A linguistic look at Hey Arnold!

Arnold is the prototypical 4th grader.  He’s a football-headed, jazz and baseball-loving boy who lives in the city in a multi-racial boarding house with his grandparents, pet pig and numerous others.  Okay, so maybe he’s not the average kid.  The great part of Hey Arnold is the fact that his life is ordinary in the most extraordinary ways possible.  Arnold’s everyday life brings him into contact with people from all different kinds of races, cultures and dialects.  For example, Arnold hangs out with his African American best friend and lives with an Asian American and a man from the former Czechoslovakia.  Language plays an extremely important (albeit sometimes subtle) role in the television show.  While the majority of dialects can be described as Standard English, differing dialects symbolize much more.  In the ten episodes I have assessed for this project, (“6th Grade Girls,” “The Baseball,” “Gerald vs. Jamie O,” “Heat,” “Snow,” “The List,” “The Haunted Train,” “Operation: Ruthless,” “The Vacant Lot” and “Baby Oskar”) there are many varying dialects.  From the superstandard English of nerds and the covert prestige of the working class to African American Vernacular English, code-switching from English to Spanish and Asian, Czech and New York accented English, the show presents many different dialects while also often using them in stereotypical ways.

First, let’s look at some of the lesser represented dialects in the show.  Asian Americans are shown in three of the ten episodes, including “Operation: Ruthless,” “The Vacant Lot” and “Snow.”  Two of the episodes include Mr. Hyunh, whose English is characterized with a lack of helping verb usage and non-distinct pronunciation of [l] and [r] ([r] shifts to [l]) (Bartlett).  The other episode, “Operation: Ruthless” shows another Asian American, Phoebe Heyerdahl, as a nerd, whose English incorporates many released consonants at the end of words (Bartlett).  We will take a look at minority nerd English later in this assessment as well.  Rosina Lippi-Green describes how Asian accents have associations less with origin, and more with race, thus making them easily stereotyped.  “We are uncomfortable with Asians unless they correspond to the stereotypes we have created for them” (Lippi-Green 227).  Although neither character is necessarily shown in a negative light, they are presented in stereotypical ones that the audience can easily identify with.  Mr. Hyuhn fits the language stereotypes already associated with Asian English, and Phoebe fits the stereotype of highly intelligent Asians.

While one way of speaking presents a character as intelligent, another one can show the opposite.  The character Oskar Kokoshka speaks a Czech-accented form of English.  Oskar is unintelligent and lazy, and the accent seems to add to this personification.  In the episodes “Heat,” “Snow” and “Baby Oskar,” Oskar is depicted as asking a lot of questions and exaggerating vowels in a way that [I] shifts to [i], like in the example “Where’s my sandwich [s{ndwic<]?” (Bartlett).  An ironic thing to note is that Oskar’s wife balances him in both character and language.  She is very hard working and speaks a Standard English dialect.  Oskar and his wife Suzie’s dialects show that language can be used to say something about people’s personality traits.

The show also uses language to say something about the working class and their covert prestige.  In “The Baseball,” “The List” and “The Haunted Train,” working class people such as a stadium guard, movers and steel mill workers are depicted using covert prestige within their language.  They don’t use English in a prescriptivist manner, such as when one of the steel mill workers says “What’d you think it were?” (Bartlett).  Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes describe covert prestige as a form of dialect that is positively valued apart from their social significance for the wider society.  These workers share solidarity with their social position and speak accordingly.  Some of the stigmatized features that might be included with this type of prestige include nonstandard subject-verb agreement as we saw with the above example (Wolfram, Schilling-Estes 184).  Wolfram further describes working-class language in Language in the USA.  “For example, working-class men may use vernacular variants as a means of projecting power rather than covert prestige, since working-class men traditionally have held occupations associated with physical toughness and manliness (and hence vernacular language features) rather than with advanced education” (Wolfram 71).  With this, the working-men are less concerned with what type of prestige their language variant carries, and more with how their peers view their language as a form of toughness and a depiction of their lifestyles.

Another example we see of covert prestige is a New York dialect spoken on the show.  A postvocalic r-lessness is present in the episodes “The Vacant Lot,” “6th Grade Girls” and “Baby Oskar.”  Both men and women are shown as users of this dialect.  Examples include Mrs. Vitello saying, “Arnold [anold] this is no place for a baseball game!” in “The Vacant Lot” and Connie saying, “You think? You’re [y@] bad Maria, I swear [swe@]” in “6th Grade Girls” (Bartlett).  These women are somewhat white collar characters (Mrs. Vitello owns a flower shop and Connie is a middle school student), but their accent does not necessarily have any negative connotation.  However, in Language in the USA, Dennis R. Preston describes how other areas of the country view New York dialects somewhat negatively.  “New York City (NYC) English is a prejudiced-against variety by both Michigan and Alabama speakers for both ‘correct’ and ‘pleasant’ dimensions.  Aware of the low regard in which their variety is held, New Yorkers have, as a rule, severe ‘linguistic insecurity’” (Preston 489).  However, the users in these examples do not experience linguistic insecurity – a pressure to speak a more prestigious form – because they are in situation in which a covert prestige is accepted.  The men who speak this dialect in “Baby Oskar” are shown as gambling, ne’er-do-wells, and are clearly asserting their “toughness” and disregard of stigmatized dialects with covert prestige.  “The notion of covert prestige is important in understanding why vernacular speakers do not rush to become standard dialect speakers, even when these speakers may evaluate the social significance of linguistic variation in a way that superficially matches that of their high-status counterparts” (Wolfram, Schilling-Estes 184).  With this, we see how these speakers of New York dialects don’t experience linguistic insecurity because they are in situations where they feel that their dialect is socially acceptable, but at the same time, viewers at home might see these characters in a negative light due to their use of a less correct and pleasant dialect.

The episode “6th Grade Girls” is the only one that shows Chicano English, but it is also full of many great examples.  The character Maria code-switches between English and Spanish, using Spanish words such as chicos, locos, stupidos and por favor.  She also has instances of postvocalic r-lessness, such as in the sentence, “Hey vato, why don’t you come over [ov@] here [hi@]” (Bartlett).  Numerous times, Maria says “you guys” and ends sentences with the hedge “you know?”  She often pronounces English words the way they would be pronounced if they were in Spanish, merging [I] and [i] like in the word “kids,” which sounds like [kids].  Occasionally, she will also pronounce “you” as [ǰu], in moments where she seems to be asserting herself.  An interesting thing to note is that when Arnold meets Maria’s father, he speaks only with a New York accent and does not show signs of a Chicano accent.  Carmen Fought describes how some speakers have conflicting views of code-switching, suggesting that using it in public contexts leads to confusion.  “On the other hand, a number of young speakers in many communities also have positive attitudes about code-switching, and see a specific link between this practice and ethnic identity” (Fought 78).  The show’s depiction of Chicanas (Maria is the only Latina character in the ten episodes, not including her father) might seem stereotypical due to its representation of Chicano English and code-switching.  However, it can also be seen as a representation of a young woman being proud of her culture and fully incorporating it into her language.

While we see a very distinct representation of Chicano English used by a Chicana character, we do not see the same usage of African American Vernacular English by African American characters.  Although African Americans appear in nine of the ten episodes, only four episodes have clear-cut usage of AAVE.  The only African American character who speaks primarily in AAVE is Harvey the mailman, who is in three episodes of the ten included in this assessment.  In “The Vacant Lot,” Harvey says, “Say man, my chickens need some room to move around.  Don’t fence ‘em in, man” (Bartlett).  In “Snow,” Harvey is shown rhythmically talking about how he hates the snow (Bartlett).  H. Samy Alim describes how African Americans’ language has been shaped and what makes it different from Standard English.  “English it may be in terms of some of its lexical features.  But in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English” (Alim 392).  Harvey’s speech perfectly fits this.  While he is speaking English, the rhythm of his words makes it far from what we see as Standard.

Although Harvey continuously speaks AAVE, the same cannot be said for the other African American characters, and their use of language is very interesting to observe.  First, let’s look at the character Chloe from the episode “Gerald vs. Jamie O.”  Chloe seems to almost purposely stray away from an AAVE dialect, choosing to speak in a superstandard way, as in the example, “Actually if you don’t mind, I’d prefer something a little more nutritious” (Bartlett).  In this sentence, Chloe enunciates all of her words and puts strong emphasis on released [t]s, while also speaking in a way that makes her seem higher-class.  Chloe has a crush on Gerald’s older brother Jamie O., and perhaps her use of language further shows that she is attempting to look mature by talking in a “proper” way.  Once again, we see a minority character speaking more of a “nerd” dialect.  It is interesting to take this into account while thinking about Mary Bucholtz’s The Whiteness of Nerds.  “The present article addresses this question by offering an example of a white identity that is nonnormative, nonhegemonic, and highly marked in the local racial economy” (Bucholtz 85).  These styles of speech are racially marked because they do not comply with the local ideologies of racial appropriateness.  In this case, Chloe is perhaps trying to make herself seem more intelligent by using a typically white dialect that is associated with a different type of privilege than AAVE is.

Chloe uses a superstandard dialect to make herself appear intelligent, but other African American characters slip into AAVE only in instances to make them appear more masculine or cool.  The character Jamie O. does not always speak AAVE in the episode “Gerald vs. Jamie O.,” but when he does, he uses AAVE make a statement and assert himself (just as we saw Maria do with Chicano English).  Examples include “Yo little brother, get the lead out would you?” when Jamie O. wants Gerald to bring him food and show that because he is older, he is the one who has power (Bartlett).  Other examples include Jamie O.’s usage of the word “ain’t” when he is telling Chloe he is not interested in her and his dropping of [t] at the end of words as in the example “Let’s [lEz] go” (Bartlett).  Gerald does not appear to respond to Jamie O. with AAVE in this episode, but his usage in “6th Grade Girls” also says something about male African American usage of AAVE in the show.  Gerald takes his father’s chest from the 1970’s to use the clothes and catch up on good slang to use on him and Arnold’s date with Connie and Maria.  Gerald picks up lingo from a book called Cool Moves Fo’ Happenin’ Dudes, which follows what we might consider “jive” speech.  Once at the dance with the girls, Gerald starts saying the word “man” more frequently, as many African Americans in the show do when they are depicted using AAVE, and begins using more slang words such as “hip” and “mama.”  Gerald also says, “Check the vibe man, I cool” (Bartlett).  This actually might be an example of an incorrect usage of zero copula, considering Gerald is speaking in first person.  Also important to note is Arnold’s attempt to copy the speech, by saying “gotta” more often, but still showing his “whiteness” by emphasizing “I’m cool” (Bartlett).  These representations of AAVE are important in considering the assumptions many Americans have about the dialect.  John Baugh says that AAVE or Ebonics has been characterized as slang, lazy and ungrammatical, despite the fact that it really is a language in its own right (Baugh 306).  Perhaps these negative connotations in public perception are why Bartlett chose to not depict every African American character using AAVE all the time.  However, we also see that AAVE has a symbolic capital that makes it cool or masculine in its usage.  “So ‘language’ in HHNL [Hip Hop Nation Language] obviously refers not only to the syntactic constructions of the language but also to the many discursive and communicative practices, the attitudes toward language, understanding the role of language in both binding/bonding community and seizing/smothering linguistic opponents, and language as concept (meaning clothes, facial expressions, body movements, and overall communication” (Alim 393).  Clearly, when characters use AAVE, it goes beyond just using a dialect form.  It encompasses a whole persona.

Hey Arnold! is a show about a 4th grade boy, but it is also so much more.  Every day, Arnold comes into contact with speakers of all kinds of dialects.  While often times it is easy to just overlook these many different linguistic varieties, it is also important to look at the deeper importance, symbolism and stereotypes that are associated with these uses of language.

Works Cited

Alim, H. Samy. “Hip Hop Nation Language.” Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century. New York City: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Bartlett, Craig. “6th Grade Girls/The Baseball.” Hey Arnold! Nickelodeon. 4 Nov. 1996. Television.

Bartlett, Craig. “Ghost Bride/Gerald vs. Jamie O.” Hey Arnold! Nickelodeon. 11 Nov. 2003. Television.

Bartlett, Craig. “Heat/Snow.” Hey Arnold! Nickelodeon. 11 Nov. 1996. Television.

Bartlett, Craig. “List, The/The Haunted Train.” Hey Arnold! Nickelodeon. 25 Nov. 1996. Television.

Bartlett, Craig. “Operation: Ruthless/The Vacant Lot.” Hey Arnold! Nickelodeon. 18 Nov. 1996. Television.

Bartlett, Craig. “Weird Cousin/Baby Oskar.” Hey Arnold! Nickelodeon. 9 Oct. 1999. Television.

Baugh, John. “Ebonics and its controversy.” Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century. Ed. Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford. New York City: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Bucholtz, Mary. “The Whitness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 11 (2001): 84-100.

Fought, Carmen. “Latino Groups.” Language and Ethnicity. New York City: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent. New York City: Routledge, 2006.

Preston, Dennis R. “Language Attitudes to Speech.” Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century. Ed. Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford. New York City: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English. Second ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

Wolfram, Walt. “Social Varieties of American English.” Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century. Ed. Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford. New York City: Cambridge UP, 2006.


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