Subtitles are standard and widely accepted forms of language translation in films and other video-related media in the Western world, predominantly in America. Any on-screen manipulation of subtitles or usage that is not standard to subtitling is commonly done to create humor. Standard subtitles are meant to be nondescript. They are displayed in a way that attempts not to detract from the scene, meant as aids for understanding a character that speaks a different language or otherwise would not be understood by the intended audience; they are meant to be ignored if possible, only used when comprehension of the scene depends on them. This paper will dissect two transcripts of Internet videos that manipulate subtitles to create this novel humor. From this close analysis, it will be determined how the subtitles in these videos can be used as a vital instrument to discuss key language ideologies (generally-accepted assumptions about language) possessed by major English-speaking countries.¹
In their standard form, subtitles are present for the utilitarian purpose of translation of on-screen speech or text. They are not a stand-alone source of humor. Because subtitles relate directly to language and its subcategories (lexicon, grammar, slang use), the American tendency of subjugating and categorizing people into hierarchical classes based off their grasp of English becomes evident. Terrence G. Wiley and Marguerite Lukes’s article, “English-Only and Standard English Ideologies in the U.S.”, analyzes multiple “assumptions underlying dominant U.S. ideologies regarding language diversity” including the monolingual ideology and the ideology of standard languagei. The first of Wiley and Lukes’s ideologies is the ideology of English monolinguism, which “sees English monolingualism as a normal – if not ideal – condition”ii. Monolingualism is the idea that only one language should be spoken in a given country. This is currently a sizable movement in popular and political culture around the U.S.
The second ideology explored by Wiley and Lukes is the standard language ideology, which is “used to position speakers of different varieties of the same language within a social hierarchy”iii. This ideology subjugates speakers of a language (even speakers of the “ideal” language of a country suggested by their preference in monolingualism) if they do not speak the exact standard of that language. They cannot have an accent, be part of a regional dialect, use a grammar variant, or speak using unusual slang. Combined, these ideologies create a tightly wound ball: to complete a conversation without suspicion, an individual in a given country, particularly the U.S., must both speak the premier language of that country and speak it unaccented. (Note that even some groups born and raised in the U.S. do not fit both these criteria.) Both of these ideologies relate back to social hierarchies, national unity, and cultural superiority.
Here, the term “ideology” adheres to Warren Olivo’s practice of it in “Quit Talking and Learn English!” using it in a “neutral sense… to refer to the particular beliefs held by social groups”iv instead of using it politically as with religious or other particular concepts. In this way, standard usage of subtitles could also constitute as an ideology. Throughout Western cinematic history, subtitles have been placed on a recording of an action or dialogue. Most times they are used to translate a foreign language (either spoken or written, but usually the former) into a textual language that is assumed to be more understandable by the target audience; other times they are used to clarify an utterance that is not aligned with a standard use of the target language (if, for examples, the speaker is accented or uses a regional or cultural dialect). Notice how these both use coincide with the linguistic ideologies by Wiley and Lukes described above. Most Western audiences are accustomed to a specific ideology of subtitles as utilitarian, simple, monochromatic, and not overly emotive. Subtitles are there to guide audiences through language barriers; they are an additive element, not one that is part of the main action of a sequence or noticeable by the characters within a sequence.
The widespread adherence to both the monolinguism and standard language mindsets bolsters the legitimacy of superiority theories in social constructs. The superiority theory of humor claims laughter is “an expression of a person’s feelings of superiority over others,” and can also be traced back to the writings of Plato and Aristotlev. The superiority theory is not a general theory of humor, but it asserts that many times (in both Western and non-Western settings) we laugh because we find the subject to be inferior to us and/or to the person responsible for the joke. Writer Albert Rapp suggests this theory of humor is equivalent of ancestral men giving a “roar of triumph in an ancient jungle duel”vi, both vocal, public acknowledgements of a recognition of superior status.
