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Understanding Irony: a cognitive-linguistic approach

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Irene Tabernero

on 23 July 2013

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Transcript of Understanding Irony: a cognitive-linguistic approach

Understanding Irony:
Case Studies
Analysing irony from the perspective of communication and cognition
A Cognitive-linguistic Approach
Irene Tabernero Baños
Pragmatic inferentialism
Solid base
for more comprehensive and accurate research on linguistic phenomena
to explain

the ins and outs of what causes ironical effects in utterances
Incorporation of two new elements
a contrast operation at work with echoing
situational cognitive models as the groundwork for irony
of the functioning of ironical utterances
More accurate description
Explanation of origin and conceptual grounding
Identification of factors for correct understanding
Inferential Pragmatics
Gricean theories
Gricean Theories
Irony as...
(1975, 1989)
Flouting of maxim of quality
Identification of one of the requirements of irony
the violation of other maxims also triggers irony (Mizzau 1984; Sperber & Wilson 1981; Kaufer 1981)
Giora ( 1997)
Salience as a determining factor for the rejection of literal meaning in favour of the ironical meaning
Violation of any maxim
irony as violation of maxims limits the study and identification of other factors
Attardo (2000)
Violation of Cooperative Principle and contextual appropriateness
Explanation of irony as arising from violation of Gricean maxims or appropriateness conditions
How to identify inappropriatenes? How does the knowledge in contrast with reality allow the hearer to identify the speaker's intention?
Irony as the violation of a conversational maxim
No explanation of the process of interpretation
Does not consider the antecedent of irony (the element that allows for and triggers irony)
Clark & Gerrig
Clark and Gerrig (1984)
Irony as pretence
The speaker pretends to be S’ speaking to H’, who is a pretended hearer.
The ironist (the speaker) is necessarily critical towards what is being said by S’ (the pretended speaker).
The speaker’s attitude can also be one of scepticism, stoic acceptance, indifference or impassiveness.
Audience must recognise that the speaker is pretending to be another uninformed speaker talking with an also ignorant hearer.
Sperber & Wilson
Sperber and Wilson (1981, 2006, 2012)
Irony as echoic mention
Expression of the speaker’s attitude towards the utterance itself
Allusion to a previous proposition
Irony echoes a remark or an opinion characterised by the speaker as inappropriate or relevant, and not necessarily opposed to what is literally said
1) Identification of the mention and the speaker’s attitude
2) Application of regular implicature reasoning processes
Sperber and Wilson (1981, 2006, 2012)
Echoic approach to irony: provides useful guidelines for a deeper exploration of all aspects of the phenomenon
Introduction of psychological mechanisms: better description of effects
Shared knowledge restricts communicative success
Success of ironical utterances: they must be taken as echoic
Elimination of the need to treat irony as a matter of figurative meaning Account for a wider range of cases of irony
Causes of irony are overlooked
Cognitive tasks are not associated with their meaning (i.e. communicative) potential
Explanation for the use of irony: an attitude is conveyed (Principle of Relevance and Optimal Relevance)
this is restricted by the knowledge that speaker and hearer have in common
Not sufficiently comprehensive:
it lacks an explanation for the use of irony
it lacks the attribution of the propositions expressed in ironical utterances to reality
Cognitive Operations and low-level situational models
The contrast and echoing alliance
Contrast Operation
Echoing Operation
Activation of Opposites
can also occur in ordinary speech
Need for another cognitive operation acting as a trigger of ironic meaning effects
“A IS B where A is the opposite of some aspects of B and B contains A” (Ruiz de Mendoza 2011: 9)
“A IS B where A designates any entity/state of affairs that contradicts H’s (or someone else’s including S) (purported) thoughts about the entity/state of affairs; B echoes such thoughts.” (Ruiz de Mendoza 2011: 8)

