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Review of  Multimodal Discourse Analysis

Reviewer: Betty Pun
Book Title: Multimodal Discourse Analysis
Book Author: Kay L O'Halloran
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 17.2791

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EDITOR: O'Halloran, Kay L.
TITLE: Multimodal Discourse Analysis
SUBTITLE: Systemic Functional Perspectives
SERIES: Open Linguistics Series
PUBLISHER: Continuum
YEAR: 2004

Betty Pun, School of Modern Language Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social
Sciences, University of New South Wales


Since the publication of Kress and van Leeuwen's (1990, 1996) exploration
of the 'grammar' of visual images, which takes Halliday's (1973, 1978,
2004) systemic-functional theory for language as their underlying
analytical approach, as well as O'Toole's (1994) systemic-functional
investigation of paintings, sculpture and architecture, there is a growing
interest in the field of multimodal studies and the application
systemic-functional theory for exploring multimodal discourse. A key
emphasis in the field of multimodality is the equal importance which both
linguistic and non-linguistic semiotic resources (such as visual images,
sound, and others) contribute to communicative purposes. Multimodal
Discourse Analysis represents one of the many recent research efforts in
further developing the 'meta-language' for multimodal studies.

It is indicated in the introductory chapter of Multimodal Discourse
Analysis that the main purpose of the book is to develop the theory and
practices for investigating multimodal texts (p. 1). The book consists of
research papers contributed by established scholars in the field of
multimodal studies, such as Michael O'Toole, Anthony Baldry, and Kay
O'Halloran, and researchers from the Semiotics Research Group (SRG) at the
National University of Singapore. The theoretical approach of the papers is
informed by Hallidayan metafunctional theory to language; and the types of
multimodal discourse that are examined range from material objects in
three-dimensional space, to electronic media and film, to print-based
texts. As some of the examined texts are based in Singaporean context, this
edited volume can to a certain extent be seen as a collection of critical
investigations on everyday discourses in Singapore (p. 2). In terms of
overall organisation, the book is made up of three parts, with each part
focussing on one of the three types of multimodal discourse.

Part I focuses on the semiotics of three-dimensional space; and it begins
with a metafunctional investigation of the Sydney Opera House by Michael
O'Toole. The paper illustrates the various semiotic choices that allow the
building to realise its practical or pragmatic function (for example, as a
site for theatre and concert performances), and the social relations
between the building and its users. It also discusses both the aesthetic
and compositional qualities of the Sydney Opera House. In exploring the
Sydney Opera House from a metafunctional perspective, the investigation
seeks to demonstrate the potential of systemic-functional theory in
extending the idea of 'functionalism' as understood and defined within the
field of architecture. That is, the qualities of architectural buildings
can be conceived in relation to their experiential (i.e. practical or
pragmatic), interpersonal (i.e. aesthetic) and textual (i.e. compositional)

Chapter two is a discussion by Alfred Pang; it presents a social semiotic
analysis of a museum exhibition at the Singapore History Museum. Drawing on
the concept of metafunctions, Martin's (2000) Appraisal Theory (for
examining the interpersonal stance inscribed in linguistic texts) and
O'Toole's rank-scale approach to visual arts, the analysis aims to
illustrate the co-contextualising relations of multiple meaning-making
resources (such as linguistic texts, photographs, the way in which the
displays are structured, and others) in the history exhibition, and how
such relations contribute to the communicative complexities as well as the
construction of (dominant) ideologies in the exhibition.

In chapter three, Safeyaton Alias explores the semiotic organisation of
space of Singapore's Orchard Road (a key shopping and entertainment
precinct) and Marriott Hotel. Similar to Pang, a key motive of Alias'
investigation is to examine the way in which prevailing ideologies within
the Singaporean society are manifested. As such, Singapore is treated as a
text that is both 'three-dimensional and multi-semiotic' (p. 60) in the
discussion. Like Pang, the underlying theoretical influence of Alias'
discussion is systemic-functional theory's metafunctional perspective of
communication and O'Toole's (1994) rank-scale approach. In examining the
organisation of spaces in and around Orchard Road and Marriott Hotel, for
instance, the way a prayer hall for Muslims and the Singaporean
Presidential Palace are located and presented to the public, the manner in
which foreign cultural influences (such as cafes which serve coffee and
burgers with outdoor seating) are foregrounded whilst local cultures are
backgrounded (e.g. hawker food stalls are confined at the basements of
buildings), the discussion suggests that both the political ideologies of
the Singaporean authorities, as well as the socio-economic demands of the
authorities (especially to present an image of sophistication to
Singapore), are reflected.

