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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Barbara Dancygier

“Every university I know talks about interdisciplinarity, every university wants to do it, but most places and institutions I have seen are not quite sure either what it means or how it can be achieved. IAS and Durham University have found a way. I am truly inspired by the experience and I have brought home with me a firm conviction that interdisciplinarity is more than a buzzword. ”

Professor Barbara Dancygier, University of British Columbia

Professor Barbara Dancygier IAS Fellow at the College of St Hild and St Bede, Durham University (October - December 2015)

Barbara Dancygier is a Professor in the Department of English, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. Her interdisciplinary work combines interests in language, cognition, and multimodal forms of communication.

She obtained her degrees in the Institute of English, University of Warsaw, and was a faculty member there before leaving for University of California, Berkeley, as a Fulbright Scholar. Since joining the faculty of the University of British Columbia in 2002, she was awarded a Killam Research Prize in 2011, and was a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in 2012/13.

Professor Dancygier’s research interests focus around cognitive explanations of how meaning emerges in human interaction with various forms of communication. She has published broadly in cognitive linguistics, cognitive narratology, and cognitive poetics. Her recent work has been interdisciplinary, bridging gaps between language, cognition, and the studies of visual artifacts, materiality, embodiment, and performance. She has published three monographs and three edited volumes. In two of the monographs (one of them in co-authorship with Eve Sweetser) Professor Dancygier developed a new approach to conditionals, which focused on the correlation between formal and conceptual components; she studied linguistic forms to uncover how language users represent their epistemic states and levels of uncertainty in dealing with everyday reasoning about events and causal relations.

In 2012, she published a monograph on the meaning emergence in narratives (The Language of Stories, Cambridge University Press), arguing for a new explanation of how readers come to understand works of fiction. The monograph develops a cognitively-based definition of viewpoint, and proposes a number of viewpoint-related mechanisms which underlie comprehension of texts. Professor Dancygier treats conceptual viewpoint as the foundation of meaning, while also developing a bottom-up approach to fiction, wherein local, low-level linguistic choices participate in the overall understanding of the narrative.

In recent years, Professor Dancygier has continued to build a theory of conceptual viewpoint as a general cognitive mechanism, applicable in theorizing meaning in various contexts, such as literature, political discourse, theatre, street art, and visual forms of online interaction. Her work ranges over a number of examples, from poetry, through theatre and film, to the study of Internet memes and graffiti art. Overall, her current work aims at a coherent theoretical account of viewpoint phenomena in multimodal forms of communication (combining language, image, performance, gesture, etc.).

Professor Dancygier’s work has attracted attention of scholars in linguistics, poetics, theatre studies, and literary studies. She presented a number of plenary addresses at various conferences, and published invited papers in numerous volumes and handbooks on the study of meaning. She is also a member of editorial boards for two journals (Language and Literature and English Text Construction) and two book series (Human Cognitive Processing, John Benjamins Publishing Company, and Cognition and Poetics, Oxford University Press). Currently she is working with a group of collaborators to establish a Centre for Cognition, Art, and Multimodality at the University of British Columbia.

At the IAS, Professor Dancygier will be developing an approach to what counts as evidence of specific cognitive processes in theoretical studies of multimodal artifacts. She will be working with colleagues in the Department of English, especially in connection with the Cognitive Futures in the Humanities Project.

Public Lecture - How we make meaning

Linguistic meaning pervades all aspects of our lives. Most of the things we do every day require dealing with language in some form. The way we perceive reality and reason about it also depends on conceptualizations available through language. Language is a window to how we understand and mentally represent the world around us.

The multifaceted role of language raises many questions. How do complex linguistic meanings emerge? How are they represented in the mind? Why do we use sophisticated language forms to talk about things, people and events that have in fact never existed? Also, recent years have prompted a new set of questions, primarily about the interplay between language, image, and materiality in a whole range of multimodal artifacts, and especially about the conceptual underpinnings of their interpretation.

We need to explain how we process artifacts as diverse as Shakespearean theatre on the one hand and posters raising the awareness of climate change on the other. This talk will argue that the mystery of understanding these artifacts lies not in what their form contains for us to uncover, but how more basic concepts can be combined, enriched and transformed to yield complex meanings - concrete, abstract, or ‘fictive’. Professor Dancygier will demonstrate how processing discourse in a broad range of forms relies on several mechanisms of meaning-construction.

In other words, she will show how meaning is ‘made’, rather than just grasped.

Listen to the lecture in full

Professor Barbara Dancygier Publications

Dancygier, B. (2017) Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dancygier, B., Wei-lun, L., Verhagen, L. (2016) Viewpoint and the Fabric of Meaning. Berlin:De Gruyter Mouton.

Dancygier, B. (2016) 'Multimodality and Theatre: Material Objects, Bodies and Language’ in Blair, R., Cook, A. (eds.) Theatre, Performance and Cognition. London: Bloomsbury.

IAS Insights Paper


Cognitive poetics, a relatively new discipline, suggests that interpretation of various artifacts, primarily but not exclusively textual ones, relies on conceptualizations prompted by forms used – words, images, sounds, etc. This paper looks at examples of texts, image and film, to consider avenues of interpretation prompted by conceptual structures much less specific than words or visual artifacts. Such basic spatial structures, called image schemas, were proposed as skeletal concepts underlying a range of unrelated uses – for example, many expressions which imply an upward portion of a vertical scale (‘look up to someone, rise to the challenge’, etc.) are understood in a positive way, while the ‘down’ examples signify negative meanings. However, evidence of the underlying conceptual structures in meaning emergence is primarily linguistic, and thus requires some independent confirmation. Looking at textual artifacts alongside visual ones offers an opportunity to confirm the role of schemas through an additional modality – if images and text depend on the same schema to suggest similar meanings, this offers additional evidence of the role of such concepts. This paper investigates various instantiations of the schemas of BARRIER and CONTAINER, to show how they prompt interpretations of very similar nature, though additionally complicated by concepts such as viewpoint.

Insights Paper