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Review of  Language Play in Contemporary Swedish Comic Strips


Reviewer: Villy Tsakona
Book Title: Language Play in Contemporary Swedish Comic Strips
Book Author: Kristy Beers Fägersten
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): Swedish
Issue Number: 32.1301

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SUMMARY

Being popular culture texts addressed to wide audiences, comic strips (and similar genres) have more often than not used colloquial, informal language varieties in their panels. This has been one of the main reasons why they have been negatively evaluated as ‘inappropriate’ for children and, in general, as ‘less significant’ genres suitable only for ‘illiterate’ or ‘semi-literate’ readers (see among others Ben Rafael & Ben Raphael 2012: 142, Gibson 2012). Kristy Beers Fägersten’s study adopts a totally different perspective by suggesting that comic strips, which represent informal interactions and everyday activities, constitute useful and insightful material bringing to the surface important sociolinguistic phenomena and trends in language use that usually go unnoticed by those who quickly dismiss such texts as ‘trivial’ and ‘unimportant’ (see also Meesters 2012). The author specifically proposes that (at least contemporary) comic strips may shed light on speakers’ sociolinguistic practices and, by extension, trends in language change. In this context, she investigates language play and humor in a large corpus of Swedish comic strips so as to demonstrate how and why the analysis of such phenomena could provide valuable insights concerning sociolinguistic phenomena such as dialectal and spelling variation, language contact and respective stereotypes and language ideologies, loan translations, code-mixing, and code-switching.

In Chapter (1) titled “Language play as humor in comic strips”, the author outlines the goals of the study and introduces the main theoretical/analytical concepts which will be used throughout the book. She briefly presents some main definitions of play and language play and discusses specific aspects of (language) play, such as its deviation from ordinariness and distortion of (linguistic or other) rules, its entertaining function, its potential to create intimacy or conflict as well as to draw speakers’ attention to language per se. Inevitably, the discussion moves to the relationship among language play, linguistic creativity, and humor. Beers Fägersten claims that “[l]anguage play and creativity trade on deliberate linguistic manipulation” (p. 5), which often results in multiple interpretations of the same utterance, namely in what humor scholars describe as two overlapping but incongruous semantic scripts (see among others Raskin 1985). In this sense, language play is explored “as a source of humor in contemporary Swedish comic strips” (p. 7). The author also underlines the significance of framing for detecting and comprehending humor in this genre. Comic strips are more often than not perceived as potentially humorous texts: readers more or less expect them to be humorous and look for humorous incongruities “within the texts, within the images, or between the text(s) and image(s)” (p. 9; see also Tsakona 2009). The discussion in Chapter (1) is rounded up with an overview of the Chapters to follow.

In Chapter (2) titled “Vällkamm to Sviden”, Beers Fägersten provides an extensive description of the dataset analyzed for the purposes of the study. She begins by pointing out the self-aware and simultaneously self-deprecating quality of the comic strips examined: they often employ widely known stereotypes about Sweden and Swedes to create humor. Then, she moves on to their generic features: the comic strips under scrutiny are open-ended narrative episodes with recurrent characters represented in their everyday activities and interactions, and have all been published in daily Swedish newspapers. Being “serial narratives firmly rooted in reality” (p. 24) and focusing on “banal interaction” (p. 25), the comic strips in question become a suitable locus not only for language play and humor, but also for depicting current sociolinguistic trends in the Swedish linguo-cultural community. As the author argues, less importance is attached by their creators to the images, which are often static and exhibit minimal differences from one panel to the other. Swedish comic strip creators tend to represent “the prolonged moment, which definitely establishes text as their most significant element” (p. 34). This distinguishes their work from works in other comics traditions which capitalize on physical action and changes in the setting (e.g. the American one).

Chapter (3), “Schwädn hupp jöördi hoo”, is dedicated to the playful exploitation of dialectal varieties of Swedish in the comic strips to create a humorous effect. Two kinds of dialectal humor are identified by the author in the data analyzed: dialect mixing and dialect mimicry. The former pertains to switches between Swedish and other languages (extensively discussed in Chapters 4-7), while the latter involves the representation of regional varieties and other sociolects of Sweden. So, comic strip creators appear to play with various Swedish dialects evoking and reproducing relevant stereotypes and targeting not only their speakers but, most importantly, those who attempt to imitate the dialects. The latter are ridiculed because their knowledge of dialects seems to be limited to the respective stereotypes. In order to represent dialectal speakers or imitators, comic strip creators exploit non-standard, unconventional spelling, thus rendering the differences between standard Swedish and colloquial or dialectal Swedish literally visible. Such playful practices reveal creators’ “irreverence with regards to linguistic systems and language usage” (p. 44). Such humor presupposes readers’ familiarity with dialectal particularities and stereotypes to be understood.

