Mid-Atlantic Popular &
American Culture Association

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“Just go easy on my accent”: Literary Code-switching and Costumed Superheroes


Code-switching in literature serves a variety of functions, both text-internally and -externally, and these overlap with the uses and functions of code-switching in speech. Literary code-switching has recently received serious attention from scholars, who have shown that one of its uses is to differentiate between aspects of a character. The genre of comics, which offers a wealth of multilingual and multi-identity characters to investigate, is therefore a prime resource for researching literary code-switching. This study looks at the books with two costumed superheroes for whom code-switching has been a prominent feature, Black Lightning and Supergirl. Black Lightning code-switches between Standard English and a more informal variety to help disguise his true identity, while Supergirl code-switches between English and her first language (Kryptonian) with both friends and foes. Black Lightning’s code-switching represents a stark and conscious choice: when he is fighting crime, he switches into a “street-style patter” (Isabella 2016); when he is out of costume, he uses Standard English. For Supergirl, the lines are a bit more blurred and she is not always able choose which language to use, although in metalinguistic commentary she expresses her desire to use Kryptonian with her close friends and family, as well as her feelings about code-switching. Together, the use of code-switching by these characters shows that many of the same functions of literary code-switching are present in comics, although they may be used in ways unique to the genre and its conventions. In addition, the Black Lightning and Supergirl books show that code-switching is a way in which comic writers can develop character traits and distinguish between the alter-egos of characters.

Presentation type: 
Scheduled on: 
Thursday, November 8, 11:00 am to 12:15 pm

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