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A Sarcastic Analysis
1. Introduction The typical ESL student studying abroad in a dominantly English-speaking culture has much to contend with; including, but not limited to academic success, listening comprehension, unrehearsed conversations and culture shock. Another important difficulty for such a student, however, is the native speakers use of humor. A lack of understanding may cause even the most advanced English student to feel isolated and below the level of fluency. The focus of this paper is to explain one such phenomenon common throughout the English speaking world sarcasm through literature on the topic as well as an unimpeded examination of natural data through the use of conversation analysis. In this paper I will provide a common definition of sarcasm, identify the leading research views on the function of sarcasm, explain the current theory on vocal cues that can detect sarcasm, list the difference between sarcastic tone and content and give a rough estimation on the often associated term irony versus sarcasm. I will then provide natural data samples through which I wish to indicate how sarcasm can be detected as well as point out patterns in how this event affects the turn design of a conversation. I will then discuss my findings and conclude. This topic is important to TESOL readers because misunderstandings caused by sarcasm can result in varying degrees of embarrassment, isolation, frustration and confusion for the ESL student, therefore deterring him/her from their English learning. On the other hand, a firm grasp of the concept and application of sarcasm can lead to personal confidence when speaking as well as an easier immersion in the English language. This paper will aim to prove the latter by first including ways to detect sarcasm, which is useful when instructing students about the topic.

Sarcasm is defined by Merriam-Websters online dictionary (2011) as, a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain. As demonstrated by Gibbs, however, sarcasm is often used in light teasing amongst friends and can even inspire a sense of camaraderie between groups of like-minded people (Gibbs, 2000, p. 7). Irony has often been cast as the umbrella term to which sarcasm falls under, and this categorization will be further explained in the literature review section of this paper. Much of the research done in this field of conversation is based on that difference between what is irony and what is sarcastic. 2. Literature Review The function of sarcasm, according to Toplak, M., & Katz, A. (2000), is not simply an object of humor. They claim that sarcasm can also be used as, an expression of pragmatic insincerity, due to the fact that the speaker has a choice to directly say what they mean and chooses not to. This is one of many declarations that sarcasm is an indirect communicative device; strengthened, perhaps, by the idea of softening a criticism to ones close friends. Furthering this belief, Gibbs suggests that sarcastic conversations can deepen the bond between friends but can also obliquely communicate distance between the speaker and the target of their sarcastic remark (Gibbs, 2000). In order to fully understand what is meant when one says sarcasm, it is important to identify and differentiate between sarcastic content and a sarcastic tone. Cheang & Pell (2008) reason that there are signs in recent literature that these two subcategories of sarcasm can be separated and there is even a marked difference between the rate children can comprehend a sarcastic tone to when they learn how to understand sarcastic content. Tone implies vocal cues that can be heard by the listener as a variation in intonation, pitch and volume. Content, on the

other hand, is strictly consequential and relies heavily on word choice and the vocabulary used by the speaker that would imply falseness to their statement so as to declare it as sarcastic. Detecting sarcasm remains a challenge to many ESL students, who are not aware of a hidden meaning when a native speaker says something seemingly normal but elicits laughter or negative responses from other native speakers due to their use of sarcasm. Linguists have likewise been thwarted when attempting to concretely identify sarcasm as a speech act. Rockwell writes in her article on the vocal cues on sarcasm that while some case studies have had conclusive results, they are often at odds with other case studies whether sarcasm uses a higher or lower pitch, or whether the pitch is flattened or exaggerated. She does say that elongated vowels and slower speech was noted by various studies conducted. Part of this is attributed to differences in methodology (Rockwell, 2007, p. 362). Rockwell believes that it is important for researchers to be aware of the nonverbal nature of sarcasm in which muscular responses in the speakers face may leak into their voice and therefore produce a sarcastic tone (Rockwell, 2007). The reaction a speaker experiences to their sarcastic remark is another sign ESL students would need to be aware of; whether or not their intended response was given. Jorgensen (1996) states in her finding that the victim of a sarcastic remark more often than not laughs at the speaker, believing the comment as humorous. She then cites research on speech acts by Reiss (1985) and Schegloff (1987) who advocate that misunderstandings are commonplace when sarcasm is used; particularly on the part of the victim. This is interesting, because according to Jorgensen (1996), the catalyst for a sarcastic remark is often found in disapproval or complaint again something the victim has done or is doing. The article also affirms that the intended

