Is irony universal?

« previous post | next post »

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. ]



  1. be_slayed said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    Is recursion a prerequisite for irony/sarcasm? Do Pirahã speakers use irony or sarcasm?

    [(myl) It's easy to find monomorphemic examples of verbal irony ("Great!"), so syntactic recursion is obviously not required. And Dan Everett's memoir of life among the Pirahã certainly describes sarcasm and related sorts of joking around, though I don't recall any descriptions of verbal irony in the specific sense under discussion here.

    Update: I asked Dan Everett about this, and I've put his response at the end of the post above.]

  2. Lukas said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    Perhaps irony is somehow a logical result of imitating other people. I've often seen children use something like irony when they imitate their parents when their parents ask something of them they don't want to do. I think there's a logical progression from purely imitating other people, to mocking other people by imitating them, to using irony (i.e. irony is similar to imitate other people by mocking them, except that the other person you're imitating doesn't necessarily have to exist – you're in a way playing a role of an imaginary idiotic person).

    [(myl) That's roughly the Wilson-Sperber theory: see the linked chapter:

    According to the explanation proposed by relevance theory, verbal irony involves no special machinery or procedures not already needed to account for a basic use of language, interpretive use, and a specific form of interpretive use, echoic use. An utterance may be interpretively used to (meta)represent another utterance or thought that it resembles in content. The best-known type of interpretive use is reported speech or thought. An utterance is echoic when it achieves most of its relevance not by expressing the speaker’s own views, nor by reporting someone else’s utterances or thoughts, but by expressing the speaker’s attitude to views she tacitly attributes to someone else.


  3. peter said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    "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."

    Just to clarify: evolutionary theory only requires that a trait provide no disbenefit to a population for that trait to survive in that population over the long term, not that it provide a benefit. The conflation of these two distinct ideas often leads people to reason fallaciously as follows:

    1. A population P exhibits trait X.
    2. Therefore, X is (or has been) of evolutionary value to P.

  4. John Lawler said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    Alice Myers Roy showed in her 1978 dissertation (Irony in Conversation, University of Michigan, Linguistics: Dissertation Abstracts International, 39-06A, p. 3555, AAF7822996) that conversational irony does have a social benefit — it contributes to social bonding. That's certainly good enough for evolution.

    Concerning non-ironiferous cultures, however, further deponent knoweth not.

  5. Jonathan D. said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    It would appear that the benefit to using irony is in the entertainment it provides (either to the audience, receiver, or speaker). Sarcasm, puns, and hyperbole are in the same category. I am not sure if this is covered in relevance theory. I may have to open that book now.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    See Xiang Li, "A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Situational Irony in China and the United States," Sino-Platonic Papers, 184 (October, 2008), 1-59.

  7. Andrew Shields said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Before I had children, I already wondered at what age children begin to understand irony. But it must be very early, because pretty much all parents I know (including people in Switzerland, Germany, the US, and the UK) use the heavy irony of some form of "that's just great" when a small child makes a mess or the like. And the kids know that it means "that's a bummer" and not "that's cool"!

  8. Kel said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    I would think that tendency towards irony/sarcasm differs, even if everyone can understand it in some way.
    When I lived in Russia, all accidental attempts at sarcasm (I'm a very sarcastic person, naturally) fell totally flat. My fiancé and his parents, all Polish, usually don't get straight-faced sarcasm, even though they have lived in the US for decades. They say that Poles don't use sarcasm, period.

  9. Dan Holden said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    I am definitely not an expert, but I am a teacher and a parent.

    With my son we use irony frequently as a type of reverse psychology (synonym?). "Whatever you do don't eat those lima beans and liver."

    "When I lived in Russia, all accidental attempts at sarcasm (I'm a very sarcastic person, naturally) fell totally flat."

    Irony may be universal but it has a hard time translating because so much of it relies on tone and facial expressions. Hence it is frequently misunderstood on the interwebs.

  10. Zoe Larivelt said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    A Pole saying that Poles don't use sarcasm sounds an awful lot like sarcasm to me. All the Poles I've known (not a great many, I'll admit) have been profoundly ironic people.

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    Snowclone: Do Pirahã speakers use X?

    I have come to doubt the value of that formulation, because the Pirahã seem not so much linguistic outliers as religious outliers. Their linguistic oddity seems a consequence of their extremism, not a cause of it.

    As for Eastern bloc sarcasm deafness, I'm inclined to blame habits arising from a long-trained caution. Perhaps the best exposition is in "The Postcard" by Milan Kundera.

