Sarcasm in different languages

by Piper Perry

Sarcasm is a figure of speech, designed to express wit, ridicule, taunt, etc., which is often distinguished by changes in voice and largely depends on the context. There seem to be two polar approaches to sarcasm in the modern society: some find it funny and try to implement more of it into their everyday lives, while others see it as outrageous and hurtful.

Recent study in neuropsychology by researchers from University of California, San Francisco, has shown that the ability to grasp sarcasm is natural for human beings and was gained during the evolutionary process. It is proven that, as a part of social communication, people unconsciously keep track of all their interpersonal interactions, both positive and negative. For example, one would immediately remember a rendered favor and an act of kindness, same as an insult or any inappropriate behavior. Sarcasm is fascinating with it’s possible application in either situations. In other words, at times sarcasm is used as a friendly irony, but in others, it is a verbal expression of hostility and contempt, aimed to mock in a rude manner.

Another thing why sarcasm is peculiar is that some people just don’t get it. Researchers say that people who do not get sarcasm have some damage in their parahippocampal gyrus, which is situated in the right brain; however, it is not the only brain zone that is responsible for picking up jokes and sarcasm. [More details] Understanding sarcasm leads to boosting creative thinking, as it involves both brain hemispheres to process it. At the same time, the approximate age when people start sensing sarcasm is about 4-5 years. Thus, sarcasm is not something that can be gained in the process of education, but more of a congenital ability.

Moreover, some people try to connect using and understanding sarcasm to national features. Such assumption is plausible, as it is known that there are differences in national humor, therefore, sarcasm, as the dark side of humor, could vary too. Some say that sarcasm is more common for western culture, but Asian residents rush to reassure them: they are eager to respond with witty comebacks just like any other people. However, there are some noticeable differences in types of humor that different nations prefer. For example, Americans are known for pranks and practical jokes, UK citizens are fond of black humor, Japanese are deeply fascinated by puns and word games. National sense of humor greatly depends on shared knowledge, such as common language and idioms. It is not surprising, as humor is a well-known tool for bonding and bringing people together, though at times it happens at the expense of denigrating other social groups. Likewise, most nations have some other preferred nation to make fun of, for instance, American joke at Canadians, French poke fun at United Kingdom, Russians laugh at Estonians, etc.

Sarcasm was a popular object for research over the last couple of decades. One of the studies involved surveying students from Israeli college and comparing their answers to those from scholars of America and Singapore. The results have shown that Americans are more likely to tell sex jokes, whereas Singaporean humor is often based on assaults. This phenomenon can be explained by the difference in what is accepted and what is praised in these cultures.

Another research involved Taiwanese and Japanese students. They were offered a questionnaire to find out their attitude towards English anecdotes. As a result, Taiwanese students took more pleasure in comprehending these jokes, and have shown more enthusiasm in trying to understand the inexplicable ones. Such results can be explained by the fact that Japan has an overall more conservative culture.

Sarcasm appreciation can differ within one country as well, and, what’s even more remarkable, can depend on gender too. This is substantiated with data, gathered in a research that was held in the USA. As it turns out, only 35% of Southerners enjoy sarcastic jokes, compared to 56% of Northerners. Moreover, men, from either regions, found themselves more sarcastic than women did.

But if sarcasm exists in every culture and language, how come there are still plenty of people who do not understand it? Unfortunately, teaching humor, as well as sarcasm is near to impossible. The thing is, that it is way too often that it is not the words that make an expression sarcastic, but the way they are said. What makes it even more complicated is that there is no particular tone of voice that would make a phase sarcastic. John Haiman, a linguist from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of “Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language” lists more than two dozens of different ways how sarcasm can be denoted in spoken and written language. Sometimes it involves specific mimics, mostly concentrated around person’s mouth, which typically indicates insincerity. Facial expressions around the eyes and eyebrows are less likely to indicate sarcasm, however people tend to avoid direct eye contact when saying something sarcastic. To make matters worse, there is one more method of sarcasm delivery, which implies a “blanc face” and a nonchalant manner of talk.

To sum up, sarcasm is a multicultural phenomenon, which, as a figurative way of speech, exists in any language. Due to different levels of conservatism, prudence and hierarchic traditions, it is more or less tolerated around the world. Nevertheless, understanding and using sarcasm is not connected to any particular language, therefore, whoever understands it in native language, is very much likely to perceive it in a foreign language too.

About the writing

Piper Perry, major in Mass Communication and Public Relations. Essay writer for


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