Pragmatic functions of irony in english and vietnamese a contrastive analysis

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Ho Chi Minh City University of Education

English Department



Instructor: Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Vu

Student: Nguyen Thi Dung Nghia

December 2010


No one can deny the fact that learning languages is a very long and challenging process. You may begin to learn the second language because of your favorite, need, curiosity or desire for discovering new cultures. Whatever reasons you have, they must be the strongly internal motivation for you to overcome all difficulties and challenges when acquiring a new language. Originally, you may think that to absorb a new language, you just need to swallow vocabulary items as much as possible, learn by heart grammar rules and practice language skills daily. Then, why is it difficult for us to acquire second languages successfully? Actually, enormous vocabulary and profound understanding in grammar are not enough. You need to not only enrich your vocabulary and grammar but also have knowledge of the culture where the language is spoken because it is the culture gaps among nations causing the difficulties for language learners. Let’s take a look at English and Vietnamese as an example. England and Vietnam, two nations with distinct cultures, certainly have different ways of using its own language. That is the reason why the learners studying English or Vietnamese must immerse into the culture and everyday life of the target language in order to approach communicative competence. As a result, irony, a widely employed figure of speech used in both daily communication and literature, is used differently in English and Vietnamese. From a contrastive analysis view, also as a language learner and a teacher-to -be of English, I find out some similarities and differences about pragmatic functions of irony between English and Vietnamese with the hope of enhancing the effect of teaching, learning English or Vietnamese as well as translating literary works.

Literature review

Irony has received considerable attention from writers, psychologists as well as linguists because it is used wisely in daily communication, literature and art. So, is it easy for learners to recognize and understand the functions of irony when it is used? Answer this question, Balconi and Amenta (2008) stated:

Although frequent in our everyday conversations, irony remains a complex communicative and pragmatic phenomenon whose correct decoding requires specific linguistic, communicative and cognitive abilities. While trying to explain how irony is used by speakers, linguistics and pragmatics elaborated different theories exploring the nature of ironic communication and of its production and comprehension processes (p.9).

Actually, in the twentieth century, in some critics' views, irony has even come to stand for all that is complex and thus positive about art itself. As Muecke (1982) put it: "Irony is an act, not simply a significance” (p.100). Although irony has been studied by many linguists, it has still remained its attraction and complexity. To readers and language learners, fully understanding irony in daily communication and especially literary works is really difficult. Also, regarding how irony works, positively or negatively, will depend on people’s taste, standpoints, habits, education, etc... Besides learners’ comprehensive ability, recognizing irony and understanding its functions also requires learners to consider the context where irony appears. As Long and Graesser (1988) assumed that: “In ironic communication, a discrepancy exists between what is expected and what actually occurs. In particular, within an ironic statement, what is expected is the intended ironic meaning while what occurs is the literal meaning” (p.24). According to this hypothesis, we see that the context (background, linguistic, conversational and social) plays a crucial role in irony comprehension processes. Or we can say that the comprehension occurs after some discrepancy is recognized or biasing the interpretation early on. Agreed with Long and Graesser, Hutcheon (1992) asserted:

Irony would then be a mixture of the pragmatic (in semiotic terms) and the semantic, where the semantic space was a space "in between," comprising both the spoken and the unspoken. Meanwhile, such a space would always be affectively charged; also it would never be without its evaluative "edge." In other words, in spite of certain structural similarities, irony would not be the same as metaphor, allegory, or even lying, and one major difference would lie in this critical edge. Thus, it is necessary to understand an ironic meaning to process, at first, the literal meaning of the ironic statement, and then test this meaning against the context and, whether the violation of conversational maxims is detected, to look for an alternative – non literal – meaning (p220).

Besides these linguists, there are other linguists who studied this issue such as Culter, Giora and Đinh Trong Lac. Culter (1974) discussed about signals of irony in expressions such as facial features, gestures and intonation. Giora studied literal meaning and figurative meaning of ironic utterances. Meanwhile Đinh Trong Lac (1999) mentioned the semantic aspect as well as the context factor of irony. Although many studied about irony have been done, according to Hutcheon (1992):

My premise is a simple one: that different attitudes generate different reasons for seeing (interpreting) irony or using (encoding) it, and that the lack of distinction between these different functions is one of the causes of the confusion and disagreement about the appropriateness and even the value of the trope (p.220).

