Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Understanding Halliday's Systemic Functional Grammar

Amrin Batubara

Abstract: A number of distinct schools of linguitics had emerged, each with its band of enthusiastic followers who strenuously urged the merits of their own particular approach to the study of language. As a matter of fact, the contemporary linguistics theory is very far from being a single monolithic, rather, it is a combination of different approaches, all of which are subject to constant development and change. This article is about the systemic-functional grammar developed by Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday in the 1960s. It is expected to be a short intruduction to the conceptual framework on which the functional grammar is based on. The origin of the functional grammar, and its interpretation of texts, the system and the elements of linguistic structure are explored. The notion of a clause as a unit in which meanings of three different kinds are combined, and three dinstinct structures, each expressing one kind of semantic organization mapped on to one another to produce a single wording are discussed.The last but not least, the most fundamental concepts in systemic functional grammar, the three metafunctions, the basic concepts around which the theory is constructed: ideational, interpersonal, and textual which are labelled clause as representation, clause as exchange, and clause as message are also elaborated.

Key words: systemic, functional grammar, Halliday


Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday was born in 1925 in Leeds, Yorkshire, United Kingdom. After studying Chinese at the University of London, then linguistics in China and at the University of Cambridge, he taught Chinese and linguistics in Britain until he became professor of linguistics at University College, London, in 1965. In 1970 he was made professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois, before moving to the University of Sydney in 1975 where he served as foundation professor of linguistics until his retirement in the late 1980s.
Halliday, a British linguist, the developer in the 1960s of the theory of systemic-functional grammar has had a wandering life, working in a number of universities in Britain and overseas, most recently in Australia. In addition, there has been a recent surge of interest in his work, particularly on the part of people working in ESOL, ESP, EAP and other areas of language education throughout the world, including L1 English teaching and teacher education. Also he is indisputably the greatest single name in discourse analysis and is highly influential in the spheres of sociolinguistics, critical linguistics and other applications.
Halliday developed his grammatical theories out of work begun by his former tutor, the British linguist J.R. Firth. His systemic grammar put emphasis on the role of meaning in a theory of grammar. In addition, his approach to any field of linguistic study links social context with language. Furthermore, his functional approach is also applied to other disciplines including discourse analysis and stylistics, phonology, sociolinguistics, computational linguistics, language education, and language acquisition.
To understand Halliday's significance, it is useful to make comparisons with Noam Chomsky, a highly influential linguist with a very different perspective on language. The first thing to say here is that where Chomsky is indifferent to the social aspect of language, Halliday sees it as crucially important. Chomsky believes that linguistics should be concerned with the grammars internalised in the human mind and the universal linguistic principles which he believes we are programmed with by our human genes. He does not think that social uses of language are of any serious academic interest, and he does not concern himself with texts, discourse or communication. Indeed, he argues that language is not essentially a medium of communication; it is just something we are born with. Furthermore, Chomsky believes that linguistics is a sub-branch of psychology, whereas Halliday investigates linguistics as it were sub-branch of sociology, therefore pays much attention to pragmatics and discourse semantics. In fact, Chomsky emerged from the American Structuralist tradition. His work can be seen as a part of the American Structuralist tradition in many respects, though one cannot deny its revolutionary impact.
One of the major influences on Halliday's thinking is the Firth and Malinowski's emphasis on the importance of context of situation. In this approach, language is perceived as a social phenomenon, as 'doing' rather than' knowing'. In addition, from Firth, Halliday acquired the concept of language as a set of choices expressible as systems, hence the name systemic linguistics. (An earlier name for this type of grammar was Scale and Category Grammar.)
In fact, Systemic, or Systemic-Functional, theory has its origins in the main intellectual tradition of European linguistics that developed following the work of Saussure. Like other such theories, both those from the mid-20th century (e.g. Prague school, French functionalism), it is functional and semantic rather than formal and syntactic in orientation, takes the text rather than the sentence as its object, and defines its scope by reference to usage rather than grammaticality. Its primary source was the work of J.R. Firth and his colleagues in London. In addition, it also draws on American anthropological linguistics.
The name "systemic" derives from the term system, in its technical sense as defined by Firth (1957); system is the theoretical representation of paradigmatic relations, contrasted with structure for syntagmatic relations. In Firth's system-structure theory, neither of these is given priority. In systemic theory the system takes priority; the most abstract representation at any level is in paradigmatic terms. Syntagmatic organization is interpreted as the realization of paradigmatic features.
Another major influence on Halliday's thinking is the Prague School, a group of Czechoslovak, Russian and Austrian linguists (mainly Czech), founded in Prague in 1926. These include the founding fathers, Mathesius, Trubetskoy and Jakobson, and contemporary figures such as Firbas and Danes, to name but a few. The concept of thematic structure, which is very important in Halliday's grammar, is a gift from Prague.
Halliday's work cannot usefully be split up into historical periods as it is fairly consistent throughout. There are some differences in the way he describes similar phenomena at different times, but they do not obviously represent major changes in the model.
Halliday is very concerned with the uses to which linguistic description can be put. He writes that his grammar is functional in the sense that it is designed to account for how the language is used (Hallyday, 1994: xiii), and he immediately goes on to talk about text: Every text - that is, everything that is said or written - unfolds in some context of use (Halliday, 1994: xiii)
Halliday, like the Prague School linguists, sees function as the explanatory principle of language. Of course, function is a notoriously difficult term, and as used by Halliday it means more than what it means in, say, Wilkins' functional-notional syllabuses, i.e. it does not mean only function as speech act (persuading, defining, eliciting information, etc.). This is included, but by calling his grammar functional, Halliday also refers to the fact that the fundamental components of meaning in language are functional components (Halliday, 1994: p xiii). Thus, according to Halliday, these functional components are ideational (to understand the environment), interpersonal (to act on other people in the environment, and textual (which breathes relevance into the other two).

