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The Structure and Rhetoric of Multimodal Discourse

The Structure and Rhetoric of Multimodal Discourse

This project belongs to the following research constellations:



Cultural & Social Critique


Charles Forceville


Staff: Charles Forceville; Yuri Engelhardt, Gerwin van der Pol

Prospective PhD candidates: Liselotte Doeswijk; Gunnar Theodór Eggertsson; Raúl Niño Zambrano


Increasingly, verbal means of presenting information and arguments give way to multimodal means. Graphics and pictures in newspapers, commercials, manuals, course books, and airport environments carry a substantial information load. Documentaries and news reports convey their “facts” via a mix of images, language, and music. TV channels and broadcasting organizations create their identities largely via audiovisual designs. Websites and blogs combine verbal information with visuals and sometimes sounds, often providing considerable freedom in the order in which information is accessed. On the assumption that no representation is innocent or neutral in the sense that each has some purpose or objective, it is important to inventory and analyse how multimodal discourses are structured and (attempt to) achieve their rhetorical or aesthetic aims.

Areas of particular interest are:

(1) Multimodal metaphor. Lakoff and Johnson (1999) claim that we think metaphorically – indeed, that we cannot conceive of abstract things without metaphor. But their cognitivist metaphor paradigm hitherto largely ignores non-verbal manifestations. Forceville is particularly interested in the Source-Path-Goal schema (in film and games) and in the metaphorical representation of emotions (see Forceville 2005).

(2) Relevance Theory (Sperber & Wilson 1995). Hitherto, the very fruitful RT has mainly been applied to verbal communication in face-to-face situations. It needs to be applied to multimodal discourse genres, because both the theorization of these genres and the theory itself can benefit from the application.

(3) Graphic design. Engelhardt (2002) has charted and theorized the meaningful visual elements in maps, charts, and diagrams. His findings require further (dis)confirmation, and the link between visuals and language needs to be explored in more depth.

(4) The role of language in films. This area is vastly under-researched in film studies. One of the few exceptions is Kozloff (2000). Elements such as subtitling, dubbing, intonation, language options on DVDs, as well as the pragmatics of film language require sustained scholarly attention.

(5) Genres of special interest are (i) the documentary film – because of its supposedly privileged relation to “reality,” as well as because of the rhetorical and ethical perspectives it invites; (ii) comics & animation film – because they are considerably more under the control of their makers than photographs and live-action films, and thus are ideally suited for studying how non-mimetic signs convey significant information; and (iii) advertising – because this is the multimodal genre of persuasive discourse par excellence.


Launching PhD projects via ASCA and other funding sources; publication of Multimodal Metaphor (eds. Charles Forceville & Eduardo Urios-Aparisi); organization of Researching and Applying Metaphor, international workshop (2009, to be confirmed); article publications; Participation in the Centre for Creative Content and Technology.