Part II of the book moves its attention to electronic media and film; and
it opens with Anthony Baldry's investigation on the role which computer
technology may play in exploring film texts. Taking the concepts of phase
and transition in phasal analysis (Gregory 1995, 2002; Gregory and Malcolm
1981) and the notions of type and instance (Baldry and Thibault 2001) as
points of departure, Baldry suggests that the incorporation of computer
technology, such as the Multimodal Corpus Authoring (MCA) System – a
concordancing tool which has been designed by Baldry for analysing film
texts, offers new potentials for better capturing and illuminating the
complex interplays of multiple semiotic resources in time-based multimodal
texts (such as film). This, in turn, also provides new possibilities in
discussing and understanding multimodal discourse in pedagogic context.

Kay O'Halloran further examines the possibilities which computer
technology, for instance, video-editing tool, multimodal concordancing
tool, offers in analysis of film texts in chapter five. The discussion
concentrates on the temporal and spatial dynamics in the visual semiosis in
film texts; and the notions of transition and rank underlie O'Halloran's
proposed framework for analysis. Like Baldry, a primary concern of
O'Halloran with regard to multimodal analysis of film is the difficulties
in capturing the dynamic interactions of various semiotic modalities in the
texts. Given the complex interplays of various visual resources in film
texts, O'Halloran notes that the points of transition (between different
phases) in such time-based multimodal texts are fluid rather than static.
O'Halloran further suggests a more dynamic understanding of the idea of
rank is needed when exploring film texts.

Chapter six focuses on electronic media. It presents an examination by
Arthur Kok on the way meanings are created and produced through processes
of intersemiosis, or multisemiotic mediation, in hypertexts. Drawing
inspiration from both Halliday's (2004) idea of rank in linguistic analysis
and O'Toole's (1994) rank-scale approach for discussing visual arts, Kok
proposes four levels of abstraction, namely, Item, Lexia, Cluster, and Web,
for analysing hypertexts; and three levels of abstraction of intersemiosis:
Relation, Intersection, and Manifestation. The discussion suggests the two
lower orders of abstraction (Item and Lexia) are sites where processes of
intersemiosis take place.

The third and final section (Part III) of the edited volume centres on the
print media. It opens with an investigation by Cheong Yin Yuen on the
realisation of ideational meaning in print advertisements. Taking its
analytical departure from Hasan's (1996) idea of generic structure
potential in relation to linguistic texts, Cheong begins by examining the
generic structure of five selected advertisements. Cheong further proposes
five strategies (the Bidirectional Investment of meaning; Contextual
Propensity; Interpretative Space; Semantic Effervescence; and Visual
Metaphor) from which the ideational meaning potential of the
advertisements, as well as the semiotic intricacies and nuances of both the
linguistic and visual modalities, can be illuminated.

In chapter eight, Libo Guo explores the notion of multimodality in
scientific discourses within educational context. In deconstructing its
selected texts from a metafunctional perspective as well as a rank-scale
approach, the discussion – which also draws on theoretical resources like
the concept of semiotic metaphor (O'Halloran 1999a, 1999b, 2003, 2005), the
notion of reading path (Kress and van Leeuwen 1990, 1996; Kress 2003) in
its analysis – suggests the potential which the metafunctional approach may
have in helping students from non-native English speaking backgrounds to
better understand university-level scientific discourses.

The last chapter of the book is concerned with the Integrative
Multi-Semiotic Model (IMM), an integrative framework which Victor Lim Fei
proposes for analysing texts that involve the co-deployment of language and
visual images (e.g. picture books). The main project of the proposed model
is to develop a 'meta-language' for examining the various semiotic choices
in multimodal texts, and for accounting the complexities and nuances in the
negotiation and mediation of meanings between the visual and verbal
semiotic modalities in the texts. In developing the framework, Lim brings
in and integrates theoretical resources from systemic-functional theory and
ideas from analytical models of multimodal studies. One of the aspects of
the proposed model which Lim gives particular attention to is the Space of
Integration (SoI), 'the theoretical platform' for discussing the semiotic
interactions of visual-verbal modalities in multimodal texts (p. 238-239).
Ideas that are drawn on for illuminating such interactions include semiotic
metaphor, Cheong's (this volume) concepts of bidirectional investment of
meaning and contextualisation propensity, and others.