  12. Lazar said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    @Kel: I recently heard a similar anecdotal account about an American in the Netherlands, who claimed that the Dutch people didn't get it when she used sarcasm.

  13. peter said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    In the excerpt you quote, Wilson and Sperber mention metaphor and hyperbole. Both of these, as with irony, require hearers to understand intended meanings, not literal meanings, of utterances, and perhaps also for hearers to maintain two simultaneous interpretations of what they are hearing. In addition to irony, it may therefore be interesting to consider these other forms of communication in different cultures. And there are cultures – eg, the maShona of Zimbabwe & Mozambique, and many Australian Aboriginal cultures – which rely heavily on metaphor and parable in everyday communications. From my personal experience, I would say that such reliance is far greater than in most Western European cultures.

    In the case of the maShona, parable is often used to deliver messages which a speaker believes an intended hearer will find undesirable or critical, while doing so in a manner which allows the hearer not to suffer any loss of face at receipt of the message. Thus, both speaker and hearer can pretend the message had one meaning, its literal meaning, while both parties know that it had another meaning, and both parties know that the other party knows this too, and so on, ad infinitum. I believe this use of parablic speech is a key reason why the maShona developed such proficiency in diplomacy, a skill honed, according to historians, in the sophisticated dynamic of shifting alliances and coalitions that the various Shona communities maintained between one another in the millenium before European settlement.

  14. Nicholas Allott said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    be_slayed asked "Is recursion a prerequisite for irony/sarcasm? Do Pirahã speakers use irony or sarcasm?"

    myl replied: "It's easy to find monomorphemic examples of verbal irony ("Great!"), so syntactic recursion is obviously not required."

    True, but on Sperber and Wilson's account there is necessarily some kind of recursion in the _thought_ that is conveyed by an ironic utterance. According to their theory, an ironic utterance is one that is intended to be relevant by its resemblance to a thought or attitude that someone else holds (or might hold) or an utterance someone made (or might make).

    For example, if the ironic utterance is "What a lovely day for a picnic", the thought behind it is (roughly):

    It is/would be silly/stupid/absurd to say/think "What a lovely day for a picnic".

    (The twist in irony is that a) the attitude (which must be negative) and b) the fact that the utterance is an echo of what someone else thinks or might think or says or might say are both left implicit, for the hearer to figure out.)

    So the thought that is being expressed has a thought or utterance embedded in it: that is, it is metarepresentational. And metarepresentation presumably relies on recursive properties of the language involved: in this case, the language of thought.

  15. Mark said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 3:25 pm


  16. Nicholas Allott said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    On a point raised in the original post:

    "On this [i.e. Sperber and Wilson's] 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."

    I think that this is partly correct. Grice's theory of irony has two parts. The first part is the same for irony as for a number of other rhetorical tropes including metaphor and hyperbole. In making an ironic statement a speaker is saying (or making as if to say) something that is false. This contravenes the first maxim of quality: Do not say what you believe to be false. On the assumption that the speaker is nonetheless trying to be cooperative there must have been some other point to her utterance, such as a true implicature. This is the part that comes for free from general pragmatic principles (namely the Cooperative Principle and a quality maxim).

    The second part of the Gricean account is the part that makes it look as though irony would be culture-specific on Grice's theory. The hearer has inferred that there must be an implicature, but how does he know what kind of implicature to look for? Grice didn't say anything about this, really, just adopting the classical definition that an ironic statement is one where what is meant is the opposite of what the words mean. This doesn't come for free from pragmatic principles, so presumably it would have to be learned. Whether this rule is available to be learned might vary from culture to culture.
    That's what Sperber and Wilson have in mind, I think, when they say "on this [i.e. Grice's] approach it is hard to explain why verbal irony is universal and appears to arise spontaneously, without being taught or learned."

  17. dr pepper said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    Snowclone: Do Pirahã speakers use X?

    Linguistic concept test: Sounds good but will it play in Pirahã?

  18. John Lyon said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    Hello ironists,

    I've been trying to address the question of Irony as a universal in the course of my fieldwork with St'at'imcets (Lillooet salish). It appears that in order for a speaker to disocciate himself from the content of his expression (a requirement for irony) overt, specific morphology is needed. This seems to take the irony out of irony, in a sense. I've posted an old draft of my paper on Irony, and Irony in St'at'imcets on my website, please take a look if interested. My thoughts have changed over time, but I'd be interested in any feedback you might have. Thanks.

