Do You Speak Pictogram?

  • Ralf Kauranen

A while ago the monthly supplement magazine of the largest Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, approached its native city Helsinki and its inhabitants by asking what languages they speak. The aim was to describe the multilingual reality of the city in the 2010s. The approach of the journalist was based on a common personal experience in a multilingual world, that is, the wonder felt when (over)hearing languages that are not familiar enough to be immediately recognized. The urge to ask people what language they are speaking was put into use.

Not surprisingly, when asked, the users of the languages were able to answer the question and to name the languages they were using. All kinds of language use are not as easily recognized. Listen, for example, to those two at the bar. What language are they speaking?

The one-page comic by Johanna Sinisalo and Hannu Mänttäri, published in the Tampere-based comics magazine/fanzine Sarjari (no. 86, published in 2012), raises some issues related to language and multilingualism and their representation in art and literature.

It is clear that the two figures at the bar, the man and the woman (according to a reductive reading), are speaking to and communicating with each other. Their bodily poses and gestures, the facial expressions and the directions of their looks and, perhaps above all, the straight lines above their heads indicate that they are involved in a dialogue.

The lines connecting speaker and speech, what is said, have here replaced the balloon or bubble as a sign for something audible originating from a specific source. A balloon, or a line replacing the balloon, does not necessarily indicate that the audible sound is constituted of verbal utterances, although it often does. The verbal nature of a sound is usually indicated by the contents of the balloon being presented in a linguistic code, in a natural, written language.

While the comic at hand has replaced the verbal content with images, the rows of images above the characters heads are, however, separated from the rest of the panels’ pictorial world. They do not, for example, depict a barroom wall-paper behind the characters. The different functions of the speech balloon are at work without the contours of the balloons separating between the world inhabited by the characters and the worlds formed by their utterances.

This particular one-page comic invites the reader to ponder upon the question of word–image relationships, considered so crucial in many theoretical descriptions of comics as an art form. Are the protagonists in the comic using a so-called natural and verbal language in their conversation or are they really speaking in pictures? What is the reader to make of this?

The depicted situation – the conversation, its turns and the resulting actions of conversational turns – invites the reader to make an attempt at understanding what is being said in the discussion. The reader becomes involved in a process of translation, a reading in which the images being uttered in the conversation are made sense of. And the target language of the translation process probably is one of the world’s natural languages. The protagonists’ utterances depicted through images and a few accompanying punctuation marks (which status as either verbal or pictorial can be discussed) become rebuses, something for the reader to decipher (with the prominent help offered by the depictions of the characters’ bodily and facial expressions).

It seems clear that the first utterance in the first panel is a question, signaling that the second utterance is an answer to the question. But the translation process probably goes further already in the first panel: does the question mark indicate a question of a very general kind – “Eh?” – or does it signify a more specific and wordy inquiry (e.g. “What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”)?

On a general level the dialogue is readable, understandable and translatable. The phrases consist of images that are both mimetic and conventional. The characters speak in pictograms, which Charles Forceville, Elisabeth El Refaie and Gert Meesters define as “stylised depictions of phenomena that are familiar from real-life phenomena or from other visual genres, but that have often acquired a more or less conventional meaning within the realm of comics”*.

The hearts and flowers in the not so gentle man’s vocabulary are familiar from numerous other comics. Other images in the dialogue are less so. The exchange of words in the fifth panel consists of signs familiar to (many) a Finnish reader, although their familiarity and conventionality is not based on comics reading. The copulating hearts are part of the logo (designed by Harri Manner) of the record company Love Records. The lion-headed sword is the emblem of the Finnish police. How crucial is the knowledge of this for understanding the comic’s dialogue?

The locally conventional symbols perhaps indicate that the characters speak Finnish, but then again, they could be Swedish-speaking (or Russian-speaking or…) Finns or they could be using a more local dialect. They might even be mixing different languages in their manner of speech.

On the other hand, can it be assumed that the two characters speak the same language? They seem to understand each other, as the dialogue’s turns follow each other in a coherent manner. Still, they lack in mutual understanding of the situation that they are involved in. In fact, the comic depicts a failure in communication, a situation where those involved define the situation in differing ways, and which finally is resolved by means of physical violence rather than verbal interaction. Metaphorically at least, they speak different languages. Perhaps they speak different languages more literally as well? After all, the only sign shared by the two characters is the exclamation mark!

* In the article “Stylistics and comics” in The Routledge Handbook of Stylistics, 2014, ed. by Michael Burke, p. 492.

PS. The collection of “Tiskivuoro” comics published by Suuri Kurpitsa in 2016, includes a Finnish-language version of the comic reproduced above (Johanna Sinisalo & Hannu Mänttäri: Tiskivuoro, Suuri Kurpitsa, p.35). It was originally published in the Uusi Nainen magazine in 1994.