In the land of supertitles

Revived on Facebook recently, this 2/20/12 Cyanide and Happiness cartoon by Jay A.:


The first three panels are routine (but annoying): Character 1 produces an example of AccConjSubj (the non-standard Accusative Conjoined Subject me and Steve) and Character 2 reacts with hysterical peeving, becoming physically sick from experiencing the AccConjSubj.

But then we discover that we’re not in anything like the real world, where someone speaks and someone else hears what they say, but instead in the Land of Supertitles, where someone produces a banner with writing on it and someone else reads it. That has to be what’s going on — since otherwise how could Chr2 know how Chr1 was spelling what they said? YOUR instead of YOU’RE, ALLERGYS insead of ALLERGIES, AFFECT instead of EFFECT, THEIR instead of THEY’RE, ITS instead of IT’S — they’re all homophones, so how could Chr2 know that Chr1 was spelling them wrong? UNLESS CHR2 COULD READ WHAT CHR1 WAS SAYING.

(The last panel has a genuine error, but it’s a malapropism, a word confusion, and that has nothing to do with grammar at all. In fact, only the AccConjSubj in the first panel involves a grammatical choice. More on this below.)

It took me some time to accept this preposterous Supertitle proposal — the name is a semantic extension of the noun supertitle ‘a caption projected on a screen above the stage in an opera, translating the text being sung’ (NOAD) — about speech communication, but it’s the only account that fits the facts. I briefly entertained the hypothesis (call it Phonetic Discrimination) that Chr2 was somehow perceiving a difference in pronunciation between ALLERGYS and ALLERGIES, between ITS and IT’S, and so on — but I could find no evidence anywhere for such a phonetic distinction, so I had to abandon that attractive (simple and concrete) hypothesis, in favor of the fanciful idea that the central act of “speaking” is generating visible, legible supertitles (either in addition to an acoustic signal or instead of it,  that’s a matter for further research).

(Below, I’ll entertain a simple and concrete hypothesis — Sociolinguistic Indexing – that’s a bit more sophisticated, and more interesting, than Phonetic Discrimination.  It, too, has found expression in cartoons.)

Yes, yes the whole business is piling one kind of ill-informed thick-headedness on top of another, and that makes me want to spit nails in anger (as opposed to vomiting  or coughing blood in disgust). But it’s all in service of a social goal.

Peeving as a social practice. Very briefly, the function of linguistic peeving is to assert social superiority (on any of a number of dimensions, though social class is a prominent one of them) by shaming the linguistic behavior of others. There are, of course, other ways of asserting social superiority, from crude practices like physical bullying and insult to more subtle practices like conspicuous consumption, but linguistic peeving is a common weapon in the armamentarium of superiority. (It’s very rare that linguistic peeving is genuinely “for your own good”.)

Ill-informed thickheadedness. In a cascade. Here, in no particular order.

Idea 1. The apotheosis of the standard variety. (a) The standard variety should be used by everyone in all contexts. (b) Because that variety is intrinsically superior to all others. (c) Failures to use the standard result from (inexcusable) ignorance  or (morally culpable) laziness; vernacular speakers deserve to be shamed.

Somewhat more generally, from my 12/11/18 posting “Notes on PSP = PST”:

most critiques of non-standard varieties of English … attribute the features of the vernacular to ignorance: Those People should have learned the details of egfswe (established general formal standard written English, in the terms the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language uses) but for some reason — inattention, mulishness (willful rejection), whatever — have failed to do so.

Idea 2. The apotheosis of the written language. (a) The written form of the language is its true, ideal form. (b) And the spoken form is merely the reading out loud of the written form. Writing is fundamental and solid; speech is an evanescent approximation to it.

Idea 3. It’s All Grammar. (a) From my 7/10/04 LLog posting “It’s all grammar”

To … People In The Street, “grammar” embraces pretty much everything having to do with language, spoken or written, so long as it’s regulated in some way: syntax, morphology, word choice, pronunciation, politeness, discourse organization, clarity and effectiveness, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, bibliographic style, whatever.

(b) If all matters of language regulation together constitute some gigantic natural category, then violations of these regulations together constitute another: Errors Is Errors.

