Visual Language Research Glossary


Developing this field of "visual language" research has required us to create several new terms and/or borrow terms from the broader field of linguistics. Below is a listing of several of the terms used in visual language research. They are grouped by major subfields.

Am I missing a term that you'd like to be included? Let me know!



General theory/semiotics


Iconic reference – a type of reference where a sign gets its meaning through resemblance to what it means.

Indexical reference – a type of reference where a sign gets its meaning through a causal or associative connection to what it means.

Modality – a channel by which human expression can take place. (i.e., verbal-auditory, visual-manual, visual-graphic).

Sign – something that is meaningful to someone.

Symbol – a type of reference where a sign gets its meaning only through the association of a systematic form to meaning through a rule or convention.

Morphology of images


Adjacent Awareness (AA) – a underlying semantic primitive of Carriers specifying whether entities of a scene other than a Root have “awareness” of the contents of a Carrier (i.e., speech balloons are +AA, while thought balloons are –AA).

Carrier – a visual morpheme that holds information within it that is bound to a Root through a Tail (such as a "speech balloon" or "thought bubble")

Eye-umlaut - a class of conventional visual signs where one sign (like a heart or X) is substituted for the eyes of a character.

Framing Plane (FP) – a plane of representation that contains non-"narrative" information , such as panel borders and Carriers.

Haplotic – a representation that is structurally “conceptually simple,” as in a "cartoony" or "simplistic" image.

Morphology - the component of visual language related to the meaningful elements of images, both the "open-class" items like representational images, and the "closed-class" items like conventional visual symbols.

Motion lines - path lines that depict motion along a path (also "action lines").

Non-sentient – a type of Carrier where the Root has no consciousness and thus cannot know what it contains (-Root Awareness), leaving only adjacent entities aware of it’s contents (+Adjacent Awareness).

Path lines - a conventional pline that depicts a path going from a "source" to a "goal," as in motion lines or scopic lines.

Polymorphic – a representation that repeats entities in different stages of an action.

Private – a type of Carrier where only the Root has awareness of what is inside of it (+Root Awareness, -Adjacent Awareness), prototypically, a "thought bubble" or first person "narrative caption."

Public – a type of Carrier where its contents is known by both the Root and all other entities in a representation (+Root Awareness, +Adjacent Awareness), prototypically a "speech balloon."

Representational Plane (RP) – a plane of representation that contains "narrative" information.

Root – the elements to which a Carrier is attached in an Emergent interface (i.e., as in the "speaker" of a "speech balloon") Root Awareness (RA) – an underlying semantic primitive of Carriers specifying whether the Root has an awareness of the awareness” of the contents of the Carrier they are connected to (i.e., speech balloons are +RA, while sound effects are -RA). Satellite – a type of Carrier where no entities in the representation know its contents (-Root Awareness, -Adjacent Awareness).

Scopic lines - path lines that depict the line of a character's gaze, such as with a dotted line or a line of hearts to depict a loving or lustful gaze.

Tail – the element that binds a Carrier to its Root, both depicted or not (i.e., the linkage between a "speech balloon" and its "speaker").

Upfix - a class of conventional visual morphemes where a sign (like hearts, gears, or a lightbulb) hovers above the head of a character.

Zoom lines - lines showing a "rushing in" toward a character to draw further attention to them or heightened emotion (also "focal lines").

Structure of panels


Active entities – the parts of a panel that are relevant to the sequence, and/or change across the sequence.

Amorphic – a panel that holds no active entities, often containing only background, evironmental information

Attention units - the capacity of panels to select certain information while omitting other information, like a "window" on a scene.

Divisional – a single image that is broken up into multiple smaller panels.

Inactive entities - the parts of a panel that are not relevant to the sequence, and/or do not change across panels (i.e., they stay the same across panels).

Macro – a panel that depicts more than one acting entity.

Micro – a panel that depicts less than one acting entity, prototypically a close-up.

Mono – a panel that depicts one acting entity.

Panel – an encapsulated attention unit that is put into the sequence of visual language, with or without visible borders.

