English bard William Shakespeare was a master of irony, using the technique in his many comedic plays. Image Credit: Unsplash/Taha N

You’re at a restaurant with friends, and at the end of your meal, you hand back the bill to the waiter and say, “Thank you very much for your excellent service today.” To which, the waiter turns surly and replies, “Glad you enjoyed it.” Wait – what just happened?

Click start to play today’s Spell It, where we find out the root cause of the ‘damage’ caused by words and our intent behind them.

In the scenario playing out above, it’s more than likely that it’s not what you said that was the issue – it’s how you said it. It’s something that happens often, to most of us, causing us to cringe and clarify or mumble and stumble over our words as we try to get across the message we truly set out to send.

According to a May 2023 report in the psychology news website Psychology Today, a key and often unrecognised aspect to get right, when communicating, is prosody – the stress you place on your words. It’s a component of paralinguistic communication, or the elements of language that are not represented in words. Prosody can be about the emphasis you put on a word, the distinct way in which it’s spoken, its length, and all the gestures accompanying it.

Nowhere is prosody more apparent than in irony, which is a form of communication where there is a discrepancy between the words used and the meaning behind them. Fans of irony know that it adds spice to communication, and is an integral part of good comedy. But, it can be the source of much confusion if you don’t get your prosody right.

A study by US-based Max Planck Institute in 2023 created a stimulus bank of 392 recordings – both ironic and non-ironic – voiced by 14 speakers. They then asked 53 participants to rate the levels of irony that they actually perceived in the recordings. Each sentence was provided with a context, so they could understand it in terms of a real-life setting.

The study found that prosody was vital to comprehension. When the speakers stressed the words towards the end, they had higher irony ratings than if they placed stress on the sentence’s beginning.

Do you pay attention to the tone of your voice, and the emphasis you give to certain words when communicating? Play today’s Spell It and tell us at