  19. Adam N said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    Is it naive to suppose that the use of irony is still developing? I feel as though the use of irony has become more subtle and refined over the past decade. The whole appeal of the technique is that it is inobvious, like a little riddle that the listener receives pleasure from solving. As one becomes more familiar with the practice, the riddles have to get harder to maintain interest. That is my understanding of the shrinking role of cues like intonation and facial expression. The funniest ironic statements today are deadpan.

    I ask if this view is naive because I am 24, and the past decade is certainly the one in which mine and my peers' use of irony has become more subtle and refined. Moreover, there are plausible interpretations of irony going all the way back to the Bible (I think), so perhaps what I've observed is only a personal taste for deadpan, but does anyone else feel that heavily telegraphed irony (via intonation or facial expression) is less amusing now than it once was?

  20. jk said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    Kel: We Poles never, ever, ever use sarcasm. But we do have 50 words for "to snow someone."

  21. Rubrick said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    jk for the win!

  22. cross-eyed bear said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    I might be accused of splitting hairs here, but irony is feature of communication rather than of language per se. To be sure, irony is most frequently employed through language (and yes, I did note ML's terminological clarification for this discussion), but an observation:

    In the languages I'm familiar with, the devices used to overtly signal irony (prosodic, locutionary, etc.), insofar as any are used, are not specific to irony, but seem to have other, arguably primary, functions (e.g. to mark ‘emphasis’ or whatever). I've not heard of a language that has grammaticized a specific morpheme (segmental or tonal) or syntactic construction, whose sole purpose is to mark irony.* Rather, you seem to have to press some other linguistic tools into service to mark irony. Coupled with the fact that irony is something that some people ‘get’ better than others, whereas bona fide grammaticized distinctions aren't subject to such variation, this really suggests that irony is not really a feature of the linguistic system itself.

    So the student's question is certainly an interesting one, but the issue strikes me as more one of communication and culture than of language.

    (*Of course, I'd be curious to hear if anyone has.)

  23. Nathan Myers said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Adam: To your first question: yes. But continually decreasing blood lead levels, since the '70s, allow for increasing verbal sophistication.

    I'm beginning to doubt that irony is properly a linguistic phenomenon. Any behavior can carry meaning. When speech carries a meaning, that's linguistic, but as part of another behavior, the overall meaning has to be interpreted outside the frame of the speech. Is linguistics the study of conveyances of meaning in all media and modes, or does it properly restrict itself within the frame of actual utterances?

  24. cross-eyed bear said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    Of course, I may be wrong in light of John Lyon's work on St'át'imcets… It would depend on whether or not the Determiner "ku" has uses independent of irony…

  25. Colin Danby said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    You can always define terms as you want, but the characterization of Socratic irony as dissimulated ignorance is *at best* partial, and making that the sole alternative definition of irony to saying-the-opposite is misleading. "Irony" for some of us means saying A in a way that simultaneously puts in doubt both A and not-A, rather than saying A to mean not-A.

    Not everyone gets this…

    I don't know how you test across cultural sites, though it would seem likely that successful irony requires even more implicit common understanding than successful sarcasm. It's also sometimes a way for a speaker to deliver variant messages to different listeners via the same words.

  26. Graeme said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Brits (and Australians) often claim US folk lack irony.
    Besides being a gross generalisation, I think the claim is better understood as one about perceived differences in humour as reflected in mainstream output in earlier decades.

    A more interesting question is what conditions are necessary for the listener to understand (the) irony: tone, level of intelligence or attention, subtlety? Irony could have emerged as a way of fooling the listener whilst maintaing a sense of internal sincerity or speaking with a wink to third party listeners. Then it has been honed as a battery of playful or humorous devices that exercise intelligence if not often compassion.

    My experience with children is it is very much a learned trait; and relatively late to be practised (age 6 or so). Only very obvious irony – the mess being described as 'wonderful' in a heavy tone, scowl and when messes have been taught to be unwelcome – is understood early.

  27. Danny O Brien said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    As someone who has spent time in the US and the UK, and who once was a *professional* ironist, I'd say that the claim "X culture doesn't understand irony/doesn't use sarcasm", is probably to do with the subtle, and culture-specific, signals that one uses to indicate that one is about to use sarcasm/irony, and the culture-specific lists of contexts in which that's its appropriate to use sarcasm/irony.

