Prosodic lettering

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The most recent Templar, Arizona starts with this panel:

Note the use of punctuation, underlining, slant, letter size, line division, and balloon allocation to substitute for timing, pitch, intensity, voice quality and so on.

I don't have the impression that this is a kind of extended orthographic notation for spoken prosody, at least not in any systematic sense. Instead, it seems to be a set of resources for graphical communicative that are more-or-less parallel to speech prosody. To some extent this is creative use of features whose interpretation is natural — thus bigger letters are more salient, and so are parallel to prominence achieve by extra loudness, duration, and pitch range — but some extent there are conventions that have developed over the years in the world of comic-strip lettering.

Of course, most strips (in this series and elsewhere) are less graphically graphically flamboyant, just as most speech is prosodically plain.


  1. Russell Borogove said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    I'm not quite sure why you don't think this is an "extended orthographic notation for spoken prosody". I'm pretty sure Spike intends it to notate prosody. There's some informality to the notation – in particular I'm not sure how to speak the
    large, underlined "dare" as distinct from the large, not underlined "screams". Does that make it non-orthographic?

    Mainstream, "big two" (Marvel and DC) comics used to be largely hand-lettered, but the letterer was generally part of an "assembly line" working from a script rather than a primary creative force, so it was rare for them to use any expressive techniques beyond emphasis via bold/italics. Now, most of them are software-lettered, so the range of options is much smaller.

    Through its 26-year run, Dave Sim's comic "Cerebus" really explored the range of expressive lettering technique. "Templar, AZ" and Carla Speed McNeil's "Finder" are in a similar mold, though more restrained.

  2. GeorgeW said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    Does the author intend that each variation in the script represent a particular prosodic feature or that the variation itself is to represent changes in intonation, or both?

    As an example the bolds (and underlined bolds) do seem to represent prominence. But, what about the slants like 'me' (bubble 2) and 'will' (bubble 3)?

  3. MattF said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    I don't follow this strip, so I'm just speculating– but perhaps the artist is suggesting here that this character is the sort of person who uses six different fonts to express herself.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    @GeorgeW: I think, based on ways I could imagine saying that line, that slant might be a lower pitch than big type, but emphasized with loudness and duration.

  5. meg said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    There are pretty firm conventions in the comics industry, and this seems to conform to them. Blambot(.com) is a good sources of information on lettering in the comics, and I seem to recall that Nate Piekos (the founder of Blambot and a prestigious letterer) has written a fair amount on the theory of comics lettering.

  6. Chris Waters said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

    POW! ZOT! BAMF!! Comics have always had a higher-than-usual awareness of the visual aspects of written text. I actually do get the impression that this is intended as "a kind of extended orthographic notation for spoken prosody", but I also agree that it doesn't seem to be systematic. I suspect the author intended to display every nuance of how the line was spoken, but the result indeed seems a bit ambiguous and confusing, as others have noted above.

    A side matter: what do you suppose it means to be "helpless with screams"? There's something that seems particularly puzzling about that phrase, but I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. Also of interest, though not so unusual, is the use of periods to indicate emphatic breaks in the speech rather than sentence ends, like the classic snowclone "Worst. X. Ever." (which originated from the Simpsons character Comic Book Guy, just to tie the whole thing up neatly).

  7. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    When I first read this installment, I puzzled over it for a bit, but I think "I will be helpless with screams" is a threat to shame and blackmail them by making a scene they can't ignore.

  8. Tess said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 5:26 pm


    "As an example the bolds (and underlined bolds) do seem to represent prominence. But, what about the slants like 'me' (bubble 2) and 'will' (bubble 3)?"

    Generally with Spike's writing I take bold words to be more guttural, underlined to be drawn out and italics to have altered intonation, so a non-guttural emphasis. It probably helps if you've heard Spike speak because she's the kind of person who uses a lot of emphasis in her speech and is very invested in giving her characters natural variation in their dialogue.

    @Lucy Kemnitzer

    Basically the implication is that it will be an explosion of audio. A fair warning to those who like peace and quiet. ;)

  9. Martin J Ball said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

    @Tess – what on earth do you mean by 'more guttural'?

  10. kktkkr said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

    A similar representation of spoken prosody occurs in kinetic typography. In which case the temporal information would be more explicit than in comics. Of course, the constraints imposed by the comic format on the representation of speech make it somewhat challenging.

  11. AussieBel said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

    Does anyone have any references for this kind of thing in Arabic? I know that when I've read essays written in English by students from Arabic language backgrounds they have different punctuation conventions. For example: Instead of using brackets ( ) for asides or extra infomation they tend to use them for emphasis, which if you don't understand what is happening, can make the essay quite different to read… (And I'm sure my highly idiomatic early Arabic would have them rolling in the isles as well…)

  12. Martin J Ball said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

    @AussieBel – and what isles are those? :)

  13. AussieBel said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

    @Martin: Yes, I noticed after I submitted… Guess it has *bean won* of those days… I've been reading student essays… lol :) Thanks, I guess my Arabic speaking friends would be laughing so hard at my basic Arabic that they might need isles instead of an aisle to roll around in.

