Understanding Irony through Communicative Values in the Time of Globalization – Анна Горностаева

Anna Gornostaeva
Moscow State Linguistic University, Russia


In the time of globalization and developing intercultural communication it is necessary not only to master a foreign language but to acquire cultural and communicative skills. Irony, as a communicative value of certain cultures is the centre of attention of this paper. It is noted that irony is an integral part of the English communicative culture [1] and understanding irony and humour in a foreign language ensures a fruitful dialogue between cultures [2]. The aim of the study is to determine the links between cultural and communicative values and mechanisms of irony in the British and American culture and to find common trends in irony usage. The hypothesis is: irony is a reflection of culture and forms the picture of the world of a nation; it is used to express and strengthen the national identity. The knowledge of ironic mechanisms is important to promote understanding between different cultures. The material, used for the analysis, is represented by the recent speeches of British and American political and cultural figures.

1. Introduction

Recently the attention of researchers has been attracted to political communication, its mechanisms and language means. These phenomena are analyzed from different angles and through various approaches, including political, cultural and linguistic ones. The central figures in political communication are the participants and the strategies of persuasion and manipulation. The aim of political discourse is gaining and holding power, the instrument to achieve this aim is language. One of the expressive means is irony, whose functions range from attack and mockery to self-defense and entertainment and rely on communicative context, background and the type of relations between the interlocutors. The use and frequency of irony depends on cultural and communicative values of the speakers.

2. Methodology

Political discourse is currently interpreted as a social phenomenon, while politics is associated with power and force: “Politics is the realm of the decision, of action in the social world… the category of hegemony… politics is an act of power, force and will” [3]. Consequently, the discourse of politics has the same characteristics.
According to critical discourse analysis (CDA) [4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11 and others] there is mutual influence between politics and discourse: the latter can form and change the former, as well as contribute to changes in the situation in the world. Political communication is always ideological, it involves certain instruments to persuade the audience and manipulate it. Irony is regarded as one of such instruments and a feature of the English communicative style [12], which performs different functions in political discourse. It creates emotional background [13; 14], reflects cultural and communicative values [15; 16; 17] and helps the speaker to create maximum effect.

3. Cultural and communicative values

Communicative style that is typical of a certain culture is based on cultural and communicative values and traditions. It is reflected in verbal and non-verbal means used in the process of interaction.
The issue of communicative values is one of the crucial ones for understanding people’s mentality. Being individualistic cultures (unlike Russian, collectivist culture), the British and the Americans have some common communicative values. Nevertheless, there are a number of differences, which are reflected in the language, in particular, in the peculiarities of irony usage.
Among the most important communicative values researches single out individualism (privacy), pragmatism, competition, equality, common sense, positive thinking, tolerance etc. [14; 15; 17; 18]. The priority is held by privacy and equality [18]. American cultural values include practically the same notions, with assertiveness opening the list of priorities (which means “pursue one’s own best interests without denying a partner’s rights” [16, p. 402]), followed by self-confidence and confidence in future. The list of communicative values also includes competition, personal success, independence and aggression [19]. The famous American slogans – “go and get it”, “just do it” – vividly reflect the view on the world and on the role of an individual. The Americans think as positively as the British do, and value equality as well, but they are less modest and, as opposed to the British, unlikely to diminish their personal achievements. While the British tend to use understatement speaking about personal success, the Americans would rather exaggerate it, attracting the attention of the interlocutor / audience to oneself.
Even non-verbal communication has got certain peculiarities in the two cultures: while the British prefer a polite smile, performing the social function of putting other people at their ease, the Americans are famous for a broad self-confident smile, demonstrating good teeth (hence: good dentist, well-being, stability and prosperity).
Linguistic means chosen in the process of communication serve a definite purpose. For the British it is saving face and preserving privacy, which is clearly seen in the strategies of negative politeness [20]. Irony is one of the means realizing this strategy. American irony is more explicit and aggressive and less disguised, which will be illustrated by the examples below.

