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Talk in a play frame: More on laughter and intimacy
School of Arts, Roehampton University, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 5PH, United Kingdom Received 16 March 2005; received in revised form 4 January 2006; accepted 5 May 2006
Abstract Conversation is one of the key locuses of humour and it is now widely agreed that shared laughter nurtures group solidarity. This paper will explore the links between laughter and intimacy in everyday conversation. The paper will attempt to clarify the term ‘conversational humour’, focussing on informal conversation among friends and on the conversational practices involved in humorous talk. I argue, following Bateson, that conversational humour involves the establishment of a ‘play frame’. When a play frame is established, speakers collaborate in the construction of talk in a way that resembles group musical activity, particularly jazz. This way of talking is characterised by, among other things, overlapping speech, the co-construction of utterances, repetition, and a heightened use of metaphorical language. I will argue that play and creativity are linked in signiﬁcant ways, and that playful talk is essentially collaborative. # 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Humour; Laughter; Intimacy; Solidarity; Conversation; Collaborative talk; Play
1. Introduction In this paper I shall examine humorous talk occurring in the informal conversation of friends. I shall argue that humorous talk is a form of play, and that talk as play can only be achieved by close collaboration between speakers. Collaboration between speakers constructs solidarity, and thus a key function of playful talk is the creation and maintenance of group solidarity, of intimacy between speakers. In this respect, I shall pursue the line begun by Jefferson et al. (1978) in their paper ‘Notes on laughter in the pursuit of intimacy’. I shall examine some of the characteristics of talk as play, drawing on a corpus of informal conversational data involving pairs or groups of
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. 0378-2166/$ – see front matter # 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2006.05.003
J. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49
friends, and will argue that talk as play shares features with music, particularly with jazz. The complex, often polyphonic, textual patterns of playful talk index the complex, intricate and intimate links between speakers. 2. Language and humour After many years of relative neglect, humour is now the focus of attention in a range of work being carried out by social psychologists, sociolinguists and conversation analysts, and in a variety of contexts. These include the workplace (Holmes, 2000; Holmes et al., 2001; Holmes and Marra, 2002; Mullaney, 2003); the classroom (Kehily and Nayak, 1997; Davies, 2003); medical settings (DuPre, 1998; Astedt-Kurki et al., 2001; Sullivan et al., 2003); TV discussion groups (Kotthoff, 2003); as well as informal settings such as the home (Norrick, 1993a, 1993b, 2004; Gibbs, 2000; Hay, 2000; Everts, 2003; Coates, in press). In this paper, I shall focus on humour involving conversation among friends in informal settings. Despite growing interest in talk and humour, there does not seem to be general agreement on the meaning of the term ‘conversational humour’. Many researchers have used what seems to me a rather narrow interpretation of this term, focusing on speciﬁc speech acts such as telling a joke, making a pun, being sarcastic or ironic (see, for example, Chiaro, 1992; Attardo, 1993; Norrick, 1993b; Gibbs, 2000). It could be that this bias in emphasis is gender-related. Recent research exploring gender variation in humour has established a clear pattern of difference among speakers, with men preferring more formulaic joking and women sharing funny stories to create solidarity ` s-Conde, 1997; Hay, 2000; Crawford, (see Crawford and Gressley, 1991; Boxer and Corte 2003). As Crawford (1995:149) remarks, ‘‘Women’s reputation for telling jokes badly (forgetting punch lines, violating story sequencing rules, etc.) may reﬂect a male norm that does not recognise the value of cooperative story-telling’’. So perhaps the foundational work done by men (e.g. Mulkay, 1988; Attardo, 1993; Norrick, 1993a) grew out of their own orientation to humour. On the other hand, signiﬁcant contributions to the literature on humour by female linguists, such as Tannen’s (1984) chapter (entitled ‘Irony and joking’) and Chiaro’s (1991) book (entitled ‘The Language of Jokes’) suggest that a focus on joking rather than humour in conversation is widely accepted as appropriate. Indeed, the ﬁrst book-length examination of conversational humour (Norrick, 1993a) is called ‘Conversational Joking’, not ‘Conversational Humour’. While joking is clearly part of humour, it is surely the case that humour is a much broader, more fuzzy-edged category than the term ‘joking’ implies. In British English, telling a joke is a very speciﬁc speech act, that is, a short formulaic utterance, ending with a punch line, which produces (or is meant to produce) laughter. Telling a joke, moreover, is an activity only rarely associated with friendly conversation. This is not surprising, given that, ‘‘a joke . . . is likely to disrupt a ‘normal’ or ‘serious’ conversation’’ (Chiaro, 1992:114). Moreover, ‘‘joke-capping sessions’’ (where one speaker tells a joke and then a second speaker tells a joke and so on) ‘‘are not an everyday occurrence’’ (ibid:113). Chiaro’s claims are supported by the evidence of my corpus of informal conversation involving friends or family. In this corpus I have found no joke-capping sessions and only one short passage that could be described as a joke-telling. There are some instances in the corpus of the combative style which can be labelled ‘‘joking around’’. This is conﬁned to the talk of the youngest speakers (12–17 years) and is more frequently used by male speakers. This
