Yesterday's lecture in Linguistics 001 included some discussion of irony, and afterwards, a student asked a good question:
I just wanted to ask something that has been nagging me since your lecture today on Semantics. I was wondering whether irony and sarcasm are universal across all languages, and if so, could we then suppose that it were a selected trait in language–that is, something that we evolved? I have been trying to think whether there is any evolutionary benefit–or even linguistic benefit–to the development of sarcasm and i cannot think of any. On the other hand, if sarcasm and irony are not universal, then are they considered just a cultural phenomenon? If so, how likely is it that so many different cultures could have developed it? has anyone ever tested this by finding a cultural group that does not use sarcasm or irony, shown that group examples of it, and seen whether the group recognized it?
Although cultures stereotypically differ in their affinity for irony, I've never heard or read that any group completely lacked the capacity to produce and understand it. And for the past three decades, there's been a special reason for this question to matter, because the alleged universality of irony is part of a well-known argument about theories of how people communicate.
First, let's clarify the terminology. For the purposes of this discussion, irony means "A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used", and not "dissimulation of ignorance as practiced by Socrates in order to confute an adversary". My guess is that Socratic irony is less likely to be a cultural universal — it seems to have caught the attention of Socrates' contemporaries as something new and unexpected — but in any case, this is a different question.
And I want to focus specifically on cases like "Wonderful!" as a response to something unwanted, or "Good job!" as a comment on culpable failure, leaving open the question of whether things in the ironic penumbra — e.g. dramatic irony, "incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs" — are the same thing as irony in the more narrow sense.
As for sarcasm, although it's often used to mean something like "irony with an edge", I'll take it here to mean "A sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt" — thus irony may or may not be sarcastic, and sarcasm may or may not be ironic. I'm pretty sure that sarcasm in this sense is a cultural universal, though the cultural meaning of gibes and taunts can vary quite a bit, from provoking conflict to establishing and maintaining friendship. (See Francisco Gil-White, "Is ethnocentrism adaptive", for some illustrative anecdotes from Central Asia.)
Now for the claim of universality. This line of argument starts with Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, "Irony and the use-mention distinction", in P. Cole (Ed.), Radical Pragmatics, 1981; but I'll quote a version of it from Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber, "Relevance Theory", in G. Ward and L. Horn (eds) Handbook of Pragmatics, 2005 [emphasis added]:
In Grice’s framework (and indeed in all rhetorical and pragmatic discussions of irony as a figure of speech before Sperber & Wilson 1981) the treatment of verbal irony parallels the treatments of metaphor and hyperbole. For Grice, irony is an overt violation of the maxim of truthfulness, and differs from metaphor and hyperbole only in the kind of implicature it conveys (metaphor implicates a simile based on what was said, hyperbole implicates a weakening of what was said, and irony implicates the opposite of what was said). Relevance theorists have argued against not only the Gricean analysis of irony but the more general assumption that metaphor, hyperbole and irony should be given parallel treatments.
Grice’s analysis of irony as an overt violation of the maxim of truthfulness is a variant of the classical rhetorical view of irony as literally saying one thing and figuratively meaning the opposite. There are well-known arguments against this view. It is descriptively inadequate because ironical understatements, ironical quotations and ironical allusions cannot be analysed as communicating the opposite of what is literally said. It is theoretically inadequate because saying the opposite of what one means is patently irrational; and on this approach it is hard to explain why verbal irony is universal and appears to arise spontaneously, without being taught or learned (Sperber & Wilson 1981, 1998b; Wilson & Sperber 1992).
Moreover, given the relevance-theoretic analysis of metaphor and hyperbole as varieties of loose use, the parallelism between metaphor, hyperbole and irony cannot be maintained. While it is easy to see how a speaker aiming at optimal relevance might convey her meaning more economically by speaking loosely rather than using a cumbersome literal paraphrase, it is hard to see how a rational speaker could hope to convey her meaning more economically by choosing a word whose encoded meaning is the opposite of the one she intends to convey (or how a hearer using the relevance-theoretic comprehension procedure could understand her if she did). Some alternative explanation of irony must be found.
In this post, I'm not going to engage their explanation for why "verbal irony is universal and appears to arise spontaneously, without being taught or learned" — the only point, for now, is the claim of universality. And I'm also side-stepping their view that "ironical understatements, ironical quotations and ironical allusions" are instances of the same category — they may well be right, but such a broad definition will make it very hard to judge whether a culture lacks verbal irony.
So here's a question for LL readers: Has anyone ever described a culture in which verbal irony, in the narrow sense, does not "arise spontaneously, without being taught or learned"?
Given the fact that Sperber and Wilson's claim has been out there since 1981, without (as far as I know) being challenged, I suspect that there are not any obvious counterexamples. But absence of evidence is not a substitute for evidence of absence, here as always.
I should note that the Sperber-Wilson theory, right or wrong, answers the student's question about the "evolutionary benefit" of verbal irony by claiming that it's a sort of free bonus, a necessary consequence of the general principles that make [our form of] communication possible. On this theory, irony is not only universal, it's inevitable. It seems to me that Grice's theory of irony has the same property, if we ignore the question of whether it works.
[A list of some earlier LL posts on irony and sarcasm can be found in "Locating the Sarcasm Bump?", 5/29/2005.]
[Update — a commenter asked "Do Pirahã speakers use irony or sarcasm?" I referred this question to Dan Everett, who answered "yes", with these examples:
A man catches a little fish.
He gets back to the village. Another man says "mh. Xítiixisi xoogiái gáihi" 'Wow that's a big fish!'
Another example (actual one I collected):
Q: Do women nurse all animals (after seeing them nurse peccaries, dogs, and monkeys)?
A: Yes, and piranhas. Wait, no, not piranhas.
The second one might be more hyperbole than irony, but I'm not very confident about locating the boundaries. ]