Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Systemic functional linguistics is the study of the relationship between language and its functions in social settings. Also known as SFL, systemic functional grammar, Hallidayan linguistics, and systemic linguistics.

Three strata make up the linguistic system in SFL: meaning (semantics), sound (phonology), and wording or lexicogrammar (syntax, morphology, and lexis).

Systemic functional linguistics treats grammar as a meaning-making resource and insists on the interrelation of form and meaning.

This study was developed in the 1960s by British linguist M.A.K. Halliday (b. 1925), who had been influenced by the work of the Prague School and British linguist J.R. Firth (1890-1960).

Examples and Observations

  • "SL [systemic linguistics] is an avowedly functionalist approach to language, and it is arguably the functionalist approach which has been most highly developed. In contrast to most other approaches, SL explicitly attempts to combine purely structural information with overtly social factors in a single integrated description. Like other functionalist frameworks, SL is deeply concerned with the purposes of language use. Systemicists constantly ask the following questions: What is this writer (or speaker) trying to do? What linguistic devices are available to help them do it, and on what basis do they make their choices?"
    (Robert Lawrence Trask and Peter Stockwell, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2007)
  • Four Main Claims
    "While individual scholars naturally have different research emphases or application contexts, common to all systemic linguists is an interest in language as social semiotic (Halliday 1978)--how people use language with each other in accomplishing everyday social life. This interest leads systemic linguists to advance four main theoretical claims about language:
    1. that language use is functional
    2. that its function is to make meanings
    3. that these meanings are influenced by the social and cultural context in which they are exchanged
    4. that the process of using language is a semiotic process, a process of making meaning by choosing.
    These four points, that language use is functional, semantic, contextual and semiotic, can be summarized by describing the systemic approach as a functional-semantic approach to language."
    (Suzanne Eggins, An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics, 2nd ed. Continuum, 2005)
  • Three Kinds of Social-Functional "Needs"
    "According to Halliday (1975), language has developed in response to three kinds of social-functional 'needs.' The first is to be able to construe experience in terms of what is going on around us and inside us. The second is to interact with the social world by negotiating social roles and attitudes. The third and final need is to be able to create messages with which we can package our meanings in terms of what is New or Given, and in terms of what the starting point for our message is, commonly referred to as the Theme. Halliday (1978) calls these language functions metafunctions and refers to them as ideational, interpersonal and textual respectively.

    "Halliday's point is that any piece of language calls into play all three metafunctions simultaneously."
    (Peter Muntigl and Eija Ventola, "Grammar: A Neglected Resource in Interaction Analysis?" New Adventures in Language and Interaction, ed. by Jürgen Streeck. John Benjamins, 2010)
  • Choice as a Basic Systemic Functional Concept
    "In Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) the notion of choice is fundamental. Paradigmatic relations are regarded as primary, and this is captured descriptively by organizing the basic components of the grammar in interrelated systems of features representing 'the meaning potential of a language.' A language is viewed as a 'system of systems,' and the linguist's task is to specify the choices involved in the process of instantiating this meaning potential in actual 'texts' through the resources available for expression in the language. Syntagmatic relations are viewed as derived from systems by means of realization statements, which for each feature specify the formal and structural consequences of selecting that particular feature. The term 'choice' is typically used for features and their selection, and systems are said to display 'choice relations.' Choice relations are posited not only at the level of individual categories such as definiteness, tense and number but also at higher levels of text planning (as in, e.g., the grammar of speech functions). Halliday often stresses the importance of the notion of choice: 'By 'text' . . . we understand a continuous process of semantic choice. Text is meaning and meaning is choice' (Halliday, 1978b:137)."
    (Carl Bache, "Grammatical Choice and Communicative Motivation: A Radical Systemic Approach." Systemic Functional Linguistics: Exploring Choice, ed. by Lise Fontaine, Tom Bartlett, and Gerard O'Grady. Cambridge University Press, 2013)