  14. Jason said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 1:50 am

    I always hated the way comics randomly bolded and italicised every few words. I could never figure out whether the intention was to indicate prosody, emphasis, or topicalisation, or what? It seems to be used purely for visual effect, and because it's now expected. Anyone trying to find a systematic meaning in this convention is doomed to failure..

  15. Sid Smith said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 3:03 am

    "POW! ZOT! BAMF!!"

    I used to teach English as a Foreign Language in Italy. The young adults had been raised on American comics, whose speech bubbles had been turned into Italian. But the "sound effects" words had not.

    One day I had occasion to write "sigh" on the blackboard. There was a yelp of amused recognition from the students, and cries of "Siggi!" – which is how an uninformed Italian would attempt to read "sigh". At last they understood this mysterious sound effect!

  16. maidhc said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 4:30 am


    Things may be different now, but in the old comic strip days of hand-lettering, there was an idea that a whole box or word balloon of undifferentiated text was difficult to read. Therefore bolding and italics were introduced just to break the visuals up, so that the reader would not be so intimidated by the amount of verbiage.

    We have all got Microsoft Office now, so we have all become sensitized to the concept of bolding and italicizing much more than in the old typewriter days. So now we try to interpret these changes as an attempt to portray some characteristic of spoken dialog.

    In the comics world, Mark Trail is still very much given to these anachronistic lettering styles, among many other atavistic traits such as the plots and characters.

  17. maidhc said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 4:44 am

    I think this is somewhat germane to the current discussion, so I'll throw it in.

    "Column 8" in the Sydney Morning Herald ( is often a forum for the discussion of various language issues, amongst other entertaining topics.

    Today (which will probably be yesterday by the time most of you read it), Christopher Woods, of Mount Victoria, weighs in on the topic of 'inverted commas' (what Americans call "quotation marks"). He asks: "Why 'inverted'? The commas are really superscripted but still have the round bit at the top and the tail underneath, so they aren't inverted at all."

    Seems to me it's a fair cop.

  18. F said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 5:23 am

    "… the topic of 'inverted commas' (what Americans call "quotation marks"). He asks: "Why 'inverted'? The commas are really superscripted but still have the round bit at the top and the tail underneath, so they aren't inverted at all."

    Seems to me it's a fair cop."

    But the opening inverted comma *is* an inverted comma.

  19. Alan said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 7:38 am

    In the days of hand-set metal type, there were commas and raised commas (apostrophes) but opening quotation marks were simply commas turned the wrong way up which gave the classic 66/99 design of quotes.

  20. James Wimberley said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 8:18 am

    Do children find this sort of emphasis a help or a hindrance in learning to read? My Bayesian starting hypothesis would be that all variation is a problem for the very first stage, but that it would help later on as it tracks speech better.

  21. HeatherR said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    Most comics, I'm sure, are less graphically flamboyant, but I can certainly think of one which is way more flamboyant.

    The Sandman comic book used all of the tricks as above as well as different colors to indicate the type of voice speaking (especially in the case of non-human characters.) The two I remember most are Dream and Delirium. Dream always spoke in white on a black background and Delirium spoke in a very swirly font on a rainbow background. (I loved the effect, but I always felt a wee bit sorry for the letterer.)

  22. Recury said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    @Jason: Same here. I could never get over the feeling that comic book characters were all supposed to sound like Christopher Walken.

  23. Rube said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    @Recury — or like noted Superman fan Jerry Seinfeld

  24. Linda said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

    Zip! Shebam! POW! Blop! Wizzzz. Merci, Gainsbourg…

  25. Tess said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 2:57 am

    @Martin J Ball

    I apologise if I'm being unclear in the way I describe things – while being interested in linguistics I've never had time to formally study the subject and so I use what I feel applies more to what I'm describing.

    When I say guttural, I refer to a stronger use of the diaphragm in the output of the phrase, more forced from below than standard. There's a more pronounced effect on the lower torso. Is that clearer? I'm more than happy to clarify further if I'm not doing a good job here.

  26. maidhc said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 4:09 am

    The discussion continues at Column 8.

  27. Rodger said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 5:29 am

    @HeatherR: the letterer for most of the Sandman comics, Todd Klein, says he found Delirium's style "fun to do in small amounts, but tedious in large ones." Generally though he seems to have relished the challenge of character-specific lettering. Read more at

  28. Peter G. Howland said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 5:46 am

    No further explanation necessary…I knew just what you meant by “guttural” the first time. I took the time to review the sense of the word in my unabridged dictionary and I’m not sure what Martin’s problem with the term is. Maybe those of us who lack a formal study of linguistics are simply able to “get it” without anguish. Kinda like a gut feeling sort of thing. (That’s “gut”: italic, bold, underlined)!

  29. Ken Brown said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

    @tess: "When I say guttural, I refer to a stronger use of the diaphragm in the output of the phrase, more forced from below than standard. There's a more pronounced effect on the lower torso. Is that clearer?"

    No its not. I thought I knew what you meant by "guttural" but diaphragms had nothing to do with it. I thought it meant consonants made in the throat. So now I am confused. :-(

  30. Sandra said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    Many children's picture books now do very expressive things with fonts. See The Stinky Cheese Man and this article by one of its authors, which shows some great font examples. This book is one of many.

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