Halliday and language as social semiotic
Why is context central to Halliday’s account of, as he puts it, “how language works”? This week we begin our discussions of Halliday’s conception of language, and the importance of ‘text-context’ relations to the overall architecture of this theory.
Halliday’s active engagement with context goes back to his very early work. His first paper (published in 1951, with Jeffrey Ellis) “Temporal Categories of the Modern Chinese Verb” refers to ‘context’ only marginally, and in an entirely untheorizied way. By his 1956 paper “Grammatical Categories of Modern Chinese”, ‘context’ had become a theoretical category, and a central one at that: the paper has 48 uses of the term ‘context’ (or a formally related lexical items such as ‘contextualized’ ‘contextual’, ‘contextually’). Halliday’s concept of context at this stage was a Firthian one, being an abstraction intended to relate units “within the scope of grammatical statement” to “the linguistic action or participants in a situation”, a.k.a. to “living language” (Halliday 1957 : 26).
Halliday’s own concept of context emerged in the 60s (e.g. Halliday et. al. 1964), in a paper published in a coauthored collection with McIntosh and Strevens – though the paper is largely written by Halliday. Here he argues that “Language is not realized in the abstract: it is realized as the activity of people in situations, as linguistic events which are manifested in a particular dialect and register” (Halliday et al. 1964/2007: 18). He proposes here the terms ‘field of discourse’, ‘mode of discourse’ and ‘style of discourse’ (‘style’ will become ‘tenor’ by 1977), and argues that ‘it is as the product of these three dimensions of classification that we can best define and identify register. The formal properties of any given language event will be those associated with the intersection of the appropriate field, mode and style’ (Halliday et al. 1964/2007: 18, my emphasis). In the paper he gives a brief gloss of these ‘dimensions’, and argues they are ‘not absolute or independent’ and they are ‘variable in delicacy’ (ibid).
Language as social semiotic
Halliday’s conception of the relations of text, situation, register, code, the linguistic system and social structure, form the basis of his notion of language as social semiotic. He explores these relations in a number of papers published in the 1970s. Here for instance is a paper title ‘Language as social semiotic: towards a general sociolinguistic theory’, first published in 1975, and republished in volume 10 of his Collected Works.
The paper is important because in it you get some sense of how central the notion of context is to a social semiotic conception of language. Moreover, it is clear in this paper that Halliday’s version of sociolinguistics goes beyond a simple view that the study of language in social context is part of the domain of linguistics. He argues, instead, for a view of language in which it is possible to explore “significant covariation between linguistic and sociological phenomena” (1975/2007: 169-170).
Text as semantic choice in social context
What is ‘text’? What is ‘a text’? To see the relation of text to context through Halliday’s eyes, we need to understand the work that the concept of ‘text’ does in his theory, as well as its relations to his conception of social context. The title of his 1977 paper, “Text as semantic choice in social context”, invites us to consider the concept of ‘text’. Even a quick review of this paper suggests we are dealing with a complex conception of text. Halliday writes here, for instance, that “text is the primary channel of the transmission of culture” (53), and that “a text, in the normal course of events, is not something that has a beginning and an ending. The exchange of meanings is a continuous process that is involved in all human interaction; it is not unstructured, but it is seamless, and all that one can observe is a kind of periodicity in which peaks of texture alternate with troughs – highly cohesive moments with moments of relatively little continuity. The discreteness of a literary text is untypical of texts as a whole” (48).
This paper is also significant because it clearly formed the basis of Martin’s proposal for ‘genre’ (e.g. Martin 1985, 1992) and a stratified model of context.
I talk through sections 3 and 4 of this paper here, in which Halliday’s a definition of ‘text’ (compared with ‘non-text’) and explains his conception of the relations of text and situation: