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Irony and humour as means of cooperation and dissociation

Irony as a friendly way of being offensive (mock-politeness) as well as humour, which causes laughing and enjoyment, can enhance mutual interaction and provide a floor for cooperation in communication. Humour helps to raise interest and helps the speaker appeal to the listener. In example (2) discussed above, the two sisters cooperate in their conversation via humour and slight irony, the older sister politely mocking the younger one. Cooperative humour and irony imply close and intimate relationships between the interlocutors.

Irony and humour often serve other purposes, they may function as a means of dissociation of the speaker from the topic of conversation. In the next example, the passer-by pronounces an ironic utterance in a way which shows the absurdity of discussing an intimate topic aloud in a public place. He uses humour and irony to dissociate himself from the topic as well as from their loud talk. The assumption is that the speaker does not really mean what he says and thus we can say that irony arises from breaking the Quality maxim of the Cooperative principle. What looks like a polite offering of help is actually a mock-politeness, a clear case of irony. To avoid misunderstanding and/or offence irony must be clearly recognizable as unserious:

(7) (DL: 107)

no, anytime, a pleasure!

More precisely, irony typically takes the form of being too obviously polite for the occasion. In the example above, the speaker overvalues the Politeness principle by blatantly breaking a maxim of the Cooperative principle, the Quality maxim, in order to uphold the Politeness principle. In other words, what the speaker says is polite to the hearer and it is clearly not true. Therefore, what the speaker really means is impolite to the hearer and true. This example clearly illustrates that in being polite, one is often faced with a clash between the Cooperative and the Politeness principle. Both Grice (1975) and Leech (1983) acknowledge this phenomenon. Leech refers to it as “trading ofT’ one principle against the other and he further specifies that in being ironic, one exploits the Politeness principle in order to uphold the Cooperative principle (Leech 1983: 82).

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