This edited volume presents a collection of research papers that is both
diverse and stimulating. The organisation of topics into three types of
multimodal discourse allows readers to identify some of the key concerns
and questions that are specific to particular types of multimodal
discourse. For instance, one of the common concerns which researchers face
in exploring electronic media and film is the impact of technology. This
can influence the way particular multimodal text is defined (e.g.
hypertexts); it can also relate to the potentials which technology may
offer to analysis of multimodal discourse (e.g. see papers in Part II).
Given the field of multimodality is still in an exploratory stage and the
constraints in scope of the papers, some of the issues that are raised in
the discussions are yet to be resolved, and remain to be further
investigated. Nevertheless, the discussions in this edited volume provide
some invaluable and interesting insights of new possibilities and
challenges in multimodal studies.

Another aspect that is of interest in this book is the application of
systemic-functional theory in the discussions, particularly given the
diverse range of questions which the research papers seek to explore. The
discussions demonstrate the theoretical potential which the underlying
principles of systemic-functional theory, for instance, the notion of
choice, the concept of metafuction, can provide for investigations of
non-linguistic texts. In this regard, the book represents a key
contribution in extending systemic-functional theory and practice to the
field of multimodal studies.

Nevertheless, some thorny issues also emerged from the discussions in this
book. One of them is the need to introduce and discuss some of the key
underlying assumptions of systemic-functional theory, as well as
theoretical issues which have been discussed by researchers in the field of
multimodal studies (e.g. Baldry 2000; Lemke 1998; Thibault 2000) in the
introductory chapter. The book would also benefit from a brief explanation
of both Kress and van Leeuwen's and O'Toole's analytical frameworks for
multimodal texts. This would not only provide readers who are already
familiar with the basic tenets of systemic-functional theory and are
interested in multimodal studies an avenue that facilities further
engagement with the discussions in the book. It would also help to attract
and address new and larger audience.

The use of terminology, for instance, terms such as 'multimodal',
'multisemiotic', 'multisemiosis', 'intersemiosis', and how these terms are
understood within the context of multimodal studies is another issue which
needs to be further explored. For instance, while some researchers use
either multimodal or multisemiotic to describe texts that deploy multiple
semiotic resources, others appear to use the two terms interchangeably. In
order to further develop the theory of multimodal studies, it is necessary
to clarify the scope and boundaries in the way the terms are defined.
Having said that, clarifying terminology is a project in progress in many
fields of study; and is a phase which many fields of research would have
experienced as they continue to further develop the theory. In this regard,
despite the problems in the use of terminology, this edited collection
nevertheless highlights an aspect in the theory of multimodal studies that
needs further attention; and is further developed in recent investigations,
such as O'Halloran's (2005: 19-21) clarification of terms within her
discussion of mathematical discourse.

A key emphasis that is stressed in the discussions in this collected volume
is that meanings created in multimodal texts are due to the complex and
intricate interactions of semiosis across multiple meaning-making resources
in the texts. And, this is an aspect which the investigations aim to
demonstrate. However, some illustrations of such inter-semiotic
interactions do not appear to be illuminating. One suspects, perhaps, this
could be because language may not be the best semiotic modality to capture
and illustrate the nuances and intricacies of intersemiosis – i.e. the
co-ordination of meanings across different semiotic systems (Ravelli 2000)
– in multimodal texts. Another possible explanation to this problem could
be the rigid application of rank-scale approach in the articles. Although a
schema of different ranks as well as the semiotic choices in each rank in
relation to the texts that are being examined are provided, the papers tend
not to explain the rationale and motivation which underpin the use of a
rank-scale approach for analysing the selected texts, and illustrate how
this approach can help highlight the complex inter-semiotic interactions
which the discussions seek to explore. Without illuminating these issues,
questions, such as what is the potential of rank-scale approach in
illustrating the semiotic complexities of multimodal discourse, remain.
This becomes a potential aspect that can frustrate readers who wish to
engage with the discussions.