It is obvious that misunderstanding the intended meaning in speaker’s utterances will be learner’s failure in communication. Especially, English and Vietnamese are two languages of two very different cultures; learners may get stuck in comprehending what the other means while communicating with each other. As the same case, the different ways of using irony in these two languages may cause language gaps in communication. In order to help learners to overcome these troubles, this paper aims at finding out the similarities and differences of pragmatic functions of irony in English and Vietnamese.


Until now, the term irony has been defined variously. Actually, there is no persist definition for the term because it depends on the study field in which irony is examined.

Obviously, the word "irony" has come to mean far more than just "saying one thing and meaning another”. Throughout the years, most definitions of irony in dictionaries and rhetorical manuals have been antiphrastic ones, defining the trope in oppositional semantic terms as the substitution of an intended or "ironic" meaning for a literal one.

According to Hornby in Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary (7th ed.), irony is the use of words that says the opposite of what you really mean, often as a joke and with a special tone of voice.

However, when I surf the net, I see another way of defining this term from the Wikipedia source (2010): “Irony (from the Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía, meaning dissimulation or feigned ignorance) is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or situation in which there is a sharp incongruity or discordance that goes beyond the simple and evident intention of words or actions”

Besides, simply and briefly, Eric Partridge (as cited in Wikipedia, 2010) remarked: “Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant."

From these views, we can accept that the term irony is used to mention about the way of using words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning. In other words, an expression or utterance is considered as an ironic one when it is marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.

In addition, in linguistic field, Galperin (1971) claimed that irony was a rhetorical device which based on recognition of the logic – dictionary meaning and contextual meaning while these two coexisting meanings were opposite (p.142).

(1) It must be delightful to find oneself in a foreign country without a penny in one’s pocket.

(Chắc phải thú vị nếu người nào đó ở nước ngoài mà không có đồng xu dính túi.)

In this example, it seems that the word “delightful” (thú vị) should not be used there because it is not appropriate with the context or the meaning of the whole sentence. Normally, it is better if we use the word “unpleasant” or “not delightful” (không thú vị”) in order to match with the context “in a foreign country without a penny in one’s pocket” (ở nước ngoài mà không có đồng xu dính túi). Actually, the word “delightful” is purposely used there to highlight the ironic situation.

As a linguist, Đinh Trong Lac (1999) noted that “nói mỉa là một phương thức chuyển tên gọi từ một biểu vật này sang một biểu vật khác, dựa vào sự đối lập giữa cách đánh giá tốt được diễn đạt một cách hiển minh với cách đánh giá ngụ ý xấu theo nghĩa hàm ẩn đối với biểu vật.” (p.80)

(2) Lí lịch hắn thật là trong trắng. Nhưng thử hỏi ai dám đâm đầu vào lấy một thằng giết vợ?

The ironic meaning is expressed through the word “trong trắng”. It is certain that a murderer is not “innocent” at all. Therefore, we should realize that the word “innocent” here has the opposite meaning such as “very bad” or “not innocent at all”. The above definitions have the same conception that irony is used to imply the opposite meaning with the explicit meaning of the utterance. In this paper, I would like to use this definition persistently in order not to make you confused by many different definitions about the term “irony”.

Through the paper, I would like to focus on the pragmatic functions of irony in English and Vietnamese. More specific, we will find out what irony is used for or what purpose speakers use irony in their daily conversation. Especially, we will examine the pragmatic functions of irony in English and Vietnamese to find out the similar and different features.

One more thing I want to make clear is the difference between irony and sarcasm because these terms usually make us confused. Actually, irony is the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite while sarcasm is the use of irony to mock or show contempt to others. We can say that an ironic word is born but we will say that a sarcastic one is made. Furthermore, while irony is expressed spontaneously, sarcasm can reflect upon its words; People usually use sarcasm to mock something by saying the opposite, while irony is more of something unexpected with an expression opposite of what one would normally hear. In Vietnamese, we may translate that irony is “sự mỉa mai, sự châm biếm, sự trớ trêu” and sarcasm means “lời chế nhạo, lời châm chọc”

  1. Example of irony: Marry and Nancy have just seen a really appalling football match. Both are disappointed

Marry: Well! What a worthwhile use of an evening!
Nancy: Yeah.

  1. Example of sarcasm: Marry hates Nancy's articles
    Nancy: Like my articles, huh?

Marry: Yeah, I like, really dig your works. You're a really skillful author!