victim may not be present at the moment sarcasm was used, or that it could even be the self that one is criticizing (Jorgensen, 1996). An example of this is when I was in a group with someone who constantly missed meetings and did the least amount of work. In my emails and phone calls to my helpful group mate, I would find myself saying things like, What, he just expects us to do all of the work and get credit for it? or Oh no, we cant meet on a Friday afternoon simply because of the fact its a Friday. That would be ridiculous. I did not mean those utterances in a literal sense and was instead strengthening my viewpoint that he was being illogical and lazy. When the problems first started with his lack of responsibility, I would sometimes use sarcasm to soften my demands that he should start working harder. This was met, just as Jorgensen predicted, with laughter because he assumed I was not serious and simply exaggerating my frustration for comedic reasons. After that, I figured that my sarcasm was too indirect and began conversing with him normally so he would understand the magnitude of what I was saying. The focus of this paper is specifically on the uses of sarcasm and how it can be identified. A problem with investigating this topic, however, is the insistence by many researchers that irony and sarcasm are consistently grouped together as though interchangeable. One article aims to distinguish one from the other, however, and states that the main difference between sarcasm and irony is the idea of a victim. Lee & Katz (1998) argue that while irony has no specific target of derision or mockery, one is present in sarcasm. An example commonly found within their article is by saying the phrase, What a sunny day! on a stormy, overcast day. If the speaker is targeting the weatherman who predicted that the forecast would be sunny and bright all day, their remark should be considered as sarcastic since it has an intended target. If the statement was made as a simple jest or melancholy expression with no specific target in mind, it should then be

considered irony (Lee & Katz, 1998, p. 10). Irony has throughout history been considered more prestigious than sarcasm. Even today, irony is taught to many children growing up in the American school system in association with plays and historical literature while sarcasm is generally left untouched despite its nearly daily occurrence in the United States. For the purposes of this paper, in which I discuss conversational situations, I will use the term sarcasm. Most of the research I have stumbled upon in my search for sarcastic definitions and detections was lacking in natural data. Also, none of them sought to answer the questions I have about learning how to practically identify sarcasm in English for the purpose of being taught to second language learners. Lastly, I did not see any mention of how turn design is affected by a sardonic comment and I believe that this gap in the literature more than anything motivated me to discover common themes in my own data. 3. Research Question(s) Research questions I seek to answer in this paper are what interactional practices that speakers use to indicate what is being said is sarcastic, and what interactional practices a recipient uses to indicate that they are treating what is being said a sarcastic comment, and how sarcasm affects turn-design. 4. Methodology The data provided in this paper are real life conversations captured on film and audio recordings. The Lunch in the Office is a sample provided by Dr. Hahn Nguyen which depicts a lunch room conversation between faculty and co-workers of a university and measures five minutes in length.

Other data collected are clips from a popular reality T.V. show called Big Brother. In this program, twelve strangers are put into a house filled with TV crews and microphones and forced to kick one person out every week until there is only one left standing (who consequentially wins a prize of $500,000.00). Contestants of the show often speak about evictions, head of household and the block. I believe it is important to understand the data by mentioning a background of the rules. Every week, a competition is held and whoever wins becomes the Head of Household. This person then nominates two houseguests to be evicted at the end of the week, but cannot participate in the vote on who the house guests choose to send home. A second competition is held called the Veto Ceremony and whoever wins it has the power to take one person off the block (nominated) and the Head of Household then must choose someone else. At the end of the week, someone is voted out by majority vote, and then the process begins again until only two are left and the evicted houseguests decide who will win. These transcriptions of live feeds that can be collected from this program are considered natural data because the group of people sent into the house is isolated from the rest of the world and have only each other to talk to. Though they are being filmed and recorded with microphones, many houseguests have stated that they often forget they are being filmed and act as they normally would outside the house, where their every move and word is not monitored. Personal, often embarrassing stories are told on a daily basis in the Big Brother house which is then edited out of the tri-weekly compilations that air for one hour on television. There are, of course, problems with this form of found data. One issue is the unheard urgings by the production crew (who wish to encourage drama and excitement), which will then compel a larger audience to tune into the show. Some of the topics of conversation therefore might have been suggested by a third party and not initiated by the speakers, as conversation