Situations in which subtitles break from their standard use are termed breaking the fourth wall. This is an expression used in cinema and theatre when actors talk directly to or reference the audience in some way. This effectively removes the normally sacred and untouchable barrier between the theatrical world one is watching and the “real” world one is invii. The cases examined in this paper have a form of this concept. However, instead of breaking the wall that leads them toward the audience and interacting with them, they are breaking into the setup of their very act. This barrier is normally just as sacred and untouchable as the fourth wall. These subtitles “become an intimate part of the film itself,” no longer existing “merely as a transposition or superimposition”viii. With that barrier broken, the subtitles seem to transform into a character themselves – not a physical being, but an omnipresent one that allows a greater contemplation into the depictions of the physical characters.
Thus, breaking the fourth wall of a sequence through the personification of otherwise standard subtitling allows us to take a critical look at English language-based ideologies and their subsequent influence on social concepts, such as the superiority theory of humor. The example transcripts below will assist in a discussion on what happens when subtitles are no longer a secondary, utilitarian element of a scene. In these examples, actors are aware of their presence, which breaks down the wall keeping the audience and the actors in separate spheres. Up until this point, the subtitles were in a limbo—separated from the actor’s universe but not truly part of the audience’s. Now, they link them together.
The first case study to highlight this concept is a transcript from a short sketch of an episode of the short-lived Australian sketch comedy television series, skitHOUSE, which ran from 2003-2004. In October 2004, the sketch appeared on YouTube from a source unaffiliated with skitHOUSE under the title News from Iraq. There are at least ten YouTube channels that posted the video and very few mention the sketch’s source. The three characters speak in English: the reporter with a light Australian accent and the terrorists with heavy Iraqi accents. The transcript² is as follows:
REPORTER: Once a stronghold of forces loyal to captured dictator Saddam Hussein, the city of Tikrit, here in Northern Iraq, is now firmly under the control of American forces. Or is it? These members of the Iraqi Resistance Movement, still loyal to Saddam Hussein, think otherwise.
TERRORIST A: The Americans tell lies. / Each day our forces grow stronger, / each day we move closer to our goal / of driving the infidel... / Wh...what are they?
R: Nothing. Carry on.
TA: …ah…driving the infidels from our motherland. / We are not afraid to / …are they subtitles? Th...they are, aren’t they?
TA: What do I need subtitles for? / Can’t you understand what I’m saying? / I studied English at the bloody / American University in Cairo.
R: Well, obviously, I can understand what you’re saying...
TA: Oh... you... you see how they condescend to us / with their subtitles.
TERRORIST B: Oh... Maybe it’s teletext, you know, for the hearing-impaired...
[TB pats shoulder of TA]
TB: No, a lot of TV’s come with teletext nowadays—
TA: Wai...wait. / Say something again.
TB: My friend has a—
TA: Hey!! How come he doesn’t need subtitles?
R: Well, obviously he’s comprehensible.
TA: Whaaa…and I’m not?
TA: I speak perfect English. / She sells sea shells / by the sea shore. / Peter piper picked a peck / of pickled peppers. / Round the ragged rocks / the ra... / dooorrghhh.
R: The situation remains as dangerous and volatile as ever, here in Northern Iraq. While the rebuilding continues...
[TA reappears in background of video]
TA: What? What? / I can’t understand you! / Speak English! / Where are your subtitles? / Oooh! You think you’re so good! / Look at me. / I don’t need subtitles.
R: Terry Downs, Iraq.
At first, the terrorists act as some Westerners may have come to suppose is “normal” of Middle Eastern terrorists, garnered from threatening videos of years prior. Terrorist A begins as a (highly stereotyped) characterization of a terrorist with his covered head, only dark facial hair visible, and a monotone voice. This is everything Westerners want to see terrorists as: robotic, not individual, not human. Since Americans especially prize individualism, these “terrorists” are immediately deemed un-American, un-Western, and due to that, somewhat inferior. Wiley and Lukes discuss this general ideology – the ideology of individualism – and other social ideologies that link to the abovementioned linguistic ideologiesx. These ideologies reinforce any notions Westerners have about feeling “superior” to this Orientalized Other. These men are not individuals, which is generally seen as a pitiable or inferior quality in Western nations, thus calling to attention the superiority theory of humor.
Whether the subtitle is present because of a foreign language or a difficult dialect, the producers of the subtitled film or video have set up a marker of linguistic ideologies. The viewer does not get to decide; it is decided for them.
