Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sarcasm is the Sweetest Weapon

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "sarcasm" derives from ancient Greek for "to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly." Its first definition is "a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt." Although sarcasts may just intend to be funny, their words can also be very hurtful to the intended target.

Most of the time, when you say something sarcastic, the person that you're speaking to understands your intention. But how? Since they can't .....rely on the words for the message, listeners pick up on other cues. When we say something sarcastic, we often use a very specific tone of voice. Important elements of spoken sarcasm include intonation, or how you vary the pitch of your voice, and stress, or how you emphasize certain words.

Sarcasm exists in many languages other than English; in fact, speakers of many foreign languages even use the same types of indicators that we do in English. Haiman points to examples in Italian, German, Japanese and Mandarin.

So most adults can pick up on these cues to infer sarcasm, but what about children? Researchers disagree on exactly when children begin to infer sarcasm: Some believe that younger children mainly tell sarcasm by the context, while intonation comes into play with older children. Others believe the opposite.

A study of French-speaking children in 2005 showed that the younger children (age 5) understood sarcasm when the speaker used a sarcastic intonation, while the older children (over the age of 7) could tell sarcasm simply by the context [source: Laval]. When children don't successfully interpret a statement as sarcastic, they sometimes interpret it as a lie, especially when the only cue is contextual. As of yet, there is no one age when children understand sarcasm; in some studies, children as young as 3 years old could tell when someone was being sarcastic.
Now I know why she doesn't get the idea!!! hehehe!


Some people, regardless of age, never understand sarcasm. Autistic people, for example, may have difficulty understanding sarcasm because they can't grasp the complex relationship between language, intention and context. Problems with understanding sarcasm may also have to do with lesions in the brain or brain damage.

A 2005 study in Neuropsychology concluded that three areas of the brain are responsible for our understanding of sarcasm: the language cortex in the left hemisphere, the frontal lobes and right hemisphere and the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex. When you hear a sarcastic statement, the language cortex understands its literal meaning. Then the frontal lobes and right hemisphere infer its context. Last, the right ventromedial prefontal cortex put the two together and interprets the statement as sarcasm.




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