analysts generally prefer. Another potential fault is the obvious lack of control the analyst has over recording the data him/herself and the analyst only gets to see whats been selected to show. Analytical Approach: conversation analysis is the unbiased look at natural conversations. This type of data collection and analysis is useful for future teachers of ESL because it provides real world examples, grammar, turn taking, pronunciation and non-verbal cues that will help a student become more adjusted with English and everything that is required of them in an English conversation. This form of Discourse Analysis can be useful for an ESL student because they will be able to observe native speakers real language as they converse in English to one another and be able to appropriately navigate through a conversation smoothly. The goal of the analyst is not to base any judgment on what is not clearly shown in the data and later, in the transcripts created from that data. Conversation analysis uses a holistic approach to collecting and analyzing data while maintaining as unbiased a position as possible in order to force the analyst to look at concrete and minute details. 5. Analysis Sarcasm as Humor For the purposes of this analysis, all turns identified with the symbol are being argued as sarcastic. Take this next example of a live, non-edited conversation occurring between two nominees in the show Big Brother, J and C. Normally, nominees are notorious in the Big Brother game to campaign against each other and not reveal which votes they have secured to one another. R, someone eligible to vote, just loudly whispered in each of their ears that he was voting for each respectively while in obvious hearing range of the other nominee. This should be read while paying particular attention to Rs (J and Cs victim) reaction. (Conversation 1.1) 1 J: [RYAN YOURE A LIA:R

2 3 4 5 6 7 8

C: he gave me his word= R: =YOU CAUGHT ME (0.6) J: (tightened voice) but his word means so much C: my God= J: (extremely high pitched) = noooooo (R and C look at each other and laugh)

In line 1, J is yelling at R that he is a liar (his tone and intonation as well as the context making it clear it is a sarcastic statement with an intended target of ridicule), to which C responds with an affirmative as to how he lied. In line 3, R confirms his guilt and J and C dramatically proceed to express unhappiness through vocal cues of strained and soft voices. We can confirm that J and C were being dramatic because of Line 7, in which J uses an irregularly high pitched voice and draws out the word No. This is consistent with Rocklands findings that vowels are often elongated and pitch can rise uncommonly high when being sarcastic. Rs equally high volume admission of culpability in Line 3 is the first indication that he is treating Js sarcasm as a joke and is choosing to join in by pretending to have been caught giving both the nominees his word, when in reality he is only allowed one vote. Js response in Line 5 to Rs reaction is with another sarcastic remark, this one clearly implying the opposite of what was said. R is laughing along with C in Line 8, validating the proposal that R considers Js sarcasm to be humorous. As we consider sarcasm as a form of humor, the following excerpt (which takes place just after Conversation 1.1) gives example to a third-party victim (the Head-of-Household) that is not present in the conversation but has nominated J, which is an undesired action by the speaker (J). (Conversation 1.2) 14 J:(in high pitched voice) why would you wanna do that to

15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

me,= what I do to you last week?=I didnt do anything R: hehehee.eh. (0.3) R: .hee J: (in high pitched voice) it wasnt me (1.9) J: nah I knew that was coming= it was (0.5) easy move R: yeah (0.4) I know

Again, the first indication that J might be being sarcastic is his raise in pitch. Also, the content of his turn is not directed at R, who did not just put him up for nominations. He is instead choosing to speak to the Head of Household by using the informal pronoun you, despite the fact that he is not present. His statement of I didnt do anything, in Line 15 is received with laughter by R, which leads one to believe that he had made a joke and had actually done something to the Head of Household last week that would have inspired revenge upon J this week in the game. This is shown later in the excerpt, in Line 21, when J returns to a normal voice and contradicts his previous two turns by saying, Nah I knew that was coming, it was [an] easy move. Line 23 in the transcript shows R agreeing with the last statement, which professes previous knowledge about Js prior treatment of the Head of Household in earlier weeks. Sarcasm in Turn Design The next few sections of data are no longer focusing on detecting and proving whether or not a turn is indeed sarcastic, but rather spotlighting how sarcasm affects turns design with the assumption that all turns identified with the symbol are sarcastic in some way. (Conversation 2.1) 1 2 3 4 5 6 T: but uh at least today I wanted to let you know that Im gonna be late J: alright T: So (0.3) J: you get thirty lashes with a wet noodle.