    For instance, British people tend to use humour far more in the initial, smalltalk-y, bits of introducing new people or acclimatising to new contexts, than most countries — use of sarcasm here isn't going to be recognised as such by other groups who don't generally use humour in this situation. This is why Brits are quick to decide that individuals or whole cultures are humorless.

    Also, at a much subtler level, simply the overt "sarcasm signals" we use in one culture don't map to others. We rarely recognise this, because, internally the delightful trick of sarcasm is that we don't believe we're sending out signals, or else, the subtler the are, the better. So if we send out a delightfully subtle sarcastic comment, and the other person fails to recognise this as sarcasm, then we're more likely to mark them down for being ignorant sarcasm non-users than to realise that our subtle signally system wasn't being picked up at all.

    To give an example, one way that British people signal sarcasm is to pantomime being particularly upset or downcast at a turn of events. "Oh, that's just *great*", we'll say, indicating that this is sarcastic by (we think, subtly) increasing our our outer conveyance that this is *not great*, by pulling exaggerated grimaces or rolling our eyes. The more subtly or realistically you can do this, the better.

    To other cultures, this just looks like somebody who is unusually sensitive to a particular event. In unsubtle cases the "that's just *great*" will obviously flag as sarcasm, but when you're making subtler sarcastic comment: "Well, I imagine we're all very excited by this new turn of events", it just looks like a jumble of signals. Are you excited, or not? Then why do you look so pissed off all of a sudden, and for no great reason?

    Americans do use sarcasm, but they have slightly different signalling patterns. For instance, more common in the US is the use of the questioning tone as a signal that you're being sarcastic. "Wait, are you saying X?" or "Well, I guess that I won't be doing Y, right?".

    British people use this as well, of course, but the subtle variations in application (and the almost universal acceptance of humour as a conversational device in the UK) mean that while British people understand the "gloomy-face" cue to sarcasm *and* the "questioning tone cue to sarcasm", the second is more likely to be recognised by Americans when delivered by British people. (British people *can* miss the questioning sarcasm cue, and occasionally give entirely straight-faced answers to Americans being sarcastic. More often, they are more likely to be entirely thrown by questions that Americans are asking "sincerely", and which British people perceive as insultingly obvious. The many subtle emotional signals of "sincerity" in culture go completely unnoticed by British people, because sincerity just means stupidity/hypocrisy in the Brit lexicon.)

    Note that both Americans and British people generally enjoy sarcasm and irony in TV shows and comedies, because this is clearly defined as a context in which sarcasm and irony will exist, without the need for cultural ambivalent signalling.

  28. Gordon Campbell said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

    "They don't have sarcasm on Betelgeuse, and Ford Prefect often failed to notice it unless he was concentrating."
    (Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy)

  29. Nathan Myers said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

    I didn't mean my question above rhetorically.

    It's hard to believe in a society that lacks irony, although it appears that various degrees of frame marking are needed. The complementary question arises: are there speech communities that don't have sincerity? That is, where no utterance can be taken at face value? Don't people enjoy movies about such environments?

    In extreme cases anywhere, a statement might pass beyond ironic falsehood and, via double irony, back to literal truth again. The frame marking is complicated.

  30. Dick Margulis said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    I think there's a connection between irony and humor (not in any way suggesting that all irony is humorous but rather that similar verbal processing in the brain is involved somehow, although that's a guess). What I find is that there are individuals who both lack any semblance of a sense of humor and also have trouble understanding irony. In lay terms, as someone said to me once, the right brain doesn't have a sense of humor, and people whose communication is governed more by their emotional state than by overtly logical processes have trouble processing any sort of wordplay, puns, irony, humor, or sarcasm.

    So it seems to me that irony isn't universal within a population. That every speech community has (pardon the gross oversimiplification) left-brained individuals and right-brained individuals suggests that humor, irony, sarcasm, puns, etc., are likely to arise spontaneously in some portion of the community and be eschewed by another portion of the community.

  31. John Lyon said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

    Hi cross-eyed bear:
    Yes, the determiner "ku" does have uses independent of irony. It is a non-assertion of existence determiner (cf Matthewson 1998), and occurs only in polarity and irrealis environments, and usually requires an overt morpheme from the just-mentioned classes to license it. One interesting thing about "ku" in the examples in my paper is that there is nothing the given examples which should license it.

    The distal invisible deictic "lakw7a" also has uses independent of irony. It is a type of non-visual evidential (cf Matthewson forthcoming) and can be used when the speaker intends to utter a true proposition based on the non-visual evidence. A speaker can also use it if he knows the proposition he is uttering is false, even in contexts where if the proposition had been true, it would have been due to visual evidence. A speaker has to use it in such ironic contexts, if the literal meaning of his expression will be taken to be false, but it is not the speaker's intention to lie….
    So the problem is quite complex and we're still working through it.