From the beginning, the presence of the subtitles, even in standard form, helps differentiate the “Us” from the “Other.” Curti discusses York professor Ian Balfour’s position on this concept, claiming, “Subtitles are the marks of difference, the written words that visibly render the voice of another language, and in such a way as to render the original foreign from the very start”xi. The presence of a subtitle is an indication that
you, as an audience, are not expected to linguistically understand what is about to be spoken. It suggests something unlike you – something or someone you would be unable to converse with, thus someone you most likely do not see daily. Whether the subtitle is present because of a foreign language or a difficult dialect, the producers of the subtitled film or video have set up a marker of linguistic ideologies. The viewer does not get to decide; it is decided for them. In News from Iraq, this Otherness and ideologies are indicated immediately. He is clearly speaking English. His grammar and vocabulary are those of English-speaking countries. Still, some vocabulary is slightly unusual to the “Us”—the intended audience of the video—and his accent is pronounced (although not too heavy to be incomprehensible). In fact, part of the humor of the sketch is that he truly is rather comprehensible. His English is good, but not perfect; it is clear he will never be able to achieve an idealistic, unaccented standard dialect.
The line “…are they subtitles?” is the first tangible switch in power. Before this point, he was only considered “lesser” because he had subtitles, a mostly automatic and subconscious assumption by viewers. Now,
he has broken the fourth wall. Not only are we, as viewers, at least subconsciously aware of his inferiority, he is now aware, too. The subtitles are now extremely important and begin to work as a tangible element or prop in the sketch. They are now a perceptible part of the scene to everyone involved both within the scene and for the audience. At one point, Terrorist A groans, “Oh... you... you see how they condescend to us / with their subtitles,” vocally admitting to the existence of prejudice by ideological standards of English. Even though he is of, presumably, Iraqi descent and upbringing, he miraculously knows of and believes in the existence of a linguistic subjugation based on the linguistic ideologies of monolingualism and standard language. At another point, Terrorist A yells, “Speak English!” at the reporter, in mock of the phrase that has popularized itself throughout the U.S. and possibly other English-speaking countries: “This is America; speak English!” Sentiments like these reveal a hierarchical superiority not only of languages, but of social and ethnic groups as well. These utterances may be a “covert racist discourse".xii
However, a few YouTube comments³ show that not everyone fell victim to partaking in the mindset of Wiley and Lukes’s linguistic ideologies:
John Andrew – The sketch itself is not poking fun at Iraqis, it is poking fun at the TV industry which arbitrarily subtitles people based on accent. Actually, it’s not making a political point, it’s just bloody funny.
This commenter either disagrees with or does not recognize any displays of English-speaking nation linguistic superiority at work within the sketch. His point finds validity in the fact that only one terrorist in the sketch was subtitled – Terrorist B spoke a few times (with the same accent as Terrorist A) and was never subtitled.
The fact that Terrorist A reacts so negatively and immaturely against these subtitles “proves” his childish inferiority and further verifies the ideologies set forth by Wiley and Lukes. This reaction and resulting concession of power Terrorist A results in laughter from the original recorded and virtual audience of viewers.
Terrorist A confirms that the English
linguistic ideologies are working against him with his inane, childish reaction to the subtitles (yelling, making excuses, stomping away, mocking). Once this is in place, there is laughter. This laughter validates the superiority theory of humor. It is continuous; due to linguistic ideologies, viewers feel superior, and because they feel superior, they laugh. In “A Holo-Cultural Study of Humor,” Finnegan and Richard Alford discuss study results of what people around the globe find humorous and suggestions as to why they do. He also lists three different types of “humor specialists,” including a clown (“an individual who intentionally creates humor, with himself or herself as the target”) and a fool (“an individual who is the unintentional butt or target of the laughter of others”).xiii Although technically the actor of Terrorist A is playing a clown, the character himself is a fool, “defined as such by others in reaction to his or her departures from group norms of propriety".xiv Thus, as a fool, he does not adhere to norms, ideals, or ideologies held by the comparison group (in this case, English-speaking countries). As “laughter [is often] reported at the misfortune of others,”xv and it is misfortunate to be a fool, there is evidence of success of relating this sketch to the superiority theory of humor.
