Course syllabus 2014

Linguistics 63N. The language of comics

Tu Th 4:15-5:30 in 540-103

Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Arnold Zwicky,

 Course description

Humans have a remarkable ability—to shape events and ideas in others’ minds through language. How do we understand each other and messages we receive? This seminar will explore language as represented in cartoons and comics such as Bizarro, Dilbert and Zits, how we interpret it, and why we find comics funny. In particular we will explore and analyze language play, genderspeak and teenspeak; peeving about usage; new and spreading usages. We will discuss the “grammar of comics”: how words and pictures can combine to create meanings that neither could create separately; conventions of the genre, as they concern the representation of language in speech balloons and captions; lettering choices; obscenicons, etc. Another major topic will be the narrative structure of the comics: the way events are represented as unfolding in time; and the representation of point of view. (3 units; grading basis: letter grade)

Learning goals

– Develop skills in articulating how communication works

– Develop skills in visual literacy and in analyzing cross-modal representations

– Apply the methods of research and inquiry from social science to the study of human behavior in social, communicative situations; particularly important for this seminar are contextualization, hypothesis testing, modeling, and critical analysis

– Learn what makes a question about human communication tractable and significant, and therefore worth investigating


This is a seminar, so participation is vital.

i) Groups of you will be asked to make short presentations in class sessions focusing on the topic(s) of the preceding class.

ii) Weekly short writing assignments due at the beginning of class on Tuesdays. These will involve commenting on comics that you have found and preparing for the seminar paper.

iii) A seminar paper; initial thoughts due on Tu of week 4, proposal due on Tu of week 6, topic to be presented to the whole seminar in week 9 or 10, written version due Tu March 18th.



Required book

Dubinsky, Stanley and Chris Holcomb. Understanding Language through Humor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011 (paper). {Cited as D&H in the syllabus.}

Recommended book

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1993 (paper). {Cited as McC in the syllabus}

Linguistics 63N. The language of comics. Schedule

  • Week 1: Introduction to language and comics; read D&H Chapters 1 and 2, p. 1-23.
    • What are i) language, ii) a language?
    • What is a comic? McC 9, 198, 21
    • What is humor?
    • Representation vs. creation, McC 123
    • What kinds of language do/do not appear in comics?
    • Assignment (due in Tu class of week 2): Go to Arnold Zwicky’s website at Choose and study a comic on this site; write up a short description (~ 200 words) about why you found it interesting initially, why the language of the comic is interesting to you (don’t just quote what AZ says!); what points in D&H does it illustrate or call into question?
  • Week 2: Integrating art and language; cross-modal representation; read D&H Chapter 3, p. 24-39, and Chapter 7, p. 106-109 (end first paragraph).
    • Relationship of art and writing, McC 145
    • Development of writing-systems, McC 12, 13
    • Speech balloons, lettering choices
    • Representing pragmatic markers, noise, obscenicons
    • Assignment (due in Tu class of week 3): Choose one of the strips made available for this assignment. Consider its relation to this week’s topics and write up your analysis in a brief summary (again, ~200 words). Specifically, consider the following points:
      • Explicitly state which topics we have discussed are represented in the strip.
      • How do they enhance the strip/contribute to its point?
      • Why is this strip funny (or not)?
  • Week 3: Taboo language and sociolects; read D&H Chapter 9, p. 138-152, and Chapter 11, p. 178-183.
    • Taboo language
    • Genderspeak, teenspeak
    • Assignment; due in Tu class, week 4: Begin thinking about possible topics for your final paper. Look through the entire syllabus and choose several points that appeal to you (perhaps 2-3). For each of these topics, answer the following questions in a sentence or two:
      • How does this topic relate to the goals of this seminar?
      • How does this topic relate to language and comics?
      • For your favorite topic, come up with a possible direction for your paper to take (via a question to answer or lens through which to examine your topic).

The topic will be finalized week 5 and a proposal will be due Tu of week 6.

  • Week 4: Invisible/inaudible meaning; read D&H Chapter 6, p. 74-95, McC 207.
    • Specificity of language and art, ambiguity, vagueness, underspecification
    • Implicatures, Grice’s Maxims
    • Making wholes out of non-sequiturs, McC 135
    • Subjective language, intimacy with the written word
    • Assignment; due in Tu class, week 5: Find 2-3 comic strips that illustrate a particular aspect of invisible meaning. In ~200 words, explain exactly what is said, what implied. Specifically, comment on the following:
      • Which of Grice’s maxims apply? (see D&H p. 89-93)
      • What presuppositions are central to understanding the strip? (see D&H p. 93-95)
      • Why are these strips funny (or not)?
  • Week 5: Language creativity and ambiguity; read D&H Chapter 4, p. 40-54, Chapter 5, p. 55-73.
    • New and spreading usages
    • Impact of technology (texting, internet, etc.)
    • Linguistic ambiguity, puns
    • Portmanteaus
    • Assignment, due in Tu class, week 6: Choose the topic for your final paper Submit a proposal for the topic, explicitly stating your what it is and answering the following questions:
      • How does this topic relate to linguistics?
      • How does this topic relate to the goals of the seminar?
      • What is your research question and direction?
      • What kind(s) of comics (from class or outside research) will you use as support? Append some examples that you think you might use.
  • Week 6: Cultural meaning; read D&H Chapter 9, p. 138-152, Chapter 10, p. 153-165.
    • Symbols and metaphors, McC 128-9, 148
    • Regional and cultural variation
    • Assignment, due in Tu class, week 7: Choose to focus this assignment on either symbols/metaphors or regional/cultural variation. Find 2-3 comic strips exhibiting your chosen topic. Explain their relation to linguistics through:
      • The specific linguistic aspects they contain
      • How these linguistic aspects contribute to the strips’ overall meaning
      • What makes these strips funny (or not)?
  • Week 7: Register and genre; read D&H Chapter 11, p. 153-178 and Chapter 7, p 109-115.
    • Prescriptivism
    • Comics as a genre
    • Comparing comics with other genres
    • Assignment due in Tu class, week 8: Check in on your progress on your final paper. In about a page, explain what you have done since submitting your proposal (in Week 5). Specifically, report on the following:
      • What challenges, if any, have you run into? How are you solving them?
      • What do you still need to do?
      • What thoughts do you have concerning your presentation (medium/materials needed especially)?
  • Week 8: Narrative; read D&H Chapter 7, p. 96-106.
    • Sign up for presentation times this week!
    • Narrative, spatializing memory
    • Showing and telling, McC 161
    • Relation of time to image/language, McC 115
    • Assignment; due in Tu class, week 9: Find 2-3 comic strips that involve narrative (through any of the specific devices/methods discussed this week). Explain exactly what device(s)/method(s) they utilize to tell their story, and answer the following questions:
      • Are the strips effective at conveying their message?
      • What would change, if anything, if a different storytelling method was employed instead of the one chosen?
      • What makes these strips funny (or not)? And how does the storytelling method contribute to this?
  • Week 9-10: Wrap-up
    • Presentations of paper topics
    • Assignment: Work on presentations and papers. Continue to practice and prepare your presentation first. Then, keep researching, analyzing, writing, and proofreading your final paper.
  • •    Finals week
  • Seminar paper due Tu March 18th (about 1000 words, plus appendix with the comic strips you have chosen).






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