The notion of play is at the heart of what I mean by ‘humour’. 1 . Frosh et al. Crucially. 1997. then. It is this ‘‘broader interpretation’’ of humour that will be adopted in this paper. The notion of a ‘play frame’ captures an essential feature of humour – that it is not serious – and at the same time avoids being speciﬁc about the kinds of talk that can occur in a play frame: potentially anything can be funny. for example. which can be understood away from the context in which it was performed. emerges organically from the ongoing talk and involves the participation of all present. (2002) claim that combative humour is ‘‘central to the construction of masculine identities and hierarchies’’ (op. Pilkington. it seems. On the contrary. but does not outlive the conversation out of which it emerges’’ (Everts. Everyday conversation exhibits spontaneous outbursts of verbal play. she kept in mind ‘‘the broader interpretation of humour as ‘play’ ’’ (Everts. Conversational participants can frame their talk as humorous by signalling ‘This is play’. Talk as play The idea of talk as play draws on Bateson’s (1953) idea of a play frame. 2002). Kehily and Nayak.:232). Everts comments that when she was coding utterances in her conversational data as serious or humorous. Bateson argues that we frame our actions as ‘serious’ or as ‘play’. spontaneous conversational humour relies on shared knowledge and in-group norms. 2003:388). 2004:172).. 1994.cit. Jokes do not emerge spontaneously in conversation but stand apart from the ﬂow of talk and interrupt its progress. The conversations I’ve collected. The kind of humorous talk I shall focus on in this paper. so common in friendly informal adult conversation. but not. or when speakers pick up a point and play with it creatively. Where conversational co-participants collaborate in humorous talk. 2002:103). conversational participants must collaborate with each other. These differ from jokes in that a joke is a ready-made unit. 1990:45) such as this may acquire ‘‘a degree of ﬁxity or formulaically [sic] as it is repeated throughout the conversation. As Holmes and Hay (1997:131) observe: ‘‘Successful humour is a joint construction Boys interviewed by Stephen Frosh and his associates saw humour as something exclusively masculine: they implied that ‘girls were not sufﬁciently robust to engage in jokey banter’ (Frosh et al.cit. . excluding women’’ (op. it requires conversational participants to adopt ‘‘an interactive pact’’ (McCarthy and Carter. For a play frame to be established in talk. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 31 conforms to the patterns observed by other commentators (see. by contrast. but this does not mean there is no humour. 3. with the voice of the group taking precedence over the voice of the individual speaker.1 ‘Joking around’ and ‘having a laugh’ are common on the street and in school playgrounds. for example. Unlike a joke. 1998. Back. learned and repeated by a speaker to amuse an audience. laughter occurs in nearly all the conversations in the corpus. discusses a family conversation where the utterance ‘‘He’s from Virginia’’ is repeated in varying forms throughout the conversation and is unambiguously humorous. they can be seen as playing together.J. It emerges as the result of humorous stories. 2003:379). Everts (2003).:103) and that ‘‘joking seems to be a way of establishing intimacy between men and . . are not characterised by joke-telling or by jokey repartee. A ‘‘locally emergent expression’’ (Tannen. Frosh et al. or of bantering or teasing among participants. which can make it opaque to outsiders. Their shared laughter arises from this play and is a manifestation of intimacy.
1993b. we have the choice of joining in the play and responding to what is said. 1996:117–118). including verbal responses such as agreement. Humour often lies in the gap between what is said and what is meant. 1985) carried out meticulous analysis of where laughter occurs in talk. whereas ‘‘[i]n informal situations among friends. for example. Similarly. and even. 1997). 1995. 2003:1408). 1997. sudden changes in pitch or rhythm. all-in-together nature of the talk. parallels between spoken language use and poetry have not escaped the scrutiny of linguists (see in particular Tannen. But in the case of talk-as-play. what seems to be most salient is the collaborative. the preferred strategy is to continue in the humorous key and respond to the said’’ (Kotthoff. More recently. Holmes and Hay. working with second language learners. just as jazz musicians co-construct music as they improvise on a theme. Such evidence can be gleaned from the metaphors researchers draw on to represent talk in a play frame. Sully (1902 quoted in Norrick. what we know. The creation of solidarity is an inevitable Corte consequence of the joint construction of a play frame. in relaxed friendly talk. and I have described the collaborative talk of women friends in terms of a ‘‘jam session’’ (Coates. 1993a. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 involving a complex interaction between the person intending a humorous remark and those with the potential of responding’’. since interactants who collaborate in humorous talk. 2003:1368). analysts have focussed on laughter as a key response. speakers collaborate in talking about one thing while meaning something else. and paralinguistic clues such as the use of a laughing or smiling voice (Holmes and Hay. Humorous talk often involves speakers constructing text as a joint endeavour. Collaboration is an essential part of playful talk. by using other words. Kotthoff (2003) compared ironic humour in TV discussions with ironic humour in dinner-time conversations and found that. in a discussion of hyperbole. In particular. ‘‘it fundamentally depends on a joint acceptance of a distortion of reality’’. Davies (2003). 1993a:141) talks about the ‘choral’ nature of playful talk. or of reverting to the serious mode. Norrick. 1997:132). claims that conversational humour is a collaborative activity. Wellington. ‘‘necessarily display how ﬁnely tuned they are to each other’’ (Davies. they do not restrict themselves to laughter. As McCarthy and Carter (2004:161) say. Boxer and ` s-Conde. analysts have tended to focus on audience response. involving all participants at talk. However. many commentators see its chief function as being the creation and maintenance of solidarity (see. NZ) have paid attention to laughter because of its frequency and salience in their conversational data. the speakers preferred to return to the serious mode. using a Conversational Analytic approach. Crawford. in the TV discussions she analysed. When a play frame is invoked. to explore things which are difﬁcult or taboo. One of the strengths of humour is that it allows us to explore. Other contextual clues they consider are the preceding discourse. speaker’s tone of voice. Hay. These metaphors make parallels between talk and music. 1990). in new ways. 1984. In other words. Since textual analysis cannot access speaker intention. . and that ‘‘the verbal art of this specialised joint activity most closely resembles jazz in the world of music’’ (Davies. Research to pinpoint the contextual cues which signal a play frame has discussed both speaker intention and audience response. Because conversational humour is a joint activity. 1995. thus maintaining a play frame. Jefferson (1979. Holmes and colleagues working on the Language in the Workplace Project (Victoria University. 2003:1362). Sawyer (2001:19) also draws on jazz as a metaphor. since conversational participants have to recognise that a play frame has been invoked and then have to choose to maintain it. mirroring. There is growing evidence that talk-as-play is qualititatively different from serious talk.32 J. or parody.
