Ironic Twists of Sentence Meaning Can Be Signaled by Forward Move of Prosodic Stress

Pauline Larrouy-Maestri, Vanessa Kegel, Wolff Schlotz, Pol van Rijn, Winfried Menninghaus, David Poeppel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prosodic stresses are known to affect the meaning of utterances, but exactly how they do this is not known in many cases. We focus on the mechanisms underlying the meaning effects of ironic prosody (e.g., teasing or blaming through an ironic twist), which is frequently used in both personal and mass-media communication. To investigate ironic twists, we created 30 sentences that can be interpreted both ironically and nonironically, depending on the context. In Experiment 1, 14 of these sentences were identified as being most reliably understood in the two conditions. In Experiment 2, we recorded the 14 sentences spoken in both a literal and an ironic condition by 14 speakers, and the resulting 392 recorded sentences were acoustically analyzed. In Experiment 3, 20 listeners marked the acoustically prominent words, thus identifying perceived prosodic stresses. In Experiment 4, 53 participants rated how ironic they perceived the 392 recorded sentences to be. The combined analysis of irony ratings, acoustic features, and various prosodic stress characteristics revealed that ironic meaning is primarily signaled by a stress shift from the end of a sentence to an earlier position. This change in position might function as a “warning” cue for listeners to consider potential alternative meanings of the sentence. Thus, beyond giving individual words a stronger contrastive or emphatic role, the distribution of prosodic stresses can also prime opposite meanings for identical sentences, supporting the view that the dynamic aspect of prosody conveys important cues in human communication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2438-2462
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number9
StatePublished - Apr 20 2023


  • intonation
  • pitch accent
  • prominence
  • prosody
  • voice acoustics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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