What is Systemic-Functional Linguistics?
For a good introductory article by Matthiessen and Halliday, see: here.
Other introductory descriptions are available:
Systemic-Functional Linguistics (SFL) is a theory of language
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
A central notion is 'stratification', such that language is
in terms of four strata: Context, Semantics, Lexico-Grammar and
Context concerns the Field (what is going on), Tenor (the social
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:
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
- 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.
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
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
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
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
a multilingual text generator, KPML.
Robin Fawcett in Cardiff have developed another systemic generator,
called Genesys. Mick
has developed yet another system, called
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, M.A.K. 1994 Introduction to Functional Grammar, Second
Edition, London: Edward Arnold.
Martin, James R. 1992 English Text: system and structure. Amsterdam: