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Humor 2014; 27(4): 537550

Marta Dynel

Linguistic approaches to (non)humorous


irony
Keywords: evaluation, irony, linguistics, meaning inversion, sarcasm
DOI 10.1515/humor-2014-0097

1Issues in the linguistic research on irony


Irony tends to be used as an umbrella term for a number of distinct phenomena
(e.g. Sperber 1984; Haverkate 1990; Kreuz and Roberts 1993; Simpson 2011). One
of them is situational irony or irony of fate (Lucariello 1994; Shelley 2001; Colston
and Gibbs 2007). It refers to the state of affairs or events which is the reverse of
what has been expected. Irony may also be defined as a trope, rhetorical figure or
figure of speech (e.g. Colebrook 2004), also sometimes called verbal irony. The
present volume focuses on this type of irony, which is of paramount importance
in linguistics.
The overview below is meant to indicate the directions in contemporary linguistic studies on irony, as well as a few of the most crucial issues elaborated in
this extensive and heterogeneous field of research. Humor researchers must
adopt findings from the existing scholarship on the trope taken as a whole in order to elucidate the characteristics of humorous irony. Humorous irony, in turn,
must be amenable to the same interpretative frameworks and analyses as non-
humorous irony, but it will also manifest distinctive features stemming from its
status as a verbal humor form.
Over the past few decades considerable ink has been spilled on the trope
of irony in various fields of linguistics, in particular semantics, cognitive lin
guistics, sociolinguistics, and pragmatics. Irony is addressed from the whole
gamut of scholarly perspectives, such as developmental studies (e.g. Creusere
2000) or socio-pragmatics (e.g. Dews et al. 1995; Jorgensen 1996; Colston 1997;
Gibbs 2000). It is also discussed in reference to different discourse domains,

Marta Dynel: Department of Pragmatics, University of Lodz, Poland.


E-mail: marta.dynel@yahoo.com

Marta Dynel

538

nless constructed examples are used, which is typical of most theoretical


u
works.Conversation seems to be the most frequent source of language data (e.g.
Gibbs 2000; Kotthoff 2003). However, irony can also be found in media discourse,including advertising (e.g. Lagerwerf 2007) or televised political debates
(e.g. Nuolijarvi and Tiittula 2011). The range of research topics is infinite, as irony is a complex and internally diversified linguistic phenomenon. Therefore,
even the basic definition of irony has been the subject of a heated debate for
decades.
Resorting to different concepts and theoretical frameworks, many linguists
have endeavored to capture the intrinsic features of irony and to account for the
less prototypical cases. Arguing in favor of their own views, the researchers tend
to point to the flaws and/or shortcomings of the alternative approaches. The bulk
of the scholarship that seeks to explain the inherent workings of irony can be
divided into three major competitive approaches: neo-Gricean analyses (e.g.
Garmendia 2010, 2011, in this issue; Camp 2012; Dynel 2013a, 2013b, in this issue), the relevance-theoretic echo-mention approach (e.g. Wilson and Sperber
1992, 2012; Sperber and Wilson 1995, 1998; Wilson 2006, 2009; Piskorska in this
issue) and the pretence view (e.g. Clark and Gerrig 1984; see also Recanati 2004,
2007; Currie 2006), as well as their offshoots which merge different postulates,
such as the allusional-pretence view (Kumon-Nakamura et al. 1995) or relevant
inappropriateness (Attardo 2000). Rather than summarize these well-known approaches, as is commonly done in the literature, the succinct overview below
will focus on the more problematic types of irony and its hallmarks, which researchers strive to account for.
According to the well-entrenched classical view very frequently quoted in the
literature, irony is a figure of speech based on meaning inversion/negation/
reversal/opposition (the various labels tend to be used synonymously), whereby
one meaning is stated, and a different, typically antithetical (contradictory or
opposite), meaning is intended. A vast majority of authors thus take as their
departure point the duality between what the speaker means implicitly and the
meaning of the words he/she utters, dissociating himself/herself from them.
However, meaning inversion is not characteristic of all irony, as is the case with
the canonical example: I love children who keep their rooms clean said by a
mother upon entering her childs untidy room. Ironically criticizing her child for
the messy room, the speaker does not intend to negate the literal, explicitly com
municated meaning of the utterance. Subscribing to the communicated message,
which appears to be irrelevant in the current context, she aims to convey a focalimplicit meaning along the lines of I do not approve of your untidy room.
Whilst some negation of the lexemes may be involved in the interpretation process, suchas love vs. hate or clean vs. untidy, the intended meaning is