Chapter (4) “Gracias de nada!” concentrates on the use of code-switching in comic strips. Swedish is mixed with languages Swedes are more or less exposed to, such as Arabic, Norwegian, Danish, Italian, German, and Spanish. Considering such humor to be a kind of dialectal humor (see above), the author argues that it has a denigrating effect at the expense of non-Swedish languages, cultures, and populations. Furthermore, she convincingly demonstrates that denigration also takes place at the expense of code-switching characters, who are depicted as ‘incompetent’ speakers of languages other than Swedish. Through using non-standard utterances and spelling, comic strip creators play with languages, while presupposing that their readers are more ‘competent’ than their characters, and hence the former are able to detect and interpret the latter’s unconventional uses as such. The author points to two significant side-effects of such language play: first, that “it is both implied and explicitly stated that these languages are simplistic or unintelligible […], thereby positioning Swedish as the superior language, and Sweden as the superior nation” (p. 71); and second, that “it takes a high degree of competence to perform incompetence”, hence through code-mixing and unconventional styles comic strip creators portray themselves not as “deficient” but instead as “multicompetent” language users (p. 89).

The only language not discussed in Chapter (4) is English. Due to its popularity among Swedish people and its status as “Sweden’s non-official second language” (p. 12), three Chapters, starting with Chapter (5) titled “In English, please”, are dedicated to language play involving English and Swedish. Given that Swedes are reported to be more or less proficient in English, comic strip creators engage in Swedish-English code-switching quite frequently. Two major trends are identified by the author. First, playful switches to English are employed to highlight characters’ linguistic skills; in such cases, characters use formulaic phrases or idioms, originating in popular culture texts and often appearing in the punchline of the comic strips. Secondly, switches to English are employed to portray characters as ‘incompetent’ speakers speaking a Swedish, non-standard variety of English. Unconventional spellings and non-idiomatic utterances thus appear in the comic strips and such language play ends up constituting a form of Swedish self-deprecating humor. Consequently, language play in comic strips becomes a means for representing Swedes as ‘competent’ or ‘incompetent’ speakers of English.

Extending the discussion on code-switches to English, the author focuses on swear words in comic strips in Chapter 6 titled “Are you completely @#☠ fucking crazy?”. Even though, in general, swear words are not expected to appear in mainstream media and are often censored, it seems that English swear words are tolerated in comic strips published in Swedish newspapers. English swear words are employed as a kind of language play resulting in diverse incongruities and reproducing stereotypes at the expense of Anglophone cultures (especially the US-American one) as excessively engaging in swearing. Among other things, English swear words allude to background knowledge shared by the members of the audience and construct the represented interactions as casual. Beers Fägersten observes that, although in Anglophone countries the use of swear words may often be perceived as offensive and inappropriate (especially in public contexts), in Sweden it is allowed and in fact interpreted as humorous. It therefore seems that among Swedes such terms have undergone “semantic bleaching” (p. 154) and carry less negative meanings and associations than among native speakers of English.

In the final Chapter (7) “Face the facts”, the author first summarizes the findings of Chapters (2-6) and then, quite unconventionally and unexpectedly, continues with further analyses of the data. This time, she explores language play in interactions between Swedes and non-Swedes where English is used as a lingua franca. Comic strip characters are sometimes represented in places outside Sweden trying to communicate with locals in English. In such cases, diverse varieties of English are juxtaposed and hence readers are expected to be ‘competent’ users of English to grasp the meanings of language play and humor. Last but not least, Beers Fägersten discusses Anglicisms as a source of language play. It seems that language contact between Swedish and English has resulted --to a significant extent-- in loan translations or calques, which could be perceived as “a form of covert code-switching” (p. 182). Such loan translations constitute non-idiomatic uses of Swedish, which require readers’ familiarity with English idioms. If readers cannot translate the Swedish non-idiomatic uses back to English, language play and humor are lost for them.

