On the Communicative Functions of Implicit Verbal Irony

How to Express Different Types of Irony

Seminar Paper, 2018

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3


table of contents

introductory remarks and problem description

1 essential criteria for the presence of irony

2 strategies for meaning derivation
2.1 the meaning reversal type of irony
2.2 the meaning replacement type of irony

3 on the communicative functions of irony
3.1 the communicative functions of meaning reversal irony
3.2 the communicative functions of meaning replacement irony

concluding remarks

list of references

introductory remarks and problem description

"[...] make your contribution one that is true." ( Grice 1975: 45)

The main characteristic of implicit[1] verbal irony (henceforth irony) is the blatant discrepancy between two narratives: the dictum and the implicatum. Whereas the dictum is the literally expressed and, therefore, the apparent meaning of the ironic utterance, the implicatum as the intended meaning remains unspoken and must be (re)constructed by the recipient of the message (cf. Partington 2007: 1557). Ironists pursue two targets: On the one hand, they want their audience to believe that they believe that the dictum is inappropriate as regards the context (cf. Lapp 1992: 147). On the other hand, they want their audience to use contextual knowledge in order to understand the message implied by their ironic utterance.

(1) (On being stuck in traffic)
(1a) "I really appreciate relaxed car journeys." (dictum)
(1b) > I really hate being stuck in traffic. (implicatum)

(1) can be considered a typical ironic example. As being stuck in traffic is usually not seen as a relaxed car journey, but rather as an annoying experience instead, the dictum (1a) must be taken as "grossly inappropriate" (Searle 1979: 113) in relation to the context in question (i.e. traffic jam). Therefore, the recipient of the ironic message has to find the implicatum (1b) by correlating dictum and context in a manner that makes sense of the ironic utterance.

Based on what has been stated so far, it becomes clear that irony is a rather complex form of getting a message across. It is complex because it requires from the recipients extra cognitive (and even emotional) efforts to make the true message accessible (cf. Schwarz-Friesel 2009: 226). Against this background, it must be imperatively asked why ironists obfuscate their message by using the indirect manner of irony instead of saying directly what they mean (cf. Dews, Kaplan & Winner 1995: 348). If it is taken into account that "real discourse is guided by communication principles which are expected to prioritise rhetorical effectiveness over rhetorical innovation" (Kapogianni 2014: 14), there must be some communicative payoffs that are characteristic of speaking ironically.

The following paper aims at finding and examining such communicative functions of irony. It is organised as follows: after providing some specific conditions which are indispensable for a detectability of irony, two different types of irony are presented which differ not only in their relation to the particular context, but also in the strategies that are used to achieve the ironic effect. In the last section, the communicative functions of both types of irony are discussed in more detail. As a result it is shown that the different strategies have a certain impact on the communicative functions of the respective type.

1 essential criteria for the presence of irony

Despite numerous brilliant linguistic approaches, a definition that explains irony in its entirety has not been achieved yet. Although they are not incompatible with each other (cf. Kapogianni 2011: 4), the fundamental problem with these scientific approaches is that they treat irony as a unified phenomenon and address it for the benefit of merely one aspect.[2] Since it is unfeasible within the scope of this paper to discuss all approaches and finally make an overall definition available, two necessary criteria must suffice whose joint detectability are indicative of the presence of irony. These criteria[3] are the overt simulation of inappropriateness with respect towards the context (cf. Attardo 2000) and, consequentially, the ironist's conveying evaluative implicatures (cf. Dynel 2018) which refer to feelings, attitudes, or evaluations (cf. Grice 1978: 124) that are suggested by the ironic utterance without being overtly expressed or truly implied.

Reconsidering the introductory example (1) with regard to the criteria just indicated, the overt simulation of inappropriateness appears as a gross mismatch between the dictum (1a) and the context (i.e. the congestion) for which the literal meaning of the utterance would be regarded as appropriate (cf. Kapogianni 2014: 3). Therefore, the ironic utterance must be perceived by the audience as completely inappropriate because it apparently flouts the assumptions and expectations usually being associated with the real situation. In that respect it must be emphasised that the term inappropriateness does not necessarily have to refer to a form of incompatibility (as in the example). It might as well relate to any kinds of counterfactuality or irrelevance expressed in the ironic utterance. The term overt simulation alludes to the ironist's deliberate intention to make the hearer believe to be inappropriate what the ironist believes to be inappropriate in relation to the respective context. Such a common starting point is crucial for understanding irony and requires background knowledge (i.e. commonsensical, contextual, situational, (inter)personal or real-life knowledge) that is accessible to both interlocutors.

The second condition for the manifestation of irony - evaluative implicatures (henceforth evaluation) - arises consequently from the ironist's saying something that is inappropriate (i.e. incompatible, counterfactual or irrelevant). He thereby performs an indirect "act of evaluation" (Kapogianni 2011: 5) which has to be decoded by the addressee. This process of decoding can lead to various results (i.e. manifold interpretations of the dictum) depending on the context and the relationship between the ironist and the addressee. Yet, whatever indirect message is to be conveyed, there is always an indication on the part of the ironist that something that is referred to is considered "good or bad" (Hunston 2004: 157).