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Linguistic approaches to (non)humorous irony

not a matter of standard meaning reversal, whereby the implied proposition is a


negation of the one expressed but not meant. As many authors report, this example illustrates the special case of irony which relies on the speakers true belief
expressed literally (see Gibbs and OBrien 1991; Hamamoto 1998; Sperber and
Wilson 1998; Colston 2000; Utsumi 2000; Partington 2007; Kapogianni 2011).
However, it should be pointed out that the mothers utterance is actually couched
in another trope, hyperbole, since love for children can hardly be determined
by the cleanness of their rooms. Hence, this example should be viewed as being
based on a truthful implied meaning (e.g. I like it when children keep their
rooms clean). However, examples of irony based on literally expressed true beliefs can indeed be found.
Additionally, the latterly proposed notion of surrealist/surrealistic irony
(Kapogianni 2011; Dynel 2013a, 2013b, in this issue) is not amenable to the standard meaning negation pattern of interpretation, even though the literal meaning
has to be discarded. This type of irony capitalizes on overt absurdity, and the
generation of the speakers intended meaning is independent of the meaning of
the utterance as such, being a matter of an evaluative commentary on the interlocutors utterance. For example, in reply to the statement I will pass this time,
an ironic speaker says And I will be elected president of the whole world, thereby criticizing the previous assertion as being unfounded or unbelievable, and
hence questioning the hearers future success in the exam. These two cases testify that the meaning intended by an ironic speaker need not be the meaning opposite to the one expressed literally (see Kapogianni in this issue, Garmendia in this
issue).
Secondly, even if some form of meaning inversion is present, its scope may
not be easy to determine (Brown 1980; Gibbs and OBrien 1991; Colston and Gibbs
2007). Several cases of meaning reversal can be discerned. Typically, if not prototypically, irony relies on propositional meaning reversal, as in Grices (1989a
[1975]: 34) canonical example X is a fine friend said by A about a friend who
has betrayed a secret of As to a business rival, which implies that X is not a
fine friend or X is a poor friend. Nonetheless, on other occasions, only the opposition of one lexical item is involved, not the entire proposition (Haverkate
1990; Wilson 2006; Camp and Hawthorne 2008; Camp 2012; Dynel 2013a). This is
the case with utterances such as As I reached the bank at closing time, the bank
clerk helpfully shut the door in my face (Wilson 2006: 1722), where only the adverb helpfully is used ironically. Sometimes it is difficult to draw a distinction
between propositional negation irony and lexical negation irony (Camp 2012), as
in Youre a genius, which may be paraphrased as You are not a genius or You
are an idiot, respectively. Another problematic category concerns irony making
use of litotic and hyperbolic expressions (Sperber and Wilson 1981, Wilson and

