe their language use? These questions motivated this study.