Lost in Translation
By Bekah Wright
Published Aug 28, 2007 2:57 PM
In his first year of graduate school at UC Santa Cruz, Greg Bryant's advisor suggested he pursue a project exploring sarcasm. "She thought the ironic tone of voice many people believe in is an illusion," he recalls. "I thought that was wrong." Bryant, who considers himself a sarcastic person ("I probably learned it from my dad."), decided to tackle what he terms "irony in the wild." Along the way, Bryant discovered both he and his advisor were correct. He also became an expert on sarcasm. Today, this assistant professor of communication studies at UCLA willingly shares his knowledge with those of us who, when faced with sarcasm, often get "lost in translation."
Grasping the theory of mind is a good starting point for learning about sarcasm. "Theory of mind is the ability to attribute thoughts to others that are distinct from your own thoughts," says Bryant. According to Bryant, realizing that there are multiple layers of meaning is imperative for understanding irony. For example, the intended meaning of the phrase, "Nice catch" when directed at someone who drops a ball is different from its literal meaning. Being able to discern the difference varies for everyone from someone who is autistic and doesn't have the capability of grasping the non-literal meaning to someone who may be extremely intuitive of people's thoughts and feelings.
A Slice of Irony
To further complicate matters, it turns out sarcasm is only one of five subtypes of irony. "People often get confused between irony and sarcasm," says Bryant. Which leads us to a short primer on irony --
First, there's the rhetorical question. This applies to the question of "Are you Hungry?" when asked of someone devouring a pizza in record time. "You're pointing out that they're pigging out," says Bryant.
Then there's the understatement. An example of this when used with the above-referenced consumer would be, "John likes the food." "It's ironic, but it's not really sarcastic," says Bryant.
And those who upon seeing a pizza state, "I could eat a ton right now" are expressing — "Hyperbole," says Bryant. This form of irony is an exaggeration not meant to be taken literally.
Jocularity or ironic play would be the statement, "Don't forget to chew it."
And finally, there's sarcasm. "Gorging on pizza. How healthy for you." "It's an ironic criticism and less often ironic praise," says Bryant.
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