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View Full Version : Sarcasm in the Orient - Does it exist? How is it expressed?


astro
11-25-2002, 11:02 AM
Sarcasm is such an integral part of the English language I never really considered that it might not exist in the same stylistic or structural form in other languages and cultures. According to a few posters in other threads the western method of expressing sarcasm by stating the opposite of what you feel about a situation with an arch or biting tone to communicate the real intent does not exist or is mis-understood.

ie "Oh yes! That sounds like an [i]excellent[//i] idea.

How do other languages communicate sarcasm, or is sarcasm (as expressed in the English language) really a western linguistic device of languages with Latinate/Germanic origins.

astro
11-25-2002, 11:04 AM
ie "Oh yes! That was an excellent job of previewing.

Yeah
11-25-2002, 04:58 PM
I'd like to see an answer to this from someone who really knows.

What I have noticed living in Asia is that people sometimes say absolutely preposterous things that you can't help but laugh at until you discover that they are deadly serious. (For example, when the electricity went out in Jakarta [population 16,000,000] on a workday afternoon a few years ago causing several hours of havoc, there was no explanation for a few days after which the director of the power company explained that it was a scheduled outage needed for routine maintenance. Another example, many Indonesians say that the U.S. was responsible for killing the 100+ Australian vacationers in the recent Bali bombing. )

Philster
11-25-2002, 05:17 PM
Over in another thread about things expatriates missed: the ability to use sarcasm, especially in Asian countries.

Philster
11-25-2002, 05:19 PM
http://boards.academicpursuits.us/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=146100

Avumede
11-25-2002, 06:21 PM
I asked a woman from China about this a little while ago. She said of course sarcasm exists, and I think she probably thought I was a little daft in thinking that it might not. Glad to see someone else had the same question.

kimera
11-25-2002, 07:18 PM
My asian boyfriend is the most sarcastic person I know. Asian sarcasm is not as "in-your-face" as american sarcasm. I can understand how americans trying to be sarcastic in asian countries would not be able to pull it off, so that might be why some people think asians have no sense of sarcasm.

sailor
11-25-2002, 07:25 PM
Sarcasm, like humor, requires a very intimate knowledge of the language and the culture but I have to say I cannot imagine how anyone would think they are both not existant in every single culture.

jackelope
11-25-2002, 08:26 PM
I was pondering this very thing recently when a Chinese daily paper ran a story (http://wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,53048,00.html) from The Onion verbatim. I can't find the followup, but the editors of the Chinese paper, obviously (and rightly) embarrassed by the situation, issued a correction that said something like, "The Onion makes up stories to get people to read their Web site." I can't recall the exact wording, but it seemed to imply that they still didn't quite get that this was supposed to be funny.

It got me wondering; I've seen many, many Asian movies, spent several years in Asian countries, and known many Asian people (not Asian-Americans, but people raised in Asian cultures), and all seemed to be largely irony-free. The humor in the Asian movies seemed usually to be of the slapstick variety as well--while it's possible the wordplay went over my head, I didn't have the impression that was going on.

Please, no one think I'm saying anything idiotic like "Asians are simpleminded" or something like that. Not at all; I know better. But this is what I've seen. Or rather what I haven't seen is an Asian person making sarcastic or otherwise ironic comments.

Urban Ranger
11-25-2002, 11:25 PM
sailor is correct.

One thing to bear in mind that irony, etc. are a lot harder to convey in a written form. The lack of non-verbal channels makes it hard to create a contrast so the audience knows that the speaker means something other than a literal interpretation of his words.

Grrr!
11-25-2002, 11:32 PM
Holy Crap! I was going to post this very question a couple of days ago but I forgot to do so.

I work around a few Asians that haven't been in the states for too long and every time I try to say something sarcastic; they completely take me like I'm serious.

TheLoadedDog
11-25-2002, 11:47 PM
I have several close Asian friends who are highly intelligent, but, I suspect, weren't really up to speed with the whole sarcasm thing in their home countries, and now, having begun to assimilate into the general Australian culture, are at various points in the process of learning it. Of course, this is great for me as it gives me a whole fresh audience on whom to trundle out tired old one-liners, etc.