Terrorist A falsely associates correctness with pronunciation. This is a concept that most linguistics worldwide advocate against – but seems to hold fast in the minds of civilians as suggested by the standard language ideology (subjugating accents or dialects into a lower level of linguistic and thus social hierarchy). At one point he tries to prove his proficiency in English by reciting childhood tongue twisters he probably learned in his L2 English class. English-speaking children commonly use tongue twister contests as games to prove capability and superiority in pronunciation. As mentioned, pronunciation is sometimes considered an indication for a proper knowledge of English. The tongue twisters appear on-screen in sections, one clause at a time. They appear as one short row across the bottom of the screen, quickly replaced by the next section of alliterated text. Laughter ensues as Terrorist A tries to stop the “translator” – some off-screen unknown body who is in control of the text – to stop transcribing him. Such a person is never mentioned directly, but as the reporter and the subtitles act as one entity (both supposedly from the news outlet and represent the Western world), his anger and frustration is targeted at them collectively. Terrorist A is being pushed to see himself as linguistically inferior to both the reporter and the terrorists behind him (presumably of lesser status in their group), both of whom he probably saw himself superior to at the start of the sketch.
Who is to blame for this supposed “failure” of Terrorist A’s English? Terrorist A begins with the assumption that he is comprehensible. This belief is overturned once he sees the subtitles, and he goes on to point a finger at an American university: “I studied English at the bloody / American University in Cairo.” Thus, vocally, he blames the University instead of blaming himself. However, he does become vehemently and childishly upset, actions that insinuate that he realizes that his accent is his own “failure.” The view that accents are “failures” comes from strict following of the linguistic ideologies, implying that “educational failure and failure to master standard English are individual problems rather than a result of systematic, institutional inequity between groups”.xvi With this anger at his own accent, Terrorist A is established as even more of a “fool” as he essentially admits to failure.
Western nations want to see terrorists as inferior and profoundly “Other,” because if they do there is less cause for fear (at least temporarily). Oriol Pi-Sunyer discusses the uses of humor and jokes when dealing with political upheaval in his 1977 article “Political Humor in the Dictatorial State: The Case of Spain.” In it he discusses that media using humor to alleviate anxieties is especially characteristic of the initial and terminal phases of a period of war or political unrest: in the beginning, it is because of the ruthless regime policies; towards the end, it is because personal dictatorships always pose questions concerning the nature of succession.xvii The original release date of this video on Australian television is unavailable online, the sketch directly references a recent takeover of Tikrit which happened in April 2003. This is within the same moment that many Western nations assumed the war would soon be over.xviii Pi-Sunyar claims, “Humor constituted a form of resistance in which anyone could participate”.xix This resistance is constituted by the recognition that the US and their allies (which includes the video’s origin country, Australia) have finally moved into what they assumed to be the terminal phase of the Iraq War, and the recognition that the US and their allies now hold the upper hand. They are now superior. The resistance in this case is rational hope, something that civilians and military officials alike had been waiting for and were relieved to receive.
However, not all English “deficiencies” are created equal. This concept of subtitles forcing a critical look at English-based ideologies and subsequent social influence can be taken further. Consider for instance the former YouTube user fad of “translated babies.” In February 2011, an American home video of male twin toddlers having a “conversation” through cryptophasic speech (homemade twin speech incomprehensible to anyone except the twins) became popular on YouTube. Soon, a further fad erupted from the first as Internet users began to add English subtitles to the video, creating a “pseudo-translated” dialogue of the babbling. In these cases, the subtitles use a lexicon and register of sophistication that does not fit that of the video’s original context.
Many of the most popular pseudo-translations imagined the twins as having an in-depth conversation about politics. Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show, Conan, decided to respond to the original video as well as the mass of pseudo-translations with his own:⁴
CONAN: Really cute viral video going around right now. Have you seen this, of twin babies talking to each other? .... Well anyway, I hired a child linguistic expert to try to figure out what the little babies are saying. He cracked it! It’s amazing, take a look.
cut to clip]
TWIN A: Obviously, Gadhafi has to go. / But can the rebels establish a true democracy?
TWIN B: Da-da-da-da-da!
