Speaking of pragmatics and what pragmaticians occupy their time with, I find it weirdly funny when they politely describe not-that-usual linguistic behavior. We humans are filthy things, and do things that are even filthier; but the theorist must be formal, elegant, and… well, “theoretical”. Here’s (Levinson, 1992, pp. 71-72) speaking about how constraints apply to speakers, and how rituals function as a Wittgensteinian ‘language game’. Illustration: yo momma jokes.
A simple example is provided by Labov’s (1972b) description of the activity of “sounding” among the Black community of New York. Essentially, this consists in the competitive exchange of ritual insults governed by structural constraints of two types. The first is that “sounds” or turns at ritually insulting should be constructed in a specific fashion, which Labov (1972b: 153) represents as follows:
T(B) is so X that P
where T is the target of the sound, normally a relative (typically the mother) of B, the adresee, X is a pejorative attribute like fat, poor, dirty, etc., and P is some proposition that must, when applied to T, be false (otherwise the ritual insult will become a genuine insult). The second type of structural constraint governs appropriate sequencing: if A sounds on B, B should reply with a sound based on A’s sound but which “tops” (i.e. is considered more ingenuous), and, if possible, A should then try to top that or alternatively try another kind of sound. After each stage the audience makes a vocal assessment of the sound:
A: your mother so old she got spider webs under her arms
B: your mother so old she fart dust
C: Ho lawd!