It's not just sarcasm, but I suspect humour generally is one of the few human emotions which isn't the same universally. Then again, I've had Asians say to me, "No, I do get the humour in that joke. Honestly. I just don't find it funny." (hey, I've had everyone say that to me. :D ).

But, it is fun introducing people to new humour:

My Vietnamese friend (rummaging through her pockets at the coffee machine): Do you have five cents?

Me: (preparing to play tired old routine not used since school): [looks theatrically through pockets] Yes, I do. Thanks. [cheesy smile]

My Friend: [confused pause] Erm... could I hav... **lightbulb** BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

People learning a new culture seem to be the most interesting case studies for humour.

I've also noticed in Chinese and Vietnamese comedies, whilst they tend to be slapstick (or I'm only getting the slapstick bits), when the fallguy gets knocked out, hit on the head with an anvil etc, he doesn't get up Wile E Coyote style. He just lies there terribly injured, real life style. I look around and see the Asians laughing their heads off, while I'm feeling a bit weirded out by it. These are good, decent people without an ounce of sadism in their makeup. That's something I think I'll never get.

kimera
11-26-2002, 12:22 AM
Asians do a lot more "word-play" then we do here. I know tons of japanese dirty jokes based on puns. Obviously, most of this does not carry over into english. My boyfriend is currently asleep, or I would have him post, because he is a great master of sarcasm and satire, one of the best I've ever met.

Urban Ranger
11-26-2002, 12:58 AM
Originally posted by TheLoadedDog
It's not just sarcasm, but I suspect humour generally is one of the few human emotions which isn't the same universally.

I disagree.

Irony, humour, etc. are language dependent. That is, something ironic in Chinese can't be directly translated into English for the same effect, and vice versa.

Just because somebody can't do it in English doesn't mean he can't do it in his own native tongue.

astro
11-26-2002, 12:54 PM
Getting opinions on both sides of the issue.

If (as some claim) Asian languages heartily embrace the concept of sarcasm, how specifically do Asian people(s) express sarcasm with respect to word use / linguistic structure, or is western style sarcasm not the same conceptual animal as asian style sarcasm?

kasuo
11-26-2002, 01:09 PM
Originally posted by TheLoadedDog
I've also noticed in Chinese and Vietnamese comedies, whilst they tend to be slapstick (or I'm only getting the slapstick bits), when the fallguy gets knocked out, hit on the head with an anvil etc, he doesn't get up Wile E Coyote style. He just lies there terribly injured, real life style. I look around and see the Asians laughing their heads off, while I'm feeling a bit weirded out by it.

Hey, that seems kinda funny. Although this looks more like one of the types of comedy where people laugh at other people's misfortune.

China Guy
11-27-2002, 06:44 AM
Jesus h christ, Asians can be incredibly, bitingly sarcastic. Just cause they don't get the joke in English doesn't mean they don't get the joke in their native language. Actually, my Japanese skills are not really good enough to pick up on sarcasm. Nonetheless, my Chinese skills are, and this is an acerbic group. I'm pretty dang sarcastic myself, and my Chinese counterparts just howl when they figure out I'm being sarcastic rather than dense or saying the "wrong" word.

F. U. Shakespeare
11-27-2002, 08:04 AM
A colleague of mine was born in Hong Kong and emigrated to the US when he was six. He is Ivy-league educated, and his English is better than that of most native-born Americans (he also speaks five other languages besides English and Chinese).

For years, he and I have repeatedly disagreed over his contention that sarcasm is a bad, unclear form of communication.

Admittedly, it may be that his definition of sarcasm differs from mine: he understands and enjoys what he calls 'irony'.

Without getting into a big bruising debate on the formal distinction thereof, his take is roughly this:
_____________
'Irony' example:

A: "That's a nice piece. Who wrote it?"
B: "Johann Sebastian Bach".
A: "Oh. I think I've heard of him".
________________

'Sarcasm' example:

A: "If this stock rises like it did last year, I'll be able to retire
in January!"
B: "Oh, I'm REALLY sure that's gonna happen".
______________________________________

What he disdains as sarcasm seems to have a mindless, combative, spiteful element in the exchange.

Anyone else fit this description?

Eidolon909
11-27-2002, 08:11 AM
Ex-Pat in Korea...

Koreans know what sarcasm is, they just don't use it, not in their humour or in personal situations. Because its false sincerity and thats generally not considered a nice thing.