A: Walter, I’ve had it up to here with your gibberish!
B: Da-da-da-da! [turns face to refrigerator] Ma-ma.
A: What the hell? / Did you just call the fridge “Momma?”
A: Yes, you did. You called the fridge “Momma.” / Moron!
Like News from Iraq, O’Brien’s video begins on a more serious tone. Unlike the News from Iraq, the indication of a parody is immediately evident to almost any audience as a toddlers’ babbling is not a legitimately “translatable” language, and thus the content of subtitles must be fictional creations. This example does not necessarily break the fourth wall in the same way as News from Iraq. The babies are not aware that they have been subtitled, although veil of the standard subtitle is still lifted through manipulation of them. Instead of breaking the fourth wall, the subtitles simply break character instead, in a way that still brings them to the closer attention and inspection of viewers. The titles are present to give the interaction referential meaning; their presence indicates that this conversation is one that has intent, significance, and context, despite the babbling we as adults hear. Both toddlers are given subtitles and are thus could both be viewed as “Other” or “foreign,” views that commonly accompany subtitles. However, they are held to a different standard, somehow able to bypass the importance of English-speaker linguistic ideologies.
The conversation is nonsensical; it is one baby telling another baby that his English is not developed. This may be commenting on the incredibly high standards held by Americans and Western nations regarding English speaking: the linguistic ideologies create social hierarchies that are unreasonably held. English (or any language for that matter) is not learned at the flick of a light switch, as Toddler A implies. He even uses “adult” language against Toddler B – asking “What the hell?” and eventually calling Toddler B a moron.
Toddler A calling his brother a “moron” implies that he is a “fool” as Terrorist A was depicted (recall that a “fool” is “an individual who is the unintentional butt or target of the laughter of others”xxi). The superiority theory of humor gains validity both within the sketch and outside of it. Toddler A considers Toddler B to be linguistically (and thus mentally) inferior. His belief in the linguistic ideologies of English allows him to feel superior: the only word his brother can say is “Ma-ma,” and he is not even referencing the correct object in doing so (“Did you just call the fridge Momma?”). Toddler B is incomprehensible and is slow to adhere to the expected monolingualism of his country. Anything less is undesirable (“I’ve had it up to here with your gibberish!”). There is also a second, outside layer to the adherence to the superiority theory of humor. As English-speaking audience members, we do not expect toddlers to be capable of an ideological standard language. Toddler A, although given English subtitles, is still linguistically inferior to adult speakers of English and laughing at him being given adult lines is a way of mocking him (although not in a derogatory way). We, as competent English users, do not believe him capable of this speech. Using subtitles to lend him adult speech mocks his true incompetence and failures to adhere to English linguistic ideologies. We are linguistically superior. Nonetheless, Western civilization is unusual in that, “from birth on, the infant is treated as a social being and as an addressee [those who absorb the dialogue spoken by others] in social interaction”.xxii Participants in conversations are labeled with different roles that are ranked hierarchically. However, children are never expected to respond back as animators (those who give voice to dialogue) beyond their assumed experience and linguistic level, as the toddlers do via subtitles in this video. Animators are ranked highly due to their activeness in conversation.xxiii Thus, as children in Western countries are not expected to be anything more than an addressee, they are inferior.
Seeing “da-da-da-da” as a subtitle, in text and in place of English, could play a few roles. First, it allows viewers to realize their own adherence to linguistic ideologies and standards. Since Toddler A spoke in such an adult manner with his first line, the audience expects Toddler B to do the same (as he had in every other pseudo-translation created by internet users before the Conan video was released). However, when the da’s are translated and transcribed as da’s, the audience laughs; unintelligible speech is unintelligible speech in any language. Second, seeing the da’s as a subtitle also encourages adult viewers to question why standards are so high, and mocks these viewers for taking language so seriously.
From this, it is common for adults to apply a “masking of incompetence”,xxiv so children do not recognize that they are behind adult humans in language and/or intelligence. This forgiveness is fascinating in comparison to the previous example of News from Iraq. One day, these children will supposedly reach the point of standard English. Until then, they are non-English speakers. Due to age, however, this is acceptable. It is the only “acceptable” or “forgivable” variant from the standard form or monolingualism. Most likely, this is because those advocating for and validating English linguistic ideologies were once in the position of being a child with a lesser grasp of English. These people will never be immigrants or foreigners learning English as a second language, therefore, the ideologies are left null and void when it comes to young speakers of English, such as these babies.
