Some notes on Systemic-Functional linguistics

Professor Carol A. Chapelle

English/Linguistics 511 October 28, 1998

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Applied linguists study language use in context such as the contexts associated with specialized registers (e.g., business or academic), contexts for language learning (e.g., classrooms and study abroad programs), and contexts for language assessment (e.g., speaking tests and writing assignments). As a consequence many applied linguists are interested in linguistic theory that takes into account the contextual dimensions of language.

Systemic Functional (SF) theory views language as a social semiotic a resource people use to accomplish their purposes by expressing meanings in context. "The value of a theory," Halliday wrote, "lies in the use that can be made of it, and I have always considered a theory of language to be essentially consumer oriented" (1985a, p. 7). This perspective from the major figure of SF linguistics is refreshing to applied linguists who grew up on a diet of linguist oriented structural transformations. SF theory, which offers a framework for applied linguists' work, has no "othodox or 'received' version" (Halliday, 1985a, p. 7). Nevertheless, Halliday identified the following fundamental characteristics (along with others) of the various versions of SF theory (Halliday, 1985b, pp. 7-11).

What is language?

Language is a systematic resource for expressing meaning in context and linguistics, according to Halliday, is the study of how people exchange meanings through the use of language. This view of language as a system for meaning potential implies that language is not a well defined system not a "the set of all grammatical sentences." It also implies that language exists and therefore must be studied in contexts such as professional settings, classrooms, and language tests. In short, SF theory states that particular aspects of a given context (such as the topics discussed, the language users and the medium of communication) define the meanings likely to be expressed and the language likely to be used to express those meanings.

How should language be described?

Because language is defined as a systematic resource, the organizing principle in linguistic description is system (rather than structure). Since language is viewed as semiotic potential, the description of language is a description of choice. Systemic linguists chart their analyses by diagraming the choices language users can make in a given setting to realize a particular linguistic product. The available choices depend on aspects of the context in which the language is being used. Choices can be charted on different levels, or strata, of language.

The three basic strata are the semantic, lexicogrammar, and phonological; however, the number of strata one chooses to include in analysis should depend on the purpose of a given description. For example, in the study of register variation, one might want to add a strata above the semantic one which would constrain the range of semantic potential (i.e., the meanings that can be expressed) based on aspects of the context. Because language is rich and multi faceted, the relevant aspects to be highlighted in linguistic research must, in part, be determined by the research objectives. The "strata" perspective of systemic linguistics allows for this flexibility across research needs while maintaining its fundamental definition of language as a resource for meaning potential.

What is the role of linguistic structure?

The linguistic stuctures occuring in texts are, considered "natural" because they express the meanings required in a particular context. The "linguistic structure" of systemic theory is the "lexicogrammar," which combines syntax, lexicon, and morphology. Halliday believes that these three components must be described as one. He argues that "grammar cannot be modeled as new sentences made out of old words a fixed stock of vocabulary in never to be repeated combination" (Halliday, 1985b, p. 8). Instead, we seem to process and store larger chunks of language. In language acquisition, these chunks are often unanalyzed so there exists no structure below the level of the big word (e.g., "Comment allez vous" to some simply means the way you express a greeting). A single lexicogrammar is also useful for expressing the probablistic nature of language cited in corpus based linguistic research: some lexical/syntactic patterns are more likely to co occur than others depending on register.

What is the relevant unit of analysis?

The unit of analysis for SF linguists is the text because the functional meaning potential of language is realized in units no smaller than texts. Of course, the study of texts is typically performed by examining elements of the lexicogrammar and phonology, but these smaller units must be viewed from the perspective of their contribution to the meanings expressed by the total text in context. "For a linguist, to describe language without accounting for text is sterile; to describe text without relating it to language is vacuous" Halliday, 1985a, p. 10).

How is linguistic variation explained?

The primary construct for explaining linguistic variation is a familiar one "register." Register is important in systemic linguistics because it is seen as the linguistic consequence of interacting aspects of context, which Halliday calls "field, tenor, and mode." Field refers to the topics and actions which language is used to express. Tenor denotes the language users, their relationships to each other, and their purposes. Mode refers to the channel through which communication is carried out. These three contextual variables are intended to help the linguist tie linguistic analysis to the relevant contextual variables. By understanding the semiotic properties of a situation (i.e., the values for field, tenor, and mode), language users can predict the meanings that are likely to be exchanged and the language likely to be used. Halliday notes that while people are communicating they make predictions by using the values of field, tenor and mode to understand register and that their assessment facilitates their own participation.

What about language acquisition?

Language acquisition is learning how to express meanings acquiring the functions one can perform with human language. This perspective, of course, subordinates the acquisition of linguistic structure, recognizing the learners can express meanings using a variety of analyzed and unanalyzed pieces of the lexicogrammar. Much of Halliday's early work was concerned with how children acquire the functions of their first language. Others have applied SF principles to second language acquisition problems such as defining communicative competence and investigating content based L2 instruction.

In sum, the stated objective of SF linguistics is to be relevant to the kind of work applied linguists do. Therefore, it is not surprising to see principles from SF linguistics used in many types of applied linguistics research, such as investigating language learning in classrooms.


Halliday, M. A. K. (1985a). Systemic background. In J. D. Benson, & W. S. Greaves, Eds. Systemic Perspectives on Discourse, Volume 1. Selected Theoretical Papers from the 9th International Systemic Workshop (pp. 1 15). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1985b). An introduction to functional grammar. London: Edward Arnold.