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Example of irony (such as: "I can't afford a real shield")

Irony ( ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía , literally "pretense, pretense") initially describes a rhetorical figure (also referred to as rhetorical irony or instrumental irony). In doing so, the speaker asserts something that does not correspond to his or her true attitude or conviction, but lets them shine through in whole or in part for a certain audience. It can serve to distance oneself from the quoted attitudes or to turn them against the addressed persons with a polemical intention.

Since the end of the 18th century, irony has also referred to a literary-philosophical attitude ( romantic irony ) in which the work of art seems to represent its own development process.

In addition, irony is used for sequences of events where intent and chance are related in a particular way (either anticipatory or antagonistic). There is also talk of “irony of fate”, “irony of history” or “irony of life” ( objective ironies ).

Rhetorical irony

The simplest form of rhetorical irony is to say the opposite of what you mean. In order to prevent misunderstandings, irony can be accompanied by so-called irony signals (facial expressions, gestures, emphasis, quotation marks, etc.), which allow the listener to recognize that the speaker does not want what is being said to be understood literally, but ironically.

As a rule, the understanding of irony is based on the fact that the speaker and the listener know that they share certain convictions, one also speaks of "shared knowledge". The ironic utterance apparently violates the common knowledge: the speaker violates the listener's expectation that common knowledge will be observed. The theory of conversational implicatures by Paul Grice is used as a theoretical model for explaining the deciphering of the ironic utterance . This theory provides criteria for discovery, but no indication of the function of irony.

In linguistics , this function is discussed as assessment communication. The ironic utterance indirectly brings up evaluations that are linked to the content of the shared knowledge. Why irony does not express the intended evaluation directly, but indirectly, has not yet been conclusively clarified. Several approaches are currently being pursued in parallel: the display of an assessment gap between what is happening and what is meant, or the communication of additional relationship messages. In this way, irony can communicate consensuality on the relationship level by basically confirming a shared value, but taking it back in the concrete situation for the sake of the other. The ironic speaking shows through the ironic indirectness that he assesses the ironically criticized as understandable and he can dispense with direct criticism. Although irony is assessment communication, the assessments in question do not have to be shared by the speaker and listener. To understand the irony, it is sufficient for both of you to understand the other's assessment.

The successful use of irony testifies not only to the successful reflection of one's own knowledge, but also to the successful recognition of the knowledge of the other person and is therefore an expression of the ability to anticipate and reflect on the thoughts of the other. In the discourse, this expression of intellectual superiority is partially functionalized again. In hierarchical situations, e.g. B. lecturer-student, one speaks in this context of the "irony right", which almost without exception belongs to the higher-ranking communication partner.

Examples of irony

  • A dropped a pile of dishes. Then B says: “You do it great!” - The shared knowledge in this case is that both A and B know that dropping a pile of dishes is by no means commendable. When B utters an alleged praise, he apparently ignores this knowledge. The detection of the adjustment is based on the fact that the listener also knows this and also knows that the speaker knows this.
  • A family man reprimands spending money with the statement: "We have it." - The father assumes that the child knows about the limited financial resources of the family. Both must have this common knowledge.
  • A common definition is that irony is the opposite of meaning what has been said. That sums up the essence of irony too narrowly. One example is a well-dressed politician who is ironically commented in one sentence: “He is always extremely well dressed.” By omitting further evaluations, the question arises as to why the politically important skills are not addressed. What can be meant is a perceived incompetence or lack of profile, at least not the direct opposite - the politician is actually always extremely well dressed.

Understanding model

The ironic utterance violates shared knowledge, which the speaker and addressee know about. In the second example above, both father and child must assume that the family's financial resources are limited. The father's statement "We have it" is wrong in their eyes. Since the child knows that the father knows that he also believes this, he cannot assume that the father is wrong or lies, but must believe that he is saying something wrong on purpose without wishing to deceive. From his point of view, what has been said violates Grice's conversation maxim of quality, “Try to deliver a contribution to the conversation that is true”. Since, according to the principle of cooperation, the child assumes that the father wants to communicate something to him and thereby builds on the child's knowledge, the child now tries to construct a meaning. To do this, it has to form an implicature , so that the statements made with this tapped meaning satisfy the conversation maxims. According to Grice's communication model , this happens when the listener tries to find out the speaker's intention associated with the utterance .

