New paper: The vocabulary of manga

I’m happy to announce that my new article with co-author Sean Ehly, “The vocabulary of manga: Visual morphology in dialects of Japanese Visual Language” is now published in the Journal of Pragmatics!

Manga FacesThis paper is especially exciting, because my co-author is a former student who did this project as part of his class project. It now joins previous publications stemming from projects from that class, with more on the way!

Sean wanted to investigate the “morphology” of the Japanese Visual Language that are used in manga—the graphic elements like bloody noses for lust or a giant sweat drop for anxiety. I had discussed some of these in my book, but Sean recognized that there were many that I missed. He listed over 70 of these elements related to emotion alone! In fact, as a resource to other researchers and fans, we’ve now compiled this “visual vocabulary” into a list:

Morphology in Japanese Visual Language

We don’t consider it exhaustive, so if you think of others that should be added, please let us know!**

We then used this list to investigate how they are used in 20 different manga—10 shojo and 10 shonen—which amounted to over 5,000 panels coded across these books. Overall, we show that most of these “visual morphemes” appear in both types of books, though certain morphemes are more prevalent in one type or antoher. We take this as first empirical evidence that there may be distinct “dialects” within a broader Japanese Visual Language, at least for this one dimension of structure.

The paper is available along with all others at my Downloadable Papers page, and directly as a pdf. Here’s the full abstract:


The visual representations of non-iconic elements in comics of the world often take diverse and interesting forms, such as how characters in Japanese manga get bloody noses when lustful or have bubbles grow out their noses when they sleep. We argue that these graphic schemas belong to a larger ‘‘visual vocabulary’’ of a ‘‘Japanese Visual Language’’ used in the visual narratives from Japan. Our study first described and categorized 73 conventionalized graphic schemas in Japanese manga, and we then used our classification system to seek preliminary evidence for differences in visual morphology between the genres of shonen manga (boys’ comics) and shojo manga (girls’ comics) through a corpus analysis of 20 books. Our results find that most of these graphic schemas recur in both genres of manga, and thereby provide support for the idea that there is a larger Japanese Visual Language that pervades across genres. However, we found different proportions of usage for particular schemas within each genre, which implies that each genre constitutes their own ‘‘dialect’’ within this broader system.

Cohn, Neil and Sean Ehly. 2016. The vocabulary of manga: Visual morphology in dialects of Japanese Visual Language. Journal of Pragmatics. 92: 17-29.

** Longtime followers of this site may remember that we attempted a similar listing for morphology across different visual languages based on a discussion on my now defunct forum over 10 years ago. Perhaps I’ll have to create additional pages for other visual languages as well, now that we have ongoing corpus research underway


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