Jul 192010


I’ve just read here that researchers have devised an algorithm that can detect irony in long texts. Wow! Robots can detect sarcasm!

Apparently they ‘trained’ the algorithm by giving it a long list of sarcastic phrases from Amazon product reviews. Now were they detecting British or US sarcasm, I wonder?

‘Sarcasm’ is a tricky concept for a Brit in the US. Popular wisdom amongst Brits is Americans don’t get it, and popular wisdom amongst Americans is it’s ‘bad’. Yet I seem to find myself surrounded by it here. So I thought I’d stick my neck out and have a stab at describing what I think it might mean in the two varieties. I’m still learning, so Brits and Americans, please put me right if you think I’m off target.

In BrE, I think we generally describe remarks as ‘sarcastic’ when we’re saying the opposite of what we mean e.g. ‘Wow, that’s a surprise’ when something was very predictable, or ‘Nice weather, eh?’ when it’s pouring with rain, or ‘Punctual, as always.’ when someone who always comes late finally arrives. So sarcasm can be either nice (a funny joke) or nasty (an unkind remark) but some element of ‘saying the opposite of what you mean’ needs to be involved for something to be labeled sarcastic.

Take a tour round some American websites like this one or this one and you’ll find remarks that wouldn’t qualify as sarcastic in this BrE sense. Nevertheless they’ve been labeled ‘sarcastic’ by American writers. So ‘sarcastic’ seems to be used to describe a wider variety of remarks in AmE– some saying the opposite of what’s meant, but many not. Depending on context, sarcastic seems to mean something closer to ‘unkind’, ‘insulting’ or simply ‘funny or amusing’ here.

Now fellow Brits, I need your help with this – am I defining British ‘sarcasm’ too tightly above? Are there BrE ‘sarcastic’ remarks that don’t fit the ‘saying the opposite of what’s meant’ rule?

And consider this example:

Bill Bryson tells a story of a return to the US after he’d been living in the UK for many years. I can’t remember it exactly, but as I recall the agriculture police guy asked ‘Any fruit or vegetables, sir?’ and he quipped back something like ‘OK, I’ll have half a pound of carrots and a couple of pounds of potatoes.’

Could you describe Bill’s quip as sarcastic there? And Americans, what do you think?

 Posted by at 10:39 pm
Jul 082010

I recently wrote about ‘What is pragmatics?’, but perhaps it’s best explained by what it isn’t. I think pragmatics is probably why this conversation doesn’t work. But what makes it go awry – or more specifically, what is it that this robot can’t do?

Click here to watch the video and enjoy!


I made such a poor job of this post the first time, I thought I’d better add a big PS and have another go!

A lot of the meanings we transmit and receive in conversation are hidden or secret because they’re not decipherable from the just words we use. They get transferred via context and shared understandings about what’s relevant and appropriate. Grammar and semantics are important –

really important – but they have their limits. And a great place to see where the limits lie is robots.

By robots I mean the answerphone machines that greet us and try to decipher where to route us when we call large companies, and the avatars we meet around the web like IKEA’s Anna, and robots like the one in the video above. These robots often have us pulling our hair out, crying out for an ‘agent’, ‘operator’, representative’, ‘human being’ or whatever. But actually, if you think about it, human beings often have us pulling our hair out too.

And robots are getting pretty sophisticated these days, Speech recognition software has come on a bundle and a lot of grammar and semantics is programmable. But while they can recognize the words, they only work up to a point. I reckon they have mostly been programmed for grammar and semantics – because they are the easy things to program. If they aren’t programmed to grasp the hidden meanings we work with, they’ll never pass the Turing test. Use a metaphor, for example, and things are likely to go caput.

So I was thinking that’s what pragmatics is about: the study of the secret meanings. And so what pragmatics isn’t about is the study of the stuff that that robot in the video has been programmed with.

 Posted by at 5:53 am
Jul 022010


Pragmatics is a relatively young branch of linguistics and basically it’s about the way we get meaning from context to understand people’s intentions – or not, of course – but it’s not a simple thing to define.

George Yule memorably described it as the study of ‘invisible meaning’ because it’s not about the meanings we get from syntax or semantics. It’s more about the relationship between the linguistic forms and the users of the language. So anyway, I chuckled when I read Laine Cole’s anecdote over at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog (where they have just started running an American English month – very exciting!) She has illustrated it perfectly. Laine grew up in South Africa and her story goes thus:

I once shared an office with two Britons and an American. We all started work at more or less the same time and we were all just getting to know each other. One day my new American friend took me aside and said: ‘Do you understand what those two are saying when they speak?’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘But maybe it’s because I’m more used to the British accent’. ‘No’, he said. ‘It’s not their accent. It’s that they don’t seem to say what they mean’.

