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On Verbal Irony

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Wout Van Praet

on 6 November 2015

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Transcript of On Verbal Irony

On Verbal Irony
Wilson, D. & D. Sperber. “On Verbal Irony”. Irony in Language and Thought. New York City: Taylor & Francis Group (2007). 35-56.
Traditional accounts of verbal irony
Classical rhetoric
: verbal irony = trope: substitution of figurative for literal meaning
Dr. Johnson
: “mode of speech in which the meaning is contrary to the words”
Grice
: “ironist deliberately flouts the maxim of truthfulness, implicating the opposite of what was literally said.”
→ figurative implication or implicature
Problems with traditional account
1. Ironical understatements
Example
: [Customer complaining in a shop, blind with rage and making public exhibition of himself; I turn to you and say:]
“You can tell he's upset.”

→ does not say the opposite of what is meant:
≠ You can tell he's not upset.
≠ You cannot tell he's upset.
But merely less than what is meant
Toch ironisch!
Towards a New Account of Verbal Irony
Problems with traditional account
2. Ironical quotations
Example
: [said in a cold, wet, windy English spring]:
“Oh to be in England
Now that April's here.” [Browning, “Home thoughts from abroad”]

To succeed as irony, not treated merely as communicating opposite of what is literally said:
condition
: must be recognized as quotation!
Effect
: Not so much deny content of what is said; but rather make fun of the sentiments that it expresses
Problems with traditional account
3. Ironical interjections

Example
: [Friend invites you to visit him in Tuscany, saying that Tuscany in May is the most beautiful place on Earth. When you arrive, it is raining cats and dogs and you say:]
“Ah, Tuscany in May!”

Interjection ≠ complete proposition: not true or false
→ no violation of Maxim of Truthfulness (Grice)

However
: clear case of irony
Problems with traditional account
4. Non-ironical falsehoods
Example
: [When passing by a car with a broken window, you say:]
“Look, that car has all its windows intact.” [Grice 1978: 124]

Problem
: traditional definition of irony is satisfied, yet irony is absent
→ some necessary condition is missing from traditional definition
Conclusion:
2 general problems with traditional account

1. Traditionally: Irony conveys single determinate proposition, which could also have been conveyed by means of purely literal utterance:
→ ironical (1) = literal (2)?
(1) What a wonderful party.
(2) What an awful party.

But
: (1) and (2) differ in pragmatic effect:
(1) expresses certain
attitude
2. Definition of what irony is does not suffice; we need
explanation
of reason why it is used

→ possible traditional explanation: irony as deviation from norm that should not arise spontaneously

However
: verbal irony is both natural and universal!

→ Need for
different definition
and
different explanation
Step 1: Irony as Echoic Mention
Distinction
use – mention

Example: (3) Mary is a beautiful child.
(use)
(4) “Mary” is a beautiful name.
(mention)

Mention =
self-referential
use of words or linguistic expressions

Mention can be both direct and indirect quotation:
(5) John: What did Susan say?
(6) a. Mary: “I can't speak to you now”
b. Mary: She couldn't speak to me then.
→ (6a) : mention of
sentence
Susan spoke
(6b) : mention of
proposition
she expressed
(6b) has two different
interpretations
:
Mary concluding that Susan did not have time to speak then:

use
of proposition: Sp represent certain state of affairs
Mary reporting (not directly quoting!) Susan's words:

mention
of proposition: Sp's attempt to reproduce not Susan's words but her meaning
Hypothesis
:
Verbal irony = variety of
indirect quotation
, and thus crucially involves the
mention of a proposition
Note: Two different purposes of indirect quotation:
Report
: gives information about content of the original
Echoic utterance
: simultaneously expresses Sp's attitude or reaction to what was said or thought
Consider:

(6a) Peter: Ah the old songs are still the best.
(6b) Mary: (fondly) Still the best!

(7a) Peter: Ah the old songs are still the best.
(7b) Mary: (contemptuously) Still the best!

(6b) is echoic mention with attitude of
approval
;
(7b) is one with attitude of
disapproval
(with dissociation from the thought expressed)


Verbal irony
invariably involves expression of
disapproval
:
Sp.
dissociates
him-/herself from the echoed thought (of someone else), using anything from
mild ridicule to savage scorn
.
Reasons for dissociation:
If one believes certain opinion to be
false

If one believes opinion to be correct, but too mild
→ ironical
understatement
(8)
(8) You can tell he's upset

If opinion is not false, but to hold/express it in the circumstances would be patently absurd
→ ironical
quotations
(9) or
exclamations
(10)
(9) To be in England; now that April is here.
(10) Ah Tuscany in May!
If irony = a variety of echoic utterance, it should arise as
naturally
and
spontaneously
as echoic utterances in general

→ no departure from a norm

In fact:
Ease with which irony is understood argues AGAINST existence of a
norm
or
maxim of literal truthfulness
Step 2: Irony as Echoic Interpretation
Note: Two different purposes of indirect quotation:
Report
: gives information about content of the original
Echoic utterance
: simultaneously expresses Sp's attitude or reaction to what was said or thought
Consider:

(6a) Peter: Ah the old songs are still the best.
(6b) Mary: (fondly) Still the best!

(7a) Peter: Ah the old songs are still the best.
(7b) Mary: (contemptuously) Still the best!

(6b) is echoic mention with attitude of
approval
;
(7b) is one with attitude of
disapproval
(with dissociation from the thought expressed)


Verbal irony
invariably involves expression of
disapproval
:
Sp.
dissociates
him-/herself from the echoed thought (of someone else), using anything from
mild ridicule to savage scorn
.
Reasons for dissociation:
If one believes certain opinion to be
false

If one believes opinion to be correct, but too mild
→ ironical
understatement
(8)
(8) You can tell he's upset

If opinion is not false, but to hold/express it in the circumstances would be patently absurd
→ ironical
quotations
(9) or
exclamations
(10)
(9) To be in England; now that April is here.
(10) Ah Tuscany in May!
Observation
:
close link between irony and parody

Parody
: exaggerated imitation (of a work of art), based on distortion
Irony
: saying one thing and meaning the opposite


→ How do they relate?
Similarities
: both involve
echoic allusion
and
dissociative attitude
Differences
: parody = echo of
linguistic form
irony= echo of
content
// Verbal Irony (and all echoic utterances in general):
reports of speech ≠ always identical reproductions of the content of an original; they may be
Paraphrases
or
summaries
Elaborations
(spelling out assumptions or implications that original speaker took for granted)
Problem
: Parody involves echoes of style, but in what sense does it involve mention?
→ Mention :
identical reproduction
of an original
But: parody is no reproduction, but a
resemblance
Alternative:
interpretative resemblance (instead of mention)
= resemblance of propositional content

→ echoic utterances = reinterpreted as echoic interpretations
of an attributed thought or utterance

Verbal irony
: a variety of
echoic interpretation
Resemblance
(in general) : sharing of properties
>
interpretative resemblance
: sharing of
logical
and
contextual implications

The more shared implications, the greater the resemblance
[When two p share all their implications, the interpretative resemblance involves literal interpretation
→ literalness = special case of interpretative resemblance]
Example
:
Jane Austen -
Emma

(Emma is playing with her sister's child. Mr Knightley comments:)
“If you were as much guided by nature in your estimate of men and women, and as little under the power of fancy and whim in your dealings with them, as you are where these children are concerned, we might always think alike.”
(to which Emma replies:)
“To be sure—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.”
Step 3: Recognition of Irony
No fail-safe recognition of irony: Speaker's intention cannot be decoded or deduced, but must be
inferred
by fallible process of
hypothesis formulation
and
evaluation
Human information processing requires:

mental effort
(attention, memory and reasoning)
and achieves:

cognitive effect
: alterations to individual's beliefs:
Addition of contextual implications
Cancellation of existing assumptions
Strengthening of existing assumptions
= contextual effects
Effort and effect play a role in the
relevance
of information
Relevance
:
1. the greater the
contextual effect
(achieved by processing of given piece of information) → the
greater
its relevance (for the individual who processes it)
2. the greater the
effort
(involved in the processing of information) → the
smaller
its relevance (for the individual who processes it)


Principle of relevance
: any utterance adressed to someone automatically conveys presumption of its own relevance
(since to communicate is to claim attention and therefore effort)
Presumption of relevance has two parts:
Presumtion of
adequate effect

Presumption of
minimally necessary effort

Linguistic form of utterance underdetermines its interpretation: verbal irony (and echoic utterances in general) not recognisable from their linguistic form alone

Claim
: principle of relevance explains how
linguistic form
and
background knowledge
interact to determine verbal comprehension
For utterance to be understood, it must have one and only one interpretation consistent with principle of relevance

Speaker's task
: intended interpretation = consistent with principle of relevance

Hearer's task
: find interpretation consistent with principle of relevance (otherwise: misunderstanding)
Example
:
(Mary complains to Peter that Bill still owes her money)
Peter:
“Don't worry: Bill is an honest fellow; he'll pay you back.”
(Next day, Bill rudely denies all knowledge of his debt)
Mary (to Peter):
“An officer and a gentleman, indeed!”

Two possible interpretations:
(11a) “Bill is an officer and a gentleman, I believe.”
(11b) “Bill is an officer and a gentleman, you said.”

→ (11a) is contradicted by known facts: inconsistent with principle of relevance
Step 4: Communicating impressions and attitudes
Relevance
:
1. the greater the
contextual effect
(achieved by processing of given piece of information) → the
greater
its relevance (for the individual who processes it)
2. the greater the
effort
(involved in the processing of information) → the
smaller
its relevance (for the individual who processes it)


Principle of relevance
: any utterance adressed to someone automatically conveys presumption of its own relevance
(since to communicate is to claim attention and therefore effort)
Presumption of relevance has two parts:
Presumtion of
adequate effect

Presumption of
minimally necessary effort

Linguistic form of utterance underdetermines its interpretation: verbal irony (and echoic utterances in general) not recognisable from their linguistic form alone

Claim
: principle of relevance explains how
linguistic form
and
background knowledge
interact to determine verbal comprehension
For utterance to be understood, it must have one and only one interpretation consistent with principle of relevance

Speaker's task
: intended interpretation = consistent with principle of relevance

Hearer's task
: find interpretation consistent with principle of relevance (otherwise: misunderstanding)
Example
:
(Mary complains to Peter that Bill still owes her money)
Peter:
“Don't worry: Bill is an honest fellow; he'll pay you back.”
(Next day, Bill rudely denies all knowledge of his debt)
Mary (to Peter):
“An officer and a gentleman, indeed!”

Two possible interpretations:
(11a) “Bill is an officer and a gentleman, I believe.”
(11b) “Bill is an officer and a gentleman, you said.”

→ (11a) is contradicted by known facts: inconsistent with principle of relevance
What do ironical utterances communicate?
Traditionally: “opposite of what is said”
Alternative: “communicate certain
attitude
; create certain
impression
in the hearer”
Conclusion
Verbal irony
: a variety of
echoic interpretive use
, in which communicator
dissociates
him-/herself from
opinion echoed
with accompanying
ridicule or scorn

Recognition of verbal irony
:
depends on interaction between
linguistic form
,
shared cognitive environment
of communicator and audience and criterion of
consistency with principle of relevance
Cfr. Reported Speech
1. The moment I tried to speak of the business that had brought me to his house, he [Mr. Fairlie] shut his eyes and said
I ‘upset’ him. […] As to the settlements, if I would ... get everything ready, and limit his share in the business, as guardian, to saying Yes, at the right moment – why, of course he would meet my views, and everybody else’s views, with infinite pleasure.

2. Father Conmee was wonderfully well indeed. He would go to Buxton probably for the waters. And her boys, were they getting on well at Belvedere? Was that so? Father Conmee was very glad indeed to hear that. And Mr Sheehy himself? Still in London. The house was still sitting, to be sure it was. Beautiful weather it was, delightful indeed. Yes, it was very probable that Father Bernard Vaughan would come again to preach. O, yes: a very great success. A wonderful man really. (Joyce, Ulysses)
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