What purpose does the father have towards the child if he intentionally says the wrong thing? By realizing that the statement was untrue, the child had to realize that the family's financial resources are limited. Now the child activates further world knowledge, e.g. B. “You mustn't make any unnecessary expenses” or “Fathers raise their children, etc. a. to thrift ”. From this knowledge of the world, the child now recognizes the father's intention to point out to the child that one should generally not make any unnecessary expenses, even if this has happened in this individual case. It feels admonished to avoid such expenses in the future and has thus opened up what was meant ironically.

Failure of irony in the understanding model

The understanding model is multi-level and at each level there are possible causes for the failure of the irony, the misunderstanding of the ironic utterance.

  • The knowledge base is not divided : If, for example, the child incorrectly assumes that the family is rich, if the father had made a mistake, communication would have failed because, from the child's point of view, the father would have violated the maxim of quantity , that from this point of view the statement does not contain any new information. So the child would try to make sense of the father saying something self-evident. In any case, this would not be the ironic meaning, in the event that the construction of a meaning fails, the child would simply understand “station”.
  • The addressee does not know about the shared nature of knowledge : If, for example, the child knew from the mother about the limited financial resources, and that the father often pretended to be rich, the child would assume that the It lies to father to appear rich in front of the child.
  • The child is not (yet) able to construct the father's intention: If the child has recognized that the father intentionally said something wrong, the child must try to recognize the intention behind the utterance according to the above model. For example, if the child does not yet have sufficient knowledge of the world, for example if a child has only ever seen the money come out of the ATM, it does not yet know that you are not making any unnecessary expenses, etc., then it cannot yet develop the right intention or recognize. For example, it would mean instead that the father was joking. The child is not yet capable of irony , as it is not yet able to recognize complex speaker intentions .

Twice the irony

Double irony is understood to mean the apparent use of the stylistic device of irony, but what has been said then applies literally. The listener therefore initially assumes irony, but is then taught better based on logic and first reacts with confusion and then with understanding, which in general reinforces the effect of the irony even more. In the case of double irony, one usually uses an already ironic statement and presents it as completely natural in order to then translate it into the opposite again. The listener is forced to reformulate the sentence twice in order to get to the real meaning, which is not always easy.

Socratic irony

When Socratic irony is often referred to a small adjustment-making (it plays dumb) by which superior wähnenden interlocutor to lure them into the trap, to instruct him or to make him think. What is meant here is a real disguise that, in contrast to rhetorical irony, does not necessarily want to be recognized as a disguise. This ironic concept corresponds to the meaning at the time of Socrates 'and also of Aristotle'. It was only with the development of rhetoric that the term irony got its current meaning. In antiquity, the use of irony was considered a real disguise and was also morally reprehensible. Socrates called his way of conducting a conversation as the art of midwifery ( Maeutics ). The Socratic irony, however, is a misinterpretation from outside, e.g. B. from the point of view of Alcibiades in Plato's symposium , and no description of Socrates' true attitude. In fact, Socrates did not pretend; he was convinced of his ignorance (for further discussion of the question of “pretending” versus “genuine ignorance” → Socrates: section on the meaning and method of Socratic dialogues ). The philosopher is not a sage, he strives for wisdom. In everyday language usage, however, the term Socratic irony mostly refers to a genuine disguise that makes itself smaller.

