LINGUIST List 31.2553

Tue Aug 11 2020

Review: Applied Linguistics; Cognitive Science; Discourse Analysis: Athanasiadou, Colston (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 29-May-2020
From: Claudia Lehmann <>
Subject: The Diversity of Irony
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Angeliki Athanasiadou
EDITOR: Herbert L. Colston
TITLE: The Diversity of Irony
SERIES TITLE: Cognitive Linguistics Research [CLR]
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Claudia Lehmann, Universität Bremen


As stated by the editors, Angeliki ATHANASIADOU and Herbert L. COLSTON, in the INTRODUCTION, the volume THE DIVERSITY OF IRONY aims at showing the diversity of phenomena that can be assigned to the umbrella term ‘irony’. The editors summarize many, if not all, respects in which irony shows heterogeneity, including the forms it may take (e.g. situational irony, dramatic irony, or verbal irony), the different functions it may fulfil within and across cultures, and its constructional and co-speech markers, to name but a few. Abstracting away these differences evidenced by the introduction and the contributions, the editors draw a fundamental conclusion about ‘irony’: As diverse as it may seem, irony is a central cognitive and communicative mode, just like other figures of speech.

PART I, diversity across figures, is concerned with the figure of speech ‘irony’ itself, i.e. with the way it is constructed and embedded in context and its relation to other figures of speech, particularly metaphor and hyperbole.

In the first contribution to Part I, uniting irony, hyperbole and metaphor in an affect-centred, pretence-based framework, John Barnden provides a model that attempts to unify three seemingly different figures of speech, namely irony, hyperbole and metaphor based on the pretence account first introduced by Clark and Gerrig (2007 [1984]). Barnden shows that these three figures are based on the same principle cognitive mechanisms, i.e. particular mappings he calls ‘view-neutral mapping adjuncts’ (VNMA), which specify possible default mappings between a pretence and the real world. In particular, Barnden assumes a ‘within-scenario affect VNMA’ to be at work for irony, hyperbole and metaphor, which specifies the affective attitude that is transferred from the pretence world to the real world. His model is explicitly based on his own works on irony and metaphor as well as on the cognitive modelling approach to hyperbole forwarded by Peña and Ruiz de Mendoza (2017).

The second contribution, how defaultness affects text production, by Rachel Giora, Shir Givoni and Israela Becker, is a report on a corpus-based study investigating aspects of the Defaultness hypothesis. The Defaultness hypothesis claims that some (linguistic) constructions generate interpretations by default, i.e. “automatically, immediately, and directly, regardless of other factors assumed to affect processing” (66). The constructions that are considered in this contribution all generate a sarcastic interpretation by default. The Defaultness hypothesis has gained support by numerous studies, and so the present report aims at testing one particular prediction of the Defaultness hypothesis, namely that the default interpretation of the construction resonates with adjacent linguistic material in natural discourse. Using a corpus-based experimental method, Giora, Givoni and Becker can indeed show that the default sarcastic interpretation of the constructions under consideration is taken up in previous or following parts of the context in 71% of cases, which lends further support to the Defaultness hypothesis.

The third contribution, irony in constructions, by Angeliki Athanasiadou, also analyses particular linguistic constructions that are often associated with irony and resonate with the surrounding context. This corpus-based study pays particular attention to several ‘if’-constructions and their embedding in ironic contexts using frame semantics as a framework. Athanasiadou analyses several ‘if’-constructions and shows that constructions like ‘if ever’ or ‘if at all’ serve to enhance an ironic effect by two means. She argues that, on the one hand, the ‘if’-constructions introduce alternative views on particular state-of-affairs and, on the other hand, that they also express some kind of dissociative attitude towards the alternant mentioned first.

The fourth contribution, hyperbolic figures, by Mihaela Popa-Wyatt, sheds some light on hyperbolic metaphors and hyperbolic irony. Popa-Wyatt argues that these figures work differently from compound figures, like ironic metaphors, in which one figure (here: metaphor) serves as an input to the other (here: irony) to get a particular intend across. The author first shows that the main point of hyperbole is emphasis and goes on to demonstrate that both hyperbolic metaphor and hyperbolic irony are primarily metaphor and irony, respectively, with an extra emphatic “tinge” (91). Crucially, she argues with the help of some examples that there is no necessary order of interpretation whatsoever, but rather that the interpretive processes in hyperbolic figures work in a parallel fashion.

The fifth contribution, denying the salient contrast, by Graham Watling, is concerned with hyperbole, like the preceding contribution. It builds on Walton’s (2017) notions of the ‘explicit content’ (i.e. what is said), the ‘assertive content’ (i.e. what is meant) and, crucially, the ‘salient contrast’ (i.e. what is denied). Since Walton’s observations are based on hyperboles alluding to quantities, Watling extends the analysis to qualitative measures and frequencies in his contribution. In doing so, he shows that the speaker chooses an explicit content that lies in the opposite direction of the scale where the salient contrast can be found, thereby locating the assertive content somewhere in between. Using hyperboles including ‘never’ and ‘always’, he further argues that considering the speaker attitude is a useful tool to identifying a possible salient contrast. And, finally, Watling emphasizes the role context plays in deriving the salient contrast, which also may help in distinguishing pure hyperbole from hyperbolic irony.