  32. John Lawler said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

    Since irony is a phenomenon that involves negation (one way or another), it's hard to believe that it's absent in any human language. As Horn and Kato 2000 put it:“Negative utterances are a core feature of every system of human communication and of no system of animal communication. Negation and its correlates – truth-values, false messages, contradiction, and irony – can thus be seen as defining characteristics of the human species.”

  33. Mark F. said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

    Wilson and Sperber write:

    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.

    When I first read this I thought, "OK, well irony is just a matter of humor, nothing more." But then I realized that it is more. In a lot of cases, the idea is to emphasize how self-evident something is by showing that its denial will be instantly recognized as a joke. (Unfortunately, this may fail if the listener instead adopts the hypothesis that the speaker has lost their senses.) Assuming the speaker pulls it off, they may not be conveying their meaning more economically, but they might be doing it more vividly or memorably, which is worth something.

  34. lhc said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

    If you've spent any time around a female American pre-teen recently, you might have heard "Hannah Montana" voice: using all available sarcasm indicators at all times, even when there is no apparent cause for sarcasm. It's perplexing, or else funny in the wrong way, and the kid (who is using sarcasm to evidence her maturity) gets mad when nearby adults laugh at her childish attempt to deploy humor.
    Sarcasm-voice was also a teenage thing in the nineties (remember "Not"?), and it seems that higher-than-average use of sarcasm has been associated with teenage girlhood in America at least since the eighties…but I'm not sure that it was in the sixties. At least, we didn't remember it that way: the girls in "Happy Days" were much less sarcastic than the girls in the "Breakfast Club".
    When I think about instances of sarcasm in Chinese humor, it seems that it's not so much a teen girl thing there. I keep thinking of instances of middle-aged men using sarcasm in movies…but I can't say if middle-aged male is the paradigmatic sarcasm user. All of which suggests that even if irony is a universal human capacity, frequency of irony use in speech can vary over time "in a culture" or be associated with distinctions of age-set, gender, etc.

  35. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 12:19 am

    My niece, who's nine, uses the Hannah Montana sarcasm indicators almost constantly. But she's quite aware of the sarcasm. The cause for it may not be apparent to others, but it's evidently apparent to her; for one thing, it shows that she's wise to something that they aren't (since they're too dull to watch Hannah Montana). She's not American, by the way. She's Irish. But I won't speculate on whether Irish preteens are more perceptive than American ones about tone markers. All I really know is that can get damned annoying.

  36. Thorleif said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 2:16 am

    I think a more vexing question is this: is it like rain on your wedding day?

  37. Graeme said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 5:28 am

    The term ironical has metamorphed unrecognisably from its specific linguistic or rhetorical meaning. Such that anything wry or counter-intuitive is seen as ironic, and one who recognises irony in that form may be better adapted for a complex and unpredictable and frankly topsy-turvy world.

    I suspect, in common speech (Language Log is descriptivist, right? Or not when it comes to useful technical distinctions?) that sarcasm is assumed to be crude and rude (the province of ill bred teens perhaps) but irony is reserved for subtler utterances and not the lowest form of wit.

  38. Aaron Davies said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 7:22 am

    I immediately thought of this cartoon, in which sarcasm/irony is taken as proof of civilization/sophistication.

  39. Zoe Larivelt said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    "I suspect, in common speech (Language Log is descriptivist, right? Or not when it comes to useful technical distinctions?) that sarcasm is assumed to be crude and rude (the province of ill bred teens perhaps) but irony is reserved for subtler utterances and not the lowest form of wit."

    That's always been the distinction (though I can think of lower forms of with than sarcasm). See the OED. "By the figure Ironia, which we call the drye mock" (Puttenham, 1589). That sounds like a modern understanding of irony to me. "Many are of so petulant a spleene, and haue that figure Sarcasmus so often in their mouths" (Burton, 1621).

  40. Blobby said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    Graeme, you would probably be interested in this blog post on Separated by a Common Language (one of my favourite linguistics blogs. Much more thoughtful and informative than many US/UK differences sites)

    Not just the blog post itself, but the comment from Martin about the different roles irony and sarcasm have in the UK and the US, and the different meanings of the words themselves (which has really thrown me trying to read Mark's post here).