Objective ironies and ironists

At the beginning of the 19th century, in connection with the discussion about romantic irony, objective irony was developed as a general, metaphysical or historical-philosophical principle. The irony is detached from the verbal irony and you can now see irony in things, in pseudo-objects that have no consciousness, e.g. B. in the world, in fate, history, nature, in situations, in the cosmos. The ironies resulting from this, the irony of the world , the irony of fate , the irony of history , etc., are called objective ironies , since there is no ironic subject . These objective ironies always require a spectator, a subject, the ironic , who notices the irony. The ironic in this sense is someone who recognizes in the world the contradiction between the ideal (as what is commonly expected) and reality as an objective irony.

Expressions in the text


In the literature irony is found in all forms: first, rhetorical or Socratic irony is such in conversations. B. staged between fictional characters. In doing so, the author also makes sure that the reader recognizes that the characters in the novel communicate rhetorically or Socratically and ironically. On the other hand, literature is also a mono-directional communication between author and reader. With regard to the use of rhetorical irony, there is the problem that the author generally has no knowledge of the reader's level of knowledge. The author can e.g. B. solve this by first bringing the reader on an equal footing, i.e. making sure that the reader has the necessary knowledge to decipher the irony. In high-quality literature, however, the responsibility for recognizing and deciphering the irony (e.g. through careful study of the work, author and literature in general) is left solely to the reader. In doing so, the author consciously accepts that his irony will not be understood by everyone (which happens again and again; see, for example, the television program A Heart and a Soul ).

In literary criticism is another form of irony important: the romance was with Ludwig Tieck , but especially with Friedrich Schlegel expanded the concept of irony to a literary attitude that later as romantic irony was called. This is characterized by a distance to one's own work, which is achieved, for example, by addressing the creative process itself, for example by interweaving reflections on the writing of the current novel. The adjective "romantic" refers to the first appearance of the term. The attribute “romantic” also refers to specific narrative techniques of romanticism: An extra fine irony in the story Die Harzreise by Heinrich Heine is that the narrator during the “ghost hour” a “ghost” in the form of the philosopher Saul, who died some time before Ascher has the argumentation of the Enlightener Immanuel Kant speak, according to which there can be no ghosts. With this, the narrator wants to prove that not only reason is a force, but also the mind - a concern that supporters of romanticism have always represented. If it were different, the perception of the personified Enlightenment as a ghost would have to break off immediately. The narrator ironizes Ascher's “ghostly” view that “only reason is a force” by allowing him to appear as a ghost after his death without expressis verbis contradicting Ascher's view .

However, the concept of romantic irony is ambiguous. It has been extensively discussed, especially since the end of the 19th century, and experienced various philosophical differentiations (including → objective ironies and ironists ). Irony, now no longer a clear disguise, but “floating” between what has been said and what is classically ironic, becomes a philosophical stance. Thomas Mann describes this irony as cheerful ambiguity . With it he could reconcile the antinomies of life, from which “either / or” can be turned into “both / and”. Like Goethe, this acceptance means more objectivity for him, because "Irony is always irony on both sides." It was also true for Friedrich Schlegel: "Irony is a clear awareness of eternal agility, of infinitely full chaos."

In the 20th century, especially by Richard Rorty, the concept of irony was further developed into a philosophical stance that is characterized by an ironic distance from one's own language.


The attitudes described with the term romantic irony can be traced back to the literature of antiquity and play an important role in literature (and also for film and theater) to this day.

Another form of literary irony that was used in ancient tragedy is dramatic or tragic irony . Here, the protagonist appears clueless, while his catastrophe for the reader / viewer etc. is clearly imminent. In retrospect, applied to real events, these forms correspond to objective irony.


As far as the means of irony in journalism are concerned, the same recognizability problems arise there as described in the literature section. If a magazine addresses a specific audience, irony can be taken for granted. However, the wider the audience a journalist addresses, the greater the risk that irony will bypass some of the addressees. Hence the common warning among publicists: the reader never understands irony. In the media, apart from involuntary irony, it is therefore almost only found in reservations. Glossaries, for example, are usually clearly marked as such and often have a fixed regular position (column in the newspaper, broadcast slot on the radio).

