• Theo van Leeuwen


When Gunther Kress and I were developing our approach to the semiotics of visual communication, one of our main tools was the linguistics of Michael Halliday, in particular his ‘metafunctional hypothesis’ (cf. Halliday 1978, 1985). According to this hypothesis, language simultaneously fulfils three broad functions, and linguistic resources are specialized with respect to these metafunctions, operating simultaneously in text, each playing its own part, like instruments in an orchestra. Kress and I broadened this hypothesis, and assumed that every semiotic mode will simultaneously fulfil these three metafunctions. Here is a brief gloss:
  • The ideational metafunction

    One of the things that language enables us to do is construct representations of ‘what goes on in the world’. The linguistic resources for doing this include lexis, which provides the terms that ‘stand for’ the ‘participants’, the people, places and things in the world, and the system of transitivity, which enables us to create different relations between these participants — if, for instance, you have the participants ‘man’ and ‘tree’, you can make ‘man’ the ‘actor’ of an action (‘the man chops the tree down’) or ‘tree’ (‘the tree shades the man’), you might also have a ‘reaction’ instead of an ‘action’ (‘the man loves the tree’) and so on.

  • The interpersonal metafunction

    The interpersonal metafunction is the function of constituting and enacting relations between the people involved in a communicative event, of using language to do things to, or for or with other people. The linguistic resources for doing this include the system of person, with which you can create solidarity (‘we’), or exclude others (‘us’ and ‘them’ language) and so on, and the system of mood, with which you can make statements (declarative), ask questions (interrogative), tell people to do things (imperative) and so on.

  • The textual metafunction

    The textual metafunction is the function of marshalling the combined representations and interactions into the kind of wholes we call ‘texts’ or ‘communicative events’. The linguistic resources for this include the ‘given/new’ system with which you can make new information flow from already shared information, and various resources for creating cohesion in text, for making text ‘hang together’.


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© Theo van Leeuwen 1999

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  • Theo van Leeuwen

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