  41. John said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    English lacks a marking used exclusively for irony– not!

  42. Michael Farris said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    "They say that Poles don't use sarcasm, period."

    I've lived and worked in Poland for a long time now and yes, in my experience American style sarcasm is a non-starter here (in English or Polish) it's either not understood or not regarded as funny.
    On the other hand, most Polish people have a finely tuned sense of the absurd and a lot of Polish humor is absolutely based on irony.

    I can't resist linking to this, although there are no subtitles:

  43. Roger Lustig said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    Early sarcasm:

    They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?–Exodus 14:11 (NIV)

    Does this not go over in Poland or the Netherlands?

  44. cross-eyed bear said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    John said,
    English lacks a marking used exclusively for irony– not!

    No, you've used a negator together with a prosodic contour (or orthographic convention, for the written medium).

  45. Tom said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    I'm only a dabbler, but I've got to say I'm not used to seeing irony or sarcasm in early modern English, even in plays, where you'd expect it. Take, for instance, the scene in "Twelfth Night," where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian, spy on Malvolio and make fun of him as he reads the letter they've left ( Look at a passage like:


    . . . Softly! M, O, A, I,–

    O, ay, make up that: he is now at a cold scent.

    Sowter will cry upon't for all this, though it be as rank as a fox.

    M,–Malvolio; M,–why, that begins my name.

    Did not I say he would work it out? the cur is excellent at faults.

    M,–but then there is no consonancy in the sequel; that suffers under probation A should follow but O does.

    And O shall end, I hope.

    Ay, or I'll cudgel him, and make him cry O!

    And then I comes behind.

    Ay, an you had any eye behind you, you might see more detraction at your heels than fortunes before you.


    What's striking about a passage like this, and the whole scene for that matter, is that all the obvious opportunities for sarcasm are missed in favor of sincere forms of assault. Can others here come up with good examples of early modern sarcasm? I notice that the KJV translates the passage Roger Lustig mentions as "And they said unto Moses, because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt?" Which reads to me as though someone couldn't figure out how to parse an unfamiliar mode of speech.

    Could it be that the alleged universality of irony in the world today is the result of a boom since the eighteenth century? I can imagine irony — at least the simple sort like "Good job!" — being a really easy thing to pick up.

  46. HeyTeach said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    @Thorlief — this is just the running discussion I have been having with my wife, 8th grade Language Arts teacher.

    Her definition: Anything that happens as the opposite of what would be commonly expected in the situation.

    Example (from the same song): A black fly in your chardonnay. She says that IS ironic, because one wouldn't expect a black fly in that particular location. I say that ISN'T ironic (for a commonly accepted definition of irony), unless the chardonnay was CALLED "Black Fly."

    What do others think? Is rain on your wedding day ironic, or merely unfortunate coincidence? Is paying for the ride only to discover that it's a free one truly ironic, or evidence that you just don't read the signs carefully enough?

    [(myl) It's a pretty natural progression for ironic to come to mean simply unexpected or something of the sort -- consider the (established and accepted) history of awful or terrible or really, or the (in progress and contested) history of literally or creepy.]

  47. Roger Lustig said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    @Tom: earlier versions read,

    und sprachen zu Mose: Waren nicht Gräber in Ägypten, daß du uns wegführen mußtest, damit wir in der Wüste sterben? Warum hast du uns das angetan, daß du uns aus Ägypten geführt hast? (Luther, modern spelling)

    Tha sayde they vnto Moses? were there no graues for us in Egipte, but thou must bringe us awaye for to dye in the wyldernesse? wherfore hast thou serued us thus, for to carie us out of Egipte? (Tyndale)

    Both of these strike me as more natural (i.e., like modern sarcastic speech) than KJV. I chose NIV because it seemed fairly straightforward in its presentation of the sarcastic bit, but in Tyndale, especially, it's loud and clear.

    The KJV "Because" would work better nowadays as "Was it because…" The Schocken Bible has "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the wilderness?"

    This is sometimes held up as the earliest example of Jewish humor.

  48. Zoe Larivelt said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    "This is sometimes held up as the earliest example of Jewish humor."

    An even earlier one, or so I've heard it suggested: Cain's reply when God asks him where Abel is: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

    I think the early modern sense of irony was actually much more developed than ours, so much so that some readers don't recognize it when they see it. Imagine John Donne without irony.

  49. Toma said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    I suppose Minnesotans have had to learn irony, but we got it from the Vikings.

