Language is typically used refer to speech or writing, or both. In multimodality, speech and writing are treated as separate modes as they refer to different sets of semiotic resources. For instance, among other resources, speech has intensity (loudness), pitch and pitch variation (intonation), while writing has punctuation, type, and indentation. In current sociolinguistic perspectives ‘language users’ are seen as people drawing on and transforming these resources to serve their interests; rather than passively ‘using’ a named, pre-defined variety of speech or writing (say, ‘posh English’) they actively ‘make’ it. To highlight this human agency in meaning making some linguists speak of ‘languaging’ (Jorgensen, 2011), which resonates with the semiotic notion of ‘sign-making’ (Kress, 2010). As any mode, speech and writing vary across time and space; they are socially and culturally shaped. The recognition of different ways of using speech or writing also varies significantly; some ‘languages’ are named, described, institutionalized, and made official, others are not. Multimodality avoids looking at speech and writing in isolation. Speech and writing are not seen as the ‘dominant’ modes in all communication, or as modes that have more potential for making meaning than other modes, or as the ‘unmarked’ forms of communication (as suggested by dichotomies such as ‘verbal’-‘non-verbal’). Rather the functions that speech and writing serve on a given occasion are investigated and understood in the light of the affordances and recognition of all modes available on that occasion. For instance, people’s speech is described in conjunction with their use of gesture, dress, hair style, and so forth. The term ‘language’ is often used to refer to modes other than speech or writing, for instance in ‘body language’. In multimodality, this use of the term is avoided, on the basis that the modes implied by these prefixes, e.g., gaze and gesture, have resources that are distinctly different from speech and writing.

Editor: Jeff Bezemer
Other contributors: Jan Blommaert

Key References

Jørgensen, J. N.,  Karrebæk, M. S., Madsen, L. M. and Møller, J. S. (2011)
Polylanguaging in Superdiversity
, Vol. 13, No. 2

Kress, G. (2010)
London: Routledge

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