October 29, 2003

Scalar inversion and the unique cephalopod of negation

I sent a query about "reverse sarcasm" to Larry Horn, figuring that he would have worked on this or related things at some point.

I was right:

Thanks for the blog. I've written about similar data, in Chapter 5 of my Natural History of Negation, basically along the same lines Ellen invokes here. The imbalance in the use of irony/sarcasm here is very similar to the asymmetries that show up with negation: we often deny a positive to convey a negative (the rhetorical figure of litotes), as when as I say ""I'm not optimistic they'll resolve the problem" to mean that I'm pretty pessimistic about it but not vice versa, or "I don't like X" to mean I actively dislike it (while "I don't dislike it" is more of a straight contradictory negation), since there's no cultural taboo against providing positive evaluations the way there is with negative ones. (In certain cases involving something like the knock-on-wood taboo, there is, whence the positive connotations of "not bad!") In that chapter, I trace the recognition of this asymmetry back to the late 19th century Romance philologist Adolf Tobler, who recognized that the irony in examples parallel to "You spent two days in Monterey? How awful for you!" (e.g. "I don't hate you" as a passionate declaration of love) is more indirect and self-conscious than that in the characteristic negative strengthening that yields the contrary (as opposed to contradictory) readings of e.g. "I don't like it" or "I don't believe that p". I also treat the asymmetry in negative prefixation (unhappy vs. *unsad, unkind vs. *uncruel) as a similar phenomenon, albeit with a higher degree of conventionalization than in the simple litotic or neg-raising contexts. In a real sense this all involves an application of the "politeness" dimension that Ellen associated with neg-raising back in her '76 Language paper, when we were all so much younger.

So go buy A Natural History of Negation, from which you can learn all about such things! I just did. My (inadequate) excuse for not owning it already is that I'm just a poor simple phonetician, who has strayed into these deep interpretive waters only because an undergraduate poked holes in my classroom example of "speaker meaning".

["P.S. Barnes & Noble seems to have gotten its reviews jumbled up a bit, so that the discussion of Larry's book begins "An exquisite natural history of this unique cephalopod ..." What a heart-warming, if accidental, affirmation of the fundamental unity of rational inquiry.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 29, 2003 11:12 AM