2 Firth

J.R. Firth and  renewal of connection with the processes and patterns of life

Introduction

J.R. Firth Professor of General Linguistics in the School of Oriental and African Studies, at University College, London. He held the first chair of General Linguistics in Great Britain, from 1944 until his retirement in 1956. F.R. Palmer writes of him that:

“He and he alone pioneered the subject in Britain. For years he was, like Henry Sweet (with whom he loved to be compared), a voice crying in the wilderness … he himself did not merely bring linguistics to Britain; he brought his own original brand” (Palmer 1968: 1).

Of Firth Halliday has written:

“the most important influence on my own thinking came from my teacher J. R. Firth … It is from Firth, of course, that the concept of system is derived, from which systemic theory gets its name; and unlike most of the other fundamental concepts, which were common to many groups of post-Saussurean linguists, particularly in Europe, the system in this sense is found only in Firth’s theoretical framework (Halliday 1985/2003:186)”.

What is remarkable about Firth’s linguistics, as Butt has written, is that Firth was able to develop the theoretical power of linguistics, without losing a connection with language as part of lived experience. Butt sums up these two complementary commitments in Firth’s linguistics in this way:

“In Firth’s view of science, the object of study is ultimately tractable (or ‘effable’) while the categories of description, drawn themselves from different meaning systems, must always remain technically ‘ineffable’ … While Firth, and his tradition of linguists, may have had trouble being heard as scientific linguists against the Bloomfieldian and Chomskyan backgrounds, what counts as science today leans very much more in their favour” (Butt 2001: 1807).

Firth describes his object of study in remarkably human terms: linguistics was the study of “processes and patterns of life”; “The essential social basis for the study of meaning of texts is the context of situation” (1956/68: 108); language is to be regarded as “embedded in the matrix of living experience” and the human body as “the primary field of human expression and as continuous with the situations of life” (1968: 91); meaning is “intimately interlocked not only with an environment of particular sights and sounds, but deeply embedded in the living processes of persons maintaining themselves in society” (1968: 13).

At the same time, linguistics required a technical vocabulary where the terms, such as “level or levels of analysis”, “context of situation”, “structure”, “system”, “unit” etc must not be confused with everyday usage of the same lexical items. The terms must be given their meaning by their place in the “restricted language” of the theory. (1957/68b: 169)

In developing concepts in a linguistic theory, Firth emphasized that he was sketching a “general linguistic theory applicable to particular linguistic descriptions, not a theory of universals for general linguistic description” (1957/68b: 190-1). He referred to the ‘universalist fallacy’ and condemned the posturing of universal grammatical categories as “bogus philosophizing” (1957/68b: 190).

On context in Firth’s linguistics

As we know, Firth was deeply influence by Malinowski’s ethnographic studies of language, context and culture. Halliday has written that Firth owed his greatest intellectual debt to Malinowski. Like Malinowki, Firth accepted that for the study of meaning, a contextual approach was inevitable, because meaning “is deeply embedded in the living processes of persons maintaining themselves in society”, and “is a property of the mutually relevant people, things, events in the situation. Some of the events are the noise made by the speakers” (1968: 13, 14). This relationship between language and elements of the situation was systematic for Firth: “I want to make it clear that the linguistic systems and structures are related to the systems and structures in the events, relevant objects and people and what they are doing” (Firth 1957/68: 91). The OED ascribes to Firth the first use of ‘context’ in a verbal form, and he notes in his writings “I have found it necessary to conjugate context, and find contextualize and contextualization indispensable forms” (1935/57: 14).

Below is a lecture in two parts, based on extracts from three books by Firth: Tongues of Men, Papers in Linguistics 1934-1951 and Selected Papers of J.R.Firth 1952-59.

Download the extracts J.R Firth extracts_2

J.R. Firth extracts PART 2 from Annabelle Lukin on Vimeo.

Writings from Firth

Firth JR (1962) A Synopsis of Linguistic Theory

Firth, J.R. (1957). A synopsis of linguistic theory 1930-1955. In Studies in Linguistic Analysis, pp. 1-32. Oxford: Philological Society. Reprinted in F.R. Palmer (ed.), Selected Papers of J.R. Firth 1952-1959, London: Longman (1968).

Firth_Linguistic analysis as a study of meaning

Firth, J. R. (1968) `Linguistic analysis as a study of meaning’, in F. R. Palmer (ed.). Selected Papers of J. R. Firth 1952-1959. London: Longmans (Longmans’ Linguistics Library).

 Writings on Firth

1. An introduction to Firth by Robert de Beaugrande

The link above will take you to the online version of Robert de Beaugrande’s excellent introduction to

Linguistic Theory: The Discourse of Fundamental Works, published by Longman, 1991.

2. Firth, Halliday and the development of SFL.tif

Butt, D. (2001). Firth, Halliday and the development of systemic functional theory. In S. Auroux, E. F. K. Koerner, H.-J. Niederehe & K. Versteegh (Eds.), History of the Language Sciences: An International Handbook on the Evolution of the Study of Language from the Beginnings to the Present (Vol. 2). Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

3. Whitehead in Functional Linguistics

Butt, D. G. (2008). Whitehead in functional linguistics. In: M. Weber et al. (Eds) Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.

David Butt’s paper on the influences from the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead on Firth. In particular, Butt contrasts Firth’s Whiteheadian orientation to language as  with the “misplaced concreteness” of formal linguistics:

“Firth emphasized language as “pattern” and “process”, and the importance of the linguist not engaging in ontological debates about language as a “thing” or about the “existence” of linguistic tools which are themselves just a “scaffolding” for “language events” (Firth 1968: 24; 1957: 190-192). Clinically and often acerbically, he highlighted the anomalies generated by linguistic methods which reified units or hypostatized the “system” of language. He dismissed the relevance of bifurcations like mind/body, form/content, subjective/objective, word/idea (Firth 1957: 192; 1968: 90).

Bibliography

Butt, D. (2001). Firth, Halliday and the development of systemic functional theory. In S. Auroux, E. F. K. Koerner, H.-J. Niederehe & K. Versteegh (Eds.), History of the Language Sciences: An International Handbook on the Evolution of the Study of Language from the Beginnings to the Present (Vol. 2). Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Butt, D. G. (2008). Whitehead in functional linguistics. In: M. Weber et al. (Eds) Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.

Firth, J.R. (1935/1957). The Technique of Semantics. In Papers in Linguistics 1934-1951. Oxford University Press.

Firth, J.R. (1956/68). Descriptive Linguistics and the Study of English. In Selected Papers of J.R. Firth. Edited by F.R. Palmer. Longmans Linguistics Library.

Firth. J.R. (1957/68a). Linguistics and Translation. In Selected Papers of J.R. Firth. Edited by F.R. Palmer. Longmans Linguistics Library.

Firth, J.R. (1957/68b).  A Synopsis of Linguistic Theory. In Selected Papers of J.R. Firth. Edited by F.R. Palmer. Longmans Linguistics Library. pp 12-26.

Firth, J.R. (1968). Linguistic Analysis as a Study of Meaning. In Selected Papers of J.R. Firth. Edited by F.R. Palmer. Longmans Linguistics Library. pp 12-26.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1985/2003). Systemic Background. In J.J. Webster (Ed.), On Linguistics and Language. Volume 3 in Halliday’s Collected Works (pp. 1-29). London and New York: Continuum.

Palmer, F.R. (1968). Introduction. In Selected Papers of J.R. Firth. Edited by F.R. Palmer. Longmans Linguistics Library.

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