Picturing words: The semantics of speech balloons

In Proceedings of the 22nd Amsterdam Colloquium. Amsterdam: pp. 584-592 (2019)
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Semantics traditionally focuses on linguistic meaning. In recent years, the Super Linguistics movement has tried to broaden the scope of inquiry in various directions, including an extension of semantics to talk about the meaning of pictures. There are close similarities between the interpretation of language and of pictures. Most fundamentally, pictures, like utterances, can be either true or false of a given state of affairs, and hence both express propositions (Zimmermann, 2016; Greenberg, 2013; Abusch, 2015). Moreover, sequences of pictures, like sequences of utterances, can be used to tell stories. Wordless picture books, comics, and film are cases in point. In this paper I pick up the project of providing a dynamic semantic account of pictorial story-telling, started by Abusch (2012) and continued by Abusch & Rooth (2017); Maier & Bimpikou (2019); Fernando (2020). More specifically, I propose here a semantics of speech and thought bubbles by adding event reference to PicDRT. To get there I first review the projection-based semantics for pictures (section 1), noting the fundamental distinction between symbolic and iconic meaning that makes speech bubbles especially interesting (section 2). I then review the dynamic PicDRT framework for pictorial narratives (section 3), add events (section 4), and propose an account of speech bubbles as quotational event modification (section 5). I end with a brief look at other conventional, symbolic enrichments in comics (section 6).

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Emar Maier
University of Groningen


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