Raissa Ellis: Direct and Broad Echo in Verbal Irony. Is Comprehension Affected by the Form of Resemblance?

The relevance theoretic account of irony (Wilson and Sperber 1992) is unique in its reliance on the notion of echo. On the one end of the spectrum, echo is fairly direct and constitutes a repetition of an utterance. On the other end, echo is an interpretation of a thought held by someone else than the speaker at the time of speaking, herein referred to as “broad echo”. The difference in ease of comprehension between direct and broad echo has not been experimentally tested so far, and this study’s objective is to fill this gap. This paper reports the results of an experimental study with a between subject design (N = 60) whose aim was to examine whether the form of resemblance of the echoed content has an influence on irony comprehension. The participants were presented 5 out of 30 randomly selected structurally matching vignettes consisting of an introduction of the context including a sentence later echoed by an ironist, and the ironic remark, which in the directly echoic condition (n=30) consisted of a repetition of phrases from the introduction and in the broadly echoic condition (n=30) shared solely an interpretive resemblance with the echoed content. The study opted for indirect elicitation of irony comprehension: the questions exploited the participants’ metarepresentational ability, which according to Wilson (2000) plays a crucial role in irony processing. After each vignette, the participants answered a truth value judgement question regarding a statement ascribing relevant/irrelevant beliefs to the ironist. It was hypothesized that the participants would be able to achieve equivalent levels of success regardless of whether the echoed content was a direct repetition or was dissimilar in form but shared an interpretive resemblance. The hypothesis was confirmed.

Wilson, D. (2000). Metarepresentation in linguistic communication. In D. Sperber (Ed.). Metarepresentations: A multidisciplinary perspective, pp. 411-48. Oxford University Press

Wilson, D. & Sperber, D. (1992). On verbal irony. Lingua, 87, 53-76.