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Construction grammar and discoursal incongruity

Introduction: Theoretical background

In a cognitive linguistic framework (Langacker 1987, 1991, 2001, 2008), “any aspect of a usage event, or even a sequence of usage events in a discourse, is capable of emerging as a linguistic unit, should it be a recurrent commonality” (Langacker 2001:146). The repeated occurrence of the same or similar linguistic material in similar, specifiable circumstances results in the progressive entrenchment of different types of linguistic units “including those pertaining to pragmatics and discourse” (Langacker 2001:147). This paper focuses on linguistic units emerging through their association to specific discourse patterns or contexts; in such cases, the necessary (for the humorous interpretation) incongruity resides precisely in such conventional discoursal associations.

The analysis is conducted in terms of Construction Grammar, whose cognitive underpinning is precisely the conventional pairing of form and meaning (including pragmatic and discoursal meaning). These pairings result in “constructions” of diverse sorts, specific properties of which can be shown to be responsible for their humorous interpretation. As stated repeatedly (Coulson 2005; Brone, Feyaerts and Veale 2006; Brone and Vandaele 2009), embedding humor analysis in well-studied, cognitive instances of creative language use, such as metaphor, metonymy, blending, prototypes, etc, has been a desideratum of (at least cognitively-oriented) humor research. On the other hand, humor research may further serve to test the explanatory power of such cognitive mechanisms and, therefore, present substantial challenges to the paradigm as a whole. As a cognitive usage-based approach, Construction Grammar (CxG) supports an integrated approach to humor analysis, in which information about the discoursal/textual/register characteristics associated with a particular form can be represented in the meaning pole of the corresponding construction. The dichotomy between semantics and pragmatics is rejected and information about topicality, focus, register, genre etc. is represented in constructions alongside purely semantic information (Goldberg 1995: 7, 2006; Fried and Ostman 2004). “Meaning” in CxG stands for “all the conventionalized aspects of a construction’s function, which may include not only properties of the situation described by the utterance, but also properties of the discourse in which the utterance is found.. .and of the pragmatic situation of the interlocutors” (Croft and Cruse 2004: 258).

Discoursally-based humorous incongruity, as well as the humorous coherence of whole texts can be seen, therefore, as residing in constructional properties, and thus integrated in a theory of grammar. An additional tenet of CxG, relevant to the analysis of our data, is the recognition of varying degrees of fixedness in constructions. In fact, the need to recognize fixed, substantive constructions alongside the (traditionally recognized) formal or schematic ones, as well as a continuum between the two, has been a founding premise of all constructional approaches. A substantive construction has all its elements fixed, e.g., the expression It takes one to know one which is completely fixed (cf. *It took one to know one). A formal or schematic construction, on the other hand, is a grammatical pattern which is lexically empty, e.g., the subject-predicate construction: any word fitting the required function can be inserted in the appropriate slot of the pattern (Fillmore, Kay and O’ Connor 1988; Croft and Cruse 2004). CxG recognizes a continuum between the substantive and the schematic, which ranges from morphemes and monomorphemic words, to complex and compound words, to completely substantive/lexically-filled idioms, to (semi)substantive patterns (blow one’s nose), to (semi)schematic idioms (the Xer, the Yer),1 to regular grammatical patterns requiring specific subsets of lexical material (e.g., a set of verbs fitting the ditransitive pattern), to completely schematic patterns (the subject-predicate construction).

Although most construction-based analyses have focused on sentence-level phenomena (at best encompassing bi-clausal constructions such as conditionals), the need to extend construction grammar to cover larger pieces of discourse has been noted in the literature. Ostman, for instance, notes that certain discourse patterns represent conventionalizations of specific linguistic properties, a characteristic which places them on an equal footing with the conventionalized patterns known as ‘grammar’. It stands to reason that “Construction Grammar methodology can be fruitfully extended to account for discourse phenomena” (Ostman 2005:125; see also Ostman and Trousdale 2013).[1] [2] In Ostman’s terms, a discourse construction specifically represents a conventionalized association of a particular text type (such as argumentative, descriptive, narrative, etc.) with a particular genre (for example recipes, obituaries, fairy tales). In the same line, the supra-clause size of horoscopes and scholarly commentaries, discussed here, can be accommodated in a constructional approach which, at the same time, focuses on the lexical, thematic as well as purely formal features that jointly constitute the relevant text types.

Constructions with identifiable discourse properties can therefore be seen as typical of specific genres, in the understanding of genres as social constructs negotiated among the members of specific communities and embedded in their discursive practices. In functional terms, texts belonging to the same genre exhibit similarities in their content, form, and function, thus enabling speakers to enact specific communicative practices (Swales 1990, 2009; Van Leeuwen 2005:122-123,127-128; Bhatia 2007). Although genres may initially appear to be static and classificatory constructs, they have been shown to be dynamic ones, in the sense that they allow for innovation and creativity, hence they are subject to manipulation and, eventually, change. As Bhatia (2007: 113) suggests, “[w]ithin generic boundaries, experienced users of genre often manage to exercise considerable freedom to manipulate generic conventions to respond to novel situations, to mix [...] ‘private intentions’ with socially recognized communicative purposes, and even to produce new forms of discourse”. In what follows, we intend to investigate how conventional discoursal patterns coming from a specific genre are exploited in a different one, so as to create a humorous effect. The combination of discourse patterns originating in different genres may not necessarily result in the creation of a new genre or in the transformation of an existing one, but rather create a unique discourse space (Langacker 2008: 466) which is accessible to, and aims at amusing, those readers who are familiar with the conventions of the genres involved.

In what follows, we will first consider the extent to which CxG research has addressed the issue of constructions characterized through their discourse properties and suggest an extension of established CxG methodology.

  • [1] It is obviously the semi-schematic/substantive patterns that are theoretically challenging forthe generative theories and have originally motivated all constructional approaches.
  • [2] In the available CxG manual (Fillmore and Kay 1993) regularities associated with larger structures are explicitly excluded from the set of grammatical constructions. However, as noted byOstman (2005: 129), the role of discourse factors in understanding has been recognized veryearly in the frame semantics literature. In the words of Fillmore (1982: 117 cited in Ostman2005: 129), “knowing that a text is, say, an obituary, a proposal of marriage, a business contract, or a folktale, provides knowledge about how to interpret particular passages in it, howto expect the text to develop, and how to know when it is finished. It is frequently the casethat such expectations combine with the actual material of the text to lead to the text’s correctinterpretation. And once again this is accomplished by having in mind an abstract structure ofexpectations which brings with it roles, purposes, natural or conventionalized sequences ofevent types, and all the rest of the apparatus we wish to associate with the notion of ‘frame’”.
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