In addition to her research about how 6-8 year-olds recognize and interpret sarcasm, Debra Burnett, an assistant professor of family studies and human services, is conducting a study about the tone of voice a reader uses when reading a book rife with sarcasm and irony to kids. The purpose is to find whether readers vary the tone of their voice to young listeners, and if that helps listeners understand the deeper meaning.
To study this Burnett records mothers reading three books to kids. She monitors whether the adults vary the inflexion in their voice to convey if a word is meant sincerely or sarcastically.
One of the books being used is “Terrific” by Jon Agee, which is about the curmudgeonly Eugene turning a word that often conveys excitement into the opposite. In one instance Eugene wins a trip to Bermuda and responds with, “Terrific. I’ll probably get a sunburn.”
“You would expect that someone who won a trip to Bermuda would be happy about it, but that’s not the case with Eugene,” Burnett said. “Jon Agee doesn’t give any direct cues like ‘Eugene said sarcastically’ to help the audience infer that ‘terrific’ is meant another way. That has to come from the readers’ tone of voice.”
Despite each author’s lack of clues in the books, Burnett is finding that readers are varying the tone of their voice to indicate that words like “terrific” may not be so terrific.
In addition to “Terrific,” Burnett is using Agee’s “Nothing,” about how a shop with “nothing for sale” is prompting the entire town to buy “nothing,” and “I’m Terrific” by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Kay Chorao.