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Pearls before Swine: Puns and Language Analysis


Comics have recently experienced a surge of interest in the realms of linguistic scholarship. Scholars have posited the existent of a greatly intuitive association between comics and linguistics in both the minds of the readers and the creators of these comics (Chute, 2006). This scholarly position has stimulated the current discussion of the properties of comics in light of linguistics. However, to understand the position of comics and the linguistic realms, it is important to establish the exact comic elements to discuss (Laraudogoitia, 2008). This is because comics are not part of the regular inquiry scope for contemporary linguistics (not because comics are inappropriate themes of discussion, but for the reason that language is a human behavior while comics are not) (Lopes, 2006).

 In the linguistic sense, comics are objects of socialism that result from two behaviors of humans: drawing and writing (Laraudogoitia, 2008). In lieu of this, the deportment domain of visual language (drawing) and verbal/written language (writing) ought to be the centers of linguistic inquiry of comics. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the predomination of comics in the culture has spurned the appreciation of pairing visual graphics with verbal modalities in a way that greatly employ the theories of linguistics. Informed by this knowledge, the author of this paper explores the linguistic representation of themes in the comic strip, “Pearls before Swine,” by Stephan Pastis. Special emphasis is placed in the manner by which Pastis employs puns, not only to create humor but also to stress and make conspicuous the overarching language misinterpretation in contemporary culture. Moreover, the paper studies the extent to which this use of puns has change the representation of language in popular culture.

Research Questions

This research papers poses two questions to explore the employment of puns in the language of “Pearls before Swine” comic strip as a method of emphasizing themes other than its contemporary humor bias.

  1. How and to what extent does the comic strip, “Pearls before Swine” employ puns?
  2. To what extent do these puns represent the contemporary misinterpretation of language?


This research takes an exploratory design. Being a long strip that started in 2001 through to the present day, the researcher explored the strips and chose the most relevant strips for the exploration of puns. The aim was to study the linguistic perspective of puns and the appreciation of this perspective in the comics. As shown by research, comics often take linguistic paradigms and employ them both in writing and drawing (Cohn, 2010). In regard to this, the research also focused on the visual language of the comics in its identification of puns. A total of 16 panels of the strip were studied in this research.

For the purposes of this research two categories of puns were created. First are the verbal or written puns. These puns are defined as those expressed in writing within the text of the comics. Secondly, the visual puns which the researcher defines as puns that are visual presented. These puns, the author argues are those that refer to a verbal or written pun through drawing. However, the verbal/written category is illustrated in the context of the five types of puns (homophonic, homographic, homonymic, compound and recursive puns) (Heracleous, 2006). In play, there were also the other theories of linguistics including structural linguistics and systemic-functional linguistics theories (Naddeo, 2001).

A total of 16 panels of the strip were studied in this research. Each of the selected panels contained at least one direct or implied pun. However, the meaning, implication or contribution of the pun was not considered at this point. In the selection of the panels, care was taken so that most characters are presented although it was noted that the creator used specific characters in the expression of these puns. The puns were extracted and an analysis ensued employing a content analysis as the basic method (Bramlett, 2012). In the content analysis, puns remained the contents of focus though this analysis introduced new facets of the puns and related them to the other theories of linguistics.

Data Analysis and Discussion

This analysis is in the context of the content of the 16 chosen panels (appendix). Among the analyzed panels four had homophonic puns, two had recursive, three had homonymic puns and two had visual puns.  The remaining five panels were used to show misinterpretations informed by implied puns. This section will analyze the puns and their resulting misinterpretations  in the context of the linguistic theories.

First, the creator of the comic employs homophonic puns (appendix 1, 4, 6 and 15). In the first case (Appendix 1), pig presents his dilemma of attending either of the two folk music destinations whose abbreviations are N.O.W and N.E.F.F.A. While presenting the options he says, “It is NOW or NEFFA” this results into Goat misinterpreting it as, “it is now or never.” Of interest here is the influence that cultural background (in this context linguistic accent) affects language misinterpretation (Meyer, 2008). In this case, the misinterpretation that creates the pun is a result of poor articulatory and auditory phonetics (Rauh, 2010). Appendix 16 is also a depiction of the same with Goat telling Pig to, “take it as a given” which due to an accent problem, Pig hears as “Gibbon” followed by a virtual emphasis with which he takes the latter meaning. Research notes that comics employ the corruption of articulatory phonetics as influenced by an individual’s mother language to form new meanings of language elements. However, research shows that these corruptions often result in misinterpretations (Lillo, 2008). In appendix 4, the panel introduces four homophones that depict a great employment of structural linguistics. Starting from pigs request for a pen, comes Penn (name of an actor embedded on the pen), Penn (university of Pennsylvania). The presentation at the end of the panel in a rhyme with no meaning presents the misinterpretation that has resulted. Structural linguistics come in play in the form that (Naddeo, 2001) describes as the marrying of phonemes and morphemes to make a meaningful syntax as presented in the second last sentence of this panel.

