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Paraverbal Expression of Verbal Irony: Vocal Cues Matter and Facial Cues Even More

Abstract

Verbal irony is a rhetorical device that is not only verbal but also paraverbal. In the present study, we explored the paraverbal expression of verbal irony which has been largely underinvestigated, especially facial expressions. Given the role played by facial expressions in the detection of emotions, we hypothesized that speakers can communicate irony by facial expression alone. We asked 104 speakers to pronounce the same utterance, sometimes ironically, sometimes not. Naive judges were able to detect which speakers were ironic with increasing accuracy across the following three conditions: prosody only, facial expressions only, and both prosody and facial expressions. We then undertook a systematic description of the utterances, to identify which paraverbal cues induced the highest ironicalness ratings among the judges. Slow speech rate, then expressive movements of the mouth, then eyebrow flashes were the three most influential cues. Overall, facial cues explained more variance than vocal cues. Our results did not support the existence of a single, specific set of paraverbal ironic cues. They did, however, show that speakers routinely produce paraverbal cues, and that these cues, especially facial ones, allow their irony to be detected. The implications for models of irony comprehension are discussed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Hyperbole is another form of figurative language, which involves particular prosodic cues (Aguert et al., 2018).

  2. 2.

    Sarcasm is a subtype of verbal irony intended to criticize, ridicule, or mock the target (Lee & Katz, 1998).

  3. 3.

    An example of the five videos of a nonironic speaker is available in the Supplementary Material online at https://osf.io/tq9sb/

  4. 4.

    It should be noted that some both eyebrows raised episodes also lasted less than 0.5 s, but this was because the episode was cut, either at the beginning or at the end of the video.

  5. 5.

    It is plausible that in this context, irony served as a face-saving strategy, allowing the person to share disappointment with someone else without appearing either bitter or pathetic.

  6. 6.

    When we used these six variables to explain perceived ironicalness in another condition (i.e., not the full one), the results naturally changed. For example, in the eyes hidden condition, gaze direction explained only 2.1% of the variance, and expressive movements of the mouth 20.6%.

  7. 7.

    In this case, addressees probably make assumptions about the context of the utterance to explain the contrast between the utterance and the paraverbal cues.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Aurélie Capel, Louise Cavelier, Johnny Leveneur, Karine Martel, Audrey Harivel, Marie Mecheleare, Jean Poget, Maxime Kwei, and Camille Daubichon, who assisted with the analysis of the corpus.

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Correspondence to Marc Aguert.

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Aguert, M. Paraverbal Expression of Verbal Irony: Vocal Cues Matter and Facial Cues Even More. J Nonverbal Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-021-00385-z

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Keywords

  • Irony
  • Sarcasm
  • Prosody
  • Facial expressions
  • Paralanguage