In the example (3), there was no sarcasm because Marry was not intending to wound Nancy with her comment. She was using irony to remark her feeling that they had wasted their evening at the theatre.

In the example (4), there was sarcasm because Marry used it to show Nancy that she didn't like her books and thought that she sucked as a writer. There's irony too, but the tone of the delivery and the intention made it sarcastic.

Irony in English and Vietnamese

In communication, we use language for many purposes. We may use language for expressing ideas, exchanging information, giving advice, asking for something, etc... However, in some cases, we may use language to express our personal attitude and some sensible feelings that we cannot speak out directly. Obviously, utterances contain not only literal information but also speech acts we want to transfer to others. Let’s take a look at ironic utterances as an example. In daily communication, people usually use irony in order to express their true attitude toward somebody or something. The below figure shows us the various functions of irony (Hutcheon, 1992, p.221)

From the figure, there are various functions when irony is used, however, in this paper we just focus on some prominently similar and different functions of irony in English and Vietnamese.

Similar pragmatic functions of Irony in English and Vietnamese

A means to mock at somebody: this pragmatic function of irony is the most popular one in both languages. Indeed, people usually use irony to ridicule others directly or indirectly, violently or tactfully.

Let’s take a look at the following examples:

  1. When Becky followed them to the table of drawings, they dropped off one by one to the fire again. She tried to speak to one of the children (of whom she was commonly fond in public places), but Master George Gaunt was called away by his mama… (Thackeray, 2001, p. 481).

(Khi Becky theo họ ra bàn để tranh ảnh thì họ lần lượt đứng dậy đi ra bên lò sưởi. Cô ta định nói chuyện với một đứa trẻ (ở những nơi công cộng, bao giờ Beecky cũng yêu trẻ) thì lập tức cậu George Gôn bị mẹ gọi lại.)

  1. The Rector’s wife wrote a sermon for her husband about the vanity of military glory and the prosperity of the wicked, which the worthy parson read in his best voice and without understanding one syllable of it. (Thackeray, 2001, p. 320).

(Bà vợ ông cha xứ lập tức thảo ngay hộ chồng một bài thuyết giáo, phân tích sự phù phiếm của những chiến công quân sự và thịnh vượng của những kẻ xấu; ông thầy tu đáng kính lấy cái giọng tốt nhất đọc từ đầu chí cuối mà không hiểu được một chữ.)

These two examples are quoted from the famous novel “Vanity fair” of Thackeray. In the example (5), the writer use ironic way of writing to mock Betty’s hypocrisy because she has never loved children even her own son. She chats with the child just because she has nothing to do and no company to talk to. In the example (6), the author ridicules the parson’s stupidity and bad habits. Actually, he has no sign of a real parson’ noble character.

Take a look at another example from the story “The strength of God” by Anderson:

  1. When he had gone along Main Street almost to the old Richmond place, he stopped and picking up a stone rushed off to the room in the bell tower. With the stone he broke out a corner of the window and then locked the door and sat down at the desk before the open Bible to wait. When the shade of the window to Kate swift’s room was raised he could see, through the hole, directly into her bed…” (Anderson, 1919, p.103).

In this example, the character - Curtis Hartman - a respected pastor was attracted by a woman’s physical appearance. He was full of the guilty feeling between the belief of God and his own libido. The author described Curtis’s manner when waiting for the woman’s appearance in front of the Bible opened. Earlier, he always put his heart in the God’s belief and power. But, now, he keeps his mind away from the Bible which he respected with all the attention from the bottom of his heart.

How do Vietnamese people use irony to mock at somebody?

  1. Ghé mắt trông ngang thấy bảng treo

Kìa đền thái thú đứng cheo leo

Ví đây đổi phận làm trai được

Thì sự anh hùng há bấy nhiêu

In this satiric poem, Ho Xuan Huong uses the word “ghé mắt” to describe her feeling and scornful attitude about the cinese governor’s temper. In other words, the author used irony as a language device to sneer at the cinese governor.

Another poet being famous with satiric poems is Tu Xuong:

  1. Bắt chước ai ta chúc mấy lời
    Chúc cho khắp hết ở trong đời
    Vua, quan, sĩ, thứ, người muôn nước
    Sao được cho ra cái giống người.