My S.O. is korean, completely fluent in english and I'm incredibly sarcastic. She has trouble picking up on my sarcasm sometimes and its lead to a few fights because she thought I was being sincere.

Koreans, in my experience, tend to find more humour in mocking things and alot of their movie comedies are full of slap-stick.

jovan
11-27-2002, 08:12 AM
Originally posted by astro
Getting opinions on both sides of the issue.

If (as some claim) Asian languages heartily embrace the concept of sarcasm, how specifically do Asian people(s) express sarcasm with respect to word use / linguistic structure, or is western style sarcasm not the same conceptual animal as asian style sarcasm?

Since I was the first, in the linked thread, to mention that I missed sarcasm, I'll give it a stab.

Certainly, sarcasm exists in Asia. However, Japanese, Korean and Cantonese cultures are very different animals and IMV, asking about sarcasm in Asia is like asking about wordplay in Europe.

I wouldn't say that Japanese culture heartily embraces sarcasm. It's used and understood but certainly not to the degree that it is elsewhere. Within Japan itself, the popularity of sarcasm varies from region to region. People from Osaka have a reputation for being more sarcastic, for instance.

Sarcasm relies a lot on cultural expectations and values. If I say to anyone who knows me, "Britney Spears, like, totally rocks", they are likely to get the sarcasm because they would never expect this statement to be true. However, a total stranger is likely to see this as an honest opinion. The problem when dealing with foreigners and foreign cultures is that there is a lot of prerequisite cultural knowledge that is lacking. IMV, that's a factor in people buying Onion stories at face value.

Traditionally, Kyoto was Japan's cultural capital, while Edo (Tokyo) was the political and military center. As a result, Kyotoites usually were seen as valuing learning and culture, while in Tokyo, achievement, social and economical success was viewed highly. As a result, many statements that would have been compliments in Edo, turn out to be sarcastic and veiled insults in Kyoto.

There's also the problem of what is meant by sarcasm. In Japanese, both sarcasm and irony are translated by hiniku. If someone says that someone with a terrible, broken accent "speaks Japanese well", everyone probably will understand that it's not meant to be taken litterally; what is probably really meant is "good try, study some more". However, in my experience, what does not pass so well is Simpson's type hiniku.

So when I say that I miss sarcasm, I really mean that I miss my mom's sarcasm, and I miss having it every day.

OxyMoron
11-27-2002, 10:01 AM
I'm not sure if I buy all of what Jovan's saying about the regional differences - I never quite got to fluent so I'm not quite able to judge - but in my experience, Japanese can be riotously funny with marvelous puns and biting wit. (It can also be shockingly crude: fart jokes were a staple of family-hour cartoons.)

The real problem is that verbal humor requires cultural context and translates poorly. For example, one of my favorite books in Japanese is Wagahai wa neko de aru. The only way to translate that literally into English is "I am a cat." Which isn't funny at all. In Japanese, it's clear that the cat is expressing itself with incredible hauteur (actually, since it's a cat it's perfectly credible, but I digress) - a pale approximation might be "We are a cat." But that still doesn't get it across.

That's why the English-language comedies that do well abroad are usually those that are very physical: pratfalls are universally funny.

I will also venture that Japanese (and, I think, many other East Asians) are rather more acutely afraid of embarrassment than Westerners. One thing I found in teaching in Japanese schools is that pranks are almost never meant to be just funny - they're malicious. Not something friends do to one another. So playing a joke on Japanese person - even a mild one meant only affectionately - can come across as bewilderingly nasty.

Nametag
11-27-2002, 01:06 PM
An interesting point from F. U. Shakespeare; the friend from Hong Kong has it just about right.

Irony is a form of humor in which one says the opposite of what one means (rhetorical irony; the other forms are not relevant here). That's it. If I walk outside and say "what rotten weather!" and it's 72 and sunny, that's irony. Irony is distinguished from sarcasm by its lack of meanness.

Sarcasm is basically the same as irony, but it bites. It hurts. It's mean. It's from Greek for "to tear flesh." You do it to hurt people, unless you're so close that you know it won't hurt.

It seems to me that there's a cultural expectation in Japan and China that people won't be inappropriately sarcastic, and they give what they see as the benefit of the doubt by assuming that the sarcastic westerner is serious.

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