  50. Nathan Myers said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    HeyTeach: We can say that both uses of the word are, descriptively, correct, but one is a stupid meaning preferred by stupid people. We will be obliged to invent another word for the other meaning, and in its time it will be degraded too, and then we will need another one. That's how it goes.

    Something similar happens with computer languages, leading to, for example, Java.

  51. mgh said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    Mark, there is a terrific scene about cross-cultural irony/sarcasm in Albert Brooks's movie "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" (2005).

    Brooks makes a characteristically deadpan ironic comment to his newly hired Indian assistant, who is baffled. He explains he was being sarcastic. This happens a few times, until she says "Mr. Brooks, if you ever make a joke and I don't get it, please just kick me." He looks stunned, then grins and says "sarcasm?" and she proudly nods yes.

    Unfortunately I haven't been able to find it online.

  52. Xiang said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

    Wow, what a fascinating discussion that has evolved on this blog! I actually wrote my senior thesis (article referred to in Professor Victor Mair's post: on the cross-cultural comparison of appreciation for irony between the US and China.

    The first two thoughts that came to mind as I read through the other posts here are:

    1) Irony does provide evolutionary benefits if we understand the appreciation of irony as a coping mechanism for individuals.
    2) I do believe irony exists in varying degrees in cultures but different forms of irony (i.e. verbal, dramatic, situational, etc.) as well as the topic of irony (i.e. the individually vs. socially implicated themes of my cartoon sample) determine salience and likelihood of understanding as well as appreciation.

  53. Jay Livingston said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 11:40 pm

    My limited experience in Japan was similar to Kel's in Russia. Sarcasm ("That was just great" and the like) baffled people.

    I hope someone with greater knowledge Japanese (or Chinese?) will comment on this.

  54. Trond Engen said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    Late to the party again. Hope you haven't all gone home.

    I believe that irony is the result of an advanced theory of mind.

    First, to produce humour you have to
    - know what is expected in a situation.
    - break the rules by producing something different
    (- learn which breaches of the rules that are funny).
    Aren't there chimps doing this by e.g. delivering the wrong tool or suddenly doing a move from the wrong game?

    To produce irony you have to
    - know the outcome of something that could have been
    - know what kind of (re)action that is expected
    - know what reaction would have been proper with the other outcome
    - produce the reaction to the other outcome
    For you to expect the other party to recognize that production as an allusion to the other outcome, he must be expected to
    - know the same.
    - be able to reconstruct your thought process.
    - acknowledge that you've predicted his reaction.
    Moreover, the other outcome may be what a third party would have done, or even entirely fictional, like an opponent's misrepresentation of your motives.

    (I'm sure these criteria could be improved)

    For an ape to show irony one would have to look for not only a conscious breach of the rules, but one that is meant to show what might have been, like extrovertedly responding to grooming after the groomer has left.

    So, I'd say that irony is the same as humour applied to the mental process of interpreting eachother's reactions, and that the level that the we play with these processes mirror our capacities for a theory of mind. It should thus be expected to be universal, but the actual irony produced would vary along with culturally transmitted patterns of reaction.

  55. Aaron Davies said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    @Zoe Larivelt: Cain and Abel weren't Jewish.

  56. Zoe Larivelt said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    Maybe. But that would only be relevant if you were talking about whether Cain himself was making a joke. The teller of the story–the anonymous writer of Genesis–was Jewish, and so were the original readers of the story. That makes it a Jewish joke.

  57. Chris said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    If we take irony and sarcasm to be variations on lying, there are good theories about why lying evolved.For example, as a weaker competitor, I could falsely make a warning call and scare you away from mates or food, gaining an advantage.

    How would irony or sarcasm evolve from this, well, it might be an example of Amotz Zahavi's handicap principle whereby costly goods are willingly squandered to show off wealth (aka, conspicuous consumption). If we take truth to be costly, then sarcasm is a natural way to squander it.

    Also, I could see it evolving as a mechanism for competing on intelligence rather than brawn. If two males are competing for a female and one is smart and believes the female is smart, he could use sarcasm to fool the other male (without risking physical confrontation) hence humiliating him in the eyes of the female.

  58. Andrew said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    Zoe Larivelt: yes, but then it's not clear that it was the first Jewish joke. I would suppose that it's being claimed as the earliest does depend on its being seen as Cain's own joke.

  59. Zoe Larivelt said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    The first recorded one, then, which I believe was the original claim. It could hardly have been the very first one.