( Chúc tết)

In this poem, we can easily recognize the writer’s scornful smile when he says “cái giống người”. Obviously, Tu Xuong employed the ironic language directly to sneer at rulers in the feudal society.

Besides, when describing a person’s characteristics with ironic attention, Vietnamese usually make use of animal’s features:

  1. Chuột chù chê khỉ rằng hôi
    Khỉ nói phải rồi, cả họ mày thơm

  2. Lươn ngắn đi chê chạch dài
    Thờn bơn méo miệng chê trai lệch mồm

  3. Chó ngáp phải ruồi

  4. Mèo mù vớ cá rán

  5. Mèo mả gà đồng

These proverbs are used wisely in daily communication of Vietnamese community. Also, people can use rhyming slangs to mock at other people. For example:

  1. "không đáng để xách dép cho người ta!"

  2. "trông xa như hoa thiên lý, tới gần như khỉ leo cây"

From these examples, it is clear that irony is used effectively to mock at somebody in communication.

A means to amuse: irony is used actively in fictions or nonfictions in order to amuse readers. Indeed, this pragmatic function is usually appeared in literature rather than in daily communication.

  1. He pretended regimental business to Amelia (by which falsehood she was not in the least deceived), and consigning his wife to solute or her brother’s society, passed his evenings in the Crawley’s company-losing money to the husband, and flattering himself that the wife was dying of love for him. (Thackeray, 2001).

(Giorgiơ nói dối Amêlia là mình bận lo việc của đơn vị (Amêlia biết thừa anh chàng nối dối); mặc vợ lẻ loi ở nhà với ông anh ruột, tối nào anh ta cũng đến nhà Crâulê để cúng tiền cho anh chồng mà những tưởng rằng chị vợ chết mê chết mệt vì mình.)

The amusing function of irony in this example is easily recognized through the phrase “dying of love for him” (chết mê chết mệt vì mình). The author used irony to emphasize Giorgio’s silly thinking because it was the truth that his mistress - Rebeca (Craule’s wife) has never loved him. In fact, she was willing to do anything to satisfy him just because she was dying of love for his money. With the character’s silly thinking and the humorous way of using language of the author, readers are amused and laugh at the character’s stupidity.

  1. Sư ông lấm lét nhìn trộm Xuân rồi gãi tai như một sư ông hợp thời trang.

(Vu. 1997)

We rarely use the phrase “hợp thời trang” to describe a monk because monks always live for worthy purposes. Monks always have mature behaviors and are not interested in material, appearance or anything else. In this context, with the way of using words abnormally, the author makes us understand the true nature of this monk and unsurprisingly burst out laughing.

Actually, when irony is used in literature, it has various functions. For example, in the poem “Tiến sĩ giấy” of Nguyen Khuyen:

  1. Cũng cờ, cũng biển, cũng cân đai.
    Cũng gọi ông nghè có kém ai.
    Mảnh giấy làm nên thân giáp bảng,
    Nét son điểm rõ mặt văn khôi.
    Tấm thân xiêm áo sao mà nhẹ?
    Cái giá khoa danh thế mới hời!
    Ghế tréo, lọng xanh ngồi bảnh choẹ,
    Nghĩ rằng đồ thật hóa đồ chơi!

irony is used as a means to jeer at nominal doctors at that time. But besides that function, irony is also employed to amuse people with the author’s skill of using language.

A means to criticize

Sometimes writers also intentionally use irony in order to criticize someone. For instance, in the story Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens made use of irony as a means to censure the villain:

(20) Mr. Sowerberry was closeted with the board for five minutes; and it was arranged that Oliver should go to him that evening “upon liking”- a phrase which means, in the case of a parish apprentice, that if the master find, upon a short trial, that he can get enough work out of a boy without putting too much food into him, he shall have him for a term of years, to do what he likes with. (Dicken, 1907)

(Ông Sowerberry hỏi riêng với ban quản trị trong vòng năm phút; và người ta thu xếp, là chiều tối hôm ấy Ôlivơ phải đến nhà ông ta “theo sở thích của mình”, lời nói này đối với trường hợp một anh học nghề ở địa phương, có nghĩa là nếu ông chủ sau khi thử thách một thời gian ngắn, thấy ông ta có thể bắt một thằng bé làm khá nhiều việc mà không phải nhét vào bụng nó nhiều thức ăn cho lắm thì ông sẽ giữ nó ở nhà mình trong một vài năm và muốn đối xử với nó như thế nào cũng được.)