 “Because that will be penultimate Penn ultimate ultimate Penn pen.”

Without the preceding explanation of the syntactical collection of these words it would obviously lack in semantics. However, because explanations are made prior to articulation, the misinterpretation that was looming large is obstructed. In fact, this clause would not actually have any meaning because as it stands it is grammatically inapt.

Appendix 5 reinforces the employment of wrong diction as a source of linguistic misinterpretation. While “account” would mean a description of events, the wrong contextual placement in the panel results in concurrent misinterpretations in the whole panel. A similar scenario is also well illustrated in appendix 6 where Rats advice that abalone diving will require a wet suit (a diving paraphernalia), Pig misinterprets this to mean a literally wet suit in an employment of both visual and homophonic pun. Research shows that there has been a growing trend where misinterpreted ones in comics and other humor oriented literature have often influenced the pop culture in a great deal (Duncan & Smith, 2009). In addition, it has been noted that most cases the words and phrases that comic creators use in invalid linguistic contexts also create new forms of language in the popular culture (Groensteen, 2009). Appendix 3 represents such a scenario where, although it is a pun, Pastis introduces a new definition of tsunami. The word always known to mean a dangerous outpour of the oceanic water is misinterpreted contextually to bring the meaning a situation of massive occurrence. A rhyme is created just like in appendix 5 which employs this word in its new lexicon.

Recursive puns also help in building the linguistic misinterpretation that characterizes the contextualization of language in comics (Summerfelt, Lippman & Hyman, 2010).  Firstly, in appendix 10, Pig reports having been left by a girlfriend with immense sorrow. Goat in his attempt to console him tells him that “she is not the only fish in the lake.” Pig then interprets this literally as shown in the visual and brings along a fish which he presumes as not similar to his girlfriend. In appendix 11, a similar depiction of fish nets (ladies wear) ensues when pig refers to literal fishing nets while Goat visualizes the cloths.  This is a great application of the systematic-functional linguistics that looks at language as a game of functions. When words and phrases are uttered, functional meanings are drawn in the minds of the listener dependent on the context (Heer & Worcester, 2009). However, the multidimensional semiotic system proponents argue that meaning is a choice of the reader or listener of a literary or literal text and therefore misinterpretations are only subjective references of a party involved in the creation of meaning to the presented words (Forceville, 2011). This is even more applicable in comics where meaning is a function of both the visual language and the verbal language and therefore interpretation must merge the aspects (Forceville, Veale, & Feyaerts, 2010: Goggin & Hassler-Forest, 2009). As shown in the two panels, misinterpretations regarding clichés phrases are the mostly depicted. This shows the evolution often associated with language. Although still considered as vital complementary parts of language, clichés and colloquial expressions are often great sources of misinterpretation.

The application of systematic functional linguistics as a source of comical misinterpretation is even clearer in appendix 8 and 11. In the first case, pig reports the death of crows to the police as saying there has been a “murder of crows.” The police officer tries evading what he thinks is a dupe or fooling by correcting Pig that he knows that a group of crows is called a “Murder of crows.”  In appendix 11 the word “figures” is also misinterpreted around its two homophonic definitions. While Pig uses it to mean “figuring out/imagining,” Rat takes it as meaning “numbers.” These are great depictions of how, meanings can be chosen by different people to an extent that distorts communication. It is also worth noting that linguistic research posits that this choice of meaning is important in the development of languages since it informs new semantics and allocation of meaning to words. Khordoc (2001) even takes it further when he says although it results in misinterpretations sometimes, the paradigmatic dimension of language is the mother of other language theories and comics have been greatly instrumental as tools to introduce these changes in the popular culture.


From the findings of this research, puns are important linguistic tools in comics. They are not only used to generate humor in comics but as a depiction of the influence of linguistics to the meaning of words. Most importantly, it has been noted that puns of all types may greatly result in misinterpretation of contemporary language though in a humorous manner. This can result into either distortion of the intended meaning or introduction of new meanings. This is however vital in the eventual development of popular language as misinterpretations results into new meanings of words and phrases and thus the evolution of language. As shown herein theories of linguistics such as functional systematic linguistics, structural linguistics and generative linguistics also support the importance of such misinterpretations as generated by puns in language development. This is actually how comics result in the definition of words and phrases in popular culture.




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