4. Irony as a characteristics of national communicative style

Since irony is not only a linguistic phenomenon, but a way of perceiving the world, understanding national humour and irony is crucial for fruitful intercultural communication [2]. The identification of irony and its correct interpretation ensure comfortable atmosphere and optimizes interpersonal relations between interlocutors. Irony creates emotional background and divides the listeners into target audience and victims: “irony has an evaluative edge and manages to provoke emotional responses in those who “get” it and those who don’t, as well as in its targets and in what some people call its “victims” [12, p.2]. Despite the fact that irony is inherent for many world languages and cultures, it is a characteristic feature for but a few.
Irony in the British culture is a way of national self-identification, it is a clue to understanding cultural and historic aspect. The British rely on irony and, being devoid of the opportunity to use it (at the funeral, for example) feel helpless [1]. The same cannot be applied to the American communicative culture.

5. The role of irony in political discourse
The language of politics reflects the existing reality, changes together with it and contributes to its formation. Political discourse highlights the peculiarities of social and cultural development. Each turn in political life of a country gives rise to creating new language symbols, such as metaphors and other expressive means [21].
Irony, used in political discourse, makes the recipient re-consider cultural values, leads to active thinking while interpreting it. When used skillfully, irony is an efficient tool to persuade and manipulate, it disguises meanings, accentuates certain features and forms public opinion and taste. In ironic discourse it is very important to take into consideration the personalities of the author and the recipient. The type of irony is directly connected with the level of education of the speaker, his/her social status, political views. It holds true about the recipient as well: it is necessary to take into account his/her character and mood, the degree of intimacy between the interlocutors. The role of emotional and psychological factors is also important [13]. Ignoring any of the prerequisites may lead to misunderstanding and communicative failure. That is why irony is a subtle device, demanding skill and experience especially in political discourse, where misunderstanding might cause major problem.
Irony and politics have much in common. Both are manipulations (irony is the one in language, politics is manipulating public opinion). They both pursue certain aims (irony strives to convey the communicative intention of the author, i.e. to create the necessary effect, while politics is aimed at gaining and withholding power). Further, ironic and political discourse have much in common in terms of functions. The common strategy of dividing into “us” and “them” also unifies irony and politics. So, analyzing irony in political discourse poses great challenges from linguistic, cultural and social point of view.

6. Examples and commentary

The connection of communicative values and irony, its functions and mechanisms, can be analyzed through examples of discourse of modern politicians.
In (1) Boris Johnson, the ex-Mayor of London and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, prevents the possible criticism:
(1) It’s absolutely wonderful to be here in Manchester – one of the few great British cities I have yet to insult [22].
The politician, who is known for his brutal remarks, often comes under criticism, which he is well aware of. Johnson openly admits the fact and uses irony as a preventive measure.
In the interview with David Letterman (2), a well-known showman and journalist, Johnson again relies on irony while answering the question about his chances to be Prime Minister.
(2) Letterman. Is there a possibility of being Prime Minister?
Johnson. I think that is vanishing. I have a much better chance of being reincarnated. [23].
The irony is based on paradox and allows the speaker to save face and avoid discussing the unpleasant subject.
The mockery at political opponents is ironically disguised and demands background knowledge for its interpretation.
(3) Insert joke here, as Jeremy Corbyn would say [24].
The ironic sense of this utterance will be clear only to an addressee, familiar with J. Corbyn’s discourse. Bearing in mind the usual official tone of the Labour party’s leader’s speeches and his inability to joke, the recipient can realize the ironic hint of Boris Johnson.
One of the most articulate British rhetors, David Cameron, uses irony rather skillfully, here in the function of defense.
(4) If you saw me in these pictures of me on the beach this summer in Cornwall you know one thing: I’ve got the stomach for the fight. [25].
D. Cameron uses ironic word play using the collocation “to have stomach” in two senses: direct meaning – “being plump” and figurative meaning – “having power and intention for the fight”.
Irony in the function of attack and mockery is often used in American political discourse to criticize the opponents.
(5) You know I’ve got to talk about Trump. He lacks experience to be president but in fairness he spent years meeting with leaders throughout the world: Miss Sweden, Miss Argentina, Miss Azerbaijan… [26].
In (5) B. Obama accentuates the background information about D. Trump, namely his organizing beauty contests and love affairs with the contestants. It is clear to the public, that the “experience” has nothing to do with politics.
In his turn, D. Trump uses bitter irony speaking about H. Clinton.
(6) This is the first time ever, ever, that Hillary is sitting down, speaking to major corporate leaders and not getting paid for it.
(7) You’ll notice Hillary’s not laughing. That’s because she knows the jokes and all the jokes were given to her before the dinner by Donna Brazile.
(8) It is great to be here with a thousand wonderful people or as I call it “a small intimate dinner with some friends” or as Hillary calls it “her largest crowd of the season” [27].
In (6), (7) and (8) irony is quite explicit: Trump accuses Clinton of corruption and lacking sense of humour. In (8) Clinton is opposed to the speaker himself, having very few people to support her, while Trump’s supporters, according to his statement, are numerous.
Jeb Bush, another candidate in the American presidential race – 2016 is assertive and self-confident:
(9) I will be a Commander-in-Chief to get back in the business of creating a more peaceful world… Please clap! [28].
The call to applaud seems too self-assured, but the irony corresponds to American communicative values.