Ha! No wonder learning to speak ‘merican is hard for this Brit. And it reminded me of my favourite definition of pragmatics. I’m afraid I’ve no idea where it comes from, but it goes:


Many thanks to Macmillan Dictionary Blog for the anecdote and also for including my guest post on ‘The trickiest word in American’ today

 Posted by at 12:56 am
Jun 242010

Click here to link to a great article on Japanese apologies (along with some teaching ideas at the bottom) by Darren Lingley. He writes about the 2001 Ehime Maru tragedy where a  Japanese fisheries high school training boat was sunk when a US Navy submarine surfaced in a training maneuver. Nine people, including students, were killed. The bereaved Japanese families expected an immediate apology (a clear public expression of contrition) from the US captain, along with a full acknowledgement of responsibility. The captain, constrained by an ongoing Navy investigation and legal liability issues, was silent for a long time, then sent a sent a letter to the families expressing ‘sincere regret’. It was felt to be totally inadequate. No doubt he was acting under the instructions of lawyers, but lawyers can get in the way of apologies.

Darren’s paper includes this summary of some key cultural differences between Japan and the US.

I’d be interested to know what others think, but reckon an important one to point out when we’re teaching ‘apologising’  in a Japanese classroom is the way we tend to offer accounts and explanations in AmE (and BrE). From another perspective, they can be seen as insincere excuses and attempts to deny culpability.

Another interesting one that’s only lightly touched on above is body language. If you’re apologising, what impression does it give if you smile? Here’s an interesting explanation of what might  lie behind it, written by  Chie Iryo, a Japanese writer:

Recently I read some books that treat the differences between English Culture and Japanese. The books treat the mystery of the Japanese smile. They say foreigners think it is very strange...  Now, I will explain to you about it.

When do you think a person smiles? I think when he is happy, he does. When he is sad, he doesn’t. Anyway when a person is happy he smiles. But Japanese have some exceptions. If you made a mistake, what do you do? Do you change color or make an excuse and tremble? In general, we Japanese smile. But we are not happy but very shameful. Then we smile bitterly. Why? For Japanese don’t like to express their feelings. We tend to think to express our feelings is shameful. If foreigners know our weak points, we think as if we are weaker than they. So we smile to cover our shame.

Has anyone else encountered this? I wonder if we might do something similar sometimes in BrE as well when we’re embarrassed. Any thoughts?

Some other posts on apologies:

Sorry, I’m English

A Thai apology

A British apology

 Posted by at 2:35 pm
Jun 192010

The British BP CEO, Tony Hayward, fast became the most hated man in America when he said he wanted to stop the spill so he could ‘get his life back’. Relatives of the eleven people who died would have liked their lives back too. He later apologized for the remark, but with oil rushing into the Gulf, whinging about wanting more free time was unforgiveable. Interestingly the late night talk show host David Letterman commented that ‘The British accent makes it sound worse’. I think the accent probably conveyed elitism.

And it wasn’t Tony Hayward’s only gaffe. Others included saying that the spill wasn’t going to cause big problems because ‘The gulf is a very big ocean’ and ‘the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.’ (Did he really not foresee the problems or did he think we were idiots?) The bungled attempts to plug the pipe added to the fury and gave rise to this youtube hit.

Lamar McKay, the BP America chief has fared better in the press, but his repeated insistence that BP would pay ‘all legitimate claims’ has irked. No doubt his lawyers insisted on that wording, but why use that qualifier ‘legitimate’ unless you plan to contest claims?

And then there’s the BP Swedish Chairman, Carl Henric Svanberg who said, ‘We care about all the small people’. So the people who have lost their livelihood from this mess are ‘small’? That gaffe seems to have been forgiven though because people recognized that English wasn’t his first language.

Americans are bound to be less lenient with Tony Hayward. Whether it’s true or not, it’s presumed that we all speak the same language and share a common understanding of what constitutes a sincere apology and appropriate response.

In the UK Tony Hayward earnt a reputation of being blunt, down to earth and energetic, qualities that I’d expect to be admired here too. But words without actions destroy trust. As the New York Daily News put it:

When the crisis began, Hayward seemed surefooted. He relocated to a Ramada Inn in Louisiana and publicly took “full responsibility” for the disaster. But then he began minimizing the illness of cleanup workers and the environmental cost of the spill, denied there were any underwater oil plumes and started to look increasingly arrogant.

An article from the (British) Times interprets it thus:

“Ultimately this has been as big a public relations disaster for BP as it has been an environmental catastrophe for the Gulf,” said a well-connected source. “When America was crying out for the cool assurance and go-do-it of Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 they got bumbling Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

I love the analogy, and Americans certainly wanted action, but what’s probably missing from that British description is the charge of arrogance.

When I watch interviews with Tony Hayward, and his demeanour in the video of the congressional hearing below, there are occasions when he strikes me as lacking in humility. I also wonder if what might be interpreted as an embarrassed smile sometimes in the UK could be interpreted as a smirk in the US. Seriousity is an American behaviour and an appropriate behaviour for a congressional hearing on a grave issue. But I don’t think we ‘do’ seriousity in the UK. I’d be interested to know how other folks interpret it.

An update

American impressions of elitism are being confirmed as news outlets report that Tony Hayward is at the Isle of Wight today watching his 52-foot yacht “Bob” participate in the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race.
“He’s spending a few hours with his family at a weekend. I’m sure that everyone would understand that,” said Robert Wine, a BP company spokesperson.

Ha! I think not!

 Posted by at 12:44 pm