July 16, 2004

The prosody of sarcasm  

Mark Liberman writes extensively on the inflections of "couldn't care less" vs "could care less" in support of his view that the latter is NOT a consciously sarcastic recasting of the former (contra Pinker). It caught my eye because I've always been awfully concerned about the correctness of "could care less", and the sarcasm explanation had never occurred to me before... but what's really interesting is his commentary on the prosody of sarcasm:

There's no such thing as sarcastic intonation. Not in English, anyhow, and I doubt that any other language has such a thing either. Nor is there sarcastic stress, sarcastic pitch, sarcastic voice quality or any other mode of speech production that means "what I'm saying now is the opposite of what I mean."
This really surprised me, because I think of "tone" (possibly a nontechnical term...) as being the primary way we apprehend sarcasm and irony. Just thinking through some instances in my head though, I can't hear a good counterexample. Does this mean context is the only marker for sarcasm? If so, it should be just as easy to convey in a written form as over the telephone -- and <sarcasm>we all know this to be the case</sarcasm>.

Incadenza  {July 16, 2004}

I don't know if this contradicts Liberman (to be honest, I couldn't get through the post), but what about any utterance of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons? Fittingly, the example of his opinion of Prof. Frink's Sarcasm Detector works best:

"Oh yes, THAT'S useful!"

It's all in the tone.

(and for anyone who hasn't seen that episode, the Sarcasm Detector explodes from sarcasm overload).

apostropher  {July 18, 2004}

No such thing as sarcastic intonation? If that were true, then this sketch wouldn't have been funny.

It was.

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