Marta Dynel

540

Sperber 1992; Wilson 2006; Colston 2000; Attardo 2000; Utsumi 2000; Colston
2000; Colston and OBrien 2000; Partington 2006, 2007; Dynel 2013a). Yet an
other form of irony rests on the reversal of the pragmatic or illocutionary force of
an utterance, as in Thank you very much said by a woman to her husband who
has failed to help her bring in a heavy bag from the car. This may be conceptualized as pragmatic meaning reversal, which encompasses irony based on utterances that do not coincide with propositions but rely on speech acts such as expressives, as well as imperatives, questions, interjections, which many scholars
recognize as problematic for the standard model (Brown 1980; Haverkate 1990;
Wilson and Sperber 1992; Kumon-Nakamura et al. 1995; Wilson 2006; Colston
2000; Camp 2012; Dynel 2013a).
Regardless of the type, or absence, of meaning negation/reversal, the literal
import of an ironic utterance differs from the implicit meaning the speaker intends to communicate. This can be seen in the ongoing discussion of the nature
of cognitive processes involved in irony comprehension, the bone of contention
being whether it is a one-stage process, in which the literal meaning is not acti
vated (Gibbs and OBrien 1991; Gibbs 1994) or a two-stage process, which centers
on computing the difference between the literal meaning and the intended meaning (e.g. Giora 1995, 2011; Giora et al. 1998).
Besides tacitly agreeing on the literal vs. implied meaning distinction, most
authors are unanimous that irony inherently expresses the speakers attitude,
and thus serves as a vehicle for an evaluative judgment/evaluation of an utterance, action, event, situation, etc1. Partington (2006, 2007) even defines irony in
terms of the reversal of evaluative meaning. However, not all ironic utterances
involve evaluation in the literal expression, and the evaluative content is only
implicitly communicated as a distinct layer of meaning, as in the utterance Shes
coming! said by a man about his wife who has started changing, while the whole
family are already in the car, whereby he communicates a message such as Shes
not coming yet, which is so annoying.
Another problem is whether the evaluation irony carries can be positive.
Many researchers claim that irony typically conveys negative evaluation, but
positively-evaluating irony is also possible, albeit rare2. Dubbed asymmetry of

1see Grice 1989b [1978]; Holdcroft 1983; Haverkate 1990; Dews and Winner 1995; Glucksberg
1995; Hartung 1998; Kumon-Nakamura et al. 1995; Hamamoto 1998; Attardo 2000; Utsumi 2000;
Kotthoff 2003; Partington 2006, 2007; Garmendia 2010, 2011; Kapogianni 2011; Gibbs 2012; Dynel
2013a, 2013b.
2see Brown 1980; Gibbs 1986; Haverkate 1990; Dews and Winner 1995; Kreuz 1996; Attardo
2000; Colston 2000; Hancock et al. 2000; Schwoebel et al. 2000; Harris and Pexman 2003; Dews
et al. 1995; Kreuz and Link 2002; Colston and Gibbs 2007.

541

Linguistic approaches to (non)humorous irony

affect (Clark and Gerrig 1984), this bias has been accounted for by a number ofresearchers (Giora 1995; Sperber and Wilson 1981; Wilson and Sperber 2012). Nonetheless, an alternative view holds that irony that carries positive evaluation
simultaneously expresses negative evaluation (Garmendia 2010, 2011, in this issue; Dynel 2013b). The speaker implicitly praises something, and (more) im
plicitly criticizes another referent. Hence, in the classic example Youve bungled it said to a student that has earned a very good mark, contrary to his
earlier claim that he would fail, the praise of the hearers achievement is conveyed in tandem with criticism of his undue or pretended self-deprecating attitude. Were the negative evaluation not to be communicated, irony would not be
used at all.
Ironys capacity to mitigate or exacerbate negative evaluation is another
bone of contention. Several research findings testify that irony mitigates the
harshness of a negative remark, diluting the condemnation it carries (Dews
and Winner 1995; Dews et al. 1995; Jorgensen 1996), making a situation less
face-threatening, and serving politeness (Kumon-Nakamura et al. 1995). By
contrast, other authors (e.g. Kreuz et al. 1991; Colston 1997, 2002; Toplak and
Katz2000; Colston and OBrien 2000) argue that irony renders criticism, or any
other form of negative evaluation, more virulent and hurtful in comparison to
itsnon-ironic counterpart. Moreover, positively evaluative irony is perceived as
more negative or less positive than non-ironically expressed compliments or
praise (Dews et al. 1995; Pexman and Olineck 2002). A question arises as to
how these divergent, if not contradictory, findings can be reconciled. The answer is to be sought in ironys heterogeneous nature, as well as researchers
different methodologies and research goals. Irony cannot be perceived as a homogenous notion exerting either positive or negative social effects, inasmuch as
its many forms can serve multiple communicative purposes, determined by conversationalists particular aims (Gibbs and Colston 2001). The attitude irony is
meant to foster, and does foster, depends on: the interlocutors relationship, the
topic of the ironic statement, theverbal means of the negative evaluation, or the
circumstances of its occurrence, as a result of which the strength of negative evaluation can be boosted orreduced from the perspective a given interlocutor or subject in an experiment. Arguably, the divergent research findings do show variety
in the context of thesecriteria, yet not always accounting for them explicitly (but
see Colston 2002; Pexman and Olineck 2002; Dews et al. 1995; Toplak and Katz
2000). Importantly, when irony carries exacerbated negative evaluation targeted
at a victim and is based on the speakers intention to give offence, it may be perceived as being sarcastic.
In this context, another thorny issue enters the picture: the relationship between sarcasm and irony. The two labels tend to be used synonymously both

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542

by language users and by academics3. As Wilson (2006) observes, the label


sarcasm is becoming prevalent in the literature of American provenance, admittedly under the influence of everyday language. Sarcasm is also sometimes
conceived as a type of verbal irony (e.g. Kreuz and Glucksberg 1989; Lee and Katz
1998; Bowes and Katz 2011; Caucci and Kreuz 2012) and is defined as the crudest
form of irony (Muecke 1969), a form of ironic criticism intended to chastise an
individual (Long and Graesser 1988), or aggressive irony deployed in inter
personal communication to ridicule the victim of a verbal barb (Channon et al.
2005; Kreuz and Glucksberg 1989; Lee and Katz 1998; Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2005;
Bowes and Katz 2011). On the other hand, other authors state that sarcasm need
not involve irony and it is inherently meant to cause verbal harm (e.g. Ball 1965;
Fowler 1965; Seckman and Couch 1989; Berger 1993; Littmann and Mey 1991; Partington 2006; Kapogianni 2011). Therefore, when sarcasm and irony mesh, sarcastic irony (see Muecke 1969, Sperber and Wilson 1981, Kreuz and Glucksberg
1989, Kumon-Nakamura et al. 1995; Dews et al. 1995; Barbe 1995; Jorgensen 1996;
Gibbs 2000; Utsumi 2000; Toplak and Katz 2000; Dynel 2013b; Drucker et al. in
this issue) comes into being. It may be defined as negatively evaluative irony necessarily intended to express biting criticism of the victim/butt or to mock him/her
or his/her point of view, action, utterance, etc. However labeled, biting irony may
exhibit humorous potential, at least from the vantage point of an individual who
is not its target.
The interdependence between humor and irony is a distinct problem. A general consensus prevails both in folk knowledge and in the academic literature4
that irony tends to promote humor. Apart from pursuing other communicative
objectives, an ironic speaker may intend to amuse the hearer (Kumon-Nakamura
et al. 1995; Dews et al. 1995; Kreuz and Glucksberg 1989; Kreuz et al. 1991; Littman
and Mey 1991). This is why irony is commonly viewed as a linguistic phenomenon that is a natural subject of humor studies. However, it should be noted
thathumor and irony are two distinct phenomena, and the latter can, but does
not need to, be humorous. Therefore, it is simply wrong to assume that any

3see Barbe 1995; Jorgensen 1996; Toplak and Katz 2000; Long and Graesser 1988; Gibbs and
OBrien 1991; Kreuz and Roberts 1993; Giora 1998; Attardo 2000; Schwoebel et al. 2000; Gibbs
2000, 2012; Attardo et al. 2003; Camp 2012.
4see Kaufer 1983; Kreuz and Glucksberg 1989; Littman and Mey 1991; Kreuz et al. 1991; Roberts
and Kreuz 1994; Norrick 1993, 2003; Hutcheon 1994; Dews et al. 1995; Kumon-Nakamura et al.
1995; Giora 1995, 2001; Barbe 1995; Jorgensen 1996; Giora 1998, 2011; Colston and OBrien
2000; Gibbs 2000, 2012; Attardo 2000; Gibbs and Colston 2001; Pexman and Olineck 2002;
Kotthoff 2003; Partington 2006, 2007; Kapogianni 2011; Simpson 2011; Hirsch 2011; Ruiz-Gurillo
and Alvarado-Ortega 2013; Mayerhofer 2013; Veale 2013; Dynel 2013b.

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Linguistic approaches to (non)humorous irony

workon irony represents humor studies. Pragmatic and cognitive linguistic research on irony tends to involve both humorous and non-humorous examples
which are investigated collectively in the context of features characteristic of all
irony.
Although the notion of irony reverberates across humor research, relatively
little attention has been paid to the mechanics and nature of humorous irony
perse. Only a few attempts have been made at explaining the widely recognized
humorous potential of irony, adducing evidence that irony does display the
same range of features as other forms of humor and that it thus lends itself to
analysis using tools known in humor research (Hirsch 2011, Dynel 2013b, Gibbs
etal. in this issue, Piskorska in this issue). On the whole, the relation between
irony and humor is not a stable one and is determined by various contextual,
stylistic and intentional factors (Kapogianni 2011). Some types and manifes
tations of irony may then show greater humorous potential than others. Such
is the case of surrealistic irony (Kapogianni 2011), which coincides with absurdhumor (Dynel 2013b). Another type of irony which frequently produces hu
morous effects, at least for some hearers, is sarcastic irony (Dynel 2013b; Drucker
et al. in this issue). This is because it is creative and witty, whilst the humor
receivers mirthful pleasure is enhanced by the feeling of superiority over the
butt.
Whilst humorous irony does generally fit the diverse interpretative models
and postulates proposed for irony as a whole, it must evince a number of intrinsic
characteristics originating from its humorous potential. These are still in need of
linguistic investigation. This special issue of HUMOR brings together a selection
of papers that both contribute to many of the research strands on irony (as a
whole) succinctly presented above and shed new light on the specificity of humorous irony.

2This volume
This special issue is comprised of six articles by experienced researchers in the
field, who offer new insights into the linguistic characteristics of humorous irony.
Representing several realms of study, endorsing different (sometimes conflicting)
theoretical standpoints, and using diversified methodologies, the papers give a
spectrum of linguistic approaches to humorous irony.
In their experimental study On sarcastic irony, social awareness, and
gender, which represents sociolinguistic gendered language research, Ari

Drucker, Ofer Fein, Dafna Bergerbest and Rachel Giora investigate mens and
womens (non)humorous perception of sarcastic irony, defined as an intrinsically

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544

ggressive form of humor. To this end, they revisit the relevant literature on hua
mor in gendered contexts, the effects of sarcasm, the disposition theory of humor,
a sexism scale, and the gender-related Point of View Theory, all of which offer a
number of bedrock hypotheses for their research project. The authors report on
an experiment testing ingroup members (womens) and outgroup members
(mens) affective attitudes towards women, based on an Internet questionnaire
presenting the use of sarcastic irony in four gender configurations, duly evalu
ated by the participants on a sexism scale. The findings indicate that the female
participants preferred sarcasm directed by women at men to sarcasm directed by
women at women. On the other hand, albeit scoring low on sexism scales, male
participants adopted a feminine point of view to a lesser extent than their female
counterparts, finding sarcasm directed at men more enjoyable than that directed
at women, irrespective of the speakers gender.
In Wheres the humor in verbal irony? Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., Gregory A.
Bryant and Herbert L. Colston discuss the vexing issue of the affinity between
irony and humor in verbal interaction from a psycholinguistic perspective. They
view ironic utterances as staged communicative acts which language users produce and understand thanks to complex metarepresentational reasoning abilities. The authors argue that humor derived from irony cannot be reduced to the
resolution of incongruity between what is uttered and what is implied, which
gives rise to the release of tension momentarily experienced during the interpretation process. This is because of the dynamic complexities that come into play in
real-life ironic discourse. The pretence in which irony inheres manifests itself in
diverse levels of description. Also, the multifarious nature of laughter, the authors attest, casts doubt on the simple incongruity-resolution and release view.
The overarching conclusion is that humorous irony is more complex than canned
jokes and necessitates examining an array of contextual factors, which are frequently marginalized by linguistic theories of humor.
In Differences in use and function of verbal irony between real and fictional
discourse: (mis)interpretation and irony blindness, Eleni Kapogianni differentiates between two types of irony and examines their humorous effects. The study
revolves around a comparison between natural and fictional (scripted) discourse
corpora in English and Greek. Firstly, following the neo-Gricean tradition, distinctions between the two types of irony and their subtypes are made, depending
on the interface between the expressed and the intended meaning (Type 1: meaning reversal, and Type 2: meaning replacement). The irony types are elaborated
on with reference to their production as well as (mis)interpretation. Meaning reversal irony is claimed to be prevalent in natural discourse even though it carries
a greater risk of misinterpretation than meaning replacement irony. The latter, on
the other hand, is more frequent in fictional discourse than in natural discourse.

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Linguistic approaches to (non)humorous irony

Further, having explained the notion of irony blindness, Kapogianni analyses it


in the context of the two types of irony in both real and fictional discourses. Fictional irony blind characters are shown to produce comedic effects, as conceived
by script writers, and to fall into three types, reliant on the cause of their irony
blindness.
The next article, entitled Isnt it ironic? Defining the scope of humorous irony, also subscribes to a neo-Gricean perspective. Based on scripted examples
taken from the television series House, Marta Dynel discriminates between humorous irony and non-ironic humor which capitalizes on overt untruthfulness
and/or negative evaluation. Thus, she argues in favor of making a clear differentiation between humorous irony and non-ironic humor which may be mistaken
for the former category. The discussion is conducted in the light of a neo-Gricean
definition and classification of irony, which is claimed to rely on overt untruth
fulness (whether or not implicit) emerging from the flouting of the first maxim of
Quality, and implied negative evaluation. The author distinguishes several
(potentially overlapping) categories of non-ironic humor: teasing, absurdity, parody, humorous deception, bald-faced lying, as well as humorous evaluative metaphor and metonymy. Sarcasm is yet another category of humor juxtaposed with
irony. It does involve negative evaluation, but not (necessarily) in the form of implicature arising from overt untruthfulness.
A neo-Gricean model also serves as the bedrock for the article by Joana
Garmendia, entitled The Clash: Humor and criticism in verbal irony. Giving a
critical overview of the Gricean approach, the echoic account, and the pretence
theory, the author claims that irony need not involve communicating the opposite
and is not necessarily contingent on echoing or pretending. She proposes that
irony invariably involves an overt clash between contents. Further, the author endorses a view that criticism is a sine qua non for irony, whereas humor is a
non-obligatory consequence of ironys characteristic features.
Finally, in her article, A relevance-theoretic perspective on humorous irony
and its failure, Agnieszka Piskorska takes a competitive, echo-mention view of
humorous irony and its failure, referring to a number of pertinent tenets of Relevance Theory. The author brings to focus a set of features which humorous irony
shares with other forms of humor, such as involving incongruity, being targeted
at a victim, being creative, involving metarepresentational abilities, and establishing a bond between the interlocutors. Further, Piskorska sheds light on ironic misfires attributing them to failures of the inferential processes within the
relevance-theoretic framework: identifying a dissociative propositional attitude,
representing the content of the proposition echoed, and attributing it to a source.
Yet another type of irony failure concerns the hearers rejection of the ironic attitude communicated by the speaker.

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Bionote
Marta Dynel is Associate Professor in the Department of Pragmatics at the University of d. Her research interests are primarily in pragmatic and cognitive
mechanisms of humor, neo-Gricean pragmatics, the pragmatics of interaction,
(im)politeness theory, as well as the methodology of research on film discourse.
She has published internationally in linguistic journals and volumes, contributing over 55 articles in the space of the past five years. She has also authored
Humorous Garden-Paths: A Pragmatic-Cognitive Study (Newcastle: Cambridge
Scholars Publishing 2009) and edited The Pragmatics of Humour across Discourse
Domains (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011), as well as Developments in Linguistic Humour Theory (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2013).

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