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Sarcasm, Prosody, adn Breakups

Good luck arguing that was supposed to be a joke.
I sometimes wonder how many “sarcastic” text messages have caused couples to break up since the invention of texting. I’m talking about the ones where the sender sends what they believe to be clear sarcasm, only for their significant other to read it totally straight. The sheer number of these bad jokes that end in a breakup must be astronomical.
The reason this happens, of course, is that it’s much harder to detect sarcasm in a text message than in real life. The sender thinks that sarcasm is just the words being communicated, not realizing how much tone of voice plays a critical role in our built-in sarcasm detectors. This is due to the text’s lack of “prosody”, which is the tonal/rhythmic part of spoken language, as well as the main part of language for communicating sarcasm in English. And prosody is not just for sarcasm, it covers all information communicated during a conversation using tone and cadence rather than the content of the words themselves. It turns simple phrases into punchlines (“That’s what SHE said”), can add sadness/playfulness/anger to an otherwise normal sentence, and so much more.
Think of prosody as your way of expressing how you feel about what you are saying. Your words may express a simple concept, “I’m going to the gym”, but the tone you use can express how you feel about this, such as dreading it because you haven’t been in six month, or resigned to it because you know you need the exercise, or happy because you’ve been sitting at a desk all day.
Without prosody, we’re left to rely on simply the meaning of your words alone, with no clue as to whether you might be saying them facetiously — hence all the sarcastic text messages that turn into breakups. Prosody is also the reason written languages like English or Catalan have punctuation, as it helps express some of the insanely important parts of language that require tone of voice, such as using question marks to show that a phrase is a question. Spoken language doesn’t need punctuation, we use prosody instead to express these things naturally (which we probably got from music).
Whenever I hear someone ranting against text/emoji/meme speak (“Get off my lawn!”), I find it fascinating that nine times out of ten these end up being prosodic. “SMH” (“shaking my head”), the Captain Kirk face palm (for when you are just too embarrassed by someone else’s stupidity), and the upside down smiley face (for sarcasm!), are all there to express a sentiment usually communicated via intonation. And, I have no doubt that they are being introduced because we are simply writing more to each other via text/email/slack/etc than at any time in human history. Perhaps we’ve discovered that our toolkit for written language is a bit lacking.
Prosody is almost never taught when you’re learning a second language, even though it makes learning one so much easier. This is the reason it is literally impossible to learn a language fluently from a book, or to even come close. I’ve seen people try, and the results can end up fairly cringe-worthy, and yet you can learn a language with no class and no books just by immersing yourself somewhere with a lot of native speakers speaking the language you want to learn, and being extra social. Wine, beer, or good coffee can be a big help.
In fact, the best way to learn a language (if immersion is not an option) is to find an actor who is a speaker of that language that you like and get good at imitating them, as if you were an trying to play them in a movie (for Spanish, I highly recommend Antonio Banderas in his many Almodovar movies. Great accent, very fun and intelligible). You don’t need to know a single word of the language, just imitate the tone, cadence, and sound of their voice for a few days while watching their work. Then, when you are good at this, go and actually learn the language from a class/book/duolingo. I guarantee you will pick up the language many, many times faster and your fluency will be through the roof. If you’re interested in how to learn a language more effectively, check out our article “Why Don’t We Teach Language How We Learn Language?”
- Jack Connor