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The Art of Teasing A corpus study of teasing sequences in American sitcoms between 1990 and 1999


It is a well-known fact that people who know each other very well, trust each other and share a lot of knowledge, ideas, beliefs and emotions do not necessarily communicate with each other in the most efficient and straightforward way. Instead, the high degree of mutual social confidence among group members enhances communication to take place on different layers of expression, be they serious or playful, involving such ubiquitous phenomena like irony, joint fantasies, pretend teasing etc. On the basis of their substantial and/or longstanding ‘common ground’ (Clark 1996), all members of a group are expected to anticipate and handle these different levels of communication, as a result of which social and communicative relations among in-group members are constantly (re)confirmed and reinforced.

In this contribution, we focus on humorous teasing as one prominent expression of such layered communication. Depending on the situational and contextual grounding of an interaction, teasing serves different communicational functions. It does make a difference, for instance, whether teasing takes place among longtime friends, relatives or among economic competitors, colleagues or even political enemies. Similarly, it makes a difference whether a teasing sequence occurs in the private setting of a household, in parliament, in a TV studio or as part of a screen play.

In the present study, we restrict our empirical focus to the occurrence of teasing sequences in four prominent American sitcoms of the nineties: The Nanny, Friends, Married with Children and Spin City. In this corpus, we observe how teasing can be used as a more or less subtle instrument to express certain feelings towards each other. A rich theatre producer teases his nanny to reveal his strong romantic feelings for her, and a shoe salesman teases his wife to reveal precisely the opposite. Teasing can thus be seen as an ideal means to “test the water”, as Martin (2007) aptly remarks. It is therefore unmistakably part and parcel of human nature.

The general aim of this contribution is to gain a better insight in the sociosemantic characteristics of teasing as a multi-layered and multi-perspectival phenomenon. On the basis of corpus data, more specifically, we envisage an accurate empirical analysis of teasing as it is construed in the dialogue sequences of four famous American sitcoms. Through the identification of five parameters in the analysis of 402 teasing instances, we are able to derive an annotation grid for an integrated and adequate analysis of teasing as a multifaceted phenomenon. Beyond the scope of this paper, we expect this annotation grid to be a valuable starting point for a similar analysis of teasing as it occurs in spontaneous everyday interactions.

The article is structured as follows. First, in section 2, we present a brief overview of the key notions of both the overall linguistic framework of this study and the phenomenon of teasing. Accordingly, section 2.1 elaborates on the socio-cognitive account of meaning, which serves as the linguistic background for this study, whereas section 2.2 provides a general overview of recent studies on different aspects of teasing. Section 3 deals with methodological aspects of the study, focusing on the specifics of the corpus. The empirical analysis in section 4 revolves around the identification of five parameters, the combination of which presents an integrated model, through which any given teasing instance can be defined and thoroughly described. Section 5, finally, derives a conclusion as well as some perspectives for future research on teasing.

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