provides a reason why a speaker should echo a previous thought or utterance
creates a desire to make attitude manifest
Only the most relevant meaning implications of an utterance are echoed (Ruiz de Mendoza 2011)
Situational models as underlying material
Cognitive Models
Lakoff's ICM (1987): cognitive structure, idealised for the purpose of understanding and reasoning, whose function is to represent reality
Ruiz de Mendoza (2007, 2011, 2013)
Different nature of ICMs
New taxonomy
Going to a party, reading a magazine
Begging, thanking, promising
Shape, container, part-whole, path
Dog, picture, kill, die, run
Big, hot, fast, heavy, much, good, frequency, angry
Action, process, result, cause, consequence
Primary Level
Situational models:
underlie all cases of irony in our data
allow for the adjustment of the conceptual representation to the actual contextual circumstances
provide the stored information that contrasts with reality
“conventional series of events (i.e. dynamic states of affairs) that are coherently related to one another.” (Ruiz de Mendoza 2013: 115)
Consequences of the proposal in terms of irony
Situational Models
provide all the information available related to a specific context or situation
contrasts with our knowledge about a certain event
The Speaker
has the possibility of echoing the knowledge included in the situational model in order to
express an attitude
highlight such a contrast
An utterance that echoes the speaker’s knowledge in a situation of contrast will be ironical.
The irony in an utterance
exists only because there is background knowledge (a situational model) that makes contrast with reality possible.
The situational model underlies the creation of irony.
will necessarily have to
the speaker’s situational model as echoed in the utterance in order to interpret the irony
Analysis of examples of irony
Differences in the construction of the echo
Echo constructed at the linguistic level
Echo requiring additional material
- Grounded in external conceptual material

- Hearer must have access to the knowledge stored in a certain Cognitive Model
- Irony more easily understandable: required knowledge is provided by the linguistic material

- Apparently related to humouristic purposes
Echo at the linguistic level
1) "I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure."
- Hearer required to derive implication:
if speaker 'used to be' indecisive, he is now confident.
- Echo is put at work
CONTRADICTION (allows the irony)
(a person who is confident, does not doubt about that condition)
Echo cancels the implicated meaning
Contrast between echoed scenario and actual real scenario
2) "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room."
(Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, 1964)
- Activation of cognitive model about "wars".
preparations (gentlemen, not involved in fighting)
Contrast between preparations for war (fighting) and prohibition to fight in the 'War Room'.
Echoing of knowledge about war
- Main aim:
- to study irony from the perspective of Cognitive Linguistics
- show the advantages of this approach over previous accounts
- It specifies in what way echoing and contrast combine on the basis of a selected corpus of data.
Main Features of this new approach
- It provides a more powerful explanatory apparatus
- It shows how communicative effects depend on cognitive modelling and not the other way around
- It has shown that the echoing operation can be constructed either explicitly at the linguistic level or implicitly
Main Features of this new approach
- It has broken ground for future research into humour from the point of view of the manipulation of cognitive models through the use of combinations of cognitive operations
- It has shown that shared knowledge stored in the cognitive situational model by speaker and hearer is needed for an ironical utterance to fulfil its communicative aim
- It is able to explain why ironical utterances are not always correctly interpreted and understood by hearers
Cognitive nature
ironical utterances can be explained independently of their form and without the need of analysing suprasegmental features
Thank you for your attention!
For explanatory purposes : collection of a number of examples of irony from many different sources
- How to find relevant data for analysis: irony is usually constrained by context, culture and individual factors.
Not easily found in standard corpora (BNC, COCA...)
- Compilation of potential sources
- Selection of most relevant examples according to:
+ complexity
+ potential to convey ironic effects
- Inexistence of a computerised tool capable of identifying or recognising ironies
complete reliance on human abilities
Echo at the linguistic level
Echo requiring additional material
2) "Mary (after a difficult meeting): That went well."
- Hearer required to know:
- how Mary’s meeting went
- how a meeting should develop
- Speaker chooses irony to highlight the fact that the meeting did not go well
Echo of situational model about meetings
Contrast between echoed scenario (successful meeting) and actual real scenario (Mary's meeting)
“Gwendolen: Ernest has a strong upright nature. He is the very soul of truth and honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception.”
- Echo:
Echo of meaning of earnest + echo of previous events (immoral behaviour of Ernest)
Contrast with Gwendolen's statement
Echo requiring additional material
(The Importance of Being Earnest, 1915)
- earnest / Ernest (pun)
- Events in the story (contrast with moral behaviour)
Full transcript