Narrative structure (sequential image understanding)


Arc - the maximal node of a narrative. A canonical narrative arc follows the order: Establisher-Initial-Peak-Release. Conjunction - a function in Visual Narrative Grammar that allows multiple narrative categories of the same type to be repeated under a single node of that type.

Convergence construction - a narrative pattern that alternates between two (or more) characters each in their own panels before converging on a single panel containing both characters.

Environmental-Conjunction (E-Conjunction) – a function of Visual Narrative Grammar where different entities/characters are shown in various panels within a single narrative state, yet they are inferentially understood as belonging to a single spatial environment.

Establisher (E) – a category in Visual Narrrative Grammar that passively sets up the interrelation or interaction of the sentence without acting upon it.

Event structure - the knowledge of the structure of events and situations. In Visual Narrative Grammar, it is the meaning of a visual sequence.

Initial (I) – a category in Visual Narrative Grammar that initiates the interrelation or interaction of a narrative arc, prototypically as a preparatory action.

Narrative structure - the rules and principles that organize meaning into a coherent sequence. (see also, Visual Narrative Grammar).

Peak (P) – a category in Visual Narrative Grammaer where a narrative arc reaches its climax, prototypically with the culmination or interruption of an event.

Perspective (Per) – a modifier in Visual Narrative Grammar that alters the spatial viewpoint from that of another panel.

Orienter (O) – a category in Visual Narrative Grammar that provides a superordinate location, context, or setting that prevails throughout a narrative arc.

Refiner (Ref) – a modifier in Visual Narrative Grammar that hones in on the information of another panel.

Prolongation (L) – a category in Visual Narrative Grammar that provides a medial state in the narrative arc, prototypically a passive state or a medial state along the trajectory of a path.

Release (R) – a category in Visual Narrative Grammar that releases the tension of the Peak, prototypically the coda of, aftermath of, or response to an event in the Peak.

Set up - Beat - Punchline (SBP) construction - a patterned narrative sequence where all panels have text except for a penultimate "silent" panel that precedes a final panel containing a punchline.

Transition – a linear relationship of one panel to another across dimensions of time, space, or causation (also, "coherence relation").

Visual Narrative Grammar - a theory of sequential image comprehension that argues panels take on categorical roles in a broader narrative arc, and can be organized into groupings of "constituents" that can be hierarchically embedded into each other. In this theory, narrative structure is separate from meaning.

Page layout (External compositional structure, navigational structure)


Assemblage - the basic principles guiding the navigation of comic page layouts: 1) Grouped areas > non-grouped areas, 2)Smooth paths > broken paths, 3) Do not jump over units,4) Do not leave gaps.

Blockage - a scenario in page layouts where smaller panels are stacked next to a single vertical panel that "blocks" a Z-path of reading.

External compositional structure (ECS) - the layout of a "canvas" of a visual language sequence (i.e., a "comic page").

Inset – a relationship between two panels where one panel (Enclosed/Inset) is placed within another panel (Dominant).

Navigational structure - the rules and principles that guide how a person moves through the "external compositional structure" or "page layout."

Overlap - in page layout, where one panel lies on top of another panel.

Separation - in page layout, where the space between panels is made so large that it may motivate a reader to group panels by proximity instead of following a canonical Z-path of reading.

Spatially-sequential – when the units of visual language are arranged physically next to each other.

Staggering - in page layout, where the gutters between panels do not align cleanly to form a continuous gutter.

Temporally-sequential – when the units of a visual language sequence are produced in real time, potentially in a single physical space.

Z-Path - a canonical reading path of a comic page that moves "left-to-right and down" similar to reading text.

Multimodality (Text-image relationships)


Adjoined interface – a potentially bundled interface between text and image where they have no direct connection, but are related meaningfully

Bundling – the integration of certain relationships of text and image into cohesive attentional units

Composite signal – the integration of more than one modality of expression into a cohesive meaningful unit

Emergent interface – a bundled interface between text and image with a direct connection between them (such as in "speech balloons").

Independent interface – an interface between text and image where there is no visual connection whatsoever.

Inherent interface – an interface between text and image where one modality is located within the boundaries of the other (such as text on a street sign within the world of narrative).