Taking into consideration the two aforementioned conditions for the presence of irony - overt simulation of inappropriateness and evaluation -, it can now be dealt with the irony strategies that are employed by the speaker in order to get the ironic effect across.

2 strategies for meaning derivation

Ironic utterances can be divided into two categories according to the differences of the irony strategies which are applied by the speaker to mark the ironic intent. Such "rhetorical devices [employ] a range of linguistic (pragmatic) features in order to express the speaker's ironic intention" (Kapogianni 2014: 1). They need to be distinguished with respect to the semantic relationship between the dictum (i.e. the expressed meaning) and the implicatum (i.e. the intended meaning or ironic implicature) and the reasoning that underlies the derivation of the intended meaning. Against this theoretical backdrop, an overall distinction must be made between the meaning reversal type of irony and the meaning replacement type of irony (cf. Kapogianni 2014: 2-7). With regard to the subject of this paper (i.e. the communicative functions of irony), it is inevitable to initially present these general types of irony. Only then, it will be feasible to show that they are not merely different means for reaching different effects but, above all, different methods for serving different purposes (cf. Kapogianni 2014: 1).

2.1 the meaning reversal type of irony

The meaning reversal type of irony is undoubtedly the most common ironic type. It is the umbrella term for all ironic utterances with a strong semantic relationship between (some element of) the dictum and (some element of) the implicatum (cf. Kapogianni 2014: 2). This semantic relationship is always one of opposition. Apart from the introductory example (1), which has already been addressed above in detail, the following utterances (2a and 3a) have to be classified as well under this type of irony:

(2) (Being full of cheerful energy and in a good mood:)
(2a) "I hate getting up in the morning."(dictum)
(2b) > I love getting up in the morning. (implicatum)

(3) (On referring to a cat known to be quite small:)
(3a) "All of a sudden, this immensely huge tomcat showed up."(dictum)
(3b) > All of a sudden, this rather tiny kitty showed up. (implicatum)

Whereas the semantic relationship between the dictum (2a) and the implicatum (2b) in example (2) is a typical one of antonymy (i.e. absolute opposition between "hate" and "love"), the one in example (3) is rather based on a relative reversal. Such an ironic overstatement (3a) obliges the recipients to develop cognitively a size scale (i.e. between "immensely huge tomcat" and "rather tiny kitty") so that the ironic meaning reversal can become accessible to them (cf. Kapogianni 2014: 3).

As to the two criteria (i.e. overt simulation of inappropriateness as regards the context and evaluation) proposed in the previous paragraph, these are detectable here only on the basis of situational or background knowledge. If, as in example (2), the ironist utters (2a) in an apparent state of cheerfulness and enthusiasm, the inappropriateness of his remark must unavoidably become detectable to the audience. Thus, the implicatum (i.e. a positive evaluation in 2b) can easily be derived from the blatant mismatch between situational knowledge and expressed meaning. In example (3), the implicatum (3b) comes to light when the dictum (3a) relates to a cat that is known for its being rather small. By using this background knowledge, the ironist reveals an evaluation which is one of mockery.

As could be shown so far, the meaning reversal type of irony encompasses all ironic utterances that depict a semantic relationship of opposition between the dictum and the implicatum. Such an opposition can be absolute or relative (i.e. scalar) (cf. Kapogianni 2014: 3). The detectability of this type of irony relies on situational or background knowledge that is shared by ironist and audience alike. As regards the evaluation implied in such ironic remarks, it may be negative (i.e. criticising, mocking etc.) or positive (i.e. praising, complimenting etc.).

2.2 the meaning replacement type of irony

As to the meaning replacement type of irony, no semantic relationship at all between the dictum and the implicatum is detectable. Instead, it can be noticed that, even though referring to the target utterance (i.e. a previous utterance made by the ironist's "victim"), the implicatum fully replaces the dictum. These observations are to be made clear by using the following examples (4-7) with the help of which the two conditions for the presence of irony shall be demonstrated as well.

(4) D: "Have I really overlooked that red traffic light, officer?"
P: "No. That traffic light is colour-blind and failed to show green."(dictum)
> You already know the answer. / Your question is redundant. (implicatum)

(5) A: "We have a huge problem in our school."
B: "In your school? What is it?"
A: "A big cheerless building with plenty of naughty kids inside."(dictum)
> Your question is equivocal as to the point of reference. (implicatum)

(6) A: "I am the best employee my boss has ever recruited."
B: "Yes, and I am Darth Vader."(dictum)
> Your statement is questionable. (implicatum)

(7) A: "Gosh! You're already back from London?"
B: "No, I'm still there."(dictum)
> Your question is silly because you can see me. (implicatum)

As can be observed in (4), the ironic policeman (P) replies to the question posed by a driver (D) in a manner that is counterfactual (i.e. a traffic light cannot be colour-blind) and therefore inappropriate. By doing so, he indicates (>) that he considers the driver's question redundant or even cheeky. Example (5) illustrates a strong element of irrelevance. Although the reply given by the ironist may be regarded as factually correct, he answers in an entirely uninformative manner by deliberately relating to a point of reference which has surely not been meant by the questioner. The ironist's intention appears to be a mocking reference to that inaccuracy by flouting the expectations of the "adjacency pair 'question-(informative) answer'" (Kapogianni 2014: 3). Example (6) is another instance where no observable semantic relationship between dictum and implicatum exists. Instead, the ironist gives a counterfactual statement that contradicts world knowledge because Darth Vader is a fictional character which cannot be encountered in real life. Such a juxtaposition is used to indicate the invalidity or falsity of the statement uttered by A. Another example of an inappropriate response is (7). Apart from being unrealistic (i.e. it is impossible to be in two places at the same time), the content of the dictum is pointless and without any benefit for the conversation. The ironist's apparent intention is to criticise communicative conventions of everyday dialogue in which questions like "You're already back from London?" are expected to be understood as conventionalised invitations to start or continue a conversation (cf. Kapogianni 2011: 7).

Summarising the results from this section, it becomes clear that no semantic relationship between the dictum and the implicatum is detectable in utterances that have to be classified under the meaning replacement type of irony. Instead, the respective dictum expresses types of gross inappropriateness (i.e. irrelevance, incompatibility or counterfactuality) as regards the context and is replaced in its entirety in favour of the implicatum with which an always critical evaluation of the target utterance is implemented (cf. Kapogianni 2014: 3).

3 on the communicative functions of irony

It has been found within the previous sections that ironic utterances comply with the two necessary conditions (i.e. overt simulation of inappropriateness and evaluation) and are produced by either reversing or replacing the meaning of the respective dictum, entailing different ironic effects. On the basis of these findings about the means of marking ironic intents, it can now be examined why such irony strategies are deployed at all instead of being replaced by literal language.[4] Certainly, by not expressing overtly what is meant, the ironist gives attention primarily to his reasons for not expressing overtly what is meant (cf. Sperber & Wilson 1981: 301, Lapp 1992: 81). In this context, it may firstly be assumed that using irony serves communicative goals that are different to those of literal language. Furthermore it may be assumed that the two types of irony are not simply manners of serving the same purposes, but exhibit disparate reasons for their being used. Because of these assumptions, the previously distinguished irony types continue to be treated separately.

3.1 the communicative functions of meaning reversal irony

When dealing with the meaning reversal type of irony, it must first be stated that the ironist always has the opportunity to refrain from his ironic intent. This potential cancellability (cf. Kapogianni 2011: 13f) is a significant advantage in favour of the ironist because it allows him to retract from the ironic implicatum at any time without being obliged to provide specific reasons for doing so. Thus, the ironist remains communicatively always on the safe side because he "is left free of responsibility" (Dews, Kaplan & Winner 1995: 349). That means that the ironist leaves the recipient the decision how to interpret the ironic remark (cf. Gibbs 2012). Reconsidering example (1) in a more elaborate manner, it can be illustrated that the speaker is always able to get away with his ironic remark by simply sticking to the dictum.


[1] As far as explicit verbal irony is concerned, lexical or grammatical signals (e.g. indicative irony markers such as it is ironic that or ironically) are used to indicate the presence of irony. This form of verbal irony is not dealt with within this paper, the more so as it is not the form which is considered typical of the phenomenon at hand.

[2] Such aspects relate to the violation of one (or more) of the Gricean maxims (cf. Grice 1975), echoic mention (cf. Sperber & Wilson 1981), pretence (cf. Clark & Gerrig 1984), indirect negation (cf. Giora 1995) or reversal of evaluation (cf. Partington 2007).

[3] Disruptive factors (cf. Groeben & Scheele 1984: 61) such as paralinguistic (i.e. speech rhythm, pitch, volume etc.) and extralinguistic elements (i.e. intonation etc.) are deliberately left out within this paper. As those aspects can turn virtually every utterance into one that may be understood as ironic (cf. Lapp 1992: 48), they cannot be used as sufficient characteristics of irony.

[4] It should be noted that the communicative functions of irony relate to the speaker's intention only. That is why the addressee's (potential) reactions to ironic remarks are dealt with only insofar as they may help to shed light on the speaker's motivation to use irony at all. Apart from that, a general consideration of all the hearer's possible reactions to a specific ironic comment cannot be rendered within the scope of this paper.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


On the Communicative Functions of Implicit Verbal Irony
How to Express Different Types of Irony
Free University of Berlin
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Irony, linguistics, Verbal Irony, implicit verbal irony, grice, functions, face saving, face protecting, communication, communicative function, Ironie, kommunikative Funktion, Linguistik, Sprachwissenschaft
Quote paper
Dominik Jesse (Author), 2018, On the Communicative Functions of Implicit Verbal Irony, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/451768


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