Towards a visual sociolinguistics

I’ve heard some people complain that a “language” approach to drawings and sequential images is overly formal and washes out the ability to talk about socio-cultural issues. I actually think it’s quite the opposite. Linguistics has long been acutely aware of social factors such as race, gender, geography, etc. which factor into the structure and usage of language, and are primarily studied under the subfield of “sociolinguistics.” Visual language theory allows for us to open up a subfield of “visual sociolinguistics” as well, which I only point towards in my recent book but didn’t have the space to elaborate.

Let’s first look at the spoken language side of things. Sociolinguistics research has done well to show that speech marks people from particular locations, class, race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and a host of other factors. You can tell these things by the sound of the speech (“accent”), the words they use, the way they interact in a discourse (When do you give feedback? When are you silent?), and many other facets of language structure.

(Note: cognitively, there is no difference between a “language” and a “dialect” or “accents.” They all have the same cognitive status, and social factors are what lead to one type being elevated to being a “language” while degrading others as “dialects.”) 

Additionally, stereotypes are created about people based on the patterned way in which they speak. For example, the “standard” American English dialect typically reflects the speech of people in media, and is used by educated, white, upper middle-class individuals, which enjoy a social status higher than others in American society. Other dialects of American English do not receive this designation as “standard” because they are used by lower-class, lower-educated, and/or minority individuals. Such stereotypes and social hierarchy is reflected in (and unfortunately often reinforced by) the languages that people use.
Similarly, visual languages carry social information as well. Let’s start with a very obvious example, which is the use of highly charged and prejudicial graphic representations. For example, the depictions of minorities throughout the early part of the 20th century were extremely racist, including Africans, African-Americans, Asians, and others (let alone the demeaning behavior often taken by those characters). These highly loaded and prejudicial representations are the visual language equivalents of highly racist words, here tied to the specific visual languages used predominantly in America and Europe.

Both racist words and racist images reflect patterns stored in the heads of those who produce and comprehend them, and such representations carry with them prejudicial associations (whether intentional or not). This is why in many cases we strive to push such representations out of the use in our languages (both spoken and visual).

Now, I wouldn’t say that all drawings are somehow intrinsically prejudicial, but I would say that just about all drawings carry with them sociocultural associations that mark them with information about their social context, the social group of their creator(s), and other socially loaded information in just the same way that spoken languages do.
As I’ve stressed, drawing systems are not universal, and there are many diverse visual languages in the world, each carrying their own social connotations about status and social groups. By seeing a drawing in a “manga style” (Japanese Visual Language), you recognize it as either coming from Japan, or coming from someone who associates with that visual language. If you are familiar with manga, you might even be able to tell the differences between the various “visual language dialects” that exist between Japanese visual languages, most often associated with genres (for example, the differences between the visual language dialects in shonen and shojo manga). If you’re not familiar with manga, such diversity may not be readily apparent and it might “all look the same.” This is the same as spoken languages: if you speak Japanese, the diverse varieties of spoken Japanese might be very clear, but if you don’t speak Japanese, it may all sound the same. (And the same goes for English to non-English speakers, and every other language). 
What’s more, just like with languages, people might judge a visual language based on the values they place on the visual language they most associate with. For example, people who exclusively like manga may find the drawing style (graphic structure) and storytelling (narrative structure) of American superhero comics to be hard to read and/or distasteful. The reverse may also be true. While these opinions may to some degree be chalked up to “taste,” I believe they also reflect the social biases that come with familiarity to a particular visual language. You prefer the visual language of your “in group” while possibly dis-preferring the visual languages from outside that group.
This just touches on a small overview of what visual language theory can offer research and considerations of the social implications of drawings and visual representations. Far from the “cold and formal” view of this approach, I think visual language theory actually puts us in a better position to discuss these issues of diversity, prejudice (implicit and explicit), and social relations in drawings from a cognitive viewpoint.


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