“Moral irony”: Modal particles, moral persons and indirect stance-taking in Sakapultek discourse

Robin Shoaps


This paper presents an ethnographically sensitive account of a family of modal constructions in Sakapultek, a Mayan language spoken in highland Guatemala. The constructions in question share many characteristics with those that have been analyzed as ironic in English and are dubbed “moral irony,” due both to their similarities to irony in other languages and to their primary interactional function. The morphosyntactic composition and semiotic processes involved in moral irony are described and the proposed account of these semiotic properties makes use of Goffman’s distinction between author, animator and principal as dimensions of the speaker role. The indexical properties of moral irony are demonstrated and it is argued that they play a greater role in determining ironic meaning than speaker intentions. Using extended examples from naturally-occurring talk, the paper also demonstrates how irony functions in evaluative stance-taking in Sakapultek. Such examples illustrate both the relatively presupposing and entailing aspects of moral irony’s indexical meaning. Moral irony is argued to be modal in that it projects hypothetical or unreal possible worlds and ironic in that it indirectly and negatively evaluates the stances of an imagined principal. Finally, on the ethnographic level, moral irony is examined in light of what it reveals about Sakapultek notions of moral personhood.

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