Halliday Function of Language

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Halliday, Chapter 2

"The Functions of Language"

In chapter 2, Halliday describes the way scholars from diverse disciplines have classified language use according to function (Malinowski, Buhler, Jakobson, Britton). Halliday demonstrates the similarity among these scholars' categories. A chart on p 17 lays out the functional categories, showing their similarities. He summarizes these by arguing that language is by its very nature functional, and that the organization of language must be explained in terms of a functional theory. This is in direct contradiction to the Chomskyan approach, which is a theory of form.

Halliday illustrates his argument by doing a linguistic (not literary) analysis of a line of text by Ben Jonson:

   "Or leave a kiss within a cup and I'll not ask for wine"

Now, those of you who are interested in linguistics will revel in Halliday's detailed analysis of one line! And to you who are not language wonks, believe it or not, some of us actually get excited about such analyses. But go along for the ride, as Halliday eventually takes us to a point in the argument that for our purposes is very helpful in our own analysis of electronic learning materials.

First, in terms of experiential meaning, he shows how the words in this line are associated with events in the world. The sentence is about something that we all probably have experienced in some way (kiss, cup, wine) . It also has an interpersonal meaning. It is a social interaction between two people ("I" and "you"); the focus here is on the participants. Then, there is a logical meaning. We have to infer that "and" really means "If you leave a kiss within the cup, then I will not ask for wine." Finally, the textual meaning is understood in the wider context of the poem; it has features that make this a poem--repetition, parallelism, rhythm, the intonational contours one would hear in the recitation, and so on. Through this analysis, we see that the language functions could be categorized as

  • experiential
  • interpersonal
  • logical
  • textual

Now, there is a connection here with what he has been describing earlier in terms of field, tenor, and mode.

Halliday shows how field is expressed in the experiential function of language--looking at the words themselves and their relationship to the world; the fact that 'kiss' is used as a noun almost metaphorically since it is an unusual noun--one which is derived from an action, a verb. Through further analysis, he shows that this field of discourse is a love poem. Tenor is expressed through the interpersonal function. Relationship between lover and beloved, as expressed through the pronouns I and you and through a command and a request. If you do this then I'll do this. Lover has to be convinced.

Mode is expressed through the textual function. It is lyric poetry, it has a certain metric pattern in which there is a phonological feature of tone groups; it is strongly person oriented, in which I and you come first (theme-rheme). There is a balance in the structures of the phrases.

Halliday goes on to analyze another text in these terms. Both examples should give you a feel of how you would approach the description of a Web site. So far, the focus has been on field—the “what.” Now we turn to tenor, the “who.” Think of how you would describe a site to someone who is interested in exploring it. You have thought about describing it in such a way that the listener/reader can imagine exploring the site him or herself (the Field). Can you talk about the participants? Their role relationships? The level of interactivity between/among them?

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