In this case, the writer explained the vague phrase “upon liking” (theo sở thích của mình) as the way the local government implied. It seems to mean that Oliver had the right to decide to continue being an apprentice or not. But, it’s actually not the fact because it must be the boss who has the choice. With this explanation, we realize that the author indirectly censured the local government. We can easily recognize this phrase as an ironic utterance because it is put in quotation marks.

That is the way English writers uses irony as a means to criticize characters. How do Vietnamese writers use this pragmatic function of irony? Let’s examine a typical example:

(21)Chẳng mấy chốc, nửa chai rượu hết bay. Pha cầm lấy chai, nói rằng đi mua thêm, để gọi lịch sự của ông khách bình dân vốn hay chối từ. Nhưng ông khách lại dặn: “Này, bác xem ở đâu có bán cái số ngang thì mua, chứ thứ này nhiều cồn uống không tốt.” (Nguyen, 2000)

Obviously, what the guest asked Pha to do was completely opposite to what the writer emphasized the guest’s character through the phrase “vốn hay chối từ”. In this context, we know that Nguyen Cong Hoan criticized the voracious and impolite nature of the guest.

In daily communication, Vietnamese also make use of this pragmatic function as a way to censure other people:

  1. Chó ngáp phải ruồi

  2. Mèo mù vớ cá rán

  3. Chuột sa hũ nếp

  4. Đũa móc mà đòi chọc mâm son

  5. Hoa lài cắm bãi phân trâu

In the example (22), (23) & (24), animal characters are used to criticize someone who is successful or achieve something due to luck rather than his/her true ability. The typical examples (25) & (26) are an illustration for the way Vietnamese employ irony effectively in order to carp at the ones desiring for something which is unreachable for their ability. Especially, these proverbs are usually used to describe inappropriate love - affair between lovers from very different family backgrounds.

A means to express the regret

In life, there is sometimes when we make mistake or wrong decisions. As a result, sometimes we may feel regretful about what we have done. At that time, language will be a useful tool for us to express our regret. Some people can express their feeling directly while others may speak out their sentiments indirectly by using irony. And it is one of rhetorical devices writers use to show the character’s feeling. Let’s look at these below examples to see how irony is used for the function of expressing the regret.

(27) I had endeavored to adapt Dora to myself, and found it impracticable. It remained for me to adapt myself to Dora; to share with her what I could, and be happy; to bear on my shoulders what I must, and still happy. (Dicken, 1907, p.664)

(Tôi chỉ còn cách làm cho tính cách của tôi phù hợp với Đôra; và chia sẽ với nàng những điều có thể và sung sướng; còn một mình phải gánh lấy trách nhiệm trên đôi vai của mình, nếu như cần phải làm và vẫn cứ sung sướng.)

In this example, David, the main character, felt that Dora was out of harmony with him because she was awfully childish. Although he has tried his best to change her disposition, she seemed to change nothing. Instead, he tried to adjust himself in order to be in harmony with her and alone standed the consequence of what she has done. In this context, we ourselves may wonder how “happy” he was. Basing on the literal meaning of what he said, we may think that he seemed to be happy with his lot. However, we also sense his inside feeling about his unhappy marriage. And that must be a regretful feeling about making decision of marrying such a wife.

(28) Than ôi, chỉ vì một đồng bạc! Cái đồng bạc nhân đức rất đắc tội ấy? Chị Bích lẫn mặt chạy trốn, sợ bị đòi tiền. (Vu, 1997)

The word “nhân đức” in this above example does not certainly convey the positive meaning (praising the value of money). Actually, it should be understood negatively (scorning) and easily we may recognize it by basing on the phrase “rất đắc tội”. Through an ironic utterance, the speaker showed his own regret about the way he behaved to Bich.

So, we can see that irony is also an effective rhetorical device to help us to express our regret tactfully.

A means to express the sympathy

Besides the above pragmatic functions, irony is also used for expressing the pity in both English and Vietnamese. Like the function as expressing the regret, this pragmatic function of irony is used more in literature rather in daily communication. Let’s examine these following examples:

(29) If Amelia could have heard the comments regarding her which were in the circle from which her father’s ruin had just driven her, she would have seen what her own crimes were, and how entirely her character was jeopardized. (Thackeray, 2001, p.162)

(Nếu Amêlia được nghe những lời bình phẩm về mình trong cái xã hội mà sự phá sản của cha cô vừa bắt cô phải rời bỏ, thì cô mới thấy hết tội lỗi của mình đã làm hại danh dự mình đến thế nào.)