    I owe this observation, by the way, to Philip Klass–not the UFO debunker, but the fine science fiction writer who wrote as William Tenn.

  60. Nathan Myers said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Andrew: Surely you must understand that Cain is precisely as mythical as the duck who walks into a bar and says "got any grapes"? Some storyteller really did first assert that the duck, er, Cain asked, "Am I my brother's keeper?". The storyteller wasn't being sarcastic, but he was describing somebody else being so. We can reasonably guess that that original storyteller was Jewish, unless the Jewish storyteller cribbed from somebody else, such as, as was so often the case, a Babylonian storyteller.

  61. Andrew said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    Nathan Myers: Yes, of course Cain was mythical. But I didn't suppose anyone was making a serious historical claim that this was the first Jewish joke; the idea that it's the first Jewish joke is itself a joke; 'Hey, look, a Jewish joke made at the very beginning of history!'.

    If the claim is that the author of Genesis was making the first Jewish joke, and that is intended as a historical claim, then we have to assume that the scriptures were written in the order in which they are now printed – specifically, that the bit about Cain and Abel was written before the bits about Moses – and I don't think we have any particular ground for thinking that (indeed I have an idea that the consensus goes the other way).

  62. Zoe Larivelt said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    Don't ever try to get a straight answer from a Babylonian.

  63. Nathan Myers said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    I can state with absolute confidence that I never have done either.

    The priority of the Moses story is interesting, because that makes it an "origin myth", followed by backdating of the origin via a more fashionably primal one, and turning the original, er, origin into an episode. (Tricky, this mythologizing.) Of course the jokes could have been supplied any time.

  64. Chris said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

    I'm so glad all the commentators followed Grice's maxim and made their comments relevant to linguistics and sarcasm.

  65. John Cowan said,

    October 26, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    Cecil Adams took up the question of the ancestry of Jewish humor so long ago as 1993: "Are there any jokes in the Bible?"

  66. Bruno van Wayenburg said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

    @Lazar The Dutch unsarcastical, why sure! The nation's founder WIlliam the Silent was called that because of his (noncommital) verbosity. Even after our leading sarcast Theo van Gogh was killed, there's still an irony soaked culture left, with high profile tv news shows often degenerating into volleys of sarcastic remarks, and US based Dutch columnist Sylvia Witteman mocking the deadly seriousness of American culture surrounding her ('Wine? No thanks, I have to go to the dentist tomorrow').
    But if Americans don't get all that, of course that's something we will have to work on.

    Seriously: cues of sarcasm and irony differ culturally, like other aspects of language and communication, but in this case, part of the game is keeping the cues as subtle as you can get away with. So maybe that's why especially in the case of irony/sarcasm, it's natural to label cultures you know less well as less appreciative of them (even though you may still be right, by some other measure).

  67. Klaus said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    Speaking not as any kind of language expert, but as an aspiring philosopher, amateur ironist and part time madman, to me it has always seemed obvious that irony fills a crucial therapeutic function.
    "The absurd", as Camus wrote, "exists not in man or in the world, but in the meeting of the two." To use a language, any language, is to construct a kind of semantic map of the world, and to navigate by it. Naturally this map will be less than perfect, and there will be times when the differences between our private or collective expectations (as framed by language or otherwise) and reality-as-it-hits-you-in-the-face will be too large to overlook.

    These discrepancies can at times be confusing, dangerous or even traumatic, and -psychologically, at least – it makes perfect sense to try to deal with them by assimilating, appropriating them, making the unbridgeable abyss between language and reality a feature of language itself.

    Once this is the case it is not difficult to imagine that irony can become an important tool for social bonding; to wilfully engage in this play with frustrated expectations and subverted meanings that seem such inescapable conditions of existence becomes a way for people to show that they too experience these things, that this experience is, indeed, universal, or very nearly so. Irony gives us both an opportunity to show how clever we are to recognise several, irreconcilable levels of reality (getting a good measure of each others intelligence, by the way, is of course important when it comes to selecting a mate), and gives us the relief of knowing that we are not alone in having this fractured picture of the universe.

  68. B said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 6:30 am

    It takes ages to be able to be funny in a second language. It's now a decade *after* everyone thought me fluent in English and I was regularly mistook for a native speaker, and I still cannot be certain that people will get me when I'm sarcastic or ironic. I don't have this problem in my native Swedish but I often notice it in immigrants. The universal seems to be that humor like irony and sarcasm is culture dependent and rely on more subtle cues and knowledge of context and connotations than other interactions.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment