Living language

The notion of “context” has been central to the architecture of Halliday’s account of, as he puts it, “how language works”. A notion of context is present in Halliday’s earliest accounts of what grammar is, and  the way in which its description should be approached. At the same time, the relations of situation and culture are central to his conception of language as an open dynamic system, as a “vast, open-ended system of meaning potential, constantly renewing itself in interaction with its ecosocial environment” (Halliday 2003). Hasan argues that in such a conception of language, context cannot be an “a-theoretical appendage which functions as a dis­ambiguator of ambiguous sentences” (Hasan 2009). Instead, in SFL context (of situation and culture) is a concept crucial at every vantage point in the theory, to the dimensions of realization and instantion, to metafunction, and to Halliday’s conception of the strata in language. Since Halliday’s linguistics has had its focus on meaning, it should be noted that context is central to his conception of a “functional semantics” (e.g. 1984[2002]).

Drawing on Halliday’s foundation, Hasan has, more than any other linguist in the SFL tradition, explored, probed and interrogated the conception of context in the systemic functional model. Her writings on the matter are considerable (Volume 4 of her Collected Papers is dedicated to the SFL conception of context). Hasan’s probings of the concept can best be summarized as arguments in response to her deceptively simple question:

“given that speaking is done with reference to the contexts of social living, what if anything does this signify for the relations of language and culture?” (Hasan 1999).

The focus in this course is understand, as clearly as possible, the conception of context in the Halliday/Hasan tradition – how it emerged, the key influences, the assumptions entailed in it, and its implications for applications of SFL to many and varied contexts of study.

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