Sunday, 25 March 2007

Irony and Shared Experience

How do you spot a use of irony? When someone says something ironical, how do you recognize it as such? And finally, how do you teach a non-native speaker of English to identify irony in English? Until I'd tried to do this, I never appreciated how hard it might be. A lot of it, I found, has to do with shared experience. Shared culture is important, of course, but shared experience counts just as much or more.

"Oh, how delightful," said Maria, a fellow teacher, when she heard another of our colleagues had gotten married. "Another couple on the road to eternal happiness."

It took me ages to explain to a student who overheard this comment that it was intended to be ironical. She was absolutely certain that Maria naively assumed that marriage ensured a life of bliss. Maria was divorced; I was married; the student was single. Maria and I had a shared experience -- years of marriage -- that clued me in to her use of irony.

One of the hardest jobs I've ever done was having to find twelve uses of irony in an essay on parenting and then explaining the irony in each one. This was a test question given to Japanese university students on one of the entrance examinations to a particular university, and it was so fiendishly difficult that even the teachers overseeing the test struggled with it. My job was to go over the sentences with the teachers and explain what I felt the correct answers to be. I was also expected to analyze the irony.

The teachers, both excellent speakers of English, did very well in picking out what was ironical and what wasn't, and their answers were very similar. Unfortunately, though, they had gotten stuck on one sentence that they could not agree on and hoped that I would be able to settle their dispute.

The pesky sentence? "All single parents who manage to raise children on their own are heroes."

Nakajima-san insisted that this had to be an ironical use. Heroes were people who pulled others out of burning buildings or carried their buddies over their shoulders through minefields. People who did nothing more thrilling than bring up children were -- well, parents. "Ironical of course," he stated emphatically.

Sakamori-san stared at his test paper and shook his head. "Not ironical," he said flatly. He looked at me and I nodded. "Not ironical."

Nakajima-san couldn't understand. "But you said irony is an exaggeration!" he disputed. "Big exaggeration to say that single parents are heroes!"

Poor fellow; he just didn't have the experience. I wish his mother had been there to lend us her support.

On the way out of the office I turned to Sakamori-san. "How old is your son now?"

"Two. Terrible two."

"Oh lord, you poor guy. Does he still keep you up at night?"

He merely nodded, but I'd already seen the bags under his eyes.

"How about the temper tantrums? Are those any better?"

He shook his head. "He bit my wife the other day," he said glumly.

"My youngest went through a biting phase," I commiserated. "That's tough. She's sleeping through the night now, though. Almost every night, too."

He perked right up at that. "Has she stopped banging her head on the ground?"

"She doesn't do it as much as she used to, but she still has her moments. Whenever she loses it, we just make sure she's nowhere near a concrete floor."

Nakajima-san stared at us as if we were insane. He was a perfectly bright guy, he just didn't happen to have the shared experience.


Anonymous said...

From the rational and also if one can call it that , the philosophical viewpoint , this is good stuff . But its real appeal lies in your ability to catch the moment in the reporting of conversation. You have a wonderful ear for conversation and you interlace it into your narratives in such a skilful way tht you cannot fail to maintain the full interest of the reader .

I come to your blogs with great anticipation and certainly I have never been disappointed . Looking forward to much more.


Brian said...

having trouble logging on here

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Brian. I have trouble logging on too. Sometimes the system seems to feel that my user name is the same as my e-mail address, but there are times that is rejected and I keep having to try other combinations. Up until now I just assumed this was due to my own ineptitude. If you are having the same problem, though, that is heartening -- it can't be just me. I just hope that we can get it ironed out so that you won't tire of visiting my blog. You and Kim are my only visitors so far, and I wouldn't want to lose you.

If you look forward to more of this, rest assured that as long as I can keep fighting the kids off the computer, I can keep this coming. I feel like a bore at a party who finds someone hanging onto her every word -- I am anxious to keep your attention until eventually you look at your watch and wander off . . .

Kim Ayres said...

Irony is a tough one to communicate on the blog sometimes, especially when you have visitors from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures. There have been several times that I've created a post where the humour was knowing, only to find that some of my readers had taken it literally. In fact there have been occasions when virtually the entire contents of the comments section has been me trying to point out that I was exaggerating for comic effect. Of course all jokes lose their humour when you have to explain them

Mary Witzl said...

I read one of your comments a few months ago, Kim, after the flash fiction competition that neither of us won. I was absolutely positive that what you wrote was ironically intended, but I think a few of your readers took it seriously. I thought your comment was very funny, by the way -- about a Halloween costume your mother had made for you and how you felt you should have won the 'Best Costume' prize.

You are right in saying that a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds can make irony difficult to communicate in a blog. Still, it is an interesting challenge, isn't it?

Kim Ayres said...

Ah yes, the Competition post - just been back to check it. I think that was probably the one I was thinking of in my last comment.

It reminds me of a sketch I saw on a comedy programme years ago about a guy called Mr Sarcastic where everything he said was in that tone and meant the opposite, and eveyone thought he was terribly funny. Then he was accused of murdering someone and was in the court, making everyone laugh as he said, "Oh, yeah, right, of course I killed him". After the laughter had died down the judge asked the clerk to read back what the defendant had said. In the cold reading without the sarcasm it just read as "Oh. Yes. Right. Of course I killed him.