PART II, diversity across languages, concerns itself with irony in languages other than English.

The first contribution of the second part, Thai irony as an indirect relational tool to save face in social interactions, by Patrawat Samermit and Apinan Samermit, offers an insight into irony used in Thai – a language which is different from English in many respects. Samermit and Samermit analyse 227 instances of irony from a Thai cooking show and assign them to the different forms of irony identified in Gibbs (2000). In doing so, they show that Thai irony is more than just sarcastic irony, which has been, according to the authors, the primary focus of studies analysing irony in Thai in the past. This is followed by an in-depth qualitative discourse analysis of several examples, illustrating the use of these different forms of irony in Thai interactions. Samermit and Samermit conclude that Thai irony is specifically used for facework and the maintenance of social norms in Thai, much more so than in English.

The second contribution to part II, England is an appendix; corrupt officials are like hairs on a nation’s arm: Sarcasm, irony and self-irony in figurative political discourse, by Andreas Musolff and Sing Tsun Derek Wong, report on the results of a questionnaire designed to elicit examples of the NATION-AS-BODY metaphor, which included a considerable number of ironic examples. Resorting to allusional accounts of irony, the authors argue that the ironic examples in their corpus allude to the positively connoted NATION-AS-BODY metaphor and that the producers of these ironic examples distance themselves from such a positive conceptualisation of their respective nation. The authors further show cross-linguistic differences between their English and Chinese samples of ironic metaphors in term of quantity (49% of the English sample included ironic criticism opposed to 4% in the Chinese sample) and quality. The main qualitative difference the authors found was a more extensive use of pejorative wordings in the English sample.

The third contribution to Part II, grammatical emphasis and irony in Spanish, by Victoria Escandell-Vidal and Manuel Leonetti, concerns itself with syntactic marking of Spanish irony. The authors claim that there are particular grammatic patterns in Spanish that cue an ironic interpretation by encoding either intensification (e.g. wh-exclamatives) and/or emphasis (e.g. fronting) and predict that “the more emphatic a sentence, the greater the likelihood that it can receive an ironic interpretation” (206). In doing so, the authors explicitly speak against a view in which the ironic meaning might be encoded in the grammatic construction itself and so their contribution stands somewhat in contrast to what Giora, Givoni and Becker (same volume, see above) claim. They report on a study aiming at testing their prediction. For this study, they created a set of stimuli that differ with regard to their use of intensity and emphasis markers, which were rated for their likelihood of being interpreted ironically. Overall, Escandell-Vidal and Leonetti have found supportive evidence for their claim, but also had to acknowledge some confounding factors.

PART III, diversity across media, shows the diversity of how irony can be marked in face-to-face conversations.

The first contribution to Part III, Eye-rolling, irony and embodiment, by Herbert L. Colston, discusses eye-rolling as a stand-alone disapproval display and a marker of irony. Colston first argues that eye-rolling can be seen as an umbrella term covering a variety of movements the eye can perform and shows that language users tend to correlates eye-rolling with negative concepts. The author continues by reviewing possible accounts of eye-rolls: eye-rolling as a cue to irony, eye-rolling as part of pretend play, and various accounts that view eye-rolls as an embodied process. This review is followed by the report of a study asking participants to rate the degree of approval/disapproval of a person’s image overhearing news while the person’s image was manipulated for gaze direction. The results of this study suggest that people looking in an upward direction were considered to be most disapproving. Colston argues that an upward gaze aversion is most likely associated with disapproval because it is also the least ambiguous direction.

The second contribution to Part III, experimental investigations of irony as a viewpoint phenomenon, by Vera Tobin, reports on a study that provides some evidence for a cognitive account of irony, the ‘viewpoint account’. According to this view, irony is a viewpoint phenomenon where the hearer understands an ironic remark essentially by “zooming out” to a higher-level perspective, identifying an incongruence and reassessing this remark in the given context. Such a process necessarily involves at least two viewpoints: one at the lower and another at the higher level of attention. This account was tested on the presumption that these cognitive viewpoints can be made accessible by presenting (line drawings of) actual people with their actual inherent viewpoints. The study showed that potentially ambiguous utterances made between two interactants were rated higher on sarcasm than those between three conversational participants or by a person alone. Tobin argues that this result could be explained by the fact that the two-participant setting mirrors the prototypical viewpoint setting best and rejects traditional views on irony that stipulate an in- and outgroup as a necessary feature of irony.

The third contribution to Part III, faces of sarcasm, by Sabina Tabacaru, deals with raised eyebrows accompanying sarcastic utterances. Tabacaru argues that interactions are essentially multimodal and that every aspect of delivery might serve as a meaning-making resource. One such resource she explores in more detail is the raised eyebrow. Analysing data from the French presidential television debate in 2017, she shows that speakers often make use of the raised eyebrow when being sarcastic and that they do so to shift the frame from the serious to a pretence frame.