(In an annoyed follow-up to this — my 2/22/12 posting “It’s All Grammar” (yes, same title, but now with initial caps, because it’s now the name of a principle) — I examined IAG critically, referring to:

[phenomena that are united only because they] involve aspects of language or language use that (some) people object to and so would (literally) regulate; they are domains of linguistic peeve-triggers. But otherwise there’s no common thread, and it’s a serious confusion to treat them as deeply similar. Meanwhile, there is a place for a term denoting ‘the system of regularities connecting the phonetics and semantics of a (variety of a) language’ … If you really have to have a term for the great grab-bag of linguistic peeve-triggers taken together, I suggest garmmra. )

In any case, according to the folk beliefs enumerated above, AccConjSubj, malapropisms, and spelling confusions involving homophones (like ITS/IT’S) are all the same kind of thing; and even if manifested in speech, these errors are really matters of orthography; and those who commit such errors deserve shaming. Out of all this, we get Chr2 in #1 peeving with (literally) painful contempt about Chr1’s use of homophones, as if Cr1’s words were displayed in writing.

Some of this — the bit that gets us to Supertitles — is just irrational, but every step of it is wrong-headed, in ways than a decent education should have clarified. Unfortunately, much education about language is a fabric of antique folk fantasies. General linguists, sociolinguists, psycholinguists, linguistic anthropologists, and sociologists of language teach college courses intended to disabuse people of such notions, and a number of us have written passionate, engaging books that do that work (we’ve been at it for more than a century), but the effect on public consciousness seems to have been minimal. Ideas 1 through 3 seem to be durably much more attractive than the truth.

So, tempted though I am to call the cartoonist of #1 (more on him below) a bone-headed fool, the worst I can say is that he conveyed some foolish ideas that he somehow picked up from others, on the street or in school. Still, it makes me want to spit nails (a favorite idiom of mine: spit nails ‘be extremely angry, express anger strongly’, often in the context I could spit nails). Especially since what’s at issue is not just some abstract ideas about how language works, but ideas that are often socially disastrous; contempt can be a powerful social poison.

#1’s history. Notice the heading “Comic Rewrite Contest” on #1. So it was. From a Daily Dot column by Kevin Collier on 2/28/12:

Facebook’s grammarians are legion.

In the last eight days, over 28,000 people have shared a comic about a character who’s physically repulsed by bad grammar. He meets a companion whose grammar is so atrocious, it makes the first cough up pools of blood.

Grammerly, a product that autochecks grammar, shared the comic, though they didn’t draw it.

In a sense, neither did the comic’s author, because this is the result of a caption contest held by the four-man collective Cyanide and Happiness. In late January, they announced contest rules: take any old C&H comic, keep the art intact, and rewrite the dialogue. C&H fan “Jay A.” re-captioned a cartoon from 2009.

(#2) 1/3/09 cartoon by Kris Wilson, with high ick factor

Sociolinguistic Indexing. Having abandoned the Phonetic Discrimination proposal for the puzzling ITS/IT’S etc. phenomenon in #1 (for lack of any evidence whatsoever), I turned to the Supertitle hypothesis: though bizarre, it fits the facts.

But there’s another hypothesis, hinted at in this ecard:


and explained a bit more fully in this one:


The idea is not that (say) ITS and IT’S have distinct pronunciations, but that the speaker produces a suite of linguistic features — especially phonetic features characteristic of an “accent”, but also choice of lexical items, morphological forms, syntactic constructions, and prosodic and phonation characteristics — that together index a particular social identity (hillbilly, inner-city Black, Valley Girl, surfer dude, preppy, flaming faggot, NYC Jew, whatever), and that some of these social identities are associated (in the mind of the hearer, at least) with a propensity for certain common misspellings.

Talking like that means you’re one of Those People, and Those People are dumb and careless and can’t spell for shit. So from what you hear you can guess they’ll probably screw up on spelling ITS/IT’S and the rest. You can just hear the misspellings.

Maybe what’s going on in #1.

3 Responses to “In the land of supertitles”

  1. michael covarrubias Says:

    mckeans’s law at work in #4

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I chose not to pursue the Muphry/Skitt/McKean… in #4 (despite my well-known predilection for chasing incidental issues down rabbit holes), but it really merits a separate posting.

      And, yes, I caught your deliberate McKean — mckeans’s for mckean’s — you sly dog.

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