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Important people in multimodality theory

The scholars who play a decisive role in shaping the field of multimodality are the scholars who have dedicated their academic work to the prolific area of language and communication studies. Multiple modes of communication and meaning making are the areas of interest explored by the most influential scholars in the field: Roland Barthes, M.A.K. Halliday, Theo van Leeuwen, Gunther Kress, Michael O’Toole, Robert Hodge, Jay Lemke, Anthony Baldry and Paul J. Thibault.

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a French linguist, semiotician and literary theorist. In his early work he applied ideas from structural linguistics to the analysis of a wide range of modes including images, narrative, fashion, film and music, but also the analysis of the process of myth creation in the collection of essays on modern myths, Mythologies, where he examines a variety of cultural phenomena in advertisements, magazines, sport, dance, etc. In his later, post-structuralist work, he focused, among other things, on the materiality of the sign. Both strands of his work have strongly influenced the social semiotic approach to multimodality.

Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday (1925-2018) is a British linguist. M.A.K. Halliday is best-known for developing the systemic functional linguistic model of language. He founded the theory of the fundamental functions of language, called metafunctions, introducing language as a social semiotic system. He focuses on three metafunctions: ideational, interpersonal and textual. For Halliday, languages and their varieties evolve in order to serve the needs and interests of the societies. In his book Language as social semiotic, Halliday states that languages evolve as systems of ‘meaning potential’ or as ‘sets of resources’ (1978, 39). His approach to transitivity and modality, and his overall enormous contribution to social semiotics have been passed on to the field of multimodality.

Thereafter, the uses of semiotic systems in social practice and interpretation of texts in society were a focus of study of scholars who have built on Halliday’s linguistic framework and later extended the field of communication into the emergence of multimodality itself. One approach is presented in O’Toole’s book The language of Displayed Art (1994). Furthermore, the attention from linguistic framework was drawn to other semiotic systems by Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress’s Social Semiotics (1988) and Kress and van Leeuwen’s Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (1996, 2006).

Inspiring scholars, linguists and semioticians, Theo van Leeuwen (born 1947) and Gunther Kress (born 1940) are the main developers of social semiotics who continue to contribute and investigate the common principles behind multimodal communication. In their work, the authors outline an approach to a theory of semiotics relevant to contemporary semiotic practice. Throughout their collaborative and individual work, Kress and van Leeuwen (2001, 2005) discuss semiotic principles in respect to multimodal meaning, dimensions of semiotic analysis, e.g. discourse, genre, style, modality, and, all in all, the use of communicative modes and media in instances of communicative practice. The authors investigate texts in regard to socially formed and changeable sets of options that have meaning potential in particular contexts of use.

Finally, it is important to mention that theoretical challenges emerged from the concept of multimodality are continued to be explored by many scholars and schools. Today the key centres of multimodality are the Institute of Education in London, Agder University, University of Southern Denmark and Auckland University of Technology, all of which explore various approaches to the theory and practice of research in the area of multimodal communication.  

Citing this entry

Jovanovic, Danica. 2015.  “Important people in multimodality theory.” In Key Terms in Multimodality: Definitions, Issues, Discussions, edited by Nina Nørgaard. Retrieved


Barthes, R. (1957). Mythologies. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978). Language as social semiotic. The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

Hodge, R. and Kress G. (1988). Social Semiotics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kress G. and van Leeuwen, T. (1996/2006). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge.

Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (2001). Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. Arnold: London.

O’Toole, M. (1994). The language of Displayed Art. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

van Leeuwen, T. (2005). Introducing social semiotics. London: Routledge.