5c On Tenor

Hasan on tenor: a relation to context of culture

Finally, in the last instalment of “Living language” we turn to the vector of tenor, the most crucial of them all. Hasan has argued: “It is the speaker as a social agent who alone has the capacity to recognise the particular kind of social practice called for by the occasion”; and that “the interactants are, in a very real sense, iconic of the intimate relationship of language and society in that they are at once social agents and semiotic beings. And above all they constitute the most active element of the social situation”. (Hasan 2009: 27, emphasis added)

She describes tenor as “a highly complex vector subsuming the various aspects relevant to the interactants’ social identity e.g. gender, status, age, profession and ideological stance” (Hasan 2009: 15-16). For those who have tracked the notion in Hasan’s recent writings, it is clear she is linking tenor more and more to the “context of culture”. In the talk I have linked to below, Hasan describes tenor as a “relation to culture”. Here is an example of what I mean when I say she is recruiting cultural context more and more to understand tenor (this quote comes from the reading for this week – see below):

A speaker’s sayings are not activated from within language, but by the speaker’s understanding of what saying the occasion calls for. In the end, the reason why anyone says anything lies in who they are as social beings; this is what guides their recognition of the context and their view of what saying is relevant in that context. Where do such understandings come from? What naturalises fashions of speaking, so that they may be manifested over a range of different contexts? I doubt if these things are innate. It seems rather that the answer has to be what Bernstein called (e.g., 1999: 13) ‘social positioning’ – a term that subsumes social class as well as its far reaching consequences for social agents, such as their family, friends, social network, range of expertise, belief systems, and experience of living with others. Social positioning is clearly not something that can be shaken off; one is always positioned in some particular way vis-à-vis one’s society. In so far as experience is the maker of mind, creating pathways of belief and conviction, the precursors to making judgment and decision, a social agent’s individuality and identity is moored in the experiences that their potentially changing social positioning makes accessible. There is thus a logical continuity from a social subject’s identity to their social positioning to their ideological orientation to their ways of being, doing and saying – which is what Bernstein’s ‘coding orientation’ was attempting to articulate.

Historical development of description

Tenor is defined in Halliday 1977 as:

the role structure: the cluster of social meaningful participant relationships; both permanent attributes of the participants and role relationships that are specific to the situation; including the speech roles, those that come into being through the exchange of verbal meanings.

Hasan 1985 proposed the following systems for tenor: SOCIAL HIERARCHY, AGENTIVE ROLE, and  SOCIAL DISTANCE. Martin 1992 published the following network for tenor:

Martin_tenor 1992 copy

In Butt 2003, we find a network for tenor which recapitulates the systems from Hasan, but adds “NETWORK MORPHOLOGY” as a further system in tenor.



An example of a network for SOCIAL DISTANCE, from Butt 2003, appears below (click to see a higher res version):

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 4.04.57 PM

The reading for this week

Hasan_2009 Wanted a theory for sociolinguistics

The reading for this week is not specifically on tenor, although it does argue for the centrality of tenor in the contextual configuration (see various quotes above). It also presents Hasan’s account of the vectors of a context in which more than one modality is at work. She argues these are the fundamental elements in the make up of the contexts of human activities:

Action type: including where the actants imagine their action to be ‘heading’

Relation type: what are the relationships holding between those engaged in this action, and

Contact type: i.e how the interactants become engaged with each other apropos the said action.

Hasan coined the acronym ‘ARC’ for this  “logical structure’ which underlies all human social activities” (Hasan 2009: 15)  (see Hasan 2001 for original discussion)

Hasan on tenor

I’ve linked us here to a talk given by Emeritus Professor Ruqaiya Hasan at the 2012 Register and Context symposium, hosted at Macquarie University, and convened by me and my colleague, Dr Alison Moore. In this paper, Hasan argues for network descriptions of context, and presents a network for tenor. She has recently emphasized to me that HER VIEWS HAVE CHANGED! So you need to read this network as a draft – all networks are to be treated as hypotheses about systems and features of the context parameters. She is currently working on a new paper on tenor, which will come out in Volume 4 of her Collected Works, which is devoted to the study of context.

RC2012 Emeritus Professor Ruqaiya Hasan_PART 2 from Annabelle Lukin on Vimeo.

RC2012 Emeritus Professor Ruqaiya Hasan_PART 3 from Annabelle Lukin on Vimeo.


  1. Butt, D. 2003. Parameters of Context: On Establishing the Similarities and Differences between Social processes. Macquarie University: Centre for Language in Social Life. Mimeo.
  2. Hasan, R. (1985b). Part B. In Halliday and Hasan 1985/89. Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan, Ruqaiya. 1985/89. Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Oxford/Geelong: OUP/Deakin University Press.
  3. Hasan, R. (2001/in press). Wherefore context?: the place of context in the system and process of language. In S. Ren, W Gutherie, & I. W. R. Fong (eds.), Grammar and Discourse: Proceedings of the International Conference on Discourse Analysis. Macau: University of Macau. To be reprinted in Context in the System and Process of Language: Volume 4 of the Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan. London: Equinox.
  4. Hasan, R. (2009). Wanted: an integrated theory for sociolinguistics. In  Semantic Variation: Meaning in Society and Sociolinguistics. Volume 2  in the Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan. London/Oakville: Equinox.
  5. Martin, J.R. (1992). English Text: System and Structure. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.



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