Crocs in `Pearls' have a language all their own

December 13, 2005|By CHASE SQUIRES | CHASE SQUIRES,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Hullo, Zeeba Neighba ...

The characters of the daily comics have distinct voices inside our heads. Bucky Katt from Get Fuzzy has a Boston accent. Hagar the Horrible sounds like Ralph Kramden. The Pattersons of For Better or For Worse sound like Canadians, if they lived in Wisconsin.

And then, there are the crocodiles. The dimwitted, zebracidal crocs from Stephan Pastis' Pearls Before Swine tie us in linguistic knots. What's that accent? Brooklyn? Cajun? Southern?

"Hullo, zeeba neighba. ... Leesten ... me want say sorry for tings we does and geeve you nice paypahweight as token of newfound frensheep," one of the crocodiles tells his zebra neighbor in a November strip, offering a zebra-cousin's skull as a gift.

When the zebra is appalled at getting a murdered relative's skull as a gift, the croc apologizes: "Sorry. Me no have time to shop."

The crocodiles aren't very bright. They live only to kill and eat zebra and his kin, and even at that, they aren't very good.

But what's that accent?

"You wouldn't believe the speculation," Pastis said, speaking by phone from his North California home. "People are dead sure it's Cajun, Jamaican, Asian, Mexican, Russian, Greek, Yugoslavian, Polish. There are, like, 12 or 13 ethnicities. Everybody thinks they know. They say it as an aside, they say, `Oh, and by the way, that's not a perfect Polish accent.'"

Most of the time, they're wrong, said Pastis. Raised in California, his own speech is plain old American English. No hint of twang, drawl, valley girl or surfer dude.

The accent he hears for the crocodiles comes from inside his head, Pastis said. "When I first did their voice, before they got introduced as regular characters, I always heard Russian," he said. "When I say it to myself it's like, `Gooot mornin' neighba.' Kind of like how you would hear a Russian general. Then the rest of it breaks out into a whole bunch of stuff, so now it's just a hodgepodge. What it really is is like the broken syntax of Tarzan, or Frankenstein."

Pearls is still relatively new, developed as an Internet strip in 2000, reaching newspapers in 2002. In the beginning, the zebras were harassed by the dreaded lions. Pastis figured it would make the zebras more neurotic if their predators lived closer to home. But not to make it too dangerous, he made the crocodiles less than adept at hunting.

The idea came to him in the middle of the night, he said. He woke up and wrote it down.

For the characters, he drew from the old Saturday Night Live skit "As World Turn," featuring Tarzan, Frankenstein and Tonto. But there's a little of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, in there as well. Especially Willy Loman's son Biff. Beginning in the spring, a new crocodile, the dimmest of the bunch, will be named Biff, Pastis said.

Pastis said he gets more letters about the crocodiles than any other character.

T-shirts featuring the crocodiles (Crockydiles in the strip) outsell all the others at the Pearls Before Swine online store, Pastis said.

Pastis, a 37-year-old former attorney, said there may be one more piece to the crocodiles' development in his subconscious. Something that may go more to their motives than their accents.

"I hated being a lawyer," he said. "Maybe that's where I got the crocodiles from."

Chase Squires writes for the New York Times News Service.

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