What is it about?

This chapter proposes that Sperber and Wilson's relevance theory, which saw the light of day in a monograph published in 1986, can be developed into an all-inclusive model of communication by demonstrating its applicability to visual and multimodal discourse.

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Why is it important?

The humanities are in need of an inclusive model of communication. At present, many theories and approaches (including conceptual metaphor theory, blending theory, rhetoric, stylistics, narratology, semiotics ...) account for vital parts of communication processes, but none of them is general enough to fulfill that overarching role. Relevance theory, I argue, has the potential to take up this position. But to fulfill its promise, what is required is that it can accommodate not just the spoken communication between two individuals that is the bread and butter of "classic RT," but also visual and multimodal mass-communication. Crucially, RT cannot replace other paradigms, but provides a framework within which key insights from these other paradigms can optimally come into their own.


This paper, along with a few others, anticipates my monograph Visual and Multimodal Communication: Applying the Relevance Principle, scheduled to appear with Oxford University Press in 2020. This book argues among other things that the relevance principle is commensurate with gene-culture co-evolution; reinforces humans' natural inclination to cooperate; retains "classic" RT principles where possible, and adapts them where necessary; and claims that genre is the single most important pragmatic factor steering the interpretation of mass-communicative discourse. Case studies pertain to the following genres: pictograms, advertisements, cartoons, and comics.

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: 2. Relevance Theory as model for analysing visual and multimodal communication, De Gruyter, DOI: 10.1515/9783110255492.51.
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