The ﬁrst example shows how conversational participants can draw on what has been talked about in a serious frame earlier in conversation. like instruments in a musical stave. appearing vertically above or below any other word. is to be read as occurring at the same time as that word. can switch talk from serious to playful modes. second. a younger group of three young men friends. I shall focus on informal talk among friends. All of us. In this section I shall only comment brieﬂy on the extracts: detailed analysis of the language features which characterise this humorous talk will be carried out in section 5. The unpredictability of this kind of talk is part of what makes it fun for participants—anyone can trigger a switch at any time. This raises issues about obedience and appropriate behaviour in relationships. one of the speakers switches from a serious to a play frame. Sue tells her two friends that she has brought the school rabbit home for the weekend. or even to have a guitar in the house. The example below represents a very small part of the discussion of the obedient husband. 3 This means that all participants’ contributions are to be read simultaneously. In this paper. a switch which is recognised by the speaker’s co-participants. Any word. 2003). Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 33 It is not only in informal contexts involving intimates or close friends that talk-as-play is found. and after some more serious talk about the husband’s wild youth and nearalcoholism. for example. who proceed to co-construct talk in the play frame. The three examples are taken from three very different conversations: ﬁrst. and research looking at workplace contexts.2 These extracts have been chosen in part to demonstrate that humorous talk is not the preserve of one particular group but is a normal aspect of friendly everyday talk. This system allows the reader to see how the utterances of the different participants relate to each other. for example. Sue re-introduces the rabbit theme. all students in Melbourne. Sue tells a story about a couple she knows where the wife has forbidden the husband to play his guitar.J. (The extract has been transcribed using stave notation. It is always possible for a speaker to introduce a play frame. I would also like to thank Mary-Ellen Jordan who collected the Melbourne data and who has collaborated with me in analysing it (see Coates and Jordan.)3 2 I am extremely grateful to all those who have allowed their conversations to be recorded and analysed as part of my research. has uncovered a surprising amount of playful talk (see. or portion of a word. Holmes et al. I shall examine three examples of humorous talk. a conversation involving three women friends in their 30s. because this talk has the potential for frequent and often extended talk in a play frame. Where talk occurs in a formal context. England. for example. Some examples of talk in a play frame In this section. But in informal contexts where interactants know each other well. talk may switch repeatedly between serious and non-serious frames. in their early 20s. 1997). interactants may switch to a play frame from time to time to defuse tension or to provide light relief from a boring agenda.. Names have been changed to provide anonymity. aged about 19. 2000. Mullaney. as competent speakers. 2001. a conversation involving three young women friends. Holmes. 4. Australia. In each example. over supper at a house in Surrey. third. and conversational participants will collaborate with each other to bring about the switches. They talk brieﬂy about the rabbit before the conversation moves on through other topics to a discussion of marriage and relationships. . in South London.
the three friends ponder on the obedient husband’s life. The switch to a play frame is achieved by the mocking. quasi-maternal tone which . Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 At the beginning of this extract.34 J. Liz’s utterance oh bless him he doesn’t have much of a life triggers Sue’s laughter as she responds he doesn’t really.