7 8 9

T: I know Ive already heard he.heeh.ehh N: [heee.heh S: [heeh.hee

In this example, it is clear that Js sarcastic statement in Line 6 of a violence event she is going to perform on the student then illicit a similar response by the student, who plays along with the idea and claims to know that for being late he will then receive thirty lashes with a wet noodle. This implies that sarcasm when used as humor may inspire the recipient of the sarcasm to then in turn be sarcastic; this gives a suggestion to how sarcasm affects turn design. We will see if this idea holds merit in future examples given in this paper, but I would also like to point out that there was a lack of significant content in Line 5, which was then followed by a pause, and after which the sarcasm took place. T could have been expecting J to enact some sort of punishment or admonition to his undesired tardiness, and sensing that, J chose to soften her speech and give humor to a potentially tense situation through use of sarcasm. So the sarcasm here served two purposes: it shows T that his tardiness could be punishable, but it also lightens the situation at the end of the lengthy discussion. Heres another example to test our hypothesis on, in which J had just mentioned a conspiracy theory shed seen on television and related it to the group who did not all agree with the report. (Conversation 2.2) 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 B: [do you believe everything you see on TV? (0.3) N: [heee.hh L: [hee.ehh. J: yeah right heh.ehh (0.6) B: Princess Diana really isnt dead (.)dont worry about It J: oh I see (.) okay thats go(h)od to know L: hehh.eh J: either is Mother Theresa right,


158 L: heh.heh 159 B: yeah The sarcastic comment in line 148 is a resolution to a disagreement, which confirms my pattern shown in Conversation 2.1. Line 154 is an extension of Bs sarcasm and is followed, again, by a false acceptance in Line 155 by J who laughingly pretends to not question the statement that Princess Dianas death was faked. In line 157 she even continues with her own sarcastic statement. This is consistent with my previous observation that sarcasm inspires sarcasm. 6. Discussion & Conclusion I believe my findings give a concrete analysis of a common day occurrence in English: sarcasm. In the case of the contestants on Big Brother, a pattern of raised pitch, elongated vowels and false statements were reliable indicators of sarcastic turns. Laughter also played a large role in the realization that certain speakers were being sarcastic and treating the ridicule posed by sarcasm as a joke. Later, when speaking of turn design, another pattern emerged that showed how sarcasm was often reacted to with other sarcasm. In the case of the student and teacher, where sarcasm was used as a diffuser of sorts, further research in that specific area might prove interesting. The implications of this study can be exemplified by the very data and literature on the subject I have shown; sarcasm is used to familiarize, distance, state confusion, and humor others who may or may not be present. It is possible, if rare, for one to use sarcasm upon themselves to emphasize unhappiness or perplexity. Sarcasm can also be used to strengthen relationships; once a friend assimilates to anothers use of sarcasm, mutual understanding and humor can be developed. Language is solely based on the relationships between humans, whether it is business, personal, or ideological; a specific tool in accomplishing that in the English language that I have


shown through this study is sarcasm and can only benefit students by being taught on some level in English learning classrooms. The mere fact that sarcasm has so many facets to it so many possible intentions of the speaker confirm that instruction can add a level of depth to the fluency of the English learner. In conclusion, sarcasm is an instrument that once mastered serves as a social and pragmatic element in English conversations. Teaching students to become aware of this widespread occurrence enables them to push beyond academic English and help fully immerse them in the culture and language they are being instructed on. This can be accomplished through the use of conversation analysis, as well as a personal awareness and emphasis on how sarcasm is constructed within the context of a specific conversation.


References Cheang, H., & Pell, M. (2008). The sound of sarcasm. Speech Communication, 50(5), 366-381. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.hpu.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/85668763?acco untid=2514 Gibbs, R. (2000). Irony in talk among friends. Metaphor and Symbol, 15(1&2), 5-17. Retrieved From http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.hpu.edu/llba/docview/85518114/abstract/133853EFF F56023507D/1?accountid=2514 Jorgensen, J. (1996). The functions of sarcastic irony in speech. Journal of Pragmatics, 26(5), 613-634. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.hpu.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/85640820?acco untid=2514 Lee, C., & Katz, A. (1998). The differential role of ridicule in sarcasm and irony. Metaphor and Symbol, 13(1), 1-15. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.hpu.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/58355825?acco untid=2514 Sarcasm. (n.d.). In Merriam-Websters online dictionary (11th ed.).Retrieved 2011 from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sarcasm Rockwell, P. (2000). Lower, slower, louder: Vocal cues of sarcasm. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 29(5), 483-495. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.hpu.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/85525199?acco untid=2514 Rockwell, P. (2007). Vocal features of conversational sarcasm: A comparison of methods. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 36(5), 361-369. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.hpu.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/85678744?acco untid=2514 Toplak, M., & Katz, A. (2000). On the uses of sarcastic irony. Journal of Pragmatics, 32(10), 1467-1488. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.hpu.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/85514346?acco untid=2514