Sarcasm In Chinese

When I lived in China, my sarcasm often fell flat.  The Chinese simply don’t use it the same way as Americans do.  They understand irony and satire, but a short, sarcastic comment was often taken literally.  If we were discussing the high violent crime rate in America, and I said, “¡¿Yea, Americans love guns because we love a good shooting!” I would probably be taken seriously regardless of my attempts to give kinesic & prosodic cues.  Sarcasm is certainly used differently in different cultures and I never completely figured out how to use it with the Chinese.   Perhaps sarcasm is different in Chinese partly as a legacy of the Chinese logographic writing system.  Many of the common words in Chinese are pictograms or ideograms that visually represent the word’s meaning.  Thus Chinese can be read with less subvocalization than phonetic writing like English.*  Chinese readers also use subvocalization, but if they do less of it, then they are less likely to need to think about prosodic intonation which is necessary for communicating certain kinds of sarcasm like, “¡¿Riiight!”

It seems that the words for sarcasm in Chinese have a different meaning than in English.  One translation is to ‘ridicule, taunt, mock‘.  Another is ‘satire‘.  But ridicule and satire are completely different concepts from sarcasm.  Ridicule and satire completely lack the kind of prosodic intonation which is necessary for communicating sarcasm.  We don’t need a ridicule punctuation mark nor a satire mark because the words alone are sufficient to communicate the ridicule and/or satire.


*Note: It is a myth that the Chinese do not need to do any subvocalization, but they do use different parts of the brain for reading and there is some reason to think that they may do less subvocalization than readers of phonetic writing systems like English.

Posted in sarcasm

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