In conclusion, the analysis of nonstandard uses of subtitles allows a distinctive, critical consideration of certain ideologies held by English-speaking countries and populaces, particularly America and Americans. These ideologies are further developed by a critical look at how and why humor is achieved through these nonstandard uses of subtitles. There are very strict rules for being allowed to break or not adhere to the linguistic ideologies brought forth by Wiley and Lukes. Those being primed to be L1 English speakers are forgiven for their original incomprehensibility. Their “insufficient” English does not hinder their future social status. However, L2 English learners are held down in social hierarchies due to linguistic ideologies like monolingualism and standard language. Humor is one excellent avenue to inspect these issues. The cycle is present throughout these examples and others that act similarly: due to linguistic ideologies, English-capable viewers unconsciously feel superior to non English-capable characters and because they feel superior, they laugh. Linguistic ideologies create forms of social hierarchies common throughout everyday life and popular media. This issue increases in significance as immigration levels rise in America as the superiority beliefs of native English speakers against these incoming non-native English speakers spring from linguistic ideologies, thus hindering even non-linguistic aspects of assimilation. Acknowledging casual linguistic bias is the first step in breaking down barriers hindering assimilation between two or more cultural, ethnic, or national groups.
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i Terrence G. Wiley and Marguerite Lukes, “English-Only and Standard English Ideologies in the U.S.,” TESOL Quarterly 30, no. 3 (1996): 511-512.
ii Wiley and Lukes, “English-Only,” TESOL Quarterly: 514.
iii Wiley and Lukes, “English-Only,” TESOL Quarterly: 511.
iv Warren Olivo, “Quit Talking and Learn English!: Conflicting Language Ideologies in an ESL Classroom,” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2003): 51.
v John Morreall, “A New Theory of Laughter,” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition 42, no. 2 (1982): 243-224.
vi Morreall, “A New Theory,” Philosophical Studies: 244.
vii Allison M. Rittmayer, “Translation and Film: Slang, Dialects, Accents, and Multiple Langauges,” Translation: Comparative Perspectives 3, no. 1 (2009): 12.
viii Giorgio Hadi Curti, “Beating words to life: subtitles, assemblage(s)capes, expression,” GeoJournal 74, no. 3 (2009): 204.
ix chayedan, Terrorist Interview, video, 1:45, Mar. 24, 2006, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqTKBI1ImTw.
x Wiley and Lukes, “English-Only,” TESOL Quarterly: 516.
xi Curti, “Beating words to life,” GeoJournal: 204.
xii Jane Hill, The Everyday Language of White Racism (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 120.
xiii Finnegan Alford and Richard Alford, “A Holo-Cultural Study of Humor,” Ethos 9, no. 2 (1981): 160.
xv Alford and Alford, “A Holo-Cultural Study,” Ethos: 154.
xvi Wiley and Lukes, “English-Only,” TESOL Quarterly: 517.
xvii Oriol Pi-Sunyer, “Political Humor in a Dictatorial State: The Case of Spain,” Ethnohistory 24, no. 2 (1977): 185.xviii “Major Fighting in Iraq ‘Essentially Over’ – US,” The Irish Times, last modified Apr. 14, 2003, http://www.irishtimes.com/news/major-fighting-in-iraq-essentially-over-u....
xix Pi-Sunyer, “Political Humor,” Ethnohistory: 179.
xx Conan O’Brien, Arguing Babies Translated, Television, TBS, Feb 14, 2011.
xxi Alford and Alford, “A Holo-Cultural Study,” Ethos: 160.
xxii Elinor Ochs and Bambi B. Schieffelin, “Language Acquisition and Socialization: Three Developmental Stories and Their Implications,” in Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader, edited by Alessandro Duranti (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 302.
xxiii Judith Irvine, “Shadow Conversations: The Indeterminacy of Participant Roles,” in Natural Histories of Discourse, ed. Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban (Chicago: University