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114 The Pragmatics Explication Making Sense of Nerds in The Big Bang Theory Matthias Eitelmann and Ulrike Stange The US sitcom The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007–) centers around four highly intellectual yet extremely nerdy scientists. Even if each of them has at least one master’s degree in natural sciences, they fail to master the everyday traps and pitfalls of human communication. This lack of mastery becomes evident as early as the beginning of the pilot episode,1 when physicists Leonard, a brainy experimental physicist who has more or less successfully adapted to society, and Sheldon, a brilliant mind tinged by obsessive -compulsive disorder, meet their new neighbor Penny, an aspiring actress. The following exchange introduces viewers to the male protagonists ’ nerdiness. Example 1: Penny: Oh, hi! Leonard: Hi. Sheldon: Hi. Leonard: Hi. Sheldon: Hi. Penny: Hi? Leonard: We don’t mean to interrupt, we live across the hall. Penny: Oh, that’s nice. 1. Written by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady.   The Pragmatics Explication | 115 Leonard: Oh . . . uh . . . no . . . we don’t live together . . . um . . . we live together but in separate, heterosexual bedrooms. Penny: Oh, okay, well, guess I’m your new neighbor, Penny. Leonard: Leonard, Sheldon. Penny: Hi. Leonard: Hi. Sheldon: Hi. Penny: Hi. Leonard: Hi. Well, uh, oh, welcome to the building. Penny: Thank you, maybe we can have coffee sometime. Leonard: Oh, great. Penny: Great. Sheldon: Great. Leonard: Great. Well, bye. Penny: Bye. Sheldon: Bye. Leonard: Bye. Leonard and Sheldon are unable to manage the conventions for meeting new people, and instead create a potentially infinite greeting loop— twice. The more socially adept Penny ends the first loop with a rising intoned Hi, which serves to question the interaction, and then ends the second loop with a decidedly falling intoned Hi, signaling it as the final contribution. Nevertheless, Leonard and Sheldon are unable to avoid similar loops as the conversation continues and eventually ends. Furthermore, they create a highly awkward situation as they feel the need to disambiguate the implied meanings of their living together—and bluntly state their sexual orientation. Of course, Penny does not know how to react to the blatant violation of the social conventions for this setting. In this short but meaningful first scene of the series, the premise of The Big Bang Theory as a show about socially challenged geeky geniuses is effectively established. Communicative mishaps such as in example 1 raise the viewers’ awareness of principles at work in conversations. Indeed, watching TV as a linguist is extremely worthwhile in the case of a sitcom like The Big Bang Theory: the episodes abound with social and communicative disasters that 116 | Matthias Eitelmann and Ulrike Stange are continuously exploited for humoristic effects.2 These are caused by sheer incompetence in the sphere of social interaction and/or utter ignorance of conversational principles, with Sheldon as a “cornucopia of social awkwardness ” being particularly prone to putting his foot in it.3 The linguistic subfield of interest here is pragmatics, which can be defined as follows: Pragmatics is concerned with the study of meaning as communicated by a speaker (or writer) and interpreted by a listener (or reader). . . . This type of study necessarily involves the interpretation of what people mean in a particular context and how the context influences what is said. It requires a consideration of how speakers organize what they want to say in accordance with who they’re talking to, where, when, and under what circumstances. (Yule 1996, 3) In contrast to (lexical) semantics, which is primarily concerned with the meaning of linguistic items in isolation (see chapter 6), pragmatics considers language use in actual context (on the distinction between semantics and pragmatics, see Cruse 2011). In this chapter, we will discuss key notions of pragmatics, whereby we will not only broaden our understanding of this branch of linguistics, but also gain an insight into how humor works in The Big Bang Theory. Furthermore, owing to a heightened awareness of communication mechanisms, we will also benefit on a metalinguistic level, namely in that we confront what we seem to know about our own everyday conversations, and thus call into question our own communicative skills. Inferencing: The Art of Determining Meaning The starting point for our discussion of various pragmatic principles will be “The Loobenfeld Decay,”4 an episode that focuses on the topic of 2. For an introduction to the television genre of sitcoms, see Mills (2005). 3. Ironically, it is Sheldon himself who uses the expression “cornucopia of...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780815653950
Related ISBN
9780815634935
MARC Record
OCLC
955275501
Pages
352
Launched on MUSE
2016-11-09
Language
English
Open Access
No
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