According to the story’s plot, the only own crime of Amelia is to love Giorgio by her all heart and be blinded for her love. We know that love itself is not the guilt and certainly Amelia had no crime. This is message the writer intended to give us through Amelia’s love. Also, through this ironic phrase “own crime”, the writer showed his sympathy toward a pitiful character with the adverse circumstances in a harsh society.

(30)Cái khăn lượt với cái áo thụng xanh làm cho chú rể trở nên trịnh trọng một cách đáng thương. Và hãy tưởng, anh ấy phải đóng y phục ấy suốt ngày lẫn đêm. (Nhieu, 1998, p.916)

The word “trịnh trọng” here seemed to be inappropriate with the phrase “một cách đáng thương” used earlier in the text. Actually, “trịnh trọng” should be understood as the meaning of the word “clumsy”. The writer used this ironic word in this context in order to express his pity to the man in bridegroom’s clothing and his circumstance.

Different pragmatic functions of Irony in English & Vietnamese

Although irony is a useful language tool in both English and Vietnamese and has many similar pragmatic functions, each language has its own way of using irony. It is unsurprising that there have distinct pragmatic functions of irony used in English and Vietnamese.

Exclusive function of irony in English: A means to emphasize something

One distinct pragmatic function of irony in English is using irony to emphasize something. It means that people use irony in their utterance in order to stress about what they are talking.

For instance:

(31) Time hustled him into a little noisy and rather dirty machine, in a by-corner, and made him Member of Parliament for Coketown: one of the respected members for ounce weights and measures, one of the representatives of the multiplication table, one of the deaf honourable gentlemen, blind honourable gentlemen, dumb honourable gentlemen, lame honourable gentlemen, dead honourable gentlemen, to every order consideration. (Dicken, 1996)

(Thời gian đã đẩy ông vào một tổ chức nhớp nháp và huyên náo, làm cho ông đắc cử hội viên hội đồng thành phố Than. Ông là một trong những nhân vật đáng kính phụ trách tính toán từng xu nhỏ, từng lạng, từng lô; một nhân vật tiêu biểu cho việc tính toán; một trong những quý ông đáng trọng vọng giả câm; một trong những quý ông đáng trọng vọng giả mù, một trong những quý ông đáng trọng vọng giả điếc; một trong những quý ông đáng trọng vọng giả què, một trong những quý ông đáng trọng vọng giả chết lúc đụng đến những việc khác ngoài việc cân đo.)

The above passage is about the man named Gradgrind in the novel “Hard time” of Charles Dickens. Normally, the phrase “honourable gentlemen” is used to describe the characters of good people. We all know that a person who pretends to be deaf, blind, dumb, lame and dead in order to get the benefit probably is not a real gentleman. In this context, the writer used the phrase “honourable gentlemen” to ironically describe such a character and also repeated this phrase many times in a list, one after one. Easily, the readers can get the writer’s main intention. Actually, in this passage, Dickens used formal words and repetition in order to emphasize the small-minded nature of this character. From this example, we see how effectively irony is used to serve the function of emphasis. Indeed, this pragmatic function of irony has been a very effective language device in literature.

Exclusive function of irony in Vietnamese: A means to show contempt

If in English irony is used with the distinct function as a means to emphasize, it also serves a very distinct and interesting function in Vietnamese. That is using irony as a means to express the contempt, a very special and unique way of employing irony in Vietnamese. Indeed, when Vietnamese show contempt for somebody, they usually use language with rhymes to speak out their intention and attitude. As a useful language device, irony is also used wisely and effectively in daily communication to serve the purpose.

Let’s consider again the examples mentioned above:

  1. Chó ngáp phải ruồi

  2. Mèo mù vớ cá rán

  3. Chuột sa hũ nếp

  4. Đũa móc mà đòi chọc mâm son

  5. Hoa lài cắm bãi phân trâu

Actually, these proverbs are used effectively for not only criticizing but also showing contempt for somebody. If these proverbs are employed for the purpose of treating someone with contempt, it means that the speaker disregards someone because he or she does not deserve for what he/she receives. To Vietnamese, these proverbs have very strong scornful meanings. As a result, the listener can be hurt a lot when hearing these utterances.

