People hold strong feelings about the meanings of irony and sarcasm. Just look at the reaction to Alanis Morissette’s global hit ‘ironic’ – despite commercial success, the apparent misunderstanding of irony conveyed by the song provoked a chorus of derision (at least everyone agreed that this state of affairs was ironic). So I’d say it’s with some courage that Melanie Glenwright and Penny Pexman have chosen to investigate the tricky issue of when exactly children learn the distinction between sarcasm and irony. Their finding is that nine- to ten-year-olds can tell the difference, although they can’t yet explicitly explain it. Four- to five-year-olds, by contrast, understand that sarcasm and irony are non-literal forms of language, but they can’t tell the difference between the two.
So that we’re all on the same page, here’s what Glenwright and Pexman recognise as the distinction between sarcasm and irony. In both cases the speaker says the opposite of what they mean, but whereas an ironic statement is aimed at a situation, a sarcastic remark is aimed at a person and is therefore more cutting.
Glenwright and Pexman presented five- to six-year-olds and nine- to ten-year-olds with puppet show scenarios that ended with one of the characters making a critical remark. This remark could be literal, aimed at a person or situation, or it could non-literal, again aimed either at a person (i.e. sarcastic) or situation (i.e. ironic). To illustrate: two puppets are playing on a trampoline, one falls on his face. ‘Great trampoline tricks,’ the other character says, sarcastically. Contrast this with two puppets playing on a saggy trampoline with little bounce. One of them says ‘great trampoline’, an ironic remark.
To gauge the children’s depth of understanding, the researchers asked them to rate how mean the utterances were (using a sliding scale of smiley to miserable faces) and asked them which character they most identified with – the idea being that in instances of sarcasm they would, out of sympathy, identify more with the target of that sarcasm.
The children’s responses showed that both age groups recognised the non-literal utterances as intending to mean the opposite of what was said. However, only the older age group showed a sensitivity to the difference between irony and sarcasm. They, but not the younger children, rated sarcastic utterances as meaner and were more likely to identify with the target of sarcasm, presumably out of sympathy. The older children’s comprehension was not complete, though. In open-ended questioning they were unable to explain their differential response to sarcasm and irony.
‘By nine to ten years of age, children’s sensitivity to the distinction between sarcasm and verbal irony highlights their impressive understanding of how people’s feelings are affected by others’ speech …’ the researchers said. ‘We investigated one distinction here, but there are other non-literal forms that should be examined, such as understatement and hyperbole.’
Glenwright M, & Pexman PM (2010). Development of children’s ability to distinguish sarcasm and verbal irony*. Journal of child language, 37 (2), 429-51 PMID: 19523264