Applied Linguistics @MQ: Semiotic plays on facial expressions

By May 16, 2012News
Anthony Browne, My Dad

The next seminar of the 2012 series of Applied Linguistics seminars at Macquarie University will be held on Monday, May 21:

Semiotic plays on facial expressions

When: Mon 20/05, 4:00-5:00pm; Where: C5A 565, Delbridge Room

Presenter: Ping Tian, UNSW

Abstract: Facial expressions are a significant form of communication. They communicate many emotions including, happiness, surprise, fear, anger, contempt, disgust and sadness. Facial expressions are an active area of study in many diverse disciplines. Questions such as whether facial expressions are universal or culturally specific are debated intensively (Darwin 1872/1965, Ekman 1985, 2003, Russell 1994). Adding to these studies, from a social semiotic perspective and, in particular, drawing on Hjelmslev’s (1943/1961) theory of expression and content, this paper presents a stratified semiotic approach to the understanding of illustrated facial expressions. This approach systematically separates the investigation into two stratified planes: the expression plane and the content plane (Tian, 2011). On the expression plane, the semiotic resources involved in constructing a face i.e., dots, lines and shapes, are discussed. At this level I also investigate how these resources are combined. On the content plane, negative, neutral and positive emotions are considered. System networks, a diagrammatic map of combinatorial choices in the expression plane are introduced. This supports a framework where the expression plane is related to meanings conveyed in the content plane.

The analysis, discussions and findings presented in this paper are generated from the study of a small archive of 482 illustrations of faces (Tian, 2011). These illustrations are collected from ten children’s picture books published in between 1980 and 2000, by the well-known picture book artist Anthony Browne. The paper argues that images, in this case illustrated faces, involve distinctive semiotic resources of their own (i.e., dots, lines and shapes). Looking from the expression plane (from below), images constitute a distinctive/independent semiotic system; Looking from the content plane (from above), the meanings of these images are those constituted by languages.


Darwin, C. (1872/1965). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ekman, P. (1985). Telling lies: clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics, and marriage. New York: Norton.

Ekman, P. (Ed.). (2003). Emotions inside out: 130 years after Darwin’s the expression of the emotions in man and animals. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Hjelmslev, L. (1943/1961). Prolegomena to a theory of language [originally titled ‘Omkring sprogteoriens grundlæaeggelse’, published Munksgaard: Copenhagen (1943); translated by Francis J. Whitfield]. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Russell, J.A. (1994). Is there universal recognition of emotion from facial expression? A review of the cross-cultural studies. Psychological Bulletin, 115 (1): 102-141.

Tian, P. (2011). Multimodal evaluation: Sense and sensibility in Anthony Browne’s picture books. PhD Thesis. Sydney: The University of Sydney.

About Ping Tian

Ping Tian recently received her PhD in Linguistics from the University of Sydney. She currently works at the School of Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales. Her research areas include media and communication, intercultural communication, multimodality, social semiotic theory and its application. She also works as a freelance translator (English <> Chinese).  Her recent publications include studies on bilingual children’s picture books, facial expression and multimodality.

Author Lg_on_the_move

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  • khan

    Dear Piang Tian,

    Very exciting project. I wonder if the seminar will be broadcasted live on Ustream. I look forward to joining you online.

    Best wishes,


    • Thanks, Khan, for your interest! Unfortunately, we won’t be able to live-stream this seminar and the one the week after for copyright reasons. We are planning to be back on Ustream for our June seminars. We’ll then take a short winter break and hope to be back online with a new series of Applied Linguistics @MQ seminars in our next term, starting in August.

  • shiva

    Thanks Ping! Sounds very interesting! can’t wait to hear 🙂