Even further from what language teachers usually mean by 'function' is Halliday's third specification: each element in a language is explained by reference to its function in the total linguistic system … In other words, each part is interpreted as functional with respect to the whole.' (Halliday, 1994: xiii - xiv)
Halliday approaches language not from within but from outside. In fact, he approaches language from above, from below and from roundabout, but not from a distance. He begins with the question: ‘Why is language is structured in the way it is and not in some other way? And his answer is: ‘Because it reflects the functions which the language is required to serve as a means of social communication. In other words, Halliday approaches language from the vantage point of meaning and purpose, and provides a sound theoretical framework for dealing with questions about how and why we come to use language as we do for being and becoming who we are.
To understand Halliday's Functional Grammar better, it is also useful to make comparisons with Fillmore’s Grammar. Fillmore does not talk about the basic constituents of his deep structure in terms of functional component of the language. His grammar emerges from a study of the internal working of the linguistic system. Halliday, on the other hand, approaches language not from within but from outside. He distinguishes three major functions. In addition, Halliday (1970:143) states that language serves for the expression of content: that is of the speaker’s experience of the real world, including the inner world of his own consciousness, and he calls this the ideational function. In serving this function, language also gives structure to experience, and helps to determine our way of looking at things, so that it requires some intellectual effort to see them in any way than that which our language suggests to us.
It is the ideational function that both expresses and constrains our concept of reality. In addition, it is the means by which we impose order on our experience by recognition of cause and effect relations and so on. Halliday touches here on the question of how far our view of reality is in correspondence with the structure of our language. What we are concern with here is how Haliday sees this ideational function to be reflected in linguistic structure.
According to Halliday ( in Downing, 2002:4), there are three ways of interpreting clause structure. In fact, the basic unit for the expression of interpersonal and experiential meanings is the independent clause, equivalent to the traditional simple sentence. Furthermore, there is also a third type of component, the textual, which enable the experiential and interpersonal components to cohere in a message, not simply as a sentence in isolation, but in relation to what precedes it in the linguistic co-text. Each kind of meaning is expressed by its own structure. To summarise, the three kinds of meaning and structure derive from the consideration of a clause as: (a) the linguistic representation of our experience of the world, (b) a communicative exchange between persons; and (c) an organised message or text.
The experiential meaning of the clause is realised through the transitivity structures. Halliday points to the transitivity system of the grammar as being the areas which reflects the ideational function of language. Thus he thinks of transitivity as accounting for types of processes in which participant and circumstantial roles are involved. Furthermore, Halliday states (1994: 106) that the transitivity system construes the world of experience into a manageable set of process types. The main types of process in English transitivity system are the processes of the external world, the processes of inner experience, and the classifying and identifying processes which are called material, mental and relational processes respectively.
It is easy to see how closely Halliday’s transitivity functions correspond to Fillmore’s cases. The correspondences might be set out as follows: Fillmore’s cases are: agentive, objective, instrumental, dative, factitive, benefactive, source, and locative; whereas Halliday’ roles are: actor, goal, instrument, recipient, beneficiary, force, and place.
We might notice that Fillmore, working as it were from within the grammatical system, naturally relates these semantic notions to the linguistic category of case, whereas Halliday, working from outside the system, naturally associate them directly with the sociological concept of role. Both, however, are dealing with the same aspect of linguistic structure. The proposition in case grammar corresponds to the transitivity options in Halliday’s systemic or functional grammar. But Halliday does not confine himself, as Fillmore does, to an account of this area of the grammar. He recognizes as equally important two further functions each of which determines the way language is structured.
Halliday, discusses first the way the speaker expresses his orientation to the propositional or ideational content of his message. He refers to this as the interpersonal function and it is manifested by the grammatical category of mood. This category is realized through the system of options exemplified by the sentence-types declarative, interrogative and imperative and through the modality system exemplified by the model verbs like must, will, may and so on and by such adverbs as possibly, perhaps and certainly.
Thus, if we consider a sentence like: Did Aida buy a computer at the sales? The proposition which this sentence contains might be represented either by specifying in a transitivity system as follows: actor-process-goal-place, or by specifying cases after the manner of Fillmore as follows: verb-agentive-objective-locative.