The last contribution, a pilot study on the diversity in irony production and irony perception, by Hannah Leykum, reports on a production and a perception study investigating the contribution of paraverbal and nonverbal cues to irony comprehension. The production study uses a female speaker acting out ironic and non ironic stimuli. Its results are mainly in line with previous research, showing that the ironic utterance compared to its non ironic counterpart is longer, lower in pitch, quieter and noisier, while nonverbally it is marked by less smiling, raised eyebrows and frowning. These stimuli were presented in different conditions (audio-only, visual-only, and audio+video) to a group of normal-hearing participants and two participants with cochlear implants, who had to categorize them. The results of this perception study revealed that one of the two participants with a cochlear implant was as accurate as the participants without hearing impairment at detecting irony. It further showed that both groups basically relied on the same cues for detecting irony. Specifically, no audio-visual synergy effect for the group with cochlear implants could be shown.


The editors of this volume, Angeliki Athanasiadou and Herbert L. Colston, set themselves high aims. The first of which is collecting works which testify to the diversity of irony, while the second is to further “an increased understanding of irony as a potentially fundamental mode of thought and communication” (9). Overall, the volume lives up to both expectations set in the introduction.

The volume shows indeed how diverse irony is, in particular with regard to the languages that use this figure of speech. Most of the studies of the past four decades in irony research have been working with English data and so almost our entire understanding of this figure is based on one language. The present volume, however, features examples from French, Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Hebrew, and Austrian German and thus shows different nuances of irony. Furthermore, the volume is a showcase for highlighting the diverse markers hearers may use in detecting irony. Next to the grammatical markers (or constructions) discussed in the second and third contribution of Part I it also shows a diverse range of kinesic cues in Part III. Even though the volume can, by no means, show the full range of diversity exposed in the introduction, it provides a glimpse at its potential heterogeneity.

Beyond the said heterogeneity, the volume allows the reader to get indeed an idea about irony being a fundamental cognitive mode shared by all language users. The theoretically oriented works of Part I already give an impression of how irony might be related to other figures of speech and what its cognitive working might be like. But, despite all the diversity the volume presents, it also shows how similar irony is across languages and modes. One example is the grammatical constructions that have been under scrutiny in some of the works collected here, which have striking similarity to constructions in other languages (compare e.g. ‘She is not the most mesmerizing person around’ analysed in Hebrew by Giora, Givoni and Becker, which seems to be derived by default in English, too, or the ‘if’ constructions analysed by Athanasidou, which seem to be similar to their German counterparts). Another example, which shows how similar ironic utterances are, concerns the functions irony fulfils. There may be differences with regard to the delivery of irony and the contexts it may occur in, but it usually fulfils social management functions. A third example is the para- and nonverbal markers of irony. Some works in the collection rightfully stress differences in marking irony, but there are markers which seem to be associated with irony irrespective of the language (e.g. raised eyebrows). Taken together, the contributions of this volume suggest, in fact, that irony might be a fundamental cognitive and communicative mode.

Two minor weaknesses of the volume can be identified, though. The first weakness concerns the relevance of some contributions. The contributions by Popa-Wyatt, Watling and Colston, while unquestionably interesting, discuss topics only peripherally related to irony, i.e. hyperbole and eye-rolling, but less so in the latter case. All of these, in fact, briefly refer to irony and thus justify their occurrence in the volume, but this reference is not pronounced enough. It is left to the reader to identify the relevance of these contributions to a volume entitled the diversity of irony, which sets the expectation that all contributions are centrally related to irony.

The other weakness, though also minor, is related to the methodological diversity of the contributions. The research on irony in the past four decades has been dominated by works in the philosophy of language, theoretic pragmatics, and psycholinguistics with some influence by conversation analytic works. This dominance is reflected in the contributions of the present volume, which are theoretic, experimental or qualitative in nature. The work by Giora, Givoni and Becker being an exception, there are no quantitative studies using balanced samples represented in the volume, although there is a growing body of these. It would have been desirable to include some of these to show that findings on the diversity of irony also extend to larger samples.


Clark, Herbert H & Richard J Gerrig. 2007 [1984]. On the pretense theory of irony. Irony in language and thought: A cognitive science reader, ed. by R.W. Gibbs & H.L. Colston, 25-33. New York/London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gibbs, Raymond W. 2000. Irony in talk among friends. Metaphor and Symbol 15.5-27.

Peña, M. Sandra & Francisco J. Ruiz de Mendoza. 2017. Construing and constructing hyperbole. Studies in Figurative Thought and Language, ed. by A. Athanasiadou, 42-73. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Walton, Kendall L. 2017. Meiosis, hyperbole, irony. Philosophical Studies 174.105-20.


Claudia Lehmann holds a postdoc position in Multimodal Linguistics at the University of Bremen. She received her PhD in February 2019 at the University of Osnabrück. Her research interests include irony, the prosody-pragmatics interface, the prosody-syntax interface, and multimodal construction grammar.

Page Updated: 11-Aug-2020