This is a very good example of Kotthoff’s (2003) claim that the co-construction of humour relies on participants responding to what is said (playing with the theme of rabbits. rather than to what is meant (wives and husbands should have a more equal relationship and should not order each other round). sex and the computer. Liz joins in with the suggestion that the bossy wife should get the husband/rabbit a run in the garden. but they use humour to good effect to express their critical view of heterosexual marriage. and warms to her theme. Amanda tells her two friends (Jody and Clare) that the mother of a friend of theirs is proposing to marry the man she has been having an affair with for a month. and to have a laugh about an earlier joke about Clare. All three friends are horriﬁed at the news. all students at Melbourne University. . continuing I think I should bring him home for weekends. these friends are able to play with the parallels that this throws up and to say some pretty devastating things about the couple and their relationship.J. The repetition of the rabbit theme makes the talk of these friends textually cohesive. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 35 Liz adopts in relation to the obedient husband. while Anna suggests the two ‘rabbits’ could meet. Sue then introduces a new dimension with her simile: he’s like the rabbit. of the particular man talked about and by implication men in general. Liz fantasises that the husband/rabbit would be happy with a few lettuce leaves and adopts an ingratiating voice to mimic the husband thanking his wife for the lettuce. By reverting to the rabbit theme and using ‘rabbit’ as a metaphor for obedient husband. At this point in the conversation. of making runs in the garden). The next example comes from a conversation between three friends. of bringing pets home for the weekend.
This reframes the phrase: whatever they do together is now marked as both humorous and sexual. Clare’s recognition that a play frame has been introduced is marked by her laughing protest.36 J. But Jody chooses to re-focus attention on the idea of ‘whatever they do together’ by adding I hate to think. while Amanda maintains the frame with the joke it’s probably . Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 Jody’s words whatever they do together in stave 2 are initially received with only a minimal response from Amanda.
] It was a little girl [yeah] and she was dead he got to the house too late when she was dead. with one speaker taking the role of narrator. you can hardly talk. ((xx)) stupid cow’’ and she got up.he said. Clare.J. it involves less overlap than the preceding examples. I can’t remember all theAnd.4 The last extract comes from a conversation in which three young men are discussing whether miracles are possible (all three are involved in their local church). she was alive.)5 (3) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 4 MIRACLES But supposing that he raised someone from the dead? [. (This example is a narrative. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 37 heterosexual. In this example. with the young women constantly sending up the normative discourse of Romantic Love. Des reinterprets a Bible story with help from Jack and Hav—Jack and Hav’s contributions are in italics. he. Amanda’s joke is picked up with relish by the other two speakers: Jody launches into a series of utterances which talk about the man’s mobile phone. typically a grammatical phrase or clause (Chafe. This reading is conﬁrmed by Amanda’ subsequent teasing remark to Clare: you’re the techno sex guru. Clare responds to Amanda’s comment in kind. . with the utterance well we KNOW what they do then DON’T we in a mock-patronizing reference to the act of sexual penetration—the implication here is ‘boring!’ and/or ‘predictable’. in effect. a joke which inverts the normal pattern of heterosexual unmarked/homosexual marked. when you think about how shit medicine was in those days [mhm] I mean who says she was dead? [yeah I know] she could have been in a coma [yeah] and he could have like triggered something off she could have been lying she could have been lying she could have been really pretending **very very well** **she could have been like-** ‘‘Right ((I’m gonna sort that out))’’ <CLAPS HANDS> <LAUGHTER> The entire transcript of this humorous chunk of conversation can be found in the Appendix to Coates and Jordan (1997). . in which the reference to techno-sex can be understood only if Clare’s utterance has something to do with techno-sex. The mobile phone joke recurs throughout their talk. It has been transcribed according to narrative conventions. At the same time. each line corresponding to one of the narrator’s breath-groups or intonation units. and the play frame is maintained throughout the succeeding conversation. with heavy sexual innuendo. 1980). 5 The story is presented in numbered lines. But. she cohesively ties in Jody’s reference to mobile phones by saying. . that what we imagine them doing involves a mobile phone in some unspeakable way.he said something ((to her)) ‘‘Get up.
Des accepts the play frame and tells the story again entirely in reported speech. This is an interesting stretch of talk in which the speakers play with ideas which become increasingly fantastic. ((xx)) stupid cow (line 9).1. the second (nonserious) part involves a dramatised re-interpretation of the story. This time. 5. Des’s joking demand for payment (right where’s my ﬁver?) recognises that he has succeeded in amusing his friends. Des and Jack.’’ <LAUGHTER> 29 Right. . Once Des begins his comic re-telling of the story in dialogue. Talk in such conversations switches constantly between serious and non-serious frames. There is then a transitional section (lines 12–20) constructed by two speakers. before the switch to a play frame is fully accomplished. medicine was crap . where’s my ﬁver. 31 medicine was crap. The linguistic and para-linguistic features of talk in a play frame I have argued that playful talk is qualititatively different from other kinds of talk and that it can often be described in terms of music. Hav lets him have the ﬂoor. Hav’s earlier words allow Des the economy of simply saying Get up in a more serious voice (line 26) to bring off the animation of Jesus in the story.’’ <LAUGHTER> 25 for fuck’s sake. . <NORMAL VOICE> <LAUGHTER> 30 But I mean let’s face it. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 ‘‘I can’t -I can’t keep this up much longer. the co-construction of utterances. These ﬁve features are often co-present in a given stretch of talk: for example.) is achieved through the co-operation of Jack and Hav: they stop laughing and the minimal response yeah at this point signals their acceptance of the switch back to a serious frame. This example is in two parts: the ﬁrst (serious) part is a re-telling of a Bible story about a miracle. features which seem to be intrinsically involved in what it means to ‘play’ conversationally. <LOUD LAUGHTER> 24 go on. <SIMULATES GIRL’S HIGH VOICE> <LAUGHTER> 23 fucking stupid bearded cunt. repetition. particularly those of younger men. [yeah] [words between double asterisks were spoken at the same time] 22 This story is typical of many in the all-male conversations I’ve collected. overlapping speech often involves repetition.38 J. but Des ignores Hav and completes his initial re-telling of the story. 5. and laughter often overlaps with ongoing talk. when Hav again uses simulated dialogue: ‘‘Right ((I’m gonna sort that out))’’ that the humorous version of the story ﬁnally takes off. <QUIETER> 26 ‘‘Get up’’ <SERIOUS VOICE> <LAUGHTER> 27 ‘‘Thank God for that. Jesus Christ <LAUGHTER> that was hard. co-constructed utterances often involve two people speaking at the same time and repeating elements from the preceding discourse. This requires that talk is jointly constructed in a much stronger sense than . laughter. the bastard. Hav attempts to switch to a nonserious frame early on with his contribution Get up. and metaphor. and he and Jack become speechless with laughter. Overlapping speech A play frame can only be established if all conversational participants collaborate in sustaining it. <REVERTS TO GIRL’S VOICE> <LAUGHTER> 28 oh. The features are: overlapping speech. fuck off. and the men involved collaborate with each other to bring about the switches. particularly jazz. It is only at line 20. But note that his switch back to a serious frame in the next line (But I mean let’s face it. In this section I shall examine ﬁve features of talk in a play frame.