7. Discussion

These are but a few examples of contemporary political discourse, which can be viewed as bright examples of British and American political discourse. The whole material for the research counts around 100 speeches of 20 political and cultural figures from Great Britain and the USA within the period 2009-2019. The analysis of the speeches proves the hypothesis – irony has national and cultural peculiarities, which have an impact on the functions and mechanisms of ironic utterances and are closely connected with communicative values.

8. Conclusions

The cultures of Great Britain and the USA are individualistic and share such communicative values as equality, positive thinking, pragmatism, competition. Nevertheless for the British culture priority is represented by the concept of privacy, while for the Americans most important is assertiveness and confidence.
Communicative values are reflected in the language and influence the choice of strategies and expressive means. Irony is one of the instruments which is aimed at reaching the communicative intention of the author and performs a number of functions.
Irony has certain peculiarities in British and American political discourse. The research showed that in American political discourse in most cases it conveys criticism, attack, mockery, diminishes the opponent and portrays the speaker himself in a favourable way. British politicians use irony mainly for self-defense, to prevent criticism or close the unpleasant topic. Irony in the British discourse rather optimizes communication than raises contradictions.
The effect of irony in political discourse depends on both parties – the author and the audience and is presupposed by a number of factors, such as cultural, national peculiarities, individual characteristics, background information, social level etc. Irony is a useful device, contributing to the success of communication, in case it is used appropriately and skillfully and interpreted correctly.

9. References
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[22] https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2017/11/13/boris-johnsons-4-best-quotes/.

[23] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Woy_rUyphOY – тYouTube. Mayor of London Boris Johnson on David Letterman. 25.02.2014.

[24] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1n7b8iTbqw – YouTube. Boris Johnson’s rugby scrum joke – BBC News, 6.10.2015.

[25] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdtzjLsaQSI – YouTube. 2013 Tory party conference. PM David Cameron keynote speech, 02.10.2013.

[26] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZZzw1QTy1w – YouTube. Obama’s best 2016 jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, 25.04.2015.

[27] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGgxr4Sxoas – YouTube. Al Smith dinner, 20.10.2016.

[28] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdCYMvaUcrA – YouTube. Jeb Bush: “Please Clap…”, 3.02.2016.

For citation: A. Gornostaeva. Understanding Irony through Communicative Values in the Time of Globalization. Proceedings: Ireland International Conference on Education, Dun Laoghaire, October 22-24, 2019. Published by Infonomics Society, UK and ROI. P.25-28. DOI: 10.2053/IICE.2019.0039. https://www.iicedu.org/iice-proceedings/