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Med Travelers - December 2019

Recent Trends in Literal vs. Figurative Language Research: The Case of Irony

Recent Trends in Literal vs. Figurative Language Research: The Case of Irony
Rachel Giora
December 1, 2003
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WHAT'S IRONY?In this paper I address the issue of difference or similarity in processing literal and nonliteral - ironic - uses. However, before dealing with this question, it is essential that we first reflect, even briefly, on what irony means.

Various theories have come up with different responses to this enigma (For brevity, I consider here only a fraction of contemporary views. The reader is advised to see Giora, 2003, Chapter 4). Following are three examples demonstrating ironic versus literal intention.

In example 1a and 1b, the same final statement is used, while the biasing context offers slight differences, different intentions are demonstrated, with conclusive identical wording, representing ironic and literal intention.

Example:

1a- Just how far have women risen in the film community? According to M. P., who was at the "Woman in Film" luncheon recently held in Los Angeles, it has actually been a very good year for women: Demi Moore was sold to Robert Redford for $1 million in the movie Indecent Proposal. Uma Thurman went for $40,000 to Robert De Niro in the recent movie, Mad Dog and Glory. ''Just three years ago, in Pretty Woman, Richard Gere bought Julia Roberts for - what was it? $3,000?
''I'd say women have had real progress.'' 1

1b- Just how far have women risen in the film community? According to M. P., who was at the "Woman in Film" luncheon recently held in Los Angeles, it has actually been a very good year for women: Demi Moore earned $10 million in the movie Indecent Proposal... Uma Thurman made $400,000 in the recent movie, Mad Dog and Glory. ''Just three years ago, in Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts earned - what was it? $130,000?
''I'd say women have had real progress.''

Most people will find (1a) ironic as opposed to (1b) which they would probably consider literal.

Below is another example. Most people would agree that while the first example (2a) is literally intended, the second (2b) invites an ironic reading:

Example:

2a. Tal and Ortal, the twins, wanted to go to the movies. Their mother recommended a movie she had seen shortly before. When they came home, she was eager to know how they found the movie. They both agreed: ''Very funny.''

2b. Iris was walking on her own in the dark alley, when all of a sudden a hand was laid on her back. Startled, she turned around to find out that the hand was her young brother's who sneaked behind her to frighten her. She said to him: ''Very funny''.2

And again, along the same line, most readers would take the first example (3a) to be metaphoric, whereas the second (3b) would be read as ironic:

Example:

3a. A friend was talking to Jodie about his niece and nephew who had visited him recently. He had really enjoyed having the children around. During the conversation the man said: Children are precious gems. This made Jodie think about her cousins.

3b.A friend was talking to Jodie about his niece and nephew who had visited him recently. He had really disliked having the children around. During the conversation the man said: Children are precious gems. This made Jodie think about her cousins.3

Would these identical utterances embedded in differently biasing contexts involve different comprehension mechanisms or would they follow similar processing routes?

The Standard Pragmatic Model (Grice, 1975)

According to The Standard Pragmatic Model, irony is the opposite of what is said.

Example 4: He says "It's a lovely day for a picnic." They go for a picnic and it rains. She says (sarcastically) "It's a lovely day for a picnic, indeed."

The implicature is that it's a lousy day for a picnic.

The Echoic Mention View (Relevance Theory, Sperber & Wilson, 1986/95)

The Echoic Mention View disputes The Standard Pragmatic Model. Instead of implicating the opposite, Sperber and Wilson argue that irony is used to get across a dissociative attitude from an opinion or thought echoed by the ironic statement: ''Verbal irony consists in echoing a tacitly attributed thought or utterance with a tacitly dissociative attitude'' (Wilson & Sperber, in press). Thus, in both the previous and the upcoming example ''there is an echoic allusion to be picked up. In the circumstances described, it is clear that the speaker of the following example (5) endorses the opinion echoed, whereas the speaker of the previous example rejects it with scorn. These utterances are interpreted on exactly similar patterns; the only difference is in the attitudes they express'' (Sperber & Wilson 1986/95: 239).

Example 5:
He: "It's a lovely day for a picnic." They go for a picnic and the sun shines.
She: (happily): "It's a lovely day for a picnic, indeed."

The Indirect Negation View (Giora, 1995)

According to the indirect negation view, the ironist's aim is to draw attention to a failed expectation - to some significant disparity between what is said, which would usually allude to some expectation - and what is. Whereas explicit negation only mitigates the negated concept (Giora, 1995; Giora, Balaban, Fein, & Alkabets, in press) irony, which is a form of indirect negation, highlights the gap between what is said and the situation criticized.

Note that, in Example 5 there is hardly any inconsistency between what is said and what is referred to. In contrast, in Example 4, which is ironic, there is. According to the indirect negation view, then, what Example 4 implicates, is that the day under discussion is far from being (what it should have been) - "lovely."

HOW IS IRONY UNDERSTOOD?

Apparently, there are two sources of knowledge that affect comprehension - linguistic knowledge and contextual information. The question, however, is which reigns supreme and when?

Initial processes

Do both linguistic knowledge and contextual information affect initial processes? To illustrate what might surface in initial processes, let's take a look at a contemporary Israeli irony (below):

Example 6:

The Israeli Chief of Staff: The Israeli army is indeed the most moral army in the world.

A radical leftist (mockingly): The Israeli army is indeed the most moral army in the world.

If it is contextual information - our knowledge of the critical attitude of Israeli radicals' to the military - that plays a primary role in initial processes of Example 6, then the ironic 'corrupt' interpretation of the utterance would be activated immediately, with no recourse to the conventional interpretation of moral. However, if it is the coded meaning of the individual words and expressions - e.g., the prominence of the 'ethics' sense of moral - that dominates initial comprehension, then both presentations in Example 6 would be processed literally initially, irrespective of contextual information.


Rachel Giora



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