2003:1368. Sawyer. 2001). starts from the premise that the conversational ﬂoor is potentially open to all participants simultaneously. and repeating each other’s words. Sue and Liz overlap: and then Liz and Anna overlap: The effect of this complex pattern of overlapping is to give the impression of everyone speaking at once. The ﬁrst extract is a very good illustration of the kind of overlapping speech that is common in humorous talk among friends. which follows straight on. but in a coherent. in this strong sense (see Edelsky. 1975). Norrick (2004. Coates and Sutton Spence. as the repetition of words and meaning demonstrates. Staves 3. Overlapping speech is the inevitable outcome of joint ownership of the conversational ﬂoor.J. In staves 3–4. they all collaborate in sustaining it. This is very different from a one-at-a-time ﬂoor. 1996:117–118) or more generally to jazz (Davies. It is this kind of playful talk that has been likened to a jam session (Coates. 1993. 1996. for example. Collaboratively constructed talk. The example begins with all three speakers overlapping. These three friends have been playing for some time with the story of the obedient husband. where speakers demonstrate their shared perspective on whatever is being talked about and display ‘‘how ﬁnely tuned they are to each other’’ (Davies. where (as its name suggests) the ﬂoor is inhabited by only one speaker at any one time. because speakers’ voices interweave like instruments improvising on a theme. 2003:1362). . overlapping speech in a collaborative ﬂoor entails a richer multi-layered texture to talk. following Goffman) talks about collaboratively constructed talk of this kind as ‘a team performance’. But far from leading to conversational breakdown. Liz says he doesn’t have much of a life and then Anna and Sue speak simultaneously: [Anna: [Sue: he doesn’t by the sounds of it he doesn’t really <LAUGHS> By saying the same thing at the same time. not chaotic. 2001:19). and when Sue triggers a new play frame. Coates. yet they are clearly attending to each other at the same time. 1997a. or by echoing what has just been said. Their contributions to talk are made simultaneously: each of them develops the rabbit theme in their own way. 4 and 5 all consist of more than one speaker speaking at the same time as another speaker. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 39 that intended by Grice’s notion of cooperation (Grice. way. interactants bind their utterances together and in this case prepare the ground for Sue’s he’s like the rabbit.
but to two or occasionally three highly cohesive utterances. this time re-organised in stave format: In stave 2. we also ﬁnd repeating patterns (here. Again. Here is the chunk of talk where two speakers talk simultaneously. Hav seizes the opportunity of Des’s ambiguous like to switch into a pretend voice and to use direct speech . In extract 3. participants rely on given information (Jody has established that she is focusing on mobile phones) to attend simultaneously to Jody’s continued joking and Clare’s elaboration of Jody’s joke. which enriches the syntactic pattern they have established between them. simultaneously Clare laughs and comments well we KNOW what they do then DON’T we? In overlapping talk like this. A more extended example of overlap comes in stave 3: Jody says he’s got a bloody mobile phone and then adds he wears it round his waist. we can see how Des starts a fourth contribution to the list of she could have been utterances at the same time as Jack extends his utterance with an adverbial. There is no evidence from any of the humorous talk I have collected that participants cannot follow what is going on: on the contrary. of words and ideas). Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 The transcript of Example 2 shows that there is a great deal of overlapping talk in this extract. the evidence of subsequent talk is that speakers relish ‘choral’ talk of this kind and are stimulated to make further humorous contributions. involving whole clauses. At this moment.40 J. we again ﬁnd overlapping talk. again coinciding with repetition. This means that interactants are not having to pay attention to two or three disparate utterances simultaneously. we see that where overlap occurs. A very simple example occurs in stave 8 where Amanda’s cyber sex overlaps with Jody’s virtual sex.
