M&R Ch 6: Explaining irony

This is my colleague Chris Cocchiarella’s summary of the sixth chapter of Wilson and Sperber’s (2012) Meaning and Relevance. We previously posted Chris’s summary of the book’s preface, an intro to some of the terms and concepts of Relevance Theory, and a his summary of the introductory Chapter 1. All the other chapters  before the present one have also received summaries. (Click on the “Relevance Theory” tag link on any of these, and you’ll get the whole list.) I also posted a claim that Relevance Theory matters to rhetoric and TC.

While Chapter 5 explained metaphor in detail, Chapter 6 is entirely about explaining verbal irony.  According to Wilson and Sperber, Relevance Theory (RT) provides a much more adequate explanation of irony than do previous theories in Classical rhetoric and linguistics.  Previous theories, for example, defined verbal irony as an expression or linguistic representation “with a figurative meaning that departs from its literal meaning”—for example, when one person says to another in a hostile tone, “You’re a fine friend”  (123-124).  There is partial truth to this definition of irony, namely, that there is “a discrepancy between representation and reality” (126).  However, this definition does not distinguish irony from pretense.  Moreover, this definition tacitly suffers from the mistaken idea that the human communication is grounded in literal interpretations by default (in other words, Grice and Searle’s ‘norm of literalness’—see Chapter 5 summary), and it says nothing about ironic tone or attitude. 

RT, in contrast, deals directly with the role attitude plays in irony, which allows RT to distinguish verbal irony from pretense without resorting to the mistaken idea that communication requires literal interpretations.  According to W&S, “what irony essentially communicates is neither the proposition literally expressed nor the opposite of that proposition, but an attitude to this proposition” (125).  In RT, irony consists of two features.  First, irony echoes some kind of thought.  Second, irony involves a dissociative attitude toward this thought.  As S&W argue:

irony consists in echoing a thought (e.g. a belief, an intention, a norm-based expectation) attributed to an individual, a group, or to people in general, and expressing a mocking, sceptical, or critical attitude to this thought.  On this approach, an ironical utterance typically implies that the speaker believes the opposite of what was said, but this is neither the meaning nor the point of the utterance (125).

For example, when someone says sarcastically after a boring party, “That was fun,” the person is not saying literally that the party was fun.  But that person is also not merely asserting that the party was boring.  Instead, the person is echoing the expectation that the party was supposed to be fun, and at the same time he or she expresses a scornful attitude toward that very thought.  Hence, irony consists of echoing a thought, which is distinct from pretense.  But irony also consists of a dissociative attitude toward the thought, and this attitude can be called “the ironic tone of voice” (126).  The ironic tone of voice is characterized by “flat or deadpan intonation, slower tempo, lower pitch level and greater intensity that are found in corresponding literal utterances,” which allows verbal irony to convey a “mocking, sneering or contemptuous attitude” (128).  By taking into account both echo and attitude, RT can give a robust definition of verbal irony that distinguishes it from pretense.

W&S elaborate on these two components of irony: echo and attitude.  Echo is a type of attribution.  When speakers echo thoughts, they do not describe their own [present] thoughts; they describe the thoughts of someone else [or themselves at another time].  [Edits in previous sentence by @Rhetoricked.] Hence, W&S define “echoic use [of language] as a subtype of attributive use in which the speaker’s primary intention is not to provide information about the content of an attributed thought, but to convey her own attitude or reaction to that thought” (128-129).  Attitudes in echoic uses of language, however, can range from acceptance to dissociation.  Attitude in the ironic tone of voice, however, is dissociative: “what distinguishes verbal irony from other varieties of echoic use is that the attitudes conveyed are drawn from the dissociative range: the speaker rejects a tacitly attributed thought as ludicrously false (or blatantly inadequate in other ways)” (130).  This dissociative attitude can include a range of certain feelings, such as amused tolerance, resignation, disappointment, contempt, disgust, outrange, or scorn.

Before ending Chapter 6, W&S compare irony to metaphor from a cognitive perspective, in terms of how metaphorical and ironical words represent thought processes.  Understanding linguistic representations from a cognitive perspective is one of the central points of RT.  According to RT, metaphors express thoughts; irony expresses thoughts about thoughts.  So while metaphorical words represent thoughts about something, ironical words represent thoughts about thoughts about something.  Metaphor involves cognitive representations, but irony involves representations of representations, or ‘metarepresentations.’  The “relevance theory account of figurative utterances,” say S&W, “treats metaphor as expressing a thought about a state of affairs and irony as expressing a thought about another thought, and hence as requiring a higher-order of metarepresentational abilities” (134).  These different orders of cognitive representations—metaphorical representation and ironical metarepresentation—explain why there is ironic tone of voice but not metaphoric tone of voice:

The ironical tone of voice, we suggest, is a natural cue to the particular type of mocking, sceptical or contemptuous attitude that the speaker intends to convey to the thought being echoed.  Since metaphor is not echoic and does not involve the expression of a characteristic attitude, there is no reason why we should expect to find a corresponding metaphorical tone of voice (143).

Chapter 6 concludes Part I of Meaning And Relevance, introducing the essentials of RT.  Part II (Chapters 7 through 11) will go into more detail about explicit and implicit communication and cognition, and Part II (Chapters 12-15) will discuss interdisciplinary research in RT.

[Some other notes from @Rhetoricked (BNL, your host): The higher-order representation that W&S talk about in this chapter has been connected to “theory of mind.” The concept of “theory of mind” has been combined with relevance theory to explore the representational and communicative abilities of autistic persons. This research is controversial and problematic in perhaps a number of ways. The curious reader can find a discussion of “theory of mind” and autism here and here. Some other early research comes from Happé (1993; 1995). But my own reading of Happé’s research leads me to concerns about its statistical methods. And  Gernsbacher & Pripas-Kapit (2012) have criticized the idea that autistic persons have certain communicative deficits on other grounds. Of course, W&S and RT are not themselves implicated in this dispute, except to the extent that W&S cite Happé’s work  in Meaning & Relevance as evidence of RT’s utility.]


Gernsbacher, M. A., & Pripas-Kapit, S. R. (2012). Who’s Missing the Point? A Commentary on Claims that Autistic Persons Have a Specific Deficit in Figurative Language Comprehension. Metaphor and Symbol, 27(1), 93–105.

Happé, F. G. E. (1993). Communicative competence and theory of mind in autism: A test of relevance theory. Cognition, 48(2), 101–119.

Happé, F. G. E. (1995). The Role of Age and Verbal Ability in the Theory of Mind Task Performance of Subjects with Autism. Child Development, 66(3), 843–855.

Wilson, Deirdre and Sperber, Dan.  (2012).  Meaning and Relevance.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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