What is Systemic-Functional Linguistics?

For a good introductory article by Matthiessen and Halliday, see: here.

Other introductory descriptions are available:

The Theory

Systemic-Functional Linguistics (SFL) is a theory of language centred around the notion of language function. While SFL accounts for the syntactic structure of language, it places the function of language as central (what language does, and how it does it), in preference to more structural approaches, which place the elements of language and their combinations as central. SFL starts at social context, and looks at how language both acts upon, and is constrained by, this social context.

A central notion is 'stratification', such that language is analysed in terms of four strata: Context, Semantics, Lexico-Grammar and Phonology-Graphology.

Context concerns the Field (what is going on), Tenor (the social roles and relationships between the participants), and the Mode (aspects of the channel of communication, e.g., monologic/dialogic, spoken/written, +/- visual-contact, etc.).

Systemic semantics includes what is usually called 'pragmatics'. Semantics is divided into three components:

  • Ideational Semantics (the propositional content);

  • Interpersonal Semantics (concerned with speech-function, exchange structure, expression of attitude, etc.);

  • Textual Semantics (how the text is structured as a message, e.g., theme-structure, given/new, rhetorical structure etc.
The Lexico-Grammar concerns the syntactic organisation of words into utterances. Even here, a functional approach is taken, involving analysis of the utterance in terms of roles such as Actor, Agent/Medium, Theme, Mood, etc. (See Halliday 1994 for full description).


Central to SFL is the use of 'system networks', an inheritance network used to represent the choices present in making an utterance. The 'choices' in this network are called 'features'. e.g., a simplified lexico-grammatical network.

The choices on each stratum are constrained by those on others. Thus the decision to use a nominal-group (= noun-phrase), rather than a clause, to express a semantic 'process' will be determined by both the textual structure of the text as a whole, and also by the social context (e.g., nominalisation is more functional in a science text than in casual conversation).

Each feature is also associated witht the structural consequences of that choice, e.g., the feature 'finite' might have realisations: +Subject; +Finite; Subject: [nominal-group]; Finite: [finite-verb], meaning a Subject and Finite element are required, the Subject is filled by a nominal group, and the Finite by a finite-verb. Further selections in the clause network will more tightly constrain the fillers of these roles, and specify the presence, fillers, and ordering of these elements. E.g.,

History of Systemics

SFL grew out of the work of JR Firth, a British linguist of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, but was mainly developed by his MAK Halliday, who studied under him. He developed the theory in the early sixties (seminal paper, Halliday 1961), based in England, and moved to Australia in the Seventies, establishing the department of linguistics at the University of Sydney. Through his teaching there, SFL has spread to a number of institutions throughout Australia, and around the world. Australian Systemics ('Australian Genre Theory'), developed by Jim Martin, Joan Rothery, Fran Christie and others, is especially influential in areas of language education. Another school centres around Macquarie University where Ruqaiya Hasan was based.

SFL teaching and research also continued in the UK, with main proponents including Margaret Berry, Dick Hudson (before moving on), Chris Butler, Robin Fawcett, and many others. A second generation has evolved, including Geoff Thompson (Liverpool) and Tom Bartlett (Cardiff),

Another branch was established in Toronto, Canada, under Michael Gregory (a British colleague of Halliday), and later Jim Benson, Michael Cummings, and Bill Greaves.

Christian Matthiessen has become one of the leading figures in the field, and is now in Hong Kong.

SFL teaching is now taught around the globe (click here for details).

Child Language Development

Some of Halliday's early work involved the study of his son's developing language abilities. This study in fact has had a substantial influence on the present systemic model of adult language, particularly in regard to the metafunctions. This work has been followed by other child language development work, especially that of Clare Painter. Ruqaia Hasan has also performed studies of interactions between children and mothers. See an attached annotated bibliography by Peter Fries.

Systemics & Computation

SFL has been prominent in computational linguistics, especially in Natural Language Generation (NLG). Penman, an NLG system started at Information Sciences Institute in 1980, is one of the three main such systems, and has influenced much of the work in the field. John Bateman (currently in Bremen, Germany) has extended this system into a multilingual text generator, KPML. Robin Fawcett in Cardiff have developed another systemic generator, called Genesys. Mick O'Donnell has developed yet another system, called WAG. Numerous other systems have been built using Systemic grammar, either in whole or in part.

One of the earliest and best-known parsing systems is Winograd's SHRDLU, which uses system networks and grammar as a central component. Since then, several systems have been developed using SFL (e.g., Kasper, O'Donnell, O'Donoghue, Cummings, Weerasinghe), although this work hasn't been as central to the field as that in NLG.


Halliday, M.A.K. 1961. Categories of the theory of grammar. Word 17. Reprinted in Bertil Malmberg (ed), .... . Abridged version in Halliday (1976).

Halliday, M.A.K. 1994 Introduction to Functional Grammar, Second Edition, London: Edward Arnold.

Martin, James R. 1992 English Text: system and structure. Amsterdam: Benjamins.