. signals intimacy in a way which risks such a perception. But the pressures of hegemonic masculinity mean that male speakers must at all times avoid being perceived as gay. Co-constructed utterances The previous example – where one speaker (Hav) continues an utterance begun by another speaker (Des) – illustrates how speakers co-construct utterances. asks a question beginning with the words I wonder why she doesn’t . Where overlap as part of the collaborative construction of talk functions as a display of heterosexual coupledom. . In most groupings. Presumably. Sue and Liz. in stave 4. At the same time. Co-construction can involve a second speaker adding just a single word or an entire clause to an utterance.2. conversational duetting. 1994. but in all cases of co-constructed utterances. Liz. and Anna completes this utterance with the words introduce them.J. in particular overlapping talk. 5. Overlapping talk is more common in all-female talk than in all-male talk. The next two examples are very simple. The evidence of my database is that men in all-male groups prefer a one-at-a time pattern of turn-taking (for further discussion. Sue. This syntactic pattern proves very productive: eventually all three friends use it to develop the fantasy about the husband/rabbit through adding a second part to the utterance (which is not repeated): . male speakers avoid overlapping with another speaker. they are given here to illustrate the concept of co-construction (both examples involve Anna. Liz completes her own utterance with the words get him a run in the garden. Liz and Anna co-construct talk drawing on a rhetorical question structure. unless the conversational partner is an actual (heterosexual female) partner (Coates. 1997b). see Coates. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 41 (be like is now a very common quotative for young speakers—but Des might have been using like as a hedge while he searched for a new verb). from a different point in their conversation): In their playful talk about rabbits (and obedient husbands). men can produce talk as polyphonic as anything shown in the extracts above. except where the other speaker is a female partner. 2006). what is achieved is two speakers speaking as if with a single voice.
In either case. A further example of co-construction comes from the Melbourne data: in the conversation which follows example (2). syntactic. Amanda and Clare are collaborating in reinforcing Jody’s initial claim you wouldn’t drive from Palm Cove to Bondi. 1990:45) which become charged with humorous meaning. so rabbits in the ﬁrst example becomes charged.3. semantic. there is evidence that co-constructed utterances are a more normal feature of all-female talk than of all-male talk. or where production involves cohesive repetition. Jody. we see speakers constructing utterances where production is shared between speakers. only when duetting with a woman partner do men seem happy to deploy collaborative patterns like this which so strongly index mutual knowledge and awareness. with Amanda repeating the verb drive and Clare repeating the pattern ( from) X to Y (where X and Y are place names). Amanda and Clare’s jointly achieved utterance in stave two here is a very simple example of coconstruction: Amanda begins the clause and Clare completes it. As discussed above. But at the same time. garden and lettuce. we ﬁnd ‘locally emergent expressions’ (Tannen. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 LIZ: ANNA: ANNA: SUE: SUE: LIZ: I wonder why she doesn’t get him a run in the garden [stave 4] introduce them [stave 4] introduce them [stave 5] bring him home at weekends [stave 5] (and) let him go out in the garden [stave 6] give him a few lettuce leaves [stave 6] It is arguably the case that Sue is not adding a second part to Liz’s utterance. Repetition may occur at many levels: lexical. it seems that once a play frame is in place. 1993b. thematic. Again. 5. Repetition As discussion of overlapping talk and co-constructed utterance reveals. In the case of lexical repetition. his willingness to drive miles to buy strudels.42 J. repetition is a striking feature of talk in a play frame (see also Norrick. as do the words associated with this lexical ﬁeld such as run. 1994). They ridicule his liking for strudels. Entire phrases in the ﬁrst extract (example 4) are also repeated. in particular. Clare and Amanda continue their playful demolition of the man who is going to marry their friend’s mother. but is adding a new second part to her own earlier utterance I think I should [bring him home] [stave 3]. .
In all three examples. cyber-sex. mostly sexual. It is important to remember that these words and phrases repeat words and phrases used earlier in the conversation during the Rabbit topic. in particular. to the extent that it takes on a multiplicity of meanings. Repetition at the semantic level means that speakers say things with the same or similar meanings. techno-sex. or near-identical words: bring him home at/for weekends (staves 4 and 5). the repetition of words and phrases creates lexical cohesion. The accumulated force of these three questions is to underline the ﬁrst—in other words. get him a run in the garden/let him go out in a run (staves 4 and 6). the repetition by different speakers of the same syntactic patterns binds the three speakers’ contributions together. individual voices are less important than the jointly constructed talk. the phrasal verb get up (lines 9. whereas each one actually refers to a more trivial situation (on a ‘normal’ reading of mobile phone). The power of the word resides precisely in the lack of clarity as to its meaning in this chunk of talk: innuendo works by forcing the listener to ‘ﬁll the gaps’. yet these are never pinned down. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 43 with identical. virtual sex. Because of the semantic emptiness of do. Amanda’s question would you want to bloody use this man’s mobile phone? at the end of the extract is the climax of a series of rhetorical questions and is funny because the three friends are now tuned to interpreting mobile phone in a non-literal way. In the second extract (Example 2). This is why humour is so effective as a means of creating solidarity. at the same time. all using the same syntactic pattern: Subject + could have + V: she could have been in a coma and he could have like triggered something off she could have been lying she could have been lying she could have been really pretending very very well The syntactic repetition here signals an increasingly playful mode of talking.J. A good example is the phrase whatever they do together which is played with in various ways in the second example. At the end of the second example. it is possible for every following verb to be infected by the sexual meanings suggested by . 10. which is their feeling that the friend’s mother should not marry this man. 26) provides important lexical cohesion between the two parts. but using different words. In the last of the three extracts. Repetition allows the talk to move from a serious to a play frame in a very coherent and smooth way. Des’s question I mean who says she was dead? sparks a series of utterances. the use of particular words is crucial to the participants’ understanding of the second telling of the story. In playful talk. the utterance would you want to bloody use this man’s mobile phone? only has such an impact because of its positioning in a series of rhetorical questions: would you want to marry this man? would you want to be in the same room as this man? would you want to bloody use this man’s mobile phone? Part of the humour here lies in the fact that the speakers produce these questions as if each one presents a worse scenario than the last. the establishment of a play frame means that a term like mobile phone can become highly charged. with hypotheses becoming more and more fanciful. In the third example. Syntactic cohesion is also a feature of talk in a play frame. The word sex is also repeated in various combinations: heterosexual. to revert to the main theme of the conversation.
Not surprisingly. they achieve a display of ‘not merely laughing at the same time. This is an important claim. which refers back directly to whatever they do together. as in the following examples (from extracts 1 and 2. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 this phrase. it is certainly an important contextual cue. Des makes the claim But when you think about how shit medicine was in those days. At the same time. all three extracts show frequent laughter from all participants. while not committing them to speak all the time. While analysts cannot rely on laughter as a sign of (successful) humour (laughter may signal surprise or embarrassment. Jefferson et al. which moves us away from the idea that laughter is just an accompaniment to talk: it is talk.6 Laughter allows participants in playful talk to signal their continued involvement in what is being said. and their continued presence in the collaborative ﬂoor. laughter is the chief culturally recognised way that we acknowledge humour in talk. So a superﬁcially innocuous comment like he’s got a bloody mobile phone (stave 4) takes on particular semantic overtones. This comes just before his question I mean who says she was dead? which triggers the series of statements which switch the talk into a play frame. They also observe that. Another example of semantic repetition comes in the framing set up in Extract (3). In line 12. respectively): (i) (ii) SUE: I wonder why she doesn’t get him a RUN in the garden <GIGGLING> AMANDA: I mean the man has a mobile phone <LAUGHING> Laughter very often occurs when co-participants respond to something funny uttered by the current speaker. In playful talk. medicine was crap (line 31). The core of these two utterances is: medicine was shit (line 12) medicine was crap (line 31) These parallelisms make the talk coherent and bind speaker’s turns together. even when they do not actually produce an utterance. This is reinforced by Clare’s subsequent comment well we KNOW what they do then. for example). laughter ‘has the status of an ofﬁcial conversational activity’ (op.44 J. argue that for conversational participants. as in the following example: Frustratingly. talk about swimming naked). Laughter In their seminal (1978) paper. when conversational participants collaborate in humorous talk. laughter may involve the current speaker laughing at their own humour. This comes at the end of Des’s performance and marks the return to a serious frame. If we assume that a collaborative ﬂoor is at all times open to all speakers. but laughing in the same way’ (174).4. then clearly speakers need strategies to signal that they are participating. These insightful observations (together with the paper’s title) suggest that laughter and intimacy are signiﬁcantly linked. these observations are applied in the paper only to the laughter associated with ‘improper’ talk (for example. This claim is then balanced at the end of the extract by a semantically similar utterance: But I mean let’s face it. It allows people to signal their presence frequently.cit.:156). speciﬁcally sexual ones. 5. 6 . Laughter ﬁts this requirement perfectly.
Metaphor can be deﬁned as a linguistic device whereby one thing is described as if it were another. it plays an important role in structuring playful talk. Sometimes all participants in talk laugh simultaneously. In each case. it frequently involves exploitation of the gap between what is said and what is meant (Kotthoff. In everyday talk. It also marks the ongoing talk as solidary in that collaboratively constructed humour relies on in-group knowledge and familiarity. It signals the presence in a collaborative ﬂoor of co-participants who are not the main speaker but who by laughing can show their involvement in the ongoing talk. . It has been suggested that metaphor ‘‘is the principal device available to us . Laughter often occurs at the moment when a play frame is invoked: for example. group laughter can signal the end of a sub-section of humorous talk: in extract (2). 2003). Metaphor Finally. 2000. In the third extract. where’s my ﬁver). then. 5. as we see at the end of ‘Miracles’ (extract 3). to the extent that he feels justiﬁed in (humorously) demanding payment for his bravura performance (Right. Finally. One of the strategies drawn on by participants in playful talk to create solidarity and to subvert dominant discourses is the use of metaphor (see Gibbs. is an important contextual cue in establishing a play frame. 9 and 13). ‘‘Its function is to create novel meanings that inspire and disturb by changing our perspective on reality’’ (Eynon. It is evidence of the coherence of playful talk that Anna’s laughter works both as a response to the ﬁrst part of Liz’s utterance and as an accompaniment to the ﬁnal part.J. Hav and Jack laugh in response to every narrative line produced by Des (lines 21–27 inclusive). 2001:353).5. This pattern (of all participants laughing at once) seems to correlate in many cases with the end of a play frame. . Talk in a play frame frequently involves metaphor. I shall look at the role of metaphor. McCarthy and Carter. 1999:44). Anna responds to Liz’s riff about lettuce leaves at a point when Liz might have stopped. These examples suggest that laughter has several roles in playful talk. Alternatively. where group laughter at the end of the dramatized story and again after Des has demanded payment for his performance (lines 28–29) signals a recognition that the play frame has potentially come to a close. Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 45 Note that Anna’s laughter overlaps with the ﬁnal chunk of Liz’s turn. It signals amusement and appreciation when something humorous is said. what is talked about . as when all three young women laugh after Jody’s quip this side of Clare hasn’t come out yet in the second extract. there are three occasions when all three speakers laugh at the same time (in staves 7. Sue laughs as she introduces the notion of the obedient husband being like a rabbit. and Jack and Hav laugh when Des begins his dramatised version of the miracle story. for arriving at a fresh conception of a familiar phenomenon’’ (Hanne. this group laughter coincides with the end of a strand of the extended talk about the man with the mobile phone. 2004). But she chooses to embellish her point by acting out the rabbit/husband’s thanks to his owner/wife. Laughter. both in marking speakers’ recognition of the establishment of a play frame and in marking its close. especially everyday talk among friends.
The phrase mobile phone is used with phallic overtones throughout the extract. since co-participants collaborate not only in sustaining a particular topic but also in sustaining a particular way of talking. the use of metaphorical language leads to an intensiﬁcation of the humour. but it also allows them to express their uneasiness with the story of this deviant husband. As Boxer and Corte .46 J. this is a form of play they ` s-Conde (1997:293) have pointed out. Examples (1) and (2) demonstrate how metaphorical language functions in extended talk in a play frame. 2003:1368). (Succinctly. consciously or not. and all share in the maintenance of the play frame and demonstrate how well tuned they are to each other. so that words used subsequently hint at metaphorical rather than literal meanings. While a single pun or a comic aside may amuse brieﬂy. the co-participants never use the word ‘husband’. the coconstruction of utterances. here my focus is on sustained playful talk. Successful collaboration arises from shared understandings and shared perspectives. talk in a play frame involves a move away from the literal. a rabbit is perceived as a small. but in a more general sense. ﬂuffy creature while a husband is normatively supposed to be a strong. the use of metaphor is more allusive. This inevitably makes such talk solidary. the rabbit metaphor is introduced by Sue with her simile: he’s like the rabbit (stave 2). deviant because he kowtows to his controlling wife. my aim has been to demonstrate what speakers can do with playful talk. In both examples. The three examples discussed in this paper demonstrate that talk in a play frame can justiﬁably be called ‘‘a specialised joint activity’’ (Davies. it also gives us amusement. Even the statement he’s an architect (stave 10) acquires sexual overtones.) In example (2). as Gibbs (2000:25) says of irony. in press). Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 is familiar. Sue and her two friends cooperate in sustaining the rabbit metaphor. It is this cluster of linguistic features which has led commentators to describe playful talk in terms of music and particularly jazz. playful talk can be regarded as ‘‘a special kind of ﬁgurative language’’. I have looked here at speciﬁc uses of metaphor. A play frame can only be sustained if all conversational participants collaborate in sustaining it. protective human male. As I’ve shown. From this point until stave 8. Not only does this deepen our understanding of life and of the world around us. what the possibilities of a play frame are. During these seven staves. Conclusions: humour and intimacy In this paper. By entering a play frame. not erudite. amusement which arises from their awareness of the gap between their talk about rabbits and the underlying meaning expressed by this metaphor. repetition. All three examples discussed illustrate this: in every case. but talk only of the rabbit and of things to do with rabbits such as runs in gardens and lettuce leaves. ‘‘we all enjoy a good prize highly. Playful talk is fun: friends meet and talk because. as does Jody’s subsequent claim (omitted from transcript above) he’s got a spa [jacuzzi] in his ofﬁce (playing on the fact that the main feature of a jacuzzi is that water spurts out in an ejaculatory way). and is a strong demonstration of in-tune-ness. 6. which I have addressed in another paper (Coates. vulnerable. speakers can take a fresh look at the everyday and the familiar. with each use of metaphor increasing the humorous impact of the talk. all participants are involved. In example (1). Their frequent laughter displays their amusement. The clash between these two sets of meanings makes these three women laugh. The topic whatever they do together (stave 1) hints at sexual meanings. The fact that women in same-sex friendship groups seem more likely to exploit these possibilities than men is a separate issue. and a heightened use of metaphorical language. this way of talking may involve overlapping speech.
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Her published work includes Women. Spain and Italy. Germany. She has given lectures at universities all over the world and has held Visiting Professorships in Australia. the USA.J. Women Talk. 2005). Coates / Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007) 29–49 49 Jennifer Coates is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Roehampton University. She was made a Fellow of the English Association in 2002. Switzerland. . 2004). New Zealand. Men and Language (originally published in 1986. Men Talk: Stories in the Making of Masculinities (2003) and The Sociolinguistics of Narrative (edited with Joanna Thornborrow. third ed.. Conversation Between Women Friends (1996). Language and Gender: A Reader (1998).
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