Multimodality Talks Series: “Relevance: The Key Principle of All Communication”

Day:  26 November 2021

Time: 12:00 – 13:30 GMT

Place: online

Speaker: Charles Forceville, Associate Professor in the Film/Media Studies department of Universiteit van Amsterdam, NL (

To attend the talk, register here:

About this event

The humanities are in need of a general, all-encompassing model of communication. The contours of such a model actually already exist: Relevance Theory: Communication and Cognition (Blackwell 1986). In this monograph anthropologist Dan Sperber and linguist Deirdre Wilson claim that Paul Grice’s four “maxims of conversation” (of quantity, quality, relation, and manner) can actually be reduced to a single one: the maxim of relevance. RT’s central claim is that each act of communication comes with the presumption of its own optimal relevance to the envisaged audience. Hitherto, however, RT scholars (virtually all: linguists) have almost exclusively analysed face-to-face exchanges between two people who stand next to each other. The type of communication studied is thus predominantly verbal (perhaps supported by gestures and facial expressions). 

In order to fulfil RT’s potential to develop into an inclusive theory of communication, it is necessary to explore how it can be adapted and refined to account for (1) communication in other modes than (only) the spoken verbal mode; and for (2) mass-communication. In Visual and Multimodal Communication: Applying the Relevance Principle (Oxford UP 2020) I take a first step toward this goal by proposing how RT works for mass-communicative messages that involve static visuals. In my presentation I will first provide a crash course in “classic” RT for non-linguists, and go on to demonstrate how the theory can be (made) applicable to visual and multimodal communication. Examples discussed include: logos & pictograms; print advertisements; and cartoons. 

Importantly, RT is no less but also no more than a model, and has little to contribute to the analysis of specific instances of communication. Therefore, RT cannot replace other theories and approaches that provide analytical models for interpreting specific discourses, such as (social) semiotics, narratology, and stylistics. It only aims to provide an all-encompassing communication model within which the insights from other approaches can be put to optimal use. 

Optional preparation for the talk: read (2800 words) and/or watch (6 minutes).

Biographical information: Charles Forceville is associate professor in the Film/Media Studies department of Universiteit van Amsterdam, NL ( The key theme in his research is the question how visuals, alone or in combination with other modes, convey meaning. Committed to cognitivist and relevance-theoretic approaches, he writes on multimodality in various genres and media (fiction film, documentary, animation, advertising, comics & cartoons, pictograms & traffic signs, pictures in children’s books). In 1996, he published Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising (Routledge). With Eduardo Urios-Aparisi he co-edited Multimodal Metaphor (Mouton de Gruyter, 2009); with Tony Veale and Kurt Feyaerts Creativity and the Agile Mind (Mouton de Gruyter, 2013); and with Assimakis Tseronis Multimodal Argumentation and Rhetoric in Media Genres (Benjamins, 2017). His monograph Visual and Multimodal Communication: Applying the Relevance Principle appeared in 2020 with Oxford University Press.

Under his guidance, students of HKU Utrecht made a series of five short animation film on narratology (and one on the JOURNEY metaphor), available on YouTube (2014-2019). Forceville has profiles on Researchgate and

You’ll receive the link to join the meeting upon registration.

*Announcement: This talk has been postponed from the initial announcement (November 12th), and now is scheduled for November 26th. We will use the same Zoom link that is sent to you upon registration through the Eventbrite page. This means there is no need to re-register for this event. Please kindly cancel the registration only if you are unable to attend, so that others can join. We apologise for any convenience this may have caused. Thank you for your understanding.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s