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Reconnecting paths

14 July 2015

Reconnecting Paths: Relational Network Theory and Systemic Functional Theory as Complementary Perspectives on Language

Presenter: Professor MAK Halliday

Presented at Connecting Paths: Halliday, Hasan and Lamb, conference, City University Hong Kong / Sun-Yat Sen University, November 2010

Despite the title of this session, this turned out to be not a discussion of where the linguistics (that is, plural, two ‘registers’ of functional linguistics) of Halliday and of Lamb intersected: Professor Halliday is confident that the two theories are complementary essentially because they agree on  what language is, what a theory is, that a theory must be based in data, and that a description in linguistics must be relational.

Rather, the recorded seminar presents Professor Halliday’s commentary on the conference papers presented to that point in the program. (The actual paper which was scheduled to have been presented is available in Halliday in the 21st century, vol. 11 of the Collected Works of MAK Halliday, ed. J. J. Webster, Bloomsbury, but it is not in Macq or ACU libraries, so I haven’t sighted a copy yet.)

In his lengthy prolegomenon (perhaps 45 minutes of his session), drawing on prompts and summaries from the other speakers (Hasan, Butt and Martin are mentioned), Professor Halliday re-defined important concepts in his view of language (language as a semiogenic system which is also a biological and physical system; trinocularity of SFL; particles, fields, waves and strings analogy; the grid of theory as a product of the purpose of the theory) and, following on from that last point, what he believed linguistics was: “a way of thinking about things, and intervening in them”.

Along the way there was I felt an unconsciously humorous twist to his argument on how linguistics should be taught to students. To quote him: linguistics is not the study of different linguistic theories: you shouldn’t be taken through the different schools of thought just to discredit them — “That’s a favourite trick of the Chomskyans”, he says (haha).

Another point where he differentiated his approach from others was one that he himself raised at this year’s symposium: that his general theory of language was designed to explore, not the usual questions of linguists, but those of all the other fields “where language is the essential source of energy”. At the 2015 symposium, he characterised these people as anyone interested in meaning. In this presentation, he again gives priority to meaning as one of the two realms of human experience (as he states in a 2005 paper:

There are two phenomenal realms that we as human beings inhabit: a world of matter, and a world of meaning. Both matter and meaning are involved in all the regions of our experience. Meaning relies on matter to make it accessible to a receiver; and matter relies on meaning to organize it.

[Halliday, M. (2007). On matter and meaning: the two realms of human experience. Linguistics And The Human Sciences, 1(1).]

This is what he means by an appliable linguistics.

Additional reading

Where does Bernstein discuss “how the inner world reveals itself” (see Hasan’s paper at this conference)

Continuing discourse on language, vols 1 & 2, eds C. Matthiessen, R. Hasan & J. J. Webster, Continuum (2005/2007)

Relevance to the study

Another joke was of practical help to my thinking, or at least to my anxiety:

Student (they’re always coming up and asking this): Is this feature semantic or lexico-grammatical?
Professor: Yes.

The issue of blurred boundaries, which was also dealt with from several aspects in this talk, is revisited in the ‘critical review’ page in this log.


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