Fifty shades of sarcasm

In this fascinating piece, Charlie Stone explores the nuances of tone and sarcasm in the English language

Charlie Stone

Another stunning photographMaxpixel

English is a difficult language. It’s irregular (teachers taught, preachers praught?), single words take on multiple meanings (‘set’ has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary) and its pronunciation is fiendish (cough, though, bough, through, tough, plough).

Worst of all is how often we’re not actually saying what we mean: the meaning of spoken English is sometimes completely dependent on our tone and emphasis, and not on the words themselves.

Take one example: the phrase ‘thanks a lot’. How it is interpreted is completely dependent on how it is said – in one tone, it signifies ‘thanks a lot’; in another, ‘I’m not grateful and I’m telling you this in an indirect way, because I want to avoid confrontation’.

“There’s no rule that says in English the word ‘interesting’ can mean ‘interesting’, ‘curious’, ‘boring’, ‘suspicious’, ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I’ve stopped listening’”

Another difficulty is how many different words we have for saying something like ‘well, that’s ruined’. Choose any positive word and say it in the right manner, and your meaning is spot on (great, wonderful, brilliant, fantastic, marvellous). 

This isn’t only about our famous English sarcasm. It’s a sign that the words themselves are not as reflective of our thought as, perhaps, they should be. When I say, ‘I beg your pardon’, I can mean ‘I apologise’, ‘I didn’t hear you’, or most probably ‘I’m absolutely fuming at what you said’. No wonder English is famed for being such a tricky language to learn, if what we’re trying to get across is based really on our tone of voice more than anything else.

Oscar Wilde was a shaman of sarcasmPoemsnet

Emphasis of certain words presents some issues, too. A sentence like ‘She never said I’d eaten her cake’ looks innocent enough on paper, but when spoken out loud emphasising different words, becomes another beast altogether. There are seven words in the phrase ‘She never said I’d eaten her cake’, and it has seven different meanings, depending on where you place the emphasis. ’She never said I’d eaten her cake’, ’She never said I’d eaten her cake’, ’She never said I’d eaten her cake’, etc. Something like this simply wouldn’t happen in, say, French: To emphasise ‘I’d’, you’d have to say something like ’Elle ne dit jamais que c’était moi qui avais mangé son gâteau’, and to emphasise ‘said’ you’d have to reconstruct the phrase altogether.

All this, I’d say, makes English quite a tough language to write in. You can always use italics, but we’ve all suffered when sending a hilariously sarcastic joke over text and being utterly misinterpreted, in a distinctly unfunny, and probably offensive way.

You could always make the argument that phrases such as the one above which depend on emphasis for meaning prove that English is perhaps a more efficient language than others, but in that what we are trying to say often depends primarily on tone and emphasis really shows that it’s quite a loose language. There’s no solid word-meaning structure, which is similar to languages such as Mandarin, in which, since many characters have the same sound, tones are used to differentiate words from each other. 

But at least Mandarin has rules about this sort of thing! There’s no rule that says in English the word ‘interesting’ can mean ‘interesting’, ‘curious’, ‘boring’, ‘suspicious’, ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I’ve stopped listening’. Our language is not reflective of our thought. The rise of ‘literally’ is a sad case in point.

Languages are constantly changing and developing. Has English fallen behind? Does it now fail to capture meaning? Luckily, I don’t think this is the case. First, there’s so much good English literature out there, so tone really isn’t everything when it comes to communicating. Also, it could be argued a loose word-meaning structure avoids bluntness.

French is a blunter language than English because it’s far more difficult to communicate meaning through tone and emphasis (It’s still lovely, though). It’s so much nicer when your supervisor says to you “I think that you might perhaps have toyed with this idea a tiny bit more” instead of “you’ve completely missed the point”. Also, without sarcasm, we’d lose about half of our wit. So it’s not such a bad thing at all