Poetic and rhetorical language use

Poetic language use, according to Roman Jakobson's model (1960), is not restricted to literature, let alone poetry. It is also part of everyday language, and becomes especially evident in commercial ads and political slogans. The projects in Research Area 1 investigate features and effects of poetic and rhetorical language use in a variety of text types. Their focus is threefold:

1. Descriptive features, patterns and measures of poetic and rhetorical  language use

On the basis of the rhetorical theory of tropes and schemes on all levels of language (phonology, prosody, syntax, morphology, semantics), a variety of projects are developing analytical tools and quantitative measures to capture the “poetic” features of language. These tools and measures are designed for the analysis of texts of varying length, from three-word formulae to proverbs, poems, and finally prose. Our research focuses on two types of linguistic features and their frequent interaction:

  • Heightened self-focus and recursivity of poetic language use: Jakobson (1960) hypothesized that poetic language use is phenomenologically marked by an increased focus on language itself (rather than merely on its message), and that this shows “objectively”, i.e. linguistically, in ongoing parallelistic patterns. Further developing these assumptions and putting them to an empirical test, we investigate phenomena of heightened perceptual order and increased phenomenal recursivity in single sentences and entire texts. The overarching goal is to develop a comprehensive grid and quantitative measure of such a linguistic hyper-order driven by linguistically optional patterns of poetic self-reference and recurrence.
  • Poetic License: The second focus is on detours from and violations of linguistic expectations, or phenomena of perceived linguistic hypo-order, that––using Quintilian’s term––are “poetically licensed” in special contexts.

2. Cognitive, affective and aesthetic processing of poetic and rhetorical  language use

Classical rhetoric offers numerous improvised hypotheses regarding the effects of poetic and rhetorical  language use. To date, most of these hypothetical effects have not been analyzed using state-of-the-art empirical methodology. Unlike most of the recent research in this field, which has focused on semantic tropes (metaphor, hyperbole, irony), we primarily investigate the cognitive, affective and aesthetic effects of phonological, prosodic, morphological and syntactic features of poetic and rhetorical language use.

3. Aesthetic Evaluation Terms

Linguistic terms that are used to designate dimensions of aesthetic evaluation are pivotal for all empirical research on aesthetic processing. Our projects aim at identifying linguistic terms relevant to a variety of textual forms and genres. Employing a Fechnerian “aesthetics from below”, we explore the categories readers intuitively use to label their aesthetic expectations. In addition, we work with experimenter-designed scales and conduct individual case studies.


Current Projects

Behavioral, physiological and neural substrates of parallelistic diction

In a series of studies we investigate the behavioral and physiological effects as well as the neural substrates of the numerous features of parallelistic diction.


Does reading of poetic and literary language recruit/involve distinct eye movement patterns?

This research project investigates the processing of aesthetically relevant features of language during reading of poetry and literary narratives.


Lyrical speech melody

Since antiquity, poets have been likened to singers. The Romantic understanding of poetry has further reinforced the analogies between music and poetry.


Prose Rhythm

Latin rhetoric considered the artistic treatment of linguistic rhythm as a potent rhetorical feature not only of verse, but also of literary, philosophical and oratorical prose.


Syntax and effects of prosody in Kleist’s prose style

The project is devoted to analyzing distinctive patterns of prosodic grouping and implementing caesuras in Heinrich von Kleist’s narratives.


Eye movements and absorption during reading

This project investigates whether subjectively experienced absorption during reading is accompanied by particular eye movement patterns and can thus be "objectively" measured.


Iconic relations of sound and emotional meaning in poetry

Are there affective sounds in poetry that differ between joyful and sad poems? Or, in other words, is there a connection between sound and meaning in poetry – a phenomenon often referred to today by the term “phonological iconicity”?


Getting to grips with erotic bestsellers

Novels with explicit depictions of sexual acts and thoughts have been popular for a long time. In recent years, large digital fan communities have evolved that communicate about the reading of erotic bestsellers. This boom gives rise to the following questions:


Tracking the eyes, tracking the aesthetic experience

The eyes are "windows to the soul". They not only work as sensory organs, but also reflect subjective/internal states of the beholders, such as their interests, attentional foci, and emotional states.


Poetic Licenses

This project investigates the processing effects of linguistic deviations in poetry and, specifically, their contribution to aesthetic evaluation.


Neuronal Processing of Metaphorical Movement

This study uses EEG to examine the neuronal processing of verbs which reference physical movement in metaphorical and literal contexts.



Menninghaus, W., Wagner, V., Wassiliwizky, E., Jacobsen, T., & Knoop, C. A. (2017). The emotional and aesthetic powers of parallelistic diction. Poetics, 63, 47–59.  doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2016.12.001

Kraxenberger, M., & Menninghaus, W. (2016). Emotional effects of poetic phonology, word positioning and dominant stress peaks in poetry reading. Scientific Study of Literature, 6(2), 298–313.  doi:10.1075/ssol.6.2.06kra

Kraxenberger, M., & Menninghaus, W. (2016). Mimological Reveries? Disconfirming the Hypothesis of Phono-Emotional Iconicity in Poetry. Frontiers in Psychology, 7:1779. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01779

Knoop, C. A., Wagner, V., Jacobsen, T., & Menninghaus, W. (2016). Mapping the aesthetic space of literature from "below". Poetics, 56, 35–49. doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2016.02.001

Obermeier, C., Kotz, S. A., Jessen, S., Raettig, T., von Koppenfels, M., & Menninghaus, W. (2015). Aesthetic appreciation of poetry correlates with ease of processing in event-related potentials. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience. doi:10.3758/s13415-015-0396-x

Menninghaus W., Bohrn I., Knoop C. A., Kotz S., Schlotz W., Jacobs A. (2015). Rhetorical features facilitate prosodic processing while handicapping ease of semantic comprehension. Cognition, 143, 48–60. doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2015.05.026.

Aryani, A., Kraxenberger, M., Ullrich, S., Jacobs, A. M., & Conrad, M. (2015). Measuring the Basic Affective Tone of Poems via Phonological Saliency and Iconicity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, No Pagination Specified. doi:10.1037/aca0000033

Lehne, M., Engel, P., Rohrmeier, M., Menninghaus, W., Jacobs, A. M., Koelsch, S. (2015). Reading a suspenseful literary text activates brain areas related to social cognition and predictive inference. PLoS ONE, 10(5), e0124550. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0124550.

Menninghaus, W., Bohrn, I. C., Altmann, U., Lubrich, O., & Jacobs, A. M. (2014). Sounds funny? Humor effects of phonological and prosodic figures of speech. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(1), 71–76. doi:10.1037/a0035309.

Kuijpers, M. M., Hakemulder, F., Doicaru, M., Tan, E. (2014) Exploring absorbing reading experiences: Developing and validating a self-report scale to measure story world absorption. Scientific Study of Literature, 4 (1), pp. 89–122.

Obermeier, C., Menninghaus, W., von Koppenfels, M., Raettig, T., Schmidt-Kassow, M., Otterbein, S., & Kotz, S. A. (2013). Aesthetic and emotional effects of meter and rhyme in poetry. Frontiers in Psychology, 4:10, 1–10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00010.

Bohrn, I. C., Altmann, U., Lubrich, O., Menninghaus, W., & Jacobs, A. M. (2013) "When we like what we know - A parametric fMRI analysis of beauty and familiarity." Brain and Language,  124, 1–8. doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2012.10.003