Susanne Tag (Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder):

Activation of meaning in speech and gesture – A bodily sensation becomes metaphoric

Vortrag im Rahmen von „Das Konkrete als Zeichen“, 12. Internationaler Kongress der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Semiotik (DGS), Stuttgart, 9. bis 12. Oktober 2008; Sektion „Gesten in der Kommunikation: Prozesse der Konkretisierung und Abstraktion“.



Research on multi-modal metaphors in spoken discourse has shown that metaphor is not a static entity – be it a concept, a word or a gesture – but the result of a cognitive process that may activate or create metaphors online during speaking (c.f. Müller 2003, 2007, 2008). This dynamic view is proposed to hold not only for the activation of metaphoricity but for the activation of meaning in general (Müller and Tag 2008).
The „online activation“ of meaning will be illustrated on the basis of a cognitive-semantic and interactive micro-analysis of one representative example taken from a childhood story of a German speaker. The analysis supports the view that meaning activation is empirically detectable through a gradual increase of communicative effort put into the relevant words and gestures and through an increasing interplay between these two modalities (cf. Müller 2008). Communicative effort manifests itself in specific foregrounding techniques which can be described in terms of three principles: (1) The iconic principle states that more material – whether in verbal or gestural form – is more meaning. (2) According to the interactive principle, the more salient a verbal or gestural expression is made for the audience, the more activated its underlying concept is in a given speaker. (3) The syntactic and semantic principle states that a foregrounded syntactic and/or semantic integration of the expression in question into spoken discourse indicates a high degree of activation of its meaning.
By this means, the dynamic process of meaning activation can be divided into different succeeding steps: in the given example, it starts from a general verbal description of a bodily sensation and its gestural concretization (in terms of a concrete visualization of the underlying concept), and results in an interactive creation of a complex and multi-layered verbo-gestural metaphor.
These findings nicely illustrate the tight relationship between speech and gesture and the complex interplay between these two modalities with respect to a multi-modal creation of a specific meaning. Moreover, the findings point out that such a multi-modal creation of meaning may be perceived as a dynamic process of both concretization and abstraction.


Müller, C. (2003) Gestik als Lebenszeichen ‘toter Metaphern’. Tote, schlafende und wache Metaphern. Zeitschrift für Semiotik, 1–2, 61–72.

Müller, C. (2007) A dynamic view of metaphor, gesture and thought. In: S. Duncan, J. Cassell, & E. Levy (Eds.) Gesture and the dynamic dimension of language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 109–116.

Müller, C. (2008) What gestures reveal about the nature of metaphor. In: A. Cienki & C. Müller (Eds.) Metaphor and Gesture. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 249-279.

Müller, C. & Tag, S. (2008) Activation of metaphoricity and meaning in spoken discourse – A dynamic view. Talk given at the LCC 2008, Brighton.