Frame-Shifting in Humor and Irony (excerpt)
by David Ritchie
Coulson's (2001) analysis of humor as "frame-shifting" is extended to irony and compared to other current theories of humor and irony, including Giora's (2003) graded salience model. It is argued that the effects of humor and irony often depend on a subversive relationship between the initial and alternative frames, which adds to both cognitive and social meaning; understanding these effects requires consideration of the expansion of common ground (Clark, 1996) and relevance effects (Sperber & Wilson, 1986) triggered by the shift from a culturally licensed to a subversive frame. Reanalysis of several examples from recent studies in the light of these approaches shows that humor and irony, like other forms of figurative language, can serve complex communicative, social, and cognitive objectives that justify according them a central place in communication-oriented theories of language use.
Lakoff and Johnson (1980; 1999) effectively "normalized" figurative language, moving theories of metaphor and metonym from the periphery to the center of theories of mind and communication. In this essay, I review some recent work on humor and irony and conclude that, like metaphor, they can generate extensive changes to cognitive environments for relatively little processing effort, leading to unexpected increments to relevance (Sperber & Wilson, 1986). Humor and irony often serve core communicative purposes in subtle and multifaceted ways that place them, alongside metaphor and metonymy, at or near the center of our theoretical attention.
Reddy (1993) sensitized us to the importance of the "conduit" and "container" metatheoretical metaphors of communication; it is useful to extend the sense of his analysis to other meta-theoretical metaphors as well. For example, conceptual meta-metaphors such as "computation," "inputs," "storage," "outputs," and "mapping" perceptions and concepts from one "domain" to another, convey an implicit assumption that cognitive processes, including language, are "rational" in a sense akin to that of formal logic or the operations of a digital computer. It can be argued that the conventional treatment of forms such as humor and irony as exceptional and peripheral to "bona-fide" referential and propositional language uses (e.g., Raskin, 1985; Attardo, 2001; Raskin & Attardo, 1994) follow directly from these implicit rationalist assumptions.