Contextual interpretation of prosody

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Saturday's Cathy:

What puzzles Cathy's dad is the contextual interpretation of an exclamation point and a jagged speech balloon with a thick blue outline. But prosody researchers will be familiar with the feeling of baffled curiosity at the difficulty of connecting form to meaning in a systematic way.

The background (known to regular readers of the strip, but not to Cathy's mom):

(As usual, click on the pictures for larger versions.)


  1. tayloj said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 8:27 am

    Based on Comics Grammar and Tradition, it appears that Cathy's speech appears in either a ‘Burst Balloon’/‘Double Outline Balloon’ or a ‘Radio Balloon’. The former would be used to indicate that Cathy is shouting (and she is), but the latter is more specific, showing that the speech is coming through a phone. I only point that out because Cathy's mother could be interpreting not an exclamation point and a jagged speech balloon with a thick blue outline, but just MOM!

    [(myl 9:20 3/2/2009) Nice point. In comics theory as in intonation studies, it's apparently easy to be wrong (or at least uncertain) about what the form actually is, never mind what it means. I assumed that the first panel contained a "burst balloon" with a "double outline", both indicating emphasis of some sort. But the jagged outline *could* be a radio balloon, just indicating telephone transmission. So we'd have to go back over the corpus of Cathy strips, to determine the distribution of these two speech-balloon characteristics (and other similar techniques) in that particular cartoon dialect.]

  2. David M. Chess said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    Wait wait wait…

    Cathy's *married*?

    I'm so out of touch.

  3. Nathan Myers said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    (David: Yeah, who would marry that, right? )

    Arguably the jagged outline is unnecessary, because the speech balloon points unambiguously at the telephone, allowing the jaggedness to refer to the noise itself.

  4. marie-lucie said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    Cathy has been married for quite a while.

  5. Nicole said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    I appreciate the insight of those who know considerably more about comics theory than I. However, even I who admitedly knows only basic information about the use of thought/speech bubbles was able to understand that Cathy was shouting through the phone to her mother, the premise upon which the rest of the comic is based. Therefore, I'd have to say that what really carries the message of Cathy's urgency and her need for her mother's action are the relatively enlarged letters and the exclamation point after the word "mom." To her mother's point at the end of the comic, we as conscientious language users (or "natives") tend to almost innately understand the weight of a word made visually prominent as well as the heightened importance of any phrase followed by an exclamation point.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    My question is, what's her mother doing in the microwave oven in panel 1? Or is that a dumbwaiter or TARDIS? And why are those donut holes on the counter between the three mother clones in panel 2? And is she wearing a coat over her apron in panel 3? And why is there a fax machine on the breakfast table?

    Guisewite, graphical innovator.

  7. marie-lucie said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    The first panel is strange, but I would guess that the "donut holes" are like "…" in order to separate the three repeats of the mother's picture. And yes, she is wearing her coat over her apron, as she is in such a hurry that she didn't take the time to take it off. I don't understand the "fax machine", it looks like a careless version of the telephone.

  8. marie-lucie said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    Actually, it IS the telephone with the receiver put back on.

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    It's way too big to be a telephone, it's as big as a laptop. Or a fax machine.

    I'm forced to deduce that the first panel is Cathy imagining her mother on TV (as how else could she imagine somebody far away?) but breaking out of the screen because it can't, metaphorically, contain her. I still wonder why there is a telecomm console on the end of the breakfast table. Don't people her age keep it in a nook? (The console, not the table.)

  10. marie-lucie said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    It's way too big to be a telephone

    Not if you compare it to the telephone in the other frames.

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    They're all the same gadget, and they're all way too big to be a regular telephone. That she drew it that way four times suggests something worse than carelessness. Has Guisewite forgotten what a real telephone looks like?

    I agree that the donut holes are meant to suggest, weirdly, ellipses, and that panel 2 doesn't really depict a call center staffed with clones. I wonder if Guisewite is or feels constrained by a rule that comics can only have three panels. This leads me to wonder if the microwave/TV/dumbwaiter in panel 1 is really a panel within a panel, leading to the conclusion that Cathy thinks of her distant mother as being a character in a sub-comic-strip. Shades of Stanislaw Lem!

  12. marie-lucie said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

    Come on, the humans are not very realistically drawn either. Realism is not what Guisewite is aiming at. You might be right about the first panel.

  13. Melissa said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

    On the subject of contextual interpretation of prosody, has LL ever covered the SNL skit "What's That Bitch Talkin About?" The contestants hear one side of a conversation and have to explain what she's saying. Tina Fey plays the winning contestant, providing increasingly detailed and ridiculous explanations, and Bill Hader plays the bewildered loser. Here's a transcript.

    Of course a video would be necessary here, but I can't find it on or I don't see a search function on either site and I couldn't find it by browsing to the Ws (on NBC) or the season and episode (on Hulu). Amazing how hard they make it – guess they only want you to browse.

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 12:01 am

    Also, why does she have to rush out of the house, not even stopping to take off her apron, to claim the photos? They'll wait patiently in their envelope. The longer she takes to get there, the more likely the clerk will have forgotten what's in it when she does. But that question if off-topic.

    Whatever the hell that is in panel 1, though, I believe counts as some sort of grammatical element in deconstruction-speak. So do the donut holes.

  15. marie-lucie said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    Nathan, haven't you heard of exaggerated, over the top reactions? That's what happens all the time at Cathy's.

  16. Faldone said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    Criticizing Cathy for not conforming to real-life expectations is like criticizing the Manhattan phone book for lack of character development.

  17. Nathan Myers said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    Marie-lucie: You're saying my reaction to this strip isn't exaggerated and over-the-top? Thank you.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    NM, I meant that Cathy's and her mother's reactions are usually exaggerated or over the top. That's the point of the strip: it is a satire, not to be taken literally. I was not commenting on your own reactions.

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