Or in the poem “Tien si giay”, Nguyen Khuyen also employed irony to hold people with nominal doctors in contempt:

(37) Tấm thân xiêm áo sao mà nhẹ?
Cái giá khoa danh thế mới hời!
Ghế tréo, lọng xanh ngồi bảnh choẹ,

Nghĩ rằng đồ thật hóa đồ chơi!

If we again examine the poem “Đe đen sam nghi đong” quoted above, we can easily recognize the writer’s contemptuous attitude to the cinese governor. Her “glance” (ghé mắt) is considered as a contemptuous look.

From the examples, we can see that Vietnamese use irony as an effective way to show their attitude. Actually, in daily life, by this function, irony can be used as a language tool to insult somebody. Interestingly, this is considered as an “insulting” culture feature of Vietnamese. In fact, instead of swearing at someone by abusive words, Vietnamese usually use irony as an indirect way. It is because Vietnamese respect the delicate behavior and are afraid of speaking out vulgar words directly. Therefore, irony is efficiently employed for such a special function.


By studying pragmatic functions of irony and examining some examples in English and Vietnamese, we can recognize the similar and different functions of irony in both languages. In fact, most pragmatic functions of irony are used in both languages are similar. The similar functions are mocking, amusing, criticizing, expressing the regret and expressing the sympathy. These functions are used wisely in communication and especially in literature.

Besides the similarities, there are also some different points about irony’s pragmatic functions in English and Vietnamese.

Firstly, using irony for emphasizing purpose just appears in English. In contrast, irony serves for the purpose of showing contempt is an exclusive function of irony in Vietnamese.

Secondly, in English, irony is employed more in literature than in daily communication. Indeed, English writers are fond of using irony as a rhetorical device to make their work more effective. However, in Vietnamese, irony is used wisely in both literature and daily communication.

Last but not least, to understand irony’s functions or the purpose of using a specific ironic utterance in English literal works, readers have to consider the context more widely and carefully than in Vietnamese’s ones. In the other words, it is much challenging for readers to recognize irony and its functions when it is used in English.

Teaching Implication

Through a contrastive view into pragmatic functions of irony in English and Vietnamese, I would like to discuss some implications for the sake of teaching English and Vietnamese as a foreign language.

Firstly, irony is used tactfully in literature and it’s not easy for learners to recognize the ironic case and its specific functions. That’s the reason why teachers should make learners aware of this language device in order to comprehend literal works deeply.

Secondly, it is a little bit difficult for learners to understand writers’ intention when they use irony in their works. Consequently, teachers should be instructors and guiders to help learners analyze the pragmatic functions of irony.

Thirdly, it will be helpful for learners if they have a chance to know the different functions of irony when it is used in English and Vietnamese. Therefore, if it’s possible, teachers should remind learners about the difference in the way of using irony in both languages.

Fourthly, irony is used not only in literature but also in daily communication in both languages, especially in Vietnamese. As a result, teachers also need to raise learners’ awareness about the speaker’s ironic intention when they are interacting with someone.

Last but not least, when considering the writer’s purpose of using irony, it’s necessary for learners to examine the specific context of that ironic utterance. Besides, in communication, learners need to notice the body language of the speaker. More specific, learners can base on body gestures, facial expressions and intonation of the speaker in order to identify the ironic intention.

This paper can help teachers understand more about irony’s functions in order to help learners acquire the foreign language better. However, one thing teachers should keep in mind is that if they want to raise students’ awareness about irony, they need to consider the learners’ level to make their lesson and explanation appropriate and sufficient.


Irony is one of language tools for people to express their attitude in communication with others. Irony can be used to make people laugh. But, it can also make people cry. So, it’s actually not easy to use this device in daily communication. In literature, it is more and more difficult to employ irony efficiently. Unsurprisingly, understanding irony’s functions, especially in English literal works, is also a challenge for readers. In addition, it’s necessary for us to have knowledge of cultures when learning languages. To conclude, I hope that this paper can help learners recognize various functions of irony in two languages and also find it more interesting to use and learn about irony in literal works and daily communication. Besides, it may help translators in translating English and Vietnamese when they can master pragmatic functions of irony. Moreover, I may also suggest that this paper offer an interesting topic for further researches about irony.


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