The structural Analysis.

Another thing that needs to be discussed is that a fundamental concept in Functional Grammar is the basic concept on which the structural analysis is based. These include the structural units which can be arranged on a scale of rank, the elements of which they are composed, and the relationship of realisation by means of which the units of one rank are related to those of another.
A unit is defined as any stretch of language which constitutes a semantic whole and which has a recognized pattern that is repeated regularly in speech or writing. The four structural units which can be arranged in order of magnitude on what is called a rank-scale are clause, group, word, and morpheme. (Downing, 2002:10).
The principle on which the rank scale works is that, in an actual clause, an item at any rank is made up of one or more items from the rank below. Thus a clause is the maximal grammatical unit. It is made up of one or more groups; each group is made up of one or more words, and each word is made up of one or more morphemes, the morpheme being the minimal unit.
At each rank of linguistic unit, there are various classes of unit. These are classes of clauses, classes of groups, classes of words and classes of morphemes.

The classes of clauses.

At the rank of clause, the first distinction is that between independent and dependent clauses. An independent clause is complete in itself, whereas a dependent clause is necessarily related to an independent clause. For example: We locked up the house, before we went on holiday. We locked up the house is the independent clause and before we went on holiday is the dependent clause. The second distinction is that between finite and infinite clauses, and this depends on the form of verb chosen. If the speaker wishes to express tense, person or number, a finite form of the verb is chosen, such as is, eats, locked, went and the clause is then called a finite clause. On the other hand, if the verb form does not express this information about the verbal process, the verb and the clause are classified as non finite. The non finite verb forms are: (a) the infinitive (be, eat, lock, go), the participial ing-form (being, eating, locking, going), and the past participial form (been, eaten, locked, gone). Finally, clauses like can you? I won’t, has he? are called abbreviated clauses.

The classes of groups.

Groups are classified according to the class of word operating as the main or head element (Downing, 2002:13). That is to say, we can identify the following classes:

- Nominal groups è wonderful film by Fellini
- Verbal groups è is going to return
- Adjectival groups è very good at language
- Adverbial groups è more fluently than before
- Prepositional groups è just around the corner

The classes of words.

Words are classified grammatically according to the traditional terminology, which includes noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, pronoun, article and conjunction. Words are made up of morphemes. (Downing, 2002:13).

The classes of morphemes.

The morphemes is an abstract category which has either a lexical or grammatical meaning. In fact, a word such as effects can be considered as formed from the lexical morpheme {effect} + the {plural} morpheme. These abstract categories are realised by morphs such as effect and –s or /ifekt/ and /s/, the actual segments of written and spoken language, respectively. Since the study of words and morphemes takes us out of syntax and into morphology and phonology, they will not be treated in detail.
Another concept worth mentioning here is that the concept of unit structure. The term structure refers to the relationships that exist between the small units that make a larger unit. Linguistic structures are described in terms of the semantic functions of their various elements and syntactic forms and relationships which express them.
Clauses have the greatest number of syntactic elements of all classes of unit. The clause elements are subject, predicator, direct object, prepositional object, subject complement, object complement, predicator complement, adjunct, disjunct, and conjunct (Downing, 2002:13-15).
Nominal groups, adjectival groups and adverbial groups are composed of three primary elements: a head preceded by a modifier and followed by a qualifier. The last two elements are sometimes called premodifer and postmodifier.

The Fundamental Concepts of Metafunctions.

As has been touched upon the previous sections, the most fundamental concepts in SFG is the three metafunctions: ideational, interpersonal, and textual mentioned above. According to Halliday, M.A.K., & Hassan, R. (1989:16-20), the word function can be thought of as a synonym for the word use, so that when we talk about functions of language, we may mean no more than the way people use their language. But in order to pursue further investigation on a fundamental property of language itself, functional variation must not be interpreted as variation in the use of language, but rather as something that is built in, as the very function, to the organisation of language itself, and particularly to the organisation of the semantic system. In other words, function is interpreted not just as the use of language but as fundamental property of language itself, something that is basic to the evolution of the semantic system. There are three types of functions that can occur at all ranks and levels of language. Halliday (1994: 35) states that a clause is a composite entity. It is constituted not of one dimension of structure but of three, and each of the three construes a distinctive meaning. He has labelled these clause as representation, clause as exchange, and clause as message . In fact, these three kinds of meaning run throughout the whole of language. They are referred to in Systemic Functional Grammar as metafunctions, and the concept of metafunction is one of the basic concept around which the theory is constructed ( Halliday, 1994: 35).

Ideational Metafunction.

The ideational metafunction is concerned with the representation of processes: the events, actions, sensations, etc., that constitute life, the world and everything. Thus ideational corresponds to what many linguists would call the semantics. To analyse the ideational metafunction at the rank of clause, the labels as Processes, Participants, and Circumtances are used. The ideational metafunction is concerned, then, with the encoding of reality (or fictitious realities). As Halliday puts it:

Language enables human beings to build a mental picture of reality, to make sense of what goes on around them and inside them. Here again the clause plays a central role, because it embodies a general principle for modelling experience - namely the principle that reality is made up of PROCESSES (Halliday, 1994: 106)

In this case, a clause is used as a grammatical means of expressing a pattern of experience. Here a clause is used to build a mental picture of reality, or to make sense of what goes on around us and inside us. Furthermore, the goings on, such as doing, happening, sensing, meaning, being and becoming, are interpreted in the grammar of the clause. The grammatical system by which the world of experience is interpreted into a manageable set of process types is called transitivity. In this case, the transitivity interprets the experience into process categories: the outer experience-those are the processes of external world, and the inner experiences-those are the processes of consciousness. In other words, semantically, a clause represents a pattern of experience, conceptualised as a situation. Furthermore, Halliday (1994, 107-108) specifies that situations types consist of processes (material, mental, and relational), participants (animate, inanimate or abstract entities), and circumstances (time, place, manner, cause etc.). Here, a clause permits us to conceptualise and describe our experience, whether of the phenomena of the external world or of the internal world of our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. In other words, a clause enable us to encode both semantically and syntactically our mental picture of the physical world and the world of our imagination.
The process. There is no general term to cover that central part of situation which is typically realised by the Predicator and which can be a state, an action, an event, a transition or change of state, a climatic phenomenon, a process of sensing, saying, behaving or simply existing. We here use the term process to refer in general sense to all these types.
Furthermore, there are three main types of process: (a) material processes, or processes of doing (e.g. kick, run, construct, dig, give etc.), (b) mental processes, or processes of experiencing or sensing (e.g. see, feel, hear, think, like etc.), and (c) relational processes, or processes of being or becoming in which participant is characterised, or identified, or situated circumstantially ( e.g. become, stand, lie, turn be seem etc.) (Halliday,1994: 1007-1009)
The participants. The entities represented by these can be persons, objects or abstractions; they can be the agent of the action or be affected by it, benefit from it or receive its effects. In addition, the types of processes usually determines the type and number of the participants (verb valency): one participant, two participants, three participants, participant unexpounded, or no participant. Moreover, the participant roles in material processes are called agent, force , affected, effected, recipient, beneficiary, and causative agent; participant roles in mental processes are called experiencer and phenomenon; and the participant roles in relational processes are called carrier and possessed. (Downing, 2002:111).
The circumstances. These include expressions of time, place, manner, means, cause, condition, and concession. They are typically option in the syntactic structure. Circumstances can, however, be inherent to the situation, and are then described as complements. (Downing, 2002:133).

Interpersonal Metafunction.

The interpersonal metafunction is concerned with the way in which people interact through language. Here a clause is used and interpreted in its meaning as an exchange. Thus, the clause is organized as an interactive event involving speaker, or writer, and audience. In the act of speaking, the speaker adopts for himself a particular speech role, and in so doing assigns to the listener a complementary role which he wishes him to adopt in his turn. In other words, the fundamental speech roles are giving and demanding. Either the speaker is giving something to the listener or he is demanding something from him. In addition, cutting across the distinction between giving and demanding is another distinction that relates to the nature of commodity being exchange. This may be either goods and services, or information. So a clause is a mode of action, giving and demanding goods and services, or information.
According to Halliday (1994:68-70), the exchange, giving and demanding, of good and service, or information constitutes the four primary speech functions of offer, command, statement and question. These, in turn, are matched by a set of desired responses: accepting an offer, carrying out a command, acknowledging a statement and answering a question.

Among the most obviously interpersonal elements in language are personal names used in direct address; greetings such as Hi, Hello, farewells such as Good-bye, See you, and so on; feedback responses such as Right!, Ah-ah, I see, etc., which just show that you are listening to your interlocutor. However, Halliday also sees as interpersonal such functions as Subject and Finite. When we produce a clause in speaking or writing, we have to make choices about the form in terms of declarative, interrogative or imperative. This can be seen as an interpersonal matter: how we are framing our proposition about reality with regard to our hearer or reader: are we asking, telling or ordering? If it is declarative, we put the Subject before the Finite; if interrogative, the Finite before the Subject, and if imperative, there is no Subject at all. declarative: You (Subject) will (Finite) finish your work quickly. (etc.) interrogative: Will (Finite) you (Subject) finish our work quickly? (etc.) imperative: Finish your work quickly.

Textual Metafunction.

In all languages the clause has the character of a message. In English, the clause is organized as a message by having a special status assigned to one part of it. One element in the clause is enunciated as the theme; this then combines with the reminder, the rheme, so that the two parts together constitute a message. In other words, the theme is the element which serves as the point of departure of the message; it is that with which the clause is concerned. The remainder of the message, the part in which the Theme is developed, is called the Rheme.

Theme and Mood

According to Halliday (1994:42-43), the element of a clause chosen as the theme depends on the choice of mood. In other words, every independent clause selects for mood. Here an independent clause is either indicative or imperative in mood; if indicative, it is either declarative or interrogative; if interrogative, it is either polar interrogative (yes/no type) or content interrogative (Wh- type). For examples:

Indicative: declarative è They drink coffee. They don’t drink coffee.
Indicative: Interrogative yes/no è Do they drink coffee?
Indicative: Wh- è What do they drink?
Imperative: Drink! Let’s drink!

Theme in Declarative Clauses.

In a declarative clause, the typical pattern is one in which Theme is conflated with Subject.

Theme in Yes/No Interrogative Clauses.

The typical function of an interrogative clause is to ask question; and from the speaker’s point of view asking a question is an indication that he wants to be told something. The natural Theme of a question, therefore, is what I want to know.
In Yes/No question, the element that functions as Theme is the element that embodies the expression of polarity, namely the finite verbal operator.

Theme in Wh- Interrogative Clauses

In a WH- question, which is a search for a missing information, the element that functions as Theme is the element that request this information, namely the wh- element.

Theme in Imperative Clauses

The basic message of an imperative clause is either I want you to do something or I want us (you and me) to do something. The element that functions as the Theme is the verbal group functioning as predicator, plus preceding don’t if negative.


The contemporary linguistics theory is very far from being a single monolithic, rather, it is a combination of different approaches, all of which are subject to constant development and change. The systemic-functional grammar was developed by Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday in the 1960s. Halliday approaches language from the vantage point of meaning and purpose, and provides a sound theoretical framework for dealing with questions about how and why we come to use language as we do for being and becoming who we are. The notion of a clause as a unit in which meanings of three different kinds are combined, and three dinstinct structures, each expressing one kind of semantic organization mapped on to one another to produce a single wording are the basic concepts of this grammar. In other words, the most fundamental concepts in systemic functional grammar, are the three metafunctions, the basic concepts around which the theory is constructed: ideational, interpersonal, and textual which are labelled clause as representation, clause as exchange, and clause as message respectively.

Downing, A. & Locke, P. (2003). A University Course in Using English
Grammar. London: Prentice Hall International.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1973). Explorations in the Functions of Language. London: Edward Arnold.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1994). An introduction to systemic functional grammar. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.
Halliday, M.A.K., & Hassan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
Halliday, M.A.K., & Hassan, R. (1989). Language, Context, and Text: Aspects of Language in a Social-Semiotic Perspective. Victoria: Deakin University Press.
Lock, G. (1996). Functional English grammar: An introduction for second language teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Martin, J., Matthiessen, C. & Painter, C. (1997). Working with functional grammar. New York: Arnold.
Thompson, G. (1996). Introducing functional grammar. New York: St. Martin's Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment