A doctor vaccinating a policeman with a needle in the arm

The relationship between language and image

Language provides a variety of ways to express events. To describe the picture we can say, “The nurse vaccinated the policeman”, or, “The policeman was vaccinated by the nurse.”

There is little in the scene that would force us to use one or the other description. However, there seems to be ‘something in us’ that has a preference.

We can decide to foreground the nurse or the policeman to satisfy our communicative needs. Thus, the truly exciting question is: does this have any effect on our conversation partner? Does our choice affect how others view the situations that we describe?

We investigated this question by tracking the eyes of native speakers of English while they looked at static scenes after they had heard it described in one of two possible ways.

We found (among many other interesting things) that the description of a scene does affect how it is viewed. It either changes the order in which the participants of a scene are accessed or it changes the amount of attention each participant receives.

Department of English Language and Linguistics
Department of Modern Languages
Centre for Corpus Research