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Humor, sarcasm vary among world languages on campus

September 26, 2012

In countries such as the U.S., in-laws can be a common butt of ridicule.

But to students of other countries, making a joke about someone’s mother-in-law might be completely unacceptable.

As many international students begin to adapt to life at MSU, some encounter difficulty while learning to master sarcasm and irony in the English language.

Paula Winke, assistant professor in the linguistics department, said certain languages come more easily to new learners because of similarities in each language’s culture.

“It may seem easier for a native speaker of English to learn, for example, Spanish, and more difficult for him or her to learn Chinese,” Winke said.

For mechanical engineering freshman Karttikeya Bihani, English sarcasm was not always easy to grasp, despite having learned English alongside his first language, Hindi.

“I have picked up the English sarcasm and irony … when I started growing old and communicating and watching a lot of American films and TV shows,” Bihani said. “Now, I’m totally aware of it.”
Around 1580, a backward question mark was suggested to denote sarcasm or irony when written, but Winke said she thinks an understanding of a different culture’s humor depends entirely on the context.

“In English, we express irony or sarcasm through intonation or, more often, we expect the listener to understand our sarcastic or ironic remark because of the context and shared, prior experiences,” she said.

Marcin Morzycki, associate professor of linguistics, said a punctuation mark to denote sarcasm would be beneficial.

“The closer we can get to a writing system that does justice to (intonation), the better,” Morzycki said.

“Anything that would cause me to receive fewer emails with smileys in them would be a lovely innovation.”

Biochemistry and molecular biology/biotechnology senior Nazrul Nazaruddin said irony and sarcasm exist in his home country of Malaysia, but he does not think a punctuation symbol to denote sarcasm would help non-English speakers too much.

“The best way to overcome (a) language barrier is (to) mingle with (a) native speaker and always communicate using English,” he said.

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