In the 1990s, I lived in Athens, Georgia, where I was a doctoral student in linguistics. I read the newspaper almost every day, and I started reading a comic strip called Mutts, by Patrick McDonnell. I loved the strip — the sweetness and good intentions of the dog, Earl, was paired with the slightly self-centered cat, Mooch, who also happened to be not quite as smart as Earl in many ways. These two characters are neighbors who live in an urban area that is best characterized as a city in the northeastern United States.

In the series that this strip comes from, Earl is on a leash waiting to be taken for a walk, but his human, Ozzie, gets distracted for a moment. In walks Mooch, who decides to pick up the leash and take Earl for his walk. Not knowing exactly where to go, Mooch decides to see Paris, and of course Earl tags along. After walking for an unspecified period of time, which Earl calls FOR-EVER, the pair decide to stop and ask whether they’ve made it to Paris.

Mooch and Earl walk to Paris

In his best “French,” Mooch makes the first conversational move. Getting an answer from Fifi, the French poodle, satisfies Mooch, of course, who celebrates their arrival in “Paris.”

 

 

In these three panels, McDonnell employs both French and English to convey the story, but he also uses other linguistic tools at his disposal. In panel 2, Mooch uses what linguists might call “Mock French,” a pretend French accent, in his attempt to speak with the local citizenry. The attempts at French include a simulated “bon jour” as well as French-accented English: “dees” for “this” and “iz” for “is.” In panel 2, then, the point is that Mooch is relying on language ideologies based in Anglophone culture, having to do both with French as a linguistic system and with speaking French to native French speakers. Of course, Mooch is using English, not French, which means he’s producing “English” as it would be produced (in a very stereotypical fashion) by a French speaker communicating in English.

As an aside, the food pun on “bon jour” is a hallmark of McDonnell’s humor, which folds the pets’ mindsets and attitudes into the strip whenever possible.

Panel 3 bears witness to Mooch’s full-tilt code switch into French. It’s as if Mooch exclaims Eureka!, planting his linguistic flag in “Paris,” which he and Earl have managed to walk to. Of course, the accent mark (accent aigu) over the “a” of “Voilá!” is not the correct one. The “correct” spelling of this word would use the accent grave instead: “Voilà!” So even though the lexical item is indeed French, it is marked ever so subtly as produced by a nonnative speaker of French.

While this may not have been McDonnell’s intention, Mooch’s use of Mock French (Faux French?) demonstrates a stereotypical American attitude toward foreign languages: using a funny accent is a legitimate (or at least sufficient) mode of communication. Nevermind, of course, that Fifi, the French poodle, is speaking an “unaccented” English! Mooch proceeds as if he has successfully led Earl all the way to Paris. In later strips, Earl isn’t convinced they’ve made it to Paris, which turns out to be the case. They make it back home eventually, and when Mooch expresses some concern about their outing, Earl assures him that they’ll always have Paris.

About Frank Bramlett

Until June 2014, I am a visiting lecturer in the English Department at Stockholm University, where I offer seminars in Sociolinguistics; Language and Gender; and Language and Comics; among others. For Fall 2014, I will return to the English Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

2 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    Bone Jour!

    God, I love Mutts. I have two framed McDonnell prints hanging in my living room.

    With regard to this particular strip, it strikes me that one’s interpretation of the strip might depend (to a limited extent) on whether one is knowledgeable enough about French to pick up on some of the more subtle cues. For example, with my ten-or-so-word French vocabulary, I would never have noticed the incorrect accent in the final panel. A more fluent reader of French would, however, and this will have some effect on one’s interpretation of the strip. So a full appreciation of the subtleties of the strip requires some rather substantial background knowledge.

    This reminds me of an issue that often arises with Watchmen. Longtime comics fans often force this comic on their non-comics-reading friends in order convince them that comics can be complex, literary, and worthy of their attention. The problem, of course, is that a full appreciation of Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero genre in Watchmen requires a rather substantial and specialized knowledge of the history and tropes of that genre. As a result, this strategy for converting readers to comics often fails since non-comics-readers fail to have this specialized knowledge.

    Here things are not so grave, but we have a somewhat similar phenomenon. While “Bone jour” is clearly (and obviously, once spotted) a joke, the non-native-speaker-ness of Mooch’s final pronouncement is signaled in a way that is too subtle for most casual readers of the newspaper page. As a result, something is missed.

    (Interestingly, I can in principle at best speculate here, since I am theorizing about a phenomenon that is, as a non-French-speaker, opaque to me. In short, I am trying to understand what it would be like if I could, per impossibile, actually ‘get’ the joke in the final panel!)

    Of course, all this depends on the mistaken accent in the final panel being done on purpose, and not just as a result of McDonnell being rusty with his French! Or perhaps it doesn’t – I am somewhat skeptical of the view that all aesthetically relevant features of a work have to be intended by the author!

    A last question: Would the two versions of “Voila!” be pronounced differently with the different accents?

    Awesome post!

  2. Roy,
    I covet your McDonnell prints!

    I think the good news for comics readers is that there is often more than one joke to be gotten. In panel 3, the word “voilá” is a joke in one sense because it demonstrates Mooch’s conviction that he and Earl are in Paris. In another sense, “voilá” demonstrates the “joke” that Mooch thinks he is speaking (real) French. This sense depends in part on the fact that the vast majority of English speakers know what the word “voilá” means and can use it in a conversation without difficulty. That lexeme has been borrowed as a chunk into the English language.

    You raise an excellent point about authorial intention. Maybe McDonnell is fully aware of his choice of diacritic, but maybe he isn’t. Based on this strip alone, we have no way of knowing whether McDonnell used the accent aigu instead of the accent grave purposefully or accidentally. Or whether he thinks all accents are aigu-style. So the joke here works for people who read French or who know enough French to recognize the rules for use of accents. I take it to be a bonus: if you read French, you get an extra bit of comic strip joy for your pleasure. (I agree with you: I am skeptical about attributing all aspects of a work to authorial intention. In linguistic discourse studies, we tend to talk more about speaker choice or writer choice rather than intent.)

    As for the quality of the vowel, changing the diacritic would not affect the pronunciation. Some diacritics in French do indicate pronunciation differences, but not in this case.

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