sea nerd blog — irony and america

So I’ve been told many a time that Americans don’t have a sense of irony. It’s not a Brit tale I’ve heard recently, for I’ve not been in Britland recently, but it’s a Brit tale I’ve heard many times.

One of my favourite examples of irony is this: “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” This suggests why Luxembourgish is a language, but Swabian a dialect. This suggests why Mandarin is a language, but Cantonese a dialect.

It’s a generalism, of course, and with every generalism you will find exceptions. But it’s gives a nice clue why some so–similar dialects are really separate languages, why some apparently quite different languages are actually mere dialects.

But why, you hopefully ask, is the phrase, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” irony? Why is so true a phrase that so fits so much cultural history, why is it irony?

The thing is, the origin of the popularisation of this phrase is well known. It comes from the Bronx. The Bronx is in New York. That’s New York, as in the United States, as in the country with the world’s biggest army and the world’s biggest navy, as in the country with someone else’s language.

The phrase is a beautiful example of American irony. The phrase shows those Brits who say “Americans don’t have a sense of irony”, who believe that literally, are ironically being not ironic, but racist.

This wasn’t the example that introduced me to American irony. Did you hear about the thief with no legs? He robbed a trouser factory. It loses something in the retelling.

British irony and American irony isn’t the same. That’s all.