Irony sign

As far as the recognizability of irony in literature is concerned, Heinrich Heine is said to have demanded the introduction of a symbol of irony analogous to the exclamation mark , not without irony , in order to avoid misunderstandings. In French, such a sign, the point d'ironie, was invented by the writer Alcanter de Brahm - but it did not catch on.

Internet communication

When communicating on the Internet (for example in message forums , e-mails and chats ), the partners maintain a rather relaxed tone. With special additions, they can indicate thoughts that go beyond the written word, for example feelings and irony:

  • Emoticons as a substitute for accompanying facial expressions (e.g. ;-) )
  • Inflectives (also Erikativ called) and limited onomatopoeia as a gesture replacement (z. B. * grin * , * wink * )
  • Versalschrift , text thickness, color, size (u. A. As -laufweite) serve to highlight as an alternative to sentence stress (eg. As NO, how are you coming for SURE? )
  • Gestures, facial expressions and intonation that are not visible in written communication are often replaced by visible pseudo- HTML or BB codes . Examples are <ironie> Yes, of course! </ironie> or [ironie] No, never! [/ Irony] , whereby often only the closing HTML tag is written.
  • In addition, a double circumflex ^^ (which is also the Japanese horizontal emoticon for smile / grin) is used more and more often in the networked communication of young people to recognize ironic content.

See also


Web links

Wiktionary: Irony  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikiquote: Irony  - Quotes

Individual evidence

  1. Norbert Groeben, Brigitte Schelen: production and reception of irony. Volume 1, Narr, Tübingen 1984, ISBN 3-87808-863-9 , p. 2.
  2. Helga Kotthoff: Understand fun. On the pragmatics of conversational humor. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1998, ISBN 3-484-31196-7 , pp. 334-337.
  3. See also the empirical confirmations in Martin Hartung: Irony in everyday language. A conversation analysis study. 1998.
  4. Helga Kotthoff: Understand fun. On the pragmatics of conversational humor. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1998, ISBN 3-484-31196-7 , p. 336.
  5. Monika Schwarz-Friesel : Expressive meaning and E-implicatures. On the relevance of conceptual evaluations in indirect speech acts: the criterion of brushability and its cognitive reality. In: W. Rudnitzky (Ed.): Kultura kak tekst. (German "culture as text"). SGT, 2010. (PDF; 314 kB)
  6. Martin Hartung: Irony in everyday language. A conversation analysis study. 1998, pp. 41-44; Discussion of Grice'scher Konversationsmaximen, Common Knowledge Stocks, p. 59 (also footnotes), p. 61, p. 80, p. 150–152; Failed irony, p. 157.
  7. Helga Kotthoff: lronieentwicklung under interaktionslinguistischer perspective. 2007. (PDF; 210 kB) ( Memento from October 29, 2013 in the Internet Archive )
  8. Marike Müller: The irony: cultural history and text shape. 1995, pp. 146-147.
  9. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics . 1127a.
  10. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics . Ed .: Günther Bien (=  Philosophical Library . Volume 5 ). 4th, through Edition. Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1985, ISBN 3-7873-0655-2 , p. 1127a-b .
  11. Georg Picht : The irony of Socrates. In: Here and Now. Philosophizing after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Volume 1, 1980, pp. 221-238.
  12. Uwe Japp: Theory of Irony. 1983, p. 55.
  13. Uwe Japp: Theory of Irony. 1983, pp. 52-59.
  14. In his text titled “On Inconceivability” ( online ), Friedrich Schlegel presents an “overview of the entire system of irony”, which also includes “extra fine irony”.
  15. ^ Heinrich Heine: The Harz journey . Chapter 5 (online)
  16. On October 13, 1953, he noted in his diary: "Cheerful ambiguity basically my element."
  17. Thomas Mann: Considerations of a non-political. S. Fischer, Berlin 1918, p. 592.
  18. Philosophical Apprenticeship: Critical Edition. Volume 18, No. IV 411.