EVALUATION

“A sociolinguistic study on Swedish comic strips? So what?” Such questions may pop up in prospective readers’ minds when they bump into this book. In my view, the fact that the study is limited to Swedish data significantly strengthens its coherence and should definitely not be considered to be a disadvantage. Beers Fägersten’s theoretical discussions and argumentation are compelling and could turn out be most inspiring for further research in the areas of sociolinguistics, pragmatics, comics studies, humor research, critical semiotics, etc.

The study explores an interesting dataset of comic strips and its presentation, and analyses are carefully written so as to be understood by readers who may not be familiar with Swedish language and culture at all. In addition, the author makes a most original exploitation of the data: she uses a large number of comic strips not only to illustrate theoretical points emerging from their linguistic analysis, but also to contextualize the material under scrutiny. In other words, comic strips are also employed as useful resources to speak about Swedish culture and as meta-comments on the use of language play therein.

As already mentioned, the book explores various sociolinguistic phenomena concerning language use and play in Sweden, such as dialectal and spelling variation, language contact and respective stereotypes and language ideologies, loan translations, code-mixing, and code-switching. All these seem to be exploited by comic strip creators to produce a humorous effect. Even though in her analyses Beers Fägersten adequately shows the interplay between sociolinguistic phenomena and language play, at some points a more in-depth and critical discussion of certain ideological presuppositions in comic strips would be welcome. For instance, even within the humorous frame of comic strips, Germans are identified with Nazis (pp. 74-75), Italians are indirectly represented as speaking in an incoherent manner (pp. 71-73), Spaniards are portrayed as slow and professionally incompetent (pp. 86-87), or Swedes are ridiculed for not speaking standard English (Chapters 5 and 7). It has been suggested in the relevant literature that humor may function as a distraction or as a way to disguise and downplay racist or other stereotypes, which may go unnoticed by readers who just laugh with it and do not adopt a critical stance towards it (see Archakis et al. 2018 and references therein).

A final note concerns the structure of the book: the conclusions of the book and the analysis included in Chapter (7) might rather have appeared in separate chapters. Thus, the author could have elaborated on her findings (including those emerging in Chapter 7) in view of previous research.

Beers Fägersten’s study on language play in Swedish comic strips is highly recommended for students and scholars in sociolinguistics, pragmatics, comics studies, humor research, and critical semiotics, among other research areas. It is a pleasant, easy to read, original book with insightful observations and analyses, which underline the significance of investigating language variation and change in contexts where we normally do not look for them.

REFERENCES

Archakis, Argiris, Sofia Lampropoulou & Villy Tsakona. 2018. “I’m not racist but I expect linguistic assimilation”: The concealing power of humor in an anti-racist campaign. Discourse, Context and Media 23. 53-61.

Ben-Rafael, Miriam & Eliezer Ben-Rafael. 2012. Plurilingualism in francophone comics. In Frank Bramlett (ed.), Linguistics and the study of comics, 142-162. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gibson, Mel. 2012. Cultural Studies: British girls’ comics, readers and memories. In Matthew J. Smith & Randy Duncan (eds.), Critical approaches to comics: Theories and methods, 267-279. New York: Routledge.

Meesters, Gert. 2012. To and fro Dutch Dutch: Diachronic language variation in Flemish comics. In Frank Bramlett (ed.), Linguistics and the study of comics, 163-182. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Raskin, Victor. 1985. Semantic mechanisms of humor (Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy 24). Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

Tsakona, Villy. 2009. Language and image interaction in cartoons: Towards a multimodal theory of humor. Journal of Pragmatics 41(6). 1171-1188.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Villy Tsakona is Assistant Professor of Social and Educational Approaches to Language in the Department of Early Childhood Education, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. She has published articles on humor research, narrative, political, and media discourse analysis as well as on critical literacy theories and applications. She has recently co-edited The Dynamics of Interactional Humor with Jan Chovanec (Benjamins 2018) and authored Recontextualizing Humor: Rethinking the Analysis and Teaching of Humor (De Gruyter Mouton 2020). Personal webpage: http://www.concept-pl.us/villy.tsakona

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Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781501514319
Pages: 203
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