In spite of such limitations, the book nevertheless present some
challenging questions in relation to multimodal studies. It provides
alternative ways of looking at and thinking about different forms of
communication. Although the book may not provide answers to the questions
and issues that are raised in the discussions, it offers theoretical
resources that allow us to talk and think about different types of
communicative texts. In this regard, Multimodal Discourse Analysis is a
thought-provoking book for audience who are interested in the field of
multimodal studies.


Baldry, Anthony P. (2000) Introduction. In Baldry, Anthony P. (ed.)
Multimodality and Multimediality in the Distance Learning Age. Italy:
Palladino Editore, pp. 11-39.

Baldry, Anthony P. and Paul J. Thibault (2001) Towards multimodal corpora.
In G. Aston and L. Burnard (eds.) Corpora in the Description and Teaching
of English. Bologna: CLUEB, pp. 87-102.

Gregory, Michael (1995) Generic expectancies and discoursal surprises: John
Donne's 'The Good Morrow'. In Peter Fries and Michael Gregory (eds.)
Discourse in Society: Systemic-Functional Perspectives, Meaning and Choice
in Language: Studies for Michael Halliday. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 67-84.

Gregory, Michael (2002) Phasal analysis within communication linguistics:
two contrastive discourses. In P. Fries, M. Cummings, D. Lockwood and W.
Sprueill (eds.) Relations and Functions within and around Language. London:
Continuum, pp. 316-345.

Gregory, Michael Karen Malcolm (1981) Generic situation and discourse
phase: an approach to the analysis of children's talk. Mimeo, Applied
Linguistics Research Working Group. Glendon College, York University, Toronto.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language. London:

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as a Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. (2004) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Revised by
Christian M.I.M Matthiessen. 3rd edition. London: Arnold.

Hasan, Raquiya (1996) What's going on: a dynamic view of context in
language. In C. Cloran, D. Butt and G. Williams (eds.) Ways of Seeing, Ways
of Meaning. London: Cassell, pp. 37-50.

Kress, Gunther (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge.

Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen (1990) Reading Images. Geelong: Deakin
University Press.

Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen (1996) Reading Images: The Grammar of
Visual Design. London & New York: Routledge.

Lemke, Jay L. (1998) Multiplying meaning: visual and verbal semiotics in
scientific text. In J.R. Martin and R. Veel (eds.) Reading Science:
Critical and Functional Perspectives on Discourses of Science. London:
Routledge, pp. 87-113.

Martin, J.R. (2000) Beyond exchange: appraisal systems in English. In S.
Hunston and G. Thompson (eds.) Evaluation in Text: Authorial Stance and the
Construction of Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 142-175.

O'Halloran, Kay L. (1999a) Interdependence, interaction and metaphor in
multi-semiotic texts. Social Semiotics, 9(3): 317-354.

O'Halloran, Kay L. (1999b) Towards a systemic-functional analysis of
multi-semiotic analysis. Semiotica, 124(1/2): 1-29.

O'Halloran, Kay L. (2003) Intersemiosis in mathematics and science:
grammatical metaphor and semiotic metaphor. In A.M. Simon-Vandenbergen, M.
Taverniers and L. Ravelli (eds.) Grammatical Metaphor: Views from Systemic
Functional Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 337-365.

O'Halloran, Kay L. (2005) Mathematical Discourse: Language, Symbolism and
Visual Images. London: Continuum.

O'Toole, Michael (1994) The Language of Displayed Art. London: Leicester
University Press.

Ravelli, Louise J. (2000) Beyond shopping: constructing the Sydney Olympics
in three-dimensional text. Text, 20(4): 489-515.

Thibault, Paul J. (2000) The multimodal transcription of a television
advertisement: theory and practice. In Anthony P. Baldry (ed.)
Multimodality and Multimediality in the Distance Learning Age. Italy:
Palladino Editore, pp. 311-385.

Betty Pun received her Ph.D. in Chinese Studies and Linguistics from the
University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia in 2006. Her